Living longer: Prevention is better than the cure

Current lifestyles have normalised being motionless in front of a screen eating junk, says Suzanne Harrington.

When Dr Michael Greger was a child, his grandmother Frances Greger was sent home from hospital in a wheelchair to die. She was 65, and had terminal heart disease. At home, waiting to die, she saw something on television about a pioneering approach to reversing heart disease via exercise and nutrition. Specifically, whole food plant based (WFPB) nutrition.

The dying woman became a live-in patient of the ground breaking American nutritionist Nathan Pritikin, one of his “death’s door patients”, and made a full recovery. She eventually died aged 96.

Her grandson Michael grew up, became a doctor, and wrote How Not To Die, which specifies which foods we need to eat to live healthier and longer.

“Our diet is the number one cause of death and the number one cause of disability,” he writes. “Surely, diet must also be the number one thing taught in medical schools, right?” Wrong. Doctors receive minimal nutrition training. Anyone who has ever eaten public hospital food will know just how low nutrition is on the medical agenda. You’d be better off drinking the hand sanitiser.

Greger takes the top 15 causes of death in the US, and writes in detail on each. How not to die (prematurely) from heart disease, lung disease, brain disease, digestive cancers, infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease, blood cancers, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and iatrogenic causes — that is, dying from being over medicalised by a for-profit health system. How Not To Die is as anti Big Pharma as it is pro cruciferous vegetables.

So how to postpone death? While Dr Greger does not offer an actual elixir for eternity, he proposes a formula — the Daily Dozen — which he suggests will ward off illness, disease and decay for decades to come . Yoko Ono, 84, is rumoured to be a fan.

Here’s the nitty gritty. The Daily Dozen involves three servings of beans (he means legumes, and includes hummus, soya, tofu, tempeh, lentils, peas, split peas, and every kind of bean); one serving of berries, fresh, frozen or dried; three servings of fruit; one serving of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower etc); two servings of greens (spinach, salad leaves etc); two servings of other vegetables (including mushrooms); one tablespoon of flaxseeds; one 30g serving of nuts and seeds or two tablespoons of nut butter; one serving (quarter teaspoon) of turmeric plus other herbs and spices; three servings of whole grains; five servings of 330ml drinks — water, tea, herbal tea, coffee; and one serving of exercise — either 90 minutes moderate intensity or 40 minutes high intensity. Now — go and live forever.

“The idea of preventative health is that you do something now so that nothing bad happens later,” writes Dr Greger. It’s bigger than just your own personal health, however.

As food industries exploit and manipulate our brains’ reward centres to crave processed junk, adopting a healthy diet is an act of everyday radicalism. Plus you’ll have lovely glowy skin.

To complement your Daily Dozen, there are other proven actions you can take to increase longevity and well being.

Owning a dog makes you live longer — this is actual science, as being around dogs lowers stress and blood pressure. As does intergenerational socialising — the elders of Okinawa in Japan live the longest in the world, partly because they are not sent to care homes, but remain a revered part of the community, and interact with people all ages. Their diets reflect the Daily Dozen, plus Okinawans don’t overeat — they practice hara hachi bu, or ‘8 parts out of 10, full’.

No amount of broccoli will save us if we are socially isolated — pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone, physically and psychologically, can keep us young. Dancing is better for you than the gym, because it is not solitary, and incorporates joy, unlike the cross trainer. Accessing nature has long shown to have positive effects on our mental health. These all sound like common sense ideas until you remember how current lifestyles have normalised being motionless indoors in front of a screen while eating processed junk. Who doesn’t love Netflix and salty sugary fatty snacks? But our bodies are not designed for this — we have evolved for movement and unprocessed foods — hence the proliferation of chronic conditions like heart disease, cancers, diabetes etc.

It’s hard to make monumental change overnight, unless, like Michael Greger’s grandmother, we are staring death in the face. But we can do it incrementally, by using the traffic light system — maximising green (unprocessed plant foods), minimising yellow (processed plant foods, unprocessed animal foods) and avoiding red (ultra processed plant foods, processed animal foods).

Just don’t get religious about it, warns Dr Greger. “The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it keeps people from even taking the first steps,” he says. “We cannot let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the good.”

How Not To Die by Michael Greger, PanMacmillan £14.99 / €17.05



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