Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself
We are truly at a turning point in the fight against disease. Each of us has an enormous opportunity to take charge of our lives using food to transform our health. You can make decisions about what to eat and drink based on scientific evidence gleaned from testing foods with the same systems and methods that have been used to discover and develop drugs. The data generated when we study food like medicine clearly show that food can influence our health in specific and beneficial ways.
First, a bit about myself. I’m a medical doctor, an internal medicine specialist, and a research scientist. In college, I studied biochemistry (now called molecular and cellular biology), and I spent the first half of my career immersed in the world of biotechnology. For the past twenty-five years, I’ve led the Angiogenesis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that I cofounded in 1994 with a unique mission: to improve global health by focusing on a “common denominator” shared by many diseases: angiogenesis, the process our bodies use to grow new blood vessels.
As a scientist, finding common denominators of disease has long been my interest and passion. Most medical research is dedicated to exploring the individuality of disease, searching for what makes each disease distinct from every other as the path toward finding cures. My approach has been the complete opposite. By looking for common threads shared by many diseases and asking if those threads might lead to new treatments, I’ve found it is possible to achieve breakthroughs for not only one disease, but many diseases at the same time
Early in my career, I chose to study angiogenesis. Blood vessels are essential for health because they bring oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body. My mentor, Judah Folkman, was a brilliant surgeon-scientist at Harvard who first came up with the idea that targeting abnormal blood vessels feeding cancer could be an entirely new way to treat the disease. Angiogenesis gone awry is not just a problem in cancer, but also a common denominator in more than seventy different diseases, including the world’s other top killers: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and more. In 1993, I had an inspiration: what if controlling blood vessel development could be a singular approach to address all of these serious diseases?
Over the past twenty-five years, along with a long roster of amazing colleagues and supporters, this work is precisely what the Angiogenesis Foundation has been doing. We have coordinated research and advocated for new treatments taking this common-denominator approach. We’ve worked with more than three hundred of the brightest scientists and clinicians from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America; more than one hundred innovative companies in biotechnology, medical devices, and diagnostic and imaging technologies; and visionary leaders from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and major medical societies from around the world.
We have been very successful. By coordinating collective efforts, a new field of medicine called angiogenesis-based therapy has been created. Some of the innovative treatments stop blood vessels from growing in diseased tissues, such as in cancer or in blinding diseases like neovascular age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. Other treatments that have changed medical practice spark new blood vessels to heal vital tissues, such as in diabetic and venous leg ulcers. Today, there are more than thirty-two FDA-approved drugs, medical devices, and tissue products based on angiogenesis.
These treatments, once just glimmers of ideas, have become important new standards of care in oncology, ophthalmology, and wound care, helping patients live longer and better lives. We’ve even worked with veterinarians and developed new treatments that have helped save the lives of pet dogs, dolphins, reef fish, raptors, a rhinoceros, and even a polar bear. I’m proud to have been part of these advances, and given the more than 1,500 ongoing clinical trials in angiogenesis, there are certainly more to come.
But, despite all of the success, the sobering fact is that the rates of new disease are skyrocketing. The biggest health threats for people worldwide are the noncommunicable diseases, which include cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and neurodegenerative conditions. We each know someone in our lives who has suffered from or succumbed to one of these diseases. According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease killed 17.7 million people in 2015; cancer, 8.8 million; and diabetes, 1.8 million.
Even with remarkable treatment breakthroughs and FDA approvals, treatment of disease alone is not a sustainable solution for noncommunicable diseases, in part because of the stratospheric cost of new drugs. It can cost more than $2 billion to develop a single new biotechnology drug. The expense of using some of the latest drugs after they’ve received FDA approval is staggering, ranging in some cases from $200,000 per year to more than $900,000 per year. Since few can afford these price tags, the most advanced treatments don’t get to everyone who needs them, while the growing and aging population keeps getting sicker.
Drug treatments alone cannot keep us healthy. The question then becomes, how can we do a better job at preventing disease, before we have to cure it? One modern answer: food. Every doctor knows that poor diet is linked to preventable disease, and food is becoming a topic of ever greater importance in the medical community. Some avant-garde medical schools have even added culinary classes to their curriculum. Food is easily accessible and dietary interventions do not rely on expensive pharmaceutical treatments.
Not many doctors know how to discuss a healthy diet with their patients. This is through no fault of the individual doctors, but rather a side effect of how little nutrition education they receive. According to David Eisenberg, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only one in five medical schools in the United States requires medical students to take a nutrition course. On average, medical schools offer a mere nineteen hours of coursework in nutrition, and there are few postgraduate continuing education classes on nutrition for doctors already in practice.
Compounding this problem is that the different branches of science that study food and health have traditionally worked independently, as separate fields. Food technologists study chemical and physical properties of edible substances. Life science researchers study living organisms, including humans. Epidemiologists study real-world populations. Each field contributes important perspectives and ideas, but they rarely converge to answer practical questions about which foods and beverages might be responsible for a health benefit in the human body, in what amounts, and what is within a specific food that causes the effect.
What this all means for you is that your doctor, while armed with deep skills and invaluable knowledge about medicine, may not be fluent in advising you on what to eat for your health to beat disease.
I experienced the ramifications of this firsthand in my own practice of medicine. When I was taking care of older patients at a hospital for veterans, I often wondered what had happened to their bodies. These patients, mostly men, were once specimens of perfect fitness, trained as warriors to fight for their country. By the time I saw them decades later, they were often overweight, if not downright obese, diabetic, ravaged by terrible heart and lung diseases and, often, cancer.
As their doctor, I would give them the news of a terrible diagnosis. They would ask me: How bad is it? What is the treatment? How long do I have to live? I would give them my best estimate. Then, as they were leaving my office, they would almost invariably turn and ask me: “Hey doc, what can I eat so that I can help myself?”
I didn’t have an answer to that question—because I hadn’t been educated or trained to deal with it. That struck me as wrong, and thus I began the journey to seek the answers that led me to write this book.
In order to understand the benefits of food for health, we need to first understand the definition of health. To most people, health is the absence of disease. But it is much more than that. In fact, the definition of health needs a major upgrade.
What is clear is that our health is an active state, protected by a series of remarkable defense systems in the body that are firing on all cylinders, from birth to our last day alive, keeping our cells and organs functioning smoothly. These health defense systems are hardwired in our body to protect us. Some are so powerful they can even reverse diseases like cancer. And while they function as separate systems of defense, they also support and interact with one another. These defense systems are the common denominators of health. By recalibrating our approach to disease prevention and focusing on these common denominators, we can take a unified approach to intercepting diseases before they set in. This can be as powerful as finding common denominators to treat disease, as we did two decades ago.
Five defense systems form key pillars to your health. Each of the systems is influenced by diet. When you know what to eat to support each health defense, you know how to use your diet to maintain health and beat disease.
When I teach other doctors and students about diet and health, I use the analogy that the body is like a medieval fortress, protected not only by its stone walls, but by a host of other clever built-in defenses. Indeed, in castles, some of these defenses, such as the talus, the trou de loup, and murder hole, were not even apparent until the enemy tried to invade. Think of your health defense systems as the hidden defenses of the body fortress. These defenses heal the body from within, so it is now possible to systematically examine how to shore up your health.
The five defense systems are angiogenesis, regeneration, microbiome, DNA protection, and immunity.
HARDWIRED FOR HEALTH:
Our Body’s Natural Defense Systems
CHAPTER 1: Angiogenesis
CHAPTER 2: Regeneration
CHAPTER 3: Microbiome
CHAPTER 4: DNA Protection
CHAPTER 5: Immunity
EAT TO BEAT DISEASE:
The Evidence for Food as Medicine
CHAPTER 6: Starve Your Disease, Feed Your Health
CHAPTER 7: (Re)generate Your Health
CHAPTER 8: Feed Your Inner Ecosystem
CHAPTER 9: Direct Your Genetic Fate
CHAPTER 10: Activate Your Immune Command Center
PLAN, CHOOSE, AND ACT:
Putting Food to Work
CHAPTER 11: The 5 × 5 × 5 Framework: Eating to Beat Disease
CHAPTER 12: Rethinking the Kitchen
CHAPTER 13: Exceptional Foods
CHAPTER 14: Sample Meal Guide and Recipes
CHAPTER 15: Food Doses
EPILOGUE: A Note on the Science
APPENDIX A: 5 × 5 × 5 Daily Worksheet
APPENDIX B: Assess Your Risks
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE FOR EAT TO BEAT DISEASE