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Let food be your green medicine

Sound Consumer | February 2010

by Dr. Tom Ballard, RN, N.D.

Nutrition outperforms drug treatments for both prevention and treatment of chronic disease

(February 2010) — Did you know oatmeal lowers cholesterol as well as statin drugs and without the side effects? Or that four ounces of legumes a week reduces cancer rates 22 percent — better than any drug?

Unfortunately, these and other facts about nutrition are not part of the health care debate, which largely focuses on how to pay for drugs, devices and surgeries. But what about people like you, who are being proactive about your health? You're practicing another form of health care. You're practicing Green Medicine.

Yes, by letting foods be your medicine, you're moving your health care from the medicine cabinet to the refrigerator, pushing drugs and surgery off the stove and into a storage box marked "For emergencies only."

Good nutrition is perhaps the most powerful medicine we have against chronic disease, yet it's hardly mentioned in debates over health care reform. That's astonishing, given that we're spending a reported $147 billion annually to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the multiple types of cancer that have been linked to the “Western” diet. One recent study showed that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed directly to the steep increase in obesity.

However, instead of the debate over health care reform centering on good nutrition, the legislation was orchestrated by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to guarantee they will continue reaping profits from the consequences of broken health and food policies.

Green medicine

Imagine restructuring health care in a framework that has your best interests at heart — not those of the medical and industrial food stakeholders. The truth is, our medical system rates an A for emergency medicine, but suffers attention-deficit when it comes to chronic diseases. "Breakthrough" drugs and "cutting edge" surgery are the focus, yet chronic diseases still are causing most of the misery, death and expenses. Meanwhile, basic, proven prevention and treatment options involving nutrition are all but ignored.

By shopping at PCC and buying local, organic food, you're practicing Green Medicine — scientifically verified therapies that address the nutritional causes of disease. In fact, nutrition outperforms drug treatments both for prevention and treatment of chronic disease. Why? Because the genesis of most chronic diseases can be linked directly to nutritional imbalances.

Let food be your medicine

When you eat whole, organic foods, you’re addressing core issues — preventing and treating disease by nurturing vital systems with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients they require. You are warding off — or directly treating — a long list of chronic diseases that hardly existed before the introduction of artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and industrial food processing over the past 100 years.

Heart disease rates were around 4 percent 100 years ago; now they're approaching 50 percent. Adult onset diabetes at the turn of the 20th century was a rare, rich-man's disease. Now it's considered an epidemic among baby boomers and a growing problem with children. All the diseases that are costing us the most money — diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity, asthma, arthritis, cancer, depression, allergies and irritable bowel disease — are linked directly to what we eat.

It's not a coincidence that during this time of rising chronic disease rates over the past 50 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports a 30 to 50 percent decline in nutrients in our fruits and vegetables.

Think of it this way: humans evolved eating whole, fresh, organic food over millions of years and then, suddenly, in the course of a mere 100 years, had to adjust to a diet that had half the nutritional value — and was laden with pesticides. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the connection, but policymakers ignore these fundamental problems, instead pushing for universal drug prescriptions.

As destructive to health as poor diets are, the curative power of good food is even more remarkable. In one study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, women treated for cancer had a 50 percent reduction in relapse risk if they ate five vegetables and fruits per day. Several studies have found that eating such nutritious foods as flax seeds, fatty fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables prevent and reduce the growth of prostate and other cancers.

Peer-reviewed research in Holland has found that children raised on organic dairy products in the first two years of life are more than a third less likely to suffer from allergies, asthma and eczema. Other research shows that consuming too little dietary potassium is linked to high blood pressure. You get potassium by eating (in order) sweet potatoes, beet greens, yogurt, halibut, lima beans, winter squash and (less so) bananas. Many blood pressure medications actually cause the loss of potassium!

What does nutrition have to do with depression, anxiety and insomnia? We know that blood sugar fluctuations, caused by eating sweets, disrupts brain function. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that antidepressant drugs are designed to increase, is made from protein with the aid of B vitamins. Fish oil helps move the serotonin into the brain cells.

What about chronic diseases caused by genetic and developmental abnormalities? While not all of these are nutritional in genesis, we now understand that genetics is a code that can be rewritten by nutrition. Spina bifida, a condition in which vertebrae do not fuse, is now known to be caused by a folic acid deficiency in the mother. More often than suffering from the consequences of inheriting "bad genes," we inherit unhealthy eating habits.

When you pick out a big bunch of chard or cook with any organic, whole foods, you're a practitioner of Green Medicine.

Wrong treatment, bad outcomes

Currently the medical treatment of chronic disease uses drugs, devices and surgeries that focus on diminishing the symptoms while ignoring the causes. But symptoms are the outward manifestation of disease, not the disease. The underlying disease process is what causes the symptoms.

Prescribing billions of dollars in drugs and surgeries that, for instance, ameliorate constipation, gallstones, diverticulitis, bloating, gas and hemorrhoids, is considered "state of the art" medicine, while lack of fiber (often the underlying cause of these conditions) is not the priority of dominant medical or agricultural policies.

This same anti-symptoms approach applies to all other chronic diseases, including the number one killer — heart disease. High cholesterol and blood pressure are not diseases; they're warnings of deeper biochemical imbalances that have been proven to result from poor diet choices (and lack of exercise). The Mediterranean diet, for example, offers a 25 percent reduction in heart disease simply from regularly eating whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and fish.

Medical insurance typically will pay thousands of dollars for drugs, tests, devices and surgery, yet nothing for vitamin D, fresh produce, high-fiber whole foods, or protein-rich legumes — the very things that keep us from needing the prescription.

Reforming health care

A truly reformed health care system would be a coordinated program between agriculture, the food industry, and health care providers trained in nutrition (most M.D. degrees typically do not require even one course in nutrition). We need to ensure that everyone — from school children to retirees — knows the facts of good nutrition and has access to fresh, affordable organic foods.

Instead, government policies and subsidies spread misinformation ("genetic modification is good for us ...") and promote pesticide-laden, farmland-destroying, oil-dependent, nutrient-depleted foods that are like a conveyor belt in generating chronic disease. Our government subsidizes high fructose corn syrup production in the midst of a multi-billion dollar epidemic of diabetes! A whole-system Green Medicine model understands the connection between how we grow crops and how we feel.

Your family member's high blood pressure may very well be the result of government programs that encourage cheap, nutrient-depleted calories. The same empty calories that have been the artillery behind rising diabetes rates also are causing collateral damage to the cardiovascular, nervous, digestive and hormonal systems.

We need a true health care (caring) system rather than a medical supply chain that kicks in only after you're sick. Writer and sustainable food advocate Michael Pollan says, "There's lots of money to be made selling fast food, then treating the diseases fast food causes." He argues that one leading product of the food industry is creating patients for the health care industry.

Studies untainted by drug industry dollars show that, despite the hype, few drugs have undergone rigorous, long-term, independent tests for safety and effectiveness. Yet that's where our money is going, rather than to traditional, proven healing therapies. Preventing chronic disease will come not from a chemist's lab but from our kitchen tables.

Ecology of health

The American diet is so high in calories and so low in nutrients — causing us to be paradoxically overweight and undernourished — that it has left us vulnerable to unprecedented levels of chronic disease.

The whole-person (indeed, whole-earth) alternative to drugs is environmentally friendly Green Medicine. It produces less chemical waste and water pollution, has fewer side effects, and is less expensive. In the broadest sense of the term, it supports ecological balance — both of the outer environment and our inner ecology. Unlike petrochemical medicine, it has a proven record of long-term effectiveness against chronic disease.

Substantive health care reform will happen only when government policies support the green choices that the PCC community makes every day. Instead of subsidizing the destruction of our foods and promoting the mentality that health comes from a bottle with a safety cap, we need money-backed policies that support Green Medicine.

Good food, clean air, and moderate exercise outperform drugs. It's time for government policy to reflect facts, not lobbying influence.

We'll know policymakers are talking about real health reform when they stop citing health insurance corporations and hospitals as innovators and start talking up real health innovators like organic farmers, PCC and people like you who practice Green Medicine.

Dr. Tom Ballard, R.N., N.D., has practiced holistic, Green Medicine in Seattle for over 25 years and is the author of "Nutrition-1-2-3: Three diet wisdoms for losing weight, gaining energy and reversing chronic disease." Contact him at TomBallardND@gmail.com or read more at www.PureWellnessCenters.com.

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