Eat to Extend Your Lifespan, Not to Lose Weight | Omega

Board-certified family physician Joel Fuhrman is one of the country’s leading experts in nutritional science. In his "eat to live" dietary approach, he advocates a plant-based diet to increase health and longevity.

Omega: What inspired you to go into the field of nutritional science? 

Joel: My father was overweight and sickly, and it was hard seeing him so sick. He got into reading health and nutrition books, mostly the works of Herbert Shelton and the Natural Hygiene Health Movement in the 1950s, which helped him lose weight, get healthier, and turn his life around.

It seemed pretty strange and radical to me at first, but I started reading more too and realizing that all these diseases that were plaguing our country were the results of nutritional stupidity. I realized how crazy it is that people go to doctors, take drugs, and have no idea that they’ve eaten themselves into many of these problems.

I tell the story in my TEDx Talk of talking to a woman who was attending medical school. I told her how worthless I thought doctors are when people are just eating bad food. "What good is being a doctor when people have to eat better?" I asked.

“Why don’t you go to medical school and change things?” she asked in response.

With that kind of encouragement, I started dating her and left my father’s shoe business. I went back to school full-time to get the requirements and went full blast into becoming a physician specializing in nutrition. Then, of course, Lisa became my wife. We both went to medical school together.

Omega: There are many diets out there with diametrically opposed dogmas and rules (i.e. vegan and paleo). What is helpful about these different styles of eating and what can be harmful?

Joel: Studies can be skewed to show anything you want. The food industry spends billions of dollars trying to produce studies to confuse people and to encourage the promotion of various views.

I don’t think there’s any opposition to the fact that we know a diet must be predominantly composed of plant foods to be healthy, whether you eat zero animal products or a little bit of animal products.

Animal products make up about a third of the American diet, which is one of the highest percentages in the world. We know that heart attack rates rise with an increase from 10 percent to 20 percent. Cancer rates start to skyrocket as you approach 20 percent, so 30 percent clearly amplifies the pattern.

Every study that looks at large populations consuming different levels of animal protein or animal products in their diet always shows the same thing: that consuming higher levels leads to higher rates of cardiovascular deaths and cancer deaths, as well as a shorter life span.

There’s no controversy at all in nutritional science. This controversy is created by people who haven’t reviewed the literature and science. The theory of a healthy paleo diet has been utterly disproven. There’s no science to support it unless the diet consists of mostly vegetables with very little meat. 

Omega: You wrote a book in 2015 called The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life. What are the majority of people missing when it comes to eating well, and why is dieting the wrong approach?

Joel: Every year there are 50 to 100 new diet books coming out at a time with a new gimmick or fad or approach, but this kind of thinking is missing the whole point. We want to eat in a manner that’s going to extend our lifespan, slow aging, and prevent cancer. That’s the bottom line.

Anything you do temporarily, the results are only going to be temporary. In other words, if you do something and you lose 20 pounds this month, it doesn’t matter if you go back to eating your old diet and the 20 pounds return.  

When your weight goes down and goes back up again, it’s worse than having never lost it, because yo-yo-ing your weight creates more saturated fat in your body and shifts fat more viscerally, which makes it more dangerous.

There’s no benefit to losing weight unless you keep it off for the rest of your life and no way of eating can make you lose weight and keep it off unless you’re going to stick with it.  

So the question is, what’s a diet that’s healthy enough that you would want to stick with it for the rest of your life, so any benefits you get remain permanently? We have to improve the nutritional quality of our diet and eat a full portfolio of foods that have been shown to have anti-cancer and lifespan-promoting effects. 

I’m now teaching people and demonstrating through science that when you improve the nutritional quality of your diet, you naturally desire fewer calories. You’re satisfied with less food. You’re not a calorie-consuming monster anymore and so the secret to keeping a favorable weight for the rest of your life is essentially eating more healthfully.

There are no gimmicks, there are no tricks, there are no fads. 

We know how to win the war on cancer. The answer is vegetables. People don’t like that answer. They want some other answer. They want to still have their French fries and their pizza and their soda and think it’s okay.  

You have to eat GBOMBS, which stands for greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds. We have to eat anti-cancer foods if we don’t want to get cancer. We can’t eat cancer-promoting foods and think we’re going to take a magic pill and not get cancer. 

Processed foods and fried foods are addicting and people become addicted. Their decision-making now is all about fueling their addiction and having excuses for why they can’t help themselves and why they have to eat this way regardless of the consequences. 

It takes some effort and knowledge to overcome food addiction, but the rewards are phenomenal and your taste buds improve and you can enjoy eating healthfully. 

© 2019 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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