A passionate advocate of vegetarianism, bestselling author Michael Greger tells us how what we eat influences life—and death
When Michael Greger shot to number six on the New York Times Best Seller list in 2015 with his book How Not To Die, singing the praises of whole foods and plant-based eating, veganism was still a long way from being embraced by the mainstream.
The science-based website he founded in 2011 to provide free advice on meat-free sustenance, nutritionfacts.org, was also little known.
A key player in the plant-based movement
Today, however, plant-based eating is increasingly being hailed as the next big food movement. Greger’s book, subtitled "Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease", and his website lauded as bibles by seasoned and aspiring vegans alike.
The American doctor—a clinical nutrition specialist—has become a guru of sorts and one of the most outspoken figures advocating for plant-based living.
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“We are at a pivotal moment in the healthy living movement, due in large part to social media,” he explains. “I think it is the democratisation of knowledge via the internet that is most responsible for this change. n 2018, any of us can use the internet to track down the best science.”
How it all began
A long-time vegan, Greger became interested as a child in exploring the power of plants through medicine, inspired by his grandmother’s experience.
“I think the spark for many kids to want to become a doctor when they grow up, is when they watch a grandparent get sick or even die,” he said. “But for me, it was my grandma recovering. When I was still a child, she had already had a couple of open-heart operations, and they basically ran out of plumbing.
There was nothing more she could do. Wheelchair bound, crushing chest pain… and then she heard about Nathan Pritikin’s plan [a live-in programme involving a controlled diet, counselling in lifestyle change, and exercise in a resort-type setting].They wheeled her in—and she walked out. I’ll never forget that. She was given her medical death sentence when she was 65, but thanks to a healthy diet she was able to enjoy another 31 years on this earth until age 96.”
Diet and disease; the undeniable link
Greger, who has published a number of papers on the negative effects of meat and dairy products, points out that the medical literature “suggests our genes may only be responsible for about 20 per cent of common chronic diseases. The other 80 per cent is how we live and particularly how we eat. Diet is the number one contributor to chronic disease, and therefore if we are part of a family that eats a whole foods, plant-based diet, our relatives will likely have low rates of these chronic diseases.
On the other hand, if we are part of a family where meat, dairy, eggs and junk are part of most meals, there may be higher rates of chronic disease in our family—not because of genes, but because habits tend to run in families. Genetics may load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.”
The book(s) of life
Full of surprising, cutting-edge nutritional science and practical advice that’s easy to put into action, Greger’s tome of doctor’s orders is just what we need to live longer, healthier lives. All proceeds from the book’s sales go to maintaining Greger’s non-commercial website and its free advice.
The book How Not To Die expresses Greger’s views in clear terms. The first half tells readers “how not to die,” using scientific evidence to link diet and certain diseases. The second half is a treasure trove of suggestions, concrete applications and practical advice.
We are what we eat
Greger expanded on this trove earlier this year with the How Not to Die Cookbook: 100+ Recipes to Help Prevent and Reverse Disease, a collection of 120 recipes containing only green light foods—whole, plant-based foods with no added salt, sugar, or oil, he says. The volume quickly became a bestseller.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve started to understand the concept of epigenetics—the study of how our lifestyle choices and our environment impact the expression of our genes—and that has been a game changer,” Greger explains.
“What that means is that our parents were right. We are what we eat. We eat junk, and this can actually change our genes, making them misbehave and cause a domino effect of bad effects, including contributing to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and some types of cancer. This is great news because even if we were dealt a lousy genetic hand, we can still reshuffle the deck with diet to protect ourselves from premature disease and death.”
How to go plant-based
“Research shows the average family rotates the same eight or nine dinners throughout the month, so I would recommend following the three-step method proposed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine [a non-profit research and advocacy group based in Washington DC that promotes a vegan diet, preventive medicine and alternatives to animal research].
First, list all the dinners you currently eat and identify three meals that are already plant-based. Second, identify at least three meals you already eat that could easily be adapted to become plant-based. Third, explore three new plant-based options. Now you have your nine dinners and can move on and repeat the same method [for breakfast and lunch]. Whole foods, plant-based cookbooks and recipes can help a lot in that respect.”
Or an app. Greger recently launched Dr Greger’s Daily Dozen—a perfect companion to How Not To Die that makes going vegan easy. Free to download, it’s the most recent step in the doctor’s mission to spread plant-based eating.
“I’m always open to ideas of how to best raise awareness,” he says. “[With my work] I hope that I can help people discover the power they have to improve their health, the same way that Nathan Pritikin did for my family.”