Four years ago, I posted a Beyond Wealth column from the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
I enjoyed the music but rhapsodized about the food, noting that the fast-food choices included sautéed trout smothered with blue crab, alligator pie, quail-pheasant-andouille gumbo, Cajun duck po’boy, and grilled chicken livers with pepper jelly.
(Hey, this is New Orleans. Strolling around the Fair Grounds in striped shorts, a polka-dotted shirt and pink suspenders is tolerated. Ordering a corn dog is not.)
My friend John Mackey, founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, read the column and offered to send me a book, Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.
It sent me on a journey…
I had been tall and lean since my junior year of high school, but in the preceding decade I had become merely tall. My waist had expanded from 33 inches to 40 and I had started wearing shirts two sizes bigger.
(It’s a sobering thing to buy XXL shirts. I wondered what I would do when I outgrew those. Visit Omar the Tentmaker?)
Thanks to what I learned from Dr. Fuhrman, however, I regained my 33-inch waist – and my old shirt size – and had more energy and better health than ever.
Thousands of others have had a similar experience.
Dr. Fuhrman is an author, researcher and family physician whose mission is preventing and reversing disease… using food as medicine. I had met and played tennis with him once at a social function at John’s ranch near Austin, but didn’t know his work.
Through him I learned that there are micronutrients in certain foods – neither vitamins nor minerals but phytochemicals – that protect and strengthen our immune systems, allowing us to live longer, healthier, more disease-resistant lives.
Fuhrman recommends a diet consisting of G-BOMBS, his acronym for greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds (and nuts). Nutritional research indicates that these are the healthiest foods on the planet.
But he doesn’t just recommend that you eat more of these foods. He believes they should make up the majority of your daily intake.
Like me, you may have noticed something missing from that menu: the entrée. Dr. Fuhrman says you should use meat primarily as a condiment… or not at all.
Whoa. That’s just not how I was brought up.
It’s challenging enough to cut back on sugar, pass on the bread and pasta, avoid processed foods, and put down the saltshaker… but saying no meat?
I didn’t think I could do that.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Studies show that the longest-lived populations around the world – the Okinawans, Sardinians, Nicoyans and others – are not vegans or vegetarians but men and women who eat meat.
Just not a lot of it.
Aside from being delicious, meat is an efficient delivery system for essential nutrients like zinc and vitamin B. It also keeps you sated, so you’re not constantly on the prowl for the next snack.
On the other hand, there is ample evidence that large quantities of meat lead to inflammation and chronic disease.
According to a recent Harvard study of over 120,000 people followed for more than 20 years, a meat-based low-carb diet increased the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 14%.
A 2014 study in Cell Metabolism showed that middle-aged Americans who were heavy consumers of animal protein were more likely to die of cancer than those who opted for more plant-based protein.
Hundreds of other studies have reported similar findings. Yet surveys show the average American consumes nearly 1 1/2 servings of red meat a day.
Health-conscious carnivores like me can make a few adjustments, however. For example:
- When possible, opt for grass-fed or “pastured” animals. Factory-farmed products come from animals fattened with unhealthy grain feed and shot full of growth hormones and antibiotics. (Remember that what went into them is about to go into you.)
- Avoid cured meats – bacon, sausage and salami – which have the strongest toxic effects. Studies show they reduce longevity twice as much as nonprocessed meats. (Your gut turns the nitrite preservatives into potentially cancerous compounds.)
- Minimize charred meat. Blackened char on your steak can contain a carcinogenic family of compounds called heterocyclic amines – or HCAs – that form when meat is cooked over high heat. Slow-cooked meats – like six-hour brisket or osso buco – are healthier.
Your body needs protein and healthy fats. But there are plenty of vegetarian sources of protein. Fuhrman notes that 100 calories of broccoli has more protein than 100 calories of steak. (Feel free to stump your dietician with that one.) And avocados, nuts and fatty fish are good sources of saturated fat.
You may have seen the news that the saturated fats found in animal products are not the demons we once imagined. This remains a controversial point, however, with studies reporting conflicting results.
This is partly because most surveys are “retrospective,” relying on people to remember dietary details from the past. There have been very few lengthy, well-controlled “prospective” studies, in which large populations were followed in real time.
Healthy eating remains a lightning-rod issue. There simply is no scientific consensus about “the optimal human diet.” And “healthy eating,” like politics, is a subject where everyone is an expert.
But are we really?
According to Consumer Reports Health, 89.7% of American adults polled believe they eat a healthy diet. That’s tough to square with the fact that seven in 10 of us are overweight, one in three is obese and one in 25 morbidly so.
Some things we do know for certain. Sugar, white flour and refined carbohydrates are not good for you. But how much meat belongs in a healthy diet remains a contentious issue.
I experienced that firsthand a few months ago, when John invited me to New York City to hear him debate Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, a book that claims we don’t eat nearly enough saturated fat.
Teicholz insisted that her only goal is the truth, that she “had no hypothesis.” Yet her book’s subtitle – “Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” – suggests otherwise.
She claims that red meat, cheese, eggs and whole milk are better for you than fruits and vegetables.
“Eat butter; drink milk whole, and feed it to the whole family,” she writes in her book. “Stock up on creamy cheeses, offal, and sausage, and yes, bacon. None of these foods have been demonstrated to cause obesity, diabetes or heart disease.”
As a serious meat and cheese lover, I would love to believe those words. But bacon and sausage are more nutritious than a salad? I don’t think so.
I wasn’t the only one unpersuaded. A poll taken before and after the debate showed that John – a passionate advocate of a 90% plant-based diet – moved more members of the audience to change their points of view.
Afterward, John and I crossed the street to have a glass of wine at the Sofitel and celebrate his victory. In the lobby, I bumped into Dr. Fuhrman, who had also attended the debate.
Since I hadn’t seen him in a few years, I took a moment to tell him how he had changed my approach to eating, that I was 90% of the way to adhering to his system. (I meekly conceded that I did generally have a piece of meat at dinner most evenings.)
“Most nights?” Dr. Fuhrman said, shaking his head. “Then you really aren’t 90% of the way there. You shouldn’t eat more than eight ounces of meat a week.”
“Eight ounces… a week?”
I realized my guru was taking me to the woodshed. I still wasn’t doing it right. (And it probably wasn’t a good time to confess that I generally order the 12-ounce filet at my local steak house.)
I have great respect for Dr. Fuhrman. I have learned so much from him. Time may prove that he has identified the very healthiest way to eat.
In the meantime, I’ve opted for a slightly shorter, somewhat unhealthier life… with gravy.