The Next Big Thing In Medicine: Part 1

Nowadays it seems as if exciting and important discoveries are made in medicine all of the time. However, just a handful of relatively simple, yet game-changing developments are collectively responsible for almost all of the improvements in health and human life expectancy. The ones that came to mind immediately for me were:

Hand Washing and Sanitation

Vaccination

Antibiotics

These have been incredibly effective. Infectious disease has been all but eradicated as a cause of death in high-income countries.

So what’s the next big thing? Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are our current challenge. They cause 70% of deaths globally, ranging from 37% in low-income countries to 88% in high-income countries, according to the World Health Organisation.

The next game-changer for medicine is also simple, yet just like the 3 big developments noted earlier will result in incredible improvements in health and life expectancy. Excitingly, it is likely to be even more powerful than any of these developments. And unlike any of them has the power to improve the quality of our lives, putting life in our years as well as years in our lives.

The next big thing, the next game changer in medicine is plant-based nutrition, which is a vegan diet.

Food is fundamental to health. In fact, food is the cause of much of the non-infectious disease and illness that is currently experienced in Western societies. Why might this be the case?

Our closest ancestors are the chimpanzees and bonobos. They eat plants. Nearly half of all the food consumed by chimps is figs, apparently. Three percent of the average chimp diet comes from meat. On average, about 9 days a year are meat days. They don’t eat much variety either.

When we look at our anatomy, we’re essentially been given the same equipment as herbivores. We have hands instead of claws, teeth that aren’t good for tearing anything tougher than an envelope, stomach acid about 20 times weaker than that of a carnivore, a really long gastrointestinal tract, a large number of tastebuds and the ability to taste sweet things.

But what do we actually eat? About 25% of our diet is animal products. Just over 60% comes from processed foods not found in nature: added fats and oils, sugars, and refined grains. Only 12% of food comes from vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.

So what would happen if we changed this and ate more plants, significantly less animals, and almost no processed foods? We can get an idea from looking at the ‘Blue Zones’. The Blue Zones were first identified in National Geographic in 2005. These are the geographical locations that are the home to the healthiest and longest living people in the world. The locations?

Okinawa, Japan

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Ikaria, Greece

Sardinia, Italy

Loma Linda, California

While you can probably envision people in such seemingly mythical and exotic realms as Okinawa, Nicoya, Ikaria, and Sardinia enjoying legendary health and longevity, when we think of the healthiest places in the world California is not one that immediately springs to mind. In fact, the United States is renowned for having some of the highest rates of non-communicable disease. However, Loma Linda is home to ‘one of the largest concentrations of Seventh-day Adventists in the world’. Vegetarianism and veganism are more common among the Adventists. This has enabled researchers to conduct several large studies on them, which are invaluable as they show that numerous health outcomes improve as we move closer towards a vegan or plant-based diet.

In fact, one of the things all the five Blue Zones share in common is a diet that is primarily plant-based. On average, meat is eaten about 5 times a month, with portion sizes about the size of a pack of cards.

We’ll take another look at those non-communicable diseases and how a plant-based diet may help next time…

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