John McDougall warns Americans that they’re digging their graves with their teeth. While many tout lifestyle changes, McDougall is more direct. “It’s the food,” he told an audience of 300 at the fourth annual Enhancing Health with Plant-Based Nutrition conference held at the Ambridge Center in Portland today. “It’s a distraction when people talk about diet and lifestyle.” A little extra walking isn’t going to help, he said. They must change their diet if they want to beat chronic diseases.
McDougall is a long-time fixture on the vegan scene. A doctor who’s authored 12 best-selling books, McDougall advocates a very low-fat, plant-based diet for optimal health.
In 2008, McDougall teamed up with Oregon Health and Sciences University to work on a study of diet and multiple sclerosis. About 350,000 Americans suffer from this autoimmune disease. “It’s a disease of great surprise. You’re never bored with this disease,” said McDougall. “One day you wake up and you can’t hold your urine. Another day you wake up and you’re blind in one eye.” With MS, inflammation occurs randomly around blood vessels. The inflammation heals and leaves scars, called scleroses. “It’s like an inexpert marksman closed his eyes and took a gun and shot it at the patient,” said McDougall. “And wherever that bullet hit, that part of the patient dies.”
McDougall has built upon the work of Roy Swank, one of his heroes and mentors. Swank headed the OHSU neurology department for 50 years. Swank noticed that the incidence of common diseases, including MS, dropped in Europe during World War II. He suspected there was a connection between the wartime unavailability of animal-based food products and the drop in diseases. Swank saw 5,000 MS patients during his time at OHSU.
Swank’s MS diet limited fat intake and allowed unlimited starch, vegetables and fruit.
Swank found that a difference of 8 grams of saturated fat per day increased your risk of dying of MS threefold. That’s about one small sausage or a piece of cheesecake. People who followed Swank’s diet decreased their level of MS by 70 percent in the first year of treatment. Then for the next 16 years of staying on a low-fat diet, they decreased their exacerbation rate by 95 percent.
Swank was right about the dietary connection, McDougall said. “There is no other option than dietary change.” Without dietary intervention, half of MS patients are dead within 10 years, and disabled before that, McDougall said.
McDougall’s OHSU study began in January 2009 and finished in March 2013.He educated participants at his center in Santa Rosa, California. The data was analyzed at OHSU. Sixty people with MS participated in the randomized trial. The people in the control group kept eating a standard diet of about 40 percent fat. The dietary group followed a starch-based diet with 15 percent fat and no animal foods or oils. Within these restrictions, they could eat as much as they wanted.
After a year, the dietary group averaged a ten-pound weight loss and a 19-point cholesterol reduction. This result rivals cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, McDougall said. Both obesity and high cholesterol are tied to the severity of MS.
If a plant-based diet is so successful in combating disease, why don’t more doctors prescribe it? And why don’t patients follow this diet?
The medical industry doesn’t stand to make any money by telling people to eat beans rather than buy expensive drugs, McDougall said. And many patients would rather take a pill than make the effort of changing their diet.
But people can and do change. After all these years, McDougall is still passionate about saving people’s lives with dietary intervention. He doesn’t care whether or not people want to hear his message. The low-carb movement is risking not only people’s health, but the planet’s health. Earth will never support enough livestock to feed the whole world a standard American diet. McDougall is thinking about his granddaughter’s generation.
“I’m not here to run a popularity contest,” he said. “We need to move the discussion of dietary health away from low carb, gluten-free, if we really want to change things.
I want to change things. I want to see a difference. We have to do it now. We can’t do it later.”