We tend to think of advances in medicine as a new drug, laser or surgical procedure – something high-tech and expensive. Many people are surprised to learn that the simple choices we make in what we eat and how we live have such a powerful influence on our health and well-being, but they do.
- what we eat;
- how much we move;
- how we respond to stress;
- and how much love and intimacy we have in our lives.
For the past 36 years, my colleagues at the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco have conducted research using high-tech, state-of-the-art scientific measures to prove the power of these simple, low-cost and low-tech interventions.
In addition to preventing many chronic diseases, these comprehensive lifestyle changes can often reverse the progression of these illnesses. They may even begin to reverse aging on a genetic level.
We proved, for the first time, that lifestyle changes alone can reverse even severe heart disease. We also found that these lifestyle changes can reverse type 2 diabetes and may slow, stop or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer. Changing your lifestyle may actually change your genes, turning on genes that keep you healthy, and turning off genes that promote heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and diabetes – hundreds of genes in just three months.
People often say, "Oh, it's all in my genes, there's not much I can do about it." Knowing that changing lifestyle changes our genes is often very motivating – not to blame, but to empower. They may even lengthen your telomeres, the ends of your chromosomes that play such an important role in aging. As a person's telomeres get shorter, his or her life gets shorter. Telomeres are like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that keep them from unraveling: They keep your DNA from unraveling.
When I began doing this work, I thought that younger people who had less severe diseases would do better, but I was wrong. One of the most interesting findings in all of our studies was that the more people changed their diet and lifestyle, the better they felt and the more they improved in ways we could measure – at any age.
It's not all or nothing: You have a spectrum of choices. I find this to be extraordinarily empowering. We've learned what enables people to make sustainable changes in their lifestyles.
Because the biological mechanisms that control our health and well-being are so dynamic, when people begin to eat and live healthier, they usually feel so much better. It quickly reframes the reason for change from fear of dying (which is not sustainable) to joy of living (which is).
If you go on a diet, you're like to go off the diet. Diets are all about what you can't have and what you must do. I've learned that even more than feeling healthy, most people want to feel free and in control. So, on my Spectrum program, you decide how much to change, how many aspects of your life to change, and how quickly.
And once you call foods "good" or "bad," it's a small step to thinking, "I'm a bad person because I ate food that's bad for me." Then you have to deal with all that guilt, shame and anger which just get in the way.