Dr. Mark Hyman has published twelve New York Times bestsellers, founded the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and has now started his own podcast called “The Doctor’s Farmacy,” all in the hopes of promoting food as medicine. He is one of several doctors promoting plant-rich nutrition and healthier eating as a vital addition to Western medicine.
“I advocate for a plant-rich diet,” Dr. Hyman said, “not necessarily a purely plant-based one. Here’s the difference: A plant-based diet means a vegan diet, regardless of the nutritional content of food. This means you can be plant-based and eat Twinkies and a Coke —foods that obviously work against our health goals.” Instead, Hyman advocates for a “plant-rich” diet, wherein real plant foods like vegetables and fruits can be complemented by small amounts of high-quality animal protein.
The cost of unhealthy calories
Poor eating habits account for an overwhelming percentage of the world’s health problems, according to Hyman. “A lack of fresh fruits and vegetables is the number one cause of chronic disease,” he said. “41 million deaths a year are caused by chronic disease, mostly caused by diet, which is 71 percent of all deaths on the planet. That’s more than any war or virus.”
Changing our eating habits shouldn’t be difficult, but culturally ingrained ideas about healthy eating are hard to undo. “For years we weretold that we needed to avoid dietary fat and eat loads of processed carbohydrates like whole-wheat bread to keep us slim and our hearts healthy,” Hyman said. “The government’s low-fat food pyramid based its recommendations on some very flawed science. It became policy that was turned into the dietary guidelines and the food pyramid that told us to eat 6 to 11 servings of bread, rice, cereal, and pasta a day and to eat fats and oils sparingly.”
Now serving: a new normal
The food industry further disseminated the low-fat food example. “Now, the standard American diet is filled with loads of processed carbohydrates, sugary snacks and drinks, inflammatory oils like soybean, canola, and peanut, and factory-farmed meats that are fed unnatural diets,” Hyman said. “These all lead to chronic inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, and dyslipidemia that create diabetes and heart disease. Instead of demonizing one macronutrient like fat or carbs, I recommend that we just stick to real, whole foods, not food-like substances.”
Hyman encourages patients to get informed, do their own research, and be wary of quick-fix diets and fads. “It’s important to understand that there is no magic bullet solution to your best health,” he said. “If you see someone trying to sell you a skinny detox tea or weight loss lollipops, run the other way. This stuff does not work. You have to trust your body and know that it requires multiple steps to get to your best health. This means dietary changes, exercise, stress management, and prioritizing community and healthy relationships.”
The future is greener
And there’s every indication that the healthcare industry is moving in this direction. Hyman believes “We are just scratching the surface of genetic testing, and I am personally excited to see how this field evolves. Tests like 23and me and Ancestry DNA can give people valuable information about their health and their genes. However, it’s important to work with someone who can decode this information for you such as a Functional Medicine practitioner. You can run your report through various services which will give you detailed information about genetic SNPs or variations and how food impacts your body. This is called nutrigenomics, which is the science of how food talks to your genes, sending messages of health or disease. This is all very fascinating, but I want people to understand this: Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. Everything that you do —what you eat, how much movement you get, community, purpose, stress management—is way more powerful than your genetic destiny. When you get genetic testing done, do not look at your results as the final word. Work with someone who can helpyou understand, interpret, and modify your lifestyle to support your genes.”
When it comes to eating healthier, Hyman recommends high-fiber produce like spinach, bok choy, and broccoli, whole grains and legumes, and protein like wild-caught salmon and pasture-raised eggs. “These foods balance our blood sugar, provide anti-inflammatory fats that support better cardiovascular and brain function, and support an overall stronger metabolism.”
Any parent will know that getting children to eat more vegetables isn’t easy. “If you have a hard time getting your kid to eat vegetables,” Hyman said, “start incorporating some leafy greens with fruit in smoothies or hiding cauliflower in their pasta sauce.
“Food is the nexus of most of our world’s health, economic, environmental, climate, social,and even political crises,” Hyman said. “When you make a choice to eat real, whole foods you’re not only voting for your own health and the health of your family, but you’re voting for healthier communities and a healthier planet.”