An interview with Dr. Michael Greger
Dr. Michael Greger is a huge hero of mine. His website, Nutrition Facts.org is my go-to site for nutrition information, covering topics from acai berries to zoonotic diseases, and everything in between– including death! I had the privilege of seeing him last year during a lecture sponsored by the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii, and was seriously thrilled when he was invited back for another lecture this last week. I got the chance to sit down with Dr. Greger before his final lecture, and despite being tired from a slew of lectures across the country, he was as upbeat and positive about his research as ever. Vibrant Wellness Journal (VWJ): Dr. Greger, how long have you been practicing medicine?
Dr. Michael Greger (MG): I’ve been practicing since 1999. I worked formally as a general practitioner in Boston, but primarily I work as a writer and medical researcher.
VWJ: You are famous for promoting a plant-based, vegan diet both in your lectures and on your website. When and how did you make the switch in your own life, and how has that made a difference in your research and practice?
MG: I’ve been promoting a plant-based diet for over 20 years. The first time I made the connection was when I saw my grandmother recover from severe heart disease with the Pritikin diet plan. She was admitted to the Pritikin center in a wheelchair and a very short life expectancy, and she walked out two weeks later and lived another 31 years– thanks to the help of simple dietary and lifestyle changes! This was important anecdotally, but the other turning point for me was as an undergrad. I read Dr. Dean Ornish’s study in the British medial journal, The Lancet, and was blown away. This groundbreaking work proved that our number one killer (heart disease) could be cured with a plant-based diet. His results showed an 82% success rate; this was a game changer for the medical community because at the time this topic not been written about in such a verifiable, detailed study. This was an overwhelming burden of proof that a plant-based diet was basically a miracle cure.
VWJ: So after learning about the connections between plant-based diets and long-term health, you started lecturing to spread the word. How long have you been speaking about plant-based diet?
MG: In 2001 I started traveling and gave about forty talks each month to rotary groups, community groups, medical schools and more. I basically lived out of my car, but living on the road is a pretty tough life, so I created my DVD series, The Latest in Clinical Nutrition. Our most recent is Volume 13, released in April 2013. Each DVD collects the latest nutrition information synthesized from medial journals and industry research. Topics in the most recent video range from eating healthy on a budget, to the safety of nutmeg and tarragon, to boosting immunity and reducing inflammation. Each DVD is different and cover a wide range of topics. [See the list of Dr. Greger’s DVDs here and consider purchasing one to share with your loved ones!]
VWJ: How do most audiences receive your message?
MG: Different audiences react differently, of course. The audience tonight [at the event sponsored by the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii] is an easy audience– most people are on board with this topic already. But I really like the challenge of lecturing to medical students and doctors as part of their continuing medical education (CME). Usually it’s drug companies offering the CME lectures, and because my lectures are so different, sometimes an audience of doctors can be a bit antagonistic– which is part of the fun. I think that doctors offer a unique challenge as a lecturer. My stance is that regardless of my opinion about a specific topic, I can present the science behind a topic and present an unbiased, very scientific argument, which doctors might find easier to understand and utilize.
VWJ: What do you think it’s going to take for the majority of people to turn to plants for healing?
MG: In the past few years there has been an unbelievable shift in consciousness, and I think we are on our way to a tipping point. Healthier eating is definitely becoming more popular– there are even vegan cafés at airports now! A few years ago that was not even a remote possibility. There has been a lot in the mainstream news about plant-based eating that is demonstrating that it can be effective for everyone. Our former president [Bill Clinton] has made remarkable health changes by eating a plant-based diet, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s video, The Last Heart Attack, shows that we can dramatically reduce suffering and increase the quality of life without medicine or pills. For some it’s hard to think about making these fundamental changes, but for many their option is getting their chest cracked open during a surgery. How is this easier?!
One of my favorite stories that helps demonstrate this mainstream acceptance of healthier eating is from a small city in Texas. Marshall, TX is classic rural America. The mayor and his wife were facing health challenges, and switched their eating habits. Eventually the Fire Chief and other city officials got on board, and it transformed the health of the city. Many residents are off their medications and are infinitely healthier than before. This type of change is not motivated by concern for animals or the environment– this is about individual health and longevity. This example makes you feel that if it can happen in this town, it can happen anywhere.
VWJ: How can you gently encourage people to integrate healthier changes into their life?
MG: Rather than convince people to change their entire life, encourage them to try things as an experiment. Rather than saying ‘you can’t ever have pizza again,’ encourage them to just add new vegetables or try some changes for a short term. The good thing is that once they integrate healthy changes they may not want to go back to their own way of eating! And even with short-term changes, remarkable results can be seen: decrease in pain, asthma, migraines and more can be changed in very short time periods. The Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has tried to do research about how effective a plant-based diet can be by getting participants to switch to vegan diets and then back to their old diets– but some participants refused to complete the study because they felt so GOOD on their new diets they didn’t want to go back!
People have control over their own health, and whether they choose to improve their health with each meal or stab themselves with a fork three times a day, it’s their choice. Once we recognize that, we have all the power we need to live healthier lives.
VWJ: What are the next steps for you? How will you continue to spread the message? Can we look forward to a film, akin to Forks over Knives?
MG: I really want to take this message nationally. Thought my site has received a lot of exposure, I think people can really benefit from seeing this in more mainstream outlets. Later this month I’m going to be on the Dr. Oz show– there are so many people that can benefit from hearing this message, and I want to share it with so many more people.
VWJ: What do you hope that people will take away from this lecture and the other lectures you conduct?
MG: I want people to realize the power of diet, and all that power is in your hands. This is not like prescription drugs– where you need one drug for your heart, another for your diabetes, and another for your pain (all with potentially dangerous side effects). This diet will help across the board! A healthy lifestyle and plant-based diet is not like drugs– it’s literally one diet to rule them all!
Even if a plant-based diet only helped with our number one killer (heart disease), it should still be the default diet for all humans, but the fact that it also can help reverse diabetes, certain cancers, kidney and liver problems, and decrease pain is just further, overwhelming proof that it’s the best thing to do for our bodies and it helps us recognize the body’s innate ability to heal itself. Doctors need to know this too, because it’s up to us to ensure our patients have informed consent. If people don’t know that healthy eating is a solution to their health problems, and if doctors don’t tell him, they will be stuck on this pharmaceutical cycle. But I am hopeful– I want to teach people that they have control over their destiny.
Thanks so much Dr. Greger for this fantastic interview… VWJ is looking forward to seeing you on Dr. Oz and seeing you again next year hopefully! aloha, adb