“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”
- Thomas Edison
Over the past year or two, I have taken a keen interest in nutrition, the food industry and global food issues. I’ve watched several excellent documentaries recently, which outline some of these issues very well. Forks over Knives, created by Brian Wendel and directed by Lee Fulkerson, highlights several medical studies performed over decades in China, the United States and other parts of Europe and Asia to explore the linkages between health and diet, specifically the notion that eating a whole-food plant-based diet can prevent or reverse the degenerative diseases that afflict us. The film is centered around the work of Doctors Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., two renowned American doctors conducting scientific and clinical studies on nutrition.
As this is an American documentary, most of the statistics about population health and food consumption is from American data, however, the insights regarding diet composition are certainly universal.
There have been stark changes to the average American diet over the past hundred years. The chart below outlines some of these primary changes – a significant increase in meat, dairy and processed sugar consumed.
Some of the correlations between this change in dietary consumption and health problems include:
- Prostate cancer – now the number 1 type of cancer in males
- Widespread obesity – some estimates as high as 40% of the population
- Prescription drug use – the documentary suggests 50% of the population relies on regular use of prescription drugs
- Diabetes – type 2 diabetes has become so common that 1 in 3 people born will develop this disease
Prostate cancer is one of the major health risks that the film focuses on. The comparison between instances of prostate cancer in the United States compared to Japan in 1958 shows drastic results. This time period is significant because the popularity of fast food restaurants and supermarkets, bringing huge quantities of processed foods into American homes, exploded during the 50’s. In 1958 there were approximately 14,000 prostate cancer-related deaths in the US, compared to only 18 in Japan (the Japanese population of 92M people was about half of the US population at the time).
In my opinion, the most impressive study cited in this film is The China Study, a 20-year study covering 65 rural and semi-rural counties in China, involving 6,500 people and 367 variables. A total of over 94,000 correlations were identified, many of which linked plant-based diets with low instances of cancer and heart disease.
A Burger with a side of Insulin
Like any good pro-veggie documentary, this film would not be complete without a first hand view on the vast health improvements made over several months by some average omnivorous civilians switching to a whole-food plant-based diet. Two of the patients included in this documentary were overweight, at-risk of heart disease, and suffered from type 2 diabetes – both were consuming a daily smorgasbord of insulin and other prescription drugs to keep them alive. Working with doctors using a holistic nutrition approach to health care, both of these individuals reversed their risk of heart attack, stopped taking prescription drugs altogether, and achieved a healthy body weight loss.
Economic Stimulus and the End of Hunger
The healthcare industry makes up a massive amount of global economic expenditures. In the US, Canada and the UK, the combined annual healthcare spending in 2012 was estimated to be nearly $3.2 trillion US. I chose these markets as the US has the highest per capita spending on healthcare in the world, and I am a citizen of both Canada and the UK. This amount of annual healthcare spending in three countries is higher than the market cap of the 10 largest companies in the world. I make this comparison to highlight the possibilities that significant savings in healthcare could have in stimulating global economies. The doctors in this film suggest that healthcare savings of 70-80% could be realized if the population moved to a whole-foods plant-based diet. While this is a lofty claim, I have outlined what healthcare savings of 75%, 50% and 25% could mean for stimulus in other areas of the economy, such as clean tech.
Comparison of Annual Healthcare Spending to Top 10 Global Companies by Market Capitalization
As you can see, achieving even 25% savings on annual healthcare costs, a figure that could reasonably be achieved through a holistic approach to diet and nutrition, would result in hundreds of billions of dollars of excess capital - enough to purchase 100% of the shares of Apple and Exon Mobil at market values. Think of the possibilities of this kind of capital injection into emerging industries like renewable energy and its supporting infrastructure, sustainable transportation, fresh water conservation and desalination. This money could be used to feed people around the world in the poorest regions, or wipe the slate clean for government deficits.
Would it be possible for Canada, the US or the UK (or any other developed nation for that matter) to move in this direction? Could the federal bodies responsible for food and agriculture promote a whole-foods plant-based diet? I believe this solution has real merits and should be lauded for its focus on the long bottom line. What do you think?