According to the most rigorous analysis of risk factors ever published, The Global Burden of Disease Study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the number one cause of disability is America is now our diet, bumping cigarette smoking to number two.1
Since the Standard American Diet contains large amounts of energy dense, processed and highly refined foods, most Americans are at risk for cardiometabolic disease, diabetes and obesity when coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. In fact 36.5% of Americans are now obese and 25% of people over 65 are diabetic. For the first time since 1993, the average American life expectancy declined due to the rising incidence of chronic disease.2,3
So what can we do? Well the age old answer is “diet and exercise”. But which one is more protective? Well a 2007 study conducted by the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Sciences and Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine went looking to see just how much exercise and diet may play in our cardiovascular health. The study compared 21 sedentary (less than 1 hour a week of exercise) subjects who had been on a low calorie low protein raw vegan diet for an average of 4.4 years, to 21 BMI matched endurance runners who ran an average of 48 miles per week for 21 years who consumed the standard American diet.
They were looking for predictors of cardiovascular health and one parameter they measured was the carotid artery intima media thickness, which is a test that uses ultrasound to measure the thickness of your carotid artery to determine how much plaque has built up as a predictor of risk factors for heart disease.
What they found was the carotid artery intima thickness was lower in the sedentary low calorie low protein vegans compared to the endurance marathon runners!
Looking at the graph above, the left side represents the vegan carotid artery thickness in millimeters, the middle is the marathon runners, and the right were sedentary people on the Standard American Diet. So clearly the marathon runners had gotten some protection from running since the thickness was lower than the control group (the group on the right), but the vegans still won. Ideally we could incorporate a more plant based diet and moderate amounts of exercise, and not have to run 40 miles a week to combat our poor dietary choices.
It’s an inescapable fact that what we eat is the number one predictor of how long we live and that’s great news because it means we have tremendous control of our health destiny. It is imperative that we learn how to build healthy lifestyles that can be maintained long term and still incorporates foods that we can enjoy, but also nourish and fuel our bodies.
The state of US health, 1990-2010: burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors. JAMA. 2013 Aug 14;310(6):591-608. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.13805.
National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2017 https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf
Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2011–2014.Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D.; Margaret D. Carroll, M.S.P.H.; Cheryl D. Fryar, M.S.P.H.; and Katherine M. Flegal, Ph.D. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
L. Fontana, T. E. Meyer, S. Klein, J. O. Holloszy. Long-term low-calorie low-protein vegan diet and endurance exercise are associated with low cardiometabolic risk. Rejuvenation Res. 2007 10(2):225 - 234.