Food is the biggest cause of disease, which places a massive economic burden on families, societies, and nations. Disease is expensive: people with diabetes, on average, need $16,752 worth of health care each year, which explains why 1 in 4 of our healthcare dollars are spent on it.
You may think reversing disease is impossible, but it’s not. It’s something we see every day at The UltraWellness Center, my practice in Lenox, Massachusetts, and The Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, which I direct, by using the principles I’ve been talking about, especially real food.
Historically, death was caused by infections, poor sanitation, or what we call communicable disease. Now, over 70 percent of deaths worldwide are from what we call “non-communicable disease.” Conditions like heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and dementia. These are caused by our habits and lifestyle which are often determined by the world in which we live—full of bad food, stress, lack of physical activity, and smoking.
We often blame the victim for these diseases. No one blames someone for getting malaria or tuberculosis. But with chronic disease, we put the blame on individuals, on personal responsibility. It turns out it is our social environment—what Paul Farmer from Partners in Health, has called structural violence—the social, economic, and political conditions that drive disease. If you live in a world where our food system mainly produces disease-causing foods, where we live in a food carnival that makes it almost impossible to make the right choice, where our government supports the production and sale of these foods, where those foods are biologically addictive, then personal choice is a fiction.
The science is clear on this, non-communicable diseases, it turns out, are very communicable. You are more likely to be overweight if your friends are overweight than if your family is overweight.,  Your zip code is a bigger determinant of your health and risk of being overweight or diabetic than your genetic code. Depending on your neighborhood, your life expectancy may be 20 to 30 years shorter than folks from another county, city, or state. Simply moving an overweight diabetic from a low socioeconomic neighborhood to a slightly better one leads to weight loss and improvement in diabetes without any other intervention.
Your social environment, a lack of access to healthy food, your level of education, and even the safety of your neighborhood determine your health outcomes. The biggest factor by far in chronic “non-communicable disease” is our industrial diet—one high in processed sugar, starch, refined fat, and low in whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. Food is also the solution. Not just for prevention, but for reversal of even long-standing and difficult to treat chronic diseases. And it works fast. Not in years but in weeks or months. Sometimes even in days.
Janice, a patient at Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, provides a clear example of how this is possible at scale. She joined one of our group programs and with the support of her peers and our staff she did the impossible. Only it’s not impossible because it happens every day when food is used as medicine.
Unfortunately for Janice, she lived in the environment that surrounds us all —a toxic nutritional landscape or food swamp, compounded by confusing science, media headlines, food industry marketing and government regulations and policies that make the right choice the hard choice and the wrong choice the easy choice.
Janice was weighed down by her health. In fact, at 66 years old she was severely obese suffering from heart failure, type 2 diabetes (on insulin for ten years), and suffering from coronary artery disease and blocked arteries. Janice was dancing with death. She also had early kidney failure from diabetes, fatty liver, very abnormal cholesterol, kidney stones, low thyroid function, emphysema, high blood pressure and was taking a boatload of medication including insulin injections, blood thinners, cholesterol meds, blood pressure medication, diuretics and more to “manage” her illnesses. She saw multiple specialists to care for her complex medical problems. She was on a low-calorie, low-sodium, diabetic diet and her blood sugar and weight were going in the wrong direction.
Janice had already had two stents put in her heart for blocked arteries and was headed toward dialysis. At her worst, she weighed 254 pounds with a BMI or body mass index of 43.6 (normal is < 25 and obese is > 30). She got this way by eating an inflammatory diet, high in refined foods, sugar, and starch, and low in fiber and whole foods.
She decided to join our Functioning for Life program, a 10-week group medical visit program supported by doctors, nutritionists, health coaches, and behavioral therapists. The fundamental premise of Functional Medicine is to address the root causes of disease. In her case, for almost all her problems it was eating too much of the wrong foods, and not enough of the right foods.
At her first visit, her blood sugars were out of control averaging almost 300 (normal is less than 80 and 120 is considered diabetes). Her hemoglobin A1C (a measure of the average last 6 weeks of blood sugar) was 11 (normal is less than 5.7). Her kidneys were failing, her blood pressure was high even on medications. Her cholesterol was severely abnormal at over 350 (normal < 180) and her triglycerides were 306 (normal < 70). She had severe omega-3 fatty acid deficiency which can contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Her ratio of omega-6 fats (from refined processed food) to omega-3 fats was 15. Optimal is less than 4. And she was severely vitamin D deficient.
In the first 3 days of changing to an anti-inflammatory, whole foods, low-sugar, and low-starch diet, higher in good fats and whole foods, she got off her insulin and her blood sugar normalized. She was still very overweight but her blood sugar went to normal in 3 days! In 3 months, she lost 43 pounds and got off all her medication and normalized her blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and reversed her congestive heart failure (which never happens in traditional medicine); her fatty liver went away and her kidney function normalized.
In 1 year she lost 116 pounds and went from 254 pounds to 138 pounds. She went from feeling fatigue, joint pain, brain fog, and unable to function most days to a thriving member of her family and community.
Her blood sugar, kidneys, and cholesterol are all normal and now she is not on any medication. Her diabetes is gone. Her blood sugar is in the 80s and her hemoglobin A1c is 5.5—totally normal. Her BMI went from 43 to 23! It was like a gastric bypass without the pain of surgery, vomiting, and malnutrition, and with the pleasure of eating delicious whole foods. She is thriving as a great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother! She was retired and disabled and now is going back to work traveling around the world teaching, doing archeological exploration, and more.
Janice saved $15,000 to $20,000 a year in medication costs, especially from the insulin. And that is just one person. Imagine scaling that to the 30 million diabetics in the US. That’s a savings of $450 billion a year. She said to me “I felt I was done and now I feel like I am beginning again!”
It is not a miracle. It is just good science. It is the science of using food as medicine. And this is possible when people switch from the ultra-processed industrial diet that is killing them to real, whole foods.
 Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. N Engl J Med. 2007 Jul 26;357(4):370-9.
 Powell K, et. al. The role of social networks in the development of overweight and obesity among adults: a scoping review. BMC Public Health. 2015 Sep 30;15:996.
 Graham GN. Why your zip code matters more than your genetic code: Promoting healthy outcomes from mother to child. Breastfeed Med. 2016 Oct;11:396-7.
 Ludwig J, et. al. Neighborhoods, obesity, and diabetes–a randomized social experiment. N Engl J Med. 2011 Oct 20;365(16):1509-19.