171: The “best kept secret in environmental leadership” (transcript)

April 20, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek

I love watching Dr. Michael Greger’s videos on nutrition available at nutritionfacts.org. A common theme of his videos is to show how medical schools barely teach doctors nutrition and exercise despite nutrition and exercise composing major parts of our health. He points out how industrial food companies promote profitable but unhealthy diets and expensive medicine that is often less effective than not eating foods and living sedentary lives that cause the problems that the medicines purport to solve. And they cost less and have healthy side effects that is nutrition and exercise. His personal inspiration to provide all his videos for free emerged from a relative nearly dying that is his grandmother until she learned to stop eating the diet and living the lifestyle that caused her sickness.

I see eating unhealthily and living inactivity like hitting your head against a wall. You can take medicine to decrease the pain of the resulting headache but stopping hitting your head against the wall will work better and cost less and results in no side effects. I see eating unhealthily and living inactively like hitting your head against the wall and getting a headache. You can take medicine to decrease the pain but stopping hitting your head against the wall will work better. It will cost less and result in no side effects. Likewise, if you’re eating food that causes a disease, you can take medicine or you can stop eating the foods that cause the disease. In my case actually changing to fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains and such in my experience it works better than just stopping eating unhealthy stuff because besides the health and cost benefits it’s delicious which not hitting your head against the wall doesn’t quite match. Beyond delicious eating this way I built community, deep in friendships and I get ripped abs despite eating more delicious foods to more sense of fulfillment.

I could post at least half of Dr. Greger’s videos here since the diet his research leads him to recommend also pollutes less than what most people eat. But I’m choosing today’s post because it’s relevant to environmental leadership. He also published a transcript which I’m going to read from to show its relevance to environmental leadership. I believe that what he calls the best kept secret in medicine can guide us to the most valuable lesson for environmental stewardship and leadership and clean air, clean land and clean water. I recommend watching the video if you haven’t already. I won’t mind if you pause this audio right now and watch that video.

In any case, Dr. Greger starts, and I am going to punctuate his quote before and after with that whooshing noise so until the second whoosh, it’s him speaking.

“Even though the most widely accepted, well-established chronic disease practice guidelines uniformly call for lifestyle change as the first line of therapy physicians often do not follow these guidelines. Yet lifestyle interventions are often more effective in reducing heart disease, hypertension, heart failure, stroke, cancer, diabetes and deaths from all causes than almost any other medical intervention.”

I’ll add to that the same follows for environmental leadership. Everyone knows that lifestyle change to pollute less is the most effective way to protect environment. But few environmental leaders do. On the contrary, they tell others but don’t do it themselves. Case in point, when I thought about say coal miners in Kentucky when I thought about them losing their jobs which would undermine their long standing communities and possibly tear their families apart I would say that while challenging the coal miners have to accept that times are changing, that their field pollutes and that they have to change however it affects their jobs, their family and their communities they have to change. But when I asked myself about say reducing my flying I would think, “Sorry. I can’t change. My job requires it or my family requires it.” Same with eating less polluting foods, reducing plastic and so on. That is when I thought about others changing I would think those others have to accept the change personally for the good of the species. But when I thought about myself changing the exceptions I didn’t accept from them I thought the world had to accept from me. In other words, I was very slippery on applying difficult standards that I applied to others to myself.

I don’t know you but if you’ve flown or used unnecessary plastic recently, you’re probably equally slippery. You probably hide it from yourself as I did which we call denial. Denial feels easier than changing your lifestyle but it also twisted me up inside since part of me knew I was lying to myself which was all the more twisted for someone like me pursuing and teaching leadership. I look for reasons to justify not changing, not looking beyond the here and now. Yesterday I may have thought, “I’m going to avoid packaged food for a week but today my friends just opened a bag of chips. What’s one chip or two? Besides, they opened it. Not me.” That’s how I felt for a long time before just committing to the practice, overcoming the hurdles and learning to avoid nearly all packaged food. Now it’s easier, cheaper and more convenient, more social and better in every way that I care about as I mentioned here many times though I don’t hold to zero packaging forever and this is evidenced by that I have to empty my garbage after 16 months. A lot of that garbage was food packaging.

Anyway, back to denial. I found an easy way to handle that twisted feeling inside from living in denial was to find someone I looked up to who did what I felt was wrong. For example, even if I knew flying polluted more than scientists said was acceptable I saw those scientists flying over the world themselves. While a small part of me asked, “Should they do that? Aren’t they violating their own recommendations? Just because they do it should I do it?” A much greater part of me said, “If they can fly, so can I.” And I could quiet the feelings of being twisted up inside acting against my values. I was still acting against my values so that twisted feeling inside still remained.

Now back to Dr. Greger. His video shows evidence that doctors who advised lifestyle change while showing that they didn’t change themselves, for example, clearly showing they smoked while advising patients not to smoke were less effective than those who showed they exercised. Those who showed they exercised were much more effective in influencing their patients. See the connection? Scientists or would-be-leaders who suggest change that they don’t do don’t effectively lead. So I’m glad that Al Gore got us as far as he did. But just like surgeon generals who smoke and promote cigarettes won’t lead people to stop smoking. I believe that the next step in people living by their environmental values has to come from leaders who also live by them all the time. So I’ll read the rest of Dr. Greger’s script. Try to translate mentally from tobacco to pollution, from smoking to flying or eating meat or using unnecessary plastic and so on and from exercise to wasting less and enjoying living with less waste. If I want to lead, a lot of people consider integrity important in people considering following. If I say one thing, do another and tell others to do yet a third, people aren’t going to follow me. Integrity by definition isn’t something I can have in one part of my life but not others. I’m only fooling myself if I think that I can act with integrity in general when I feel twisted inside from acting against my values in some specific case. The good news to all this is the discovery of how much better I find my life every time I act by my values. Yes, there’s a transition period but beyond the twisted feeling being replaced by enthusiasm, community, self-awareness and so on I find more happiness, more fun and so on.

So quoting Dr. Greger again in what applies to environmental leadership and quoting him for everything from the first whoosh sound to the second whoosh sound there’s going to be Dr. Greger:

“Some useful lessons come from the war on tobacco, Dr. Neal Barnard wrote in The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics. When he stopped smoking in the 80s the lung cancer death was peaking in the U.S. but has since dropped with dropping smoking rates. No longer were doctors telling patients to give their throat a vacation by smoking a cigarette. Doctors realized they were more effective at counseling patients to quit smoking if they no longer had tobacco stains on their own fingers. In other words, doctors went from being bystanders or even enablers to leading the fight against smoking. And today he says plant based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking. If we were to gather the world’s top unbiased nutrition scientists and experts, there would be very little debate about the essential properties of good nutrition. Unfortunately, most doctors are nutritionally illiterate and worse they don’t know how to use the most powerful medicine available to them – food. Physician advice matters. When doctors told patients to improve their diets which was defined as cutting down on meat, dairy and fried foods patients are more likely to make dietary changes when their doctors advise them to. And it may work even better if the doctors practice what they preach. Researchers at Emory randomized patients to watch one of two videos. In one video a physician briefly explained her personal health dietary and exercise practices and had a bike helmet and an apple visible on her desk. In the other, she did not discuss her personal practices and the apple and bike helmet were missing. For example, in both videos the doctor advised the patients to cut down on meat, to not usually have meat for breakfast and have no meat for lunch or dinner at least half the time as a simple practice to start improving their diets. But in the disclosure video the physician related that she had successfully cut down on meat herself and perhaps not surprisingly patients rated that physician to be more believable and motivating. So physicians who walk the walk literally and have healthier eating habits may not only tend to counsel more about diet and exercise but also appear more credible and more motivating when they do so. It may make them better doctors. A randomized control interventional trial to clean up doctors’ diets called promoting health by self-experience found that healthcare providers’ personal lifestyles were directly correlated with their clinical performance. Health care providers own improved well-being and lifestyle cascaded to the patients and clinics suggesting an additional strategy to achieve successful health promotion.

Are you ready for the best kept secret in medicine? The best kept secret in medicine is that given the right conditions the body heals itself. Treating cardiovascular disease for example with appropriate dietary changes is good medicine reducing mortality without any adverse effects. Yes, we should keep doing research but educating physicians and patients alike about the existing knowledge about the power of nutrition as medicine may be the best investment we can make.”

That was Dr. Greger for a while and back to me now. I hope anyone considering leading weather in the area of the environment or anywhere gets the hint that you will enjoy life more and lead more effectively if you act according with your values. If you don’t, you’re undermining your ability to lead and probably living a more miserable life yourself. That’s what the evidence shows in the case of medicine. I have to imagine that it’s very similar in other areas as well. If you value clean air, clean land and clean water, you’ll enjoy polluting less.

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