171: The “best kept secret in environmental leadership”

April 20, 2019 by Joshua
in Podcast

I love watching Dr. Michael Gregor’s videos on nutrition.

A common theme of his videos is how medical school barely teach doctors nutrition and exercise despite how important they are for health. He shows how industrial food companies promote profit over healthy diets and expensive, risky medicine over avoiding foods and sedentary lifestyles that cause the problems they purport to solve. He provide his videos for free to make available what saved his grandmother’s life: healthy food.

Dr. Michael Greger from Nutritionfacts.org

I see diseases from eating junk and living inactively like headaches from hitting your head against a wall. You can take medicine to decrease the pain, but stopping hitting your head against the wall will work better, cost less, and result in no side effects.

Likewise, you can take medicine to fix the problems from a standard American diet, but you might as well switch to vegetables, fruit, legumes, and other foods that don’t sicken you. They taste better and cost less when you learn how to shop for them.

Actually, changing to fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, etc in my experience worked better because besides the health and cost benefits, it’s delicious, which not hitting your head against a wall doesn’t match.

He’s posted hundreds of videos worth reposting, but I’m choosing today’s because it’s relevant to environmental leadership.

He published the transcript, which I’m going to read from and comment on to show its relevance to environmental leadership. I believe what he calls the best kept secret in medicine can guide us to the most valuable lesson for environmental stewardship and clean air, land, and water.

I recommend watching the video if you haven’t already.


Dr. Gregor starts:

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 add:

The same follows for environmental leadership. Everyone knows that lifestyle change to pollute less is the most effective way to protect the environment, but few environmental leaders do. On the contrary, they tell others to but they don’t 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 longstanding communities, I would say that while challenging, the coal miners have to accept that times are changing, that their field pollutes, and they have to change. However it affects their job, their family, and their community, they have to change.

But then when I asked myself about, say, reducing 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, etc.

That is, when I thought about others changing, those others have to accept the change personally for the good of the species. When I thought about myself changing, the exceptions I didn’t accept from others, I thought the world had to accept from me.

In other words, I was very slippery on applying difficult standards on 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 is 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 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 hurdle, and learning to avoid nearly all packaged food. Now it’s easier, cheaper, more convenient, more social, and better in every way I care about, as I’ve mentioned here many times, though I don’t hold to zero packaging, as evidenced by my having 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 denial is 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 all over the world themselves. While a small part of me asked, “should they do that, aren’t they violating their own recommendations?” a greater part 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 the feeling twisted remained.

Now back to Dr. Greger. His video shows evidence that doctors who advised lifestyle change while showing 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.

See the connection? Scientists or would-be leaders who suggest change that they don’t do don’t effectively lead. I’m glad 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 the next step in people living by their environmental values will come from leaders who also live by them.

I’ll read the rest of Dr. Greger’s script. Try to translate mentally from tobacco to pollution, from smoking to flying, eating meat, using unnecessary plastic, and so on, 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 they consider following. If I say one thing, do another, and tell others to do 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 I can act with integrity in general when I feel twisted inside from acting against my values.

The good news to all this is the discovery of how much better I found my life when I acted by my values. Beyond the twisted feeling being replaced by enthusiasm, community, self-awareness, and so on, I find more happiness, fun, and so on.

Quoting Dr. Greger, in what applies to environmental leadership:

“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 rate 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 fresh 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 were more likely to make dietary changes when their doctors advised them to.  And it may work even better if 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. And 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 place 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 motivating when they do so.

It may make them better doctors. A randomized controlled 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. Healthcare 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.”

I hope anyone considering leading, whether in the area of the environment or anywhere, gets the hint, that you’ll enjoy life more and lead more effectively if you act in accordance with your values. If you value clean air, clean land, and clean water, you’ll enjoy polluting less.

Here’s Dr. Greger’s video again:

Read the transcript.

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