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Health Medicine Center

Health Medicine Center Article
Preventing Inflammation Through Diet
by Len Saputo, M.D.

Medical science has documented that the precursor for the epidemic of chronic diseases we are now facing is manifested by inflammation in our bodies. We also know that living a healthy lifestyle is the treatment of choice for inflammation. Incorporating most healthy lifestyle factors into our daily routine is not mysterious—we know what to do. We realize that to be healthy we need to eat a healthy diet, exercise, reduce stress, get enough sleep, maintain a healthy weight, treat occult infections such as periodontal disease, and avoid toxic exposures.

When it comes to eating a healthy diet matters aren’t always so straightforward. There are dozens of diets to pick from, and knowing which one is right for your particular needs is often confusing. There is little consistency from year to year, even among doctors and nutritionists, regarding which diet is best.

Nonetheless, there are certain basic fundamentals about the food we eat that most resources agree. There is agreement in general regarding what kinds of foods are healthiest, how they should be grown and processed, and that they be fresh and free of toxic chemicals. But, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to what each unique person should consume. Everyone is different. We have different genes, different lifestyles, different preferences for foods, different toxic exposures, and different health issues.

Fundamentals of Good Nutrition
Few people appreciate the widespread nature of the nutritional deficiencies existing in the standard American diet (SAD). Prior to migrating from the country to the city, around the turn of the last century, we consumed fresh, whole, unprocessed, unrefined, and chemical-free foods. However, after that time we were faced with new challenges because there was an incredible increase in population needing to be fed. It was no longer realistic to go out into the back yard and pick food from a plant, bush, or tree for the next meal.

New problems related to food storage led to establishing the SAD. We responded to this challenge by developing new, creative, sophisticated technologies for refining and processing our food. As this technology improved, we began creating foods that were so deficient in nutrients that many of them were no longer real food at all. Nonetheless they store well, taste good, and above all, consumers purchase them. They may fulfill the basics of the food pyramid and be good for our economy, but they are still not good for our health.

These unnatural foods are generally high in calories and low in nutrient density. This is part of the recipe for the epidemic of obesity and malnutrition we are experiencing as well as for the development of many chronic diseases. There have been at least two government studies completed on tens of thousands of Americans (the Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more commonly known as the HANES studies) that have assessed the nutritional quality of the SAD.

Both of these studies document the severe and widespread deficiencies in an alarming number of nutrients in our diet. The levels of many nutrients were far below the minimum RDA’s recommended by the USDA, which merely prevent nutritional deficiency diseases such as scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, and rickets. The only mineral measured that was taken in adequately by most people was sodium—the one mineral that we would do better if we consumed far less! Making this situation even worse, most experts in nutrition believe that the RDA’s are far below what is needed to maintain optimal health or what is needed when our demands go up because of illness and toxic exposure.

As an example, enriched white bread has 25 nutrients refined out during its production. Five nutrients are added back in. Somehow it is then called “enriched.” Refined sugar has had nearly all of its natural vitamins, minerals, and nutrients refined out. Foods with no nutritional value provide what are called “empty calories.” They are in reality “anti-nutrients” because they only contain calories. They provide none of the nutrients the body needs to process those foods as they are metabolized in its cells. Thus, they consume the body’s supply of minerals, vitamins, and nutrients in the process of energy production, which can eventually lead to malnutrition.

The SAD also has widespread and significant deficiencies in all the B vitamins, as well as vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, and minerals such as calcium, copper, zinc, magnesium, chromium, manganese, selenium, and many more. Ironically, in this era of “fat phobia,” we over-consume the toxic fats found in animal products and those produced artificially as trans fats, but are severely deficient in those fats that are essential for life, those called essential fatty acids (EFAs).

Our bodies cannot manufacture the EFAs found in certain fish, seeds, nuts, and plants. Flax seed oil is a good example of a food that is very rich in both omega 3 and 6 EFAs. It has been estimated that the SAD provides a mere 5% of our body’s needs for the omega 3 fats, but it provides an excess of omega 6 fats. Because the ratio of EFAs should be just the reverse, it is important for adults to consume rich sources of omega 3 fats. I recommend that adults consume two tablespoons of flax seed oil, six tablespoons of freshly ground flax seeds, or 1-2 grams of high quality fish oil every day. It is also important to know that EFAs must not be heated, so they should not be used in cooking. A simple way to use them is to store them in the refrigerator and put them in salads or on vegetables just prior to consumption.

It is impossible to be completely healthy if we are malnourished. It is critical that we take in all the raw materials needed to produce the energy we require to live our normal everyday lives. Without the proper building blocks, our cells simply cannot manufacture the hormones, enzymes, proteins, DNA, antibodies, neurotransmitters, or the myriad of additional nutrients we need to maintain good health and produce the energy we need to function optimally.

Which Diet is Right for You?
There are so many diets to choose from that it is often an overwhelming task for most people to determine which one is right for them. Most diets are designed to reducing weight. Healthy people do well on a balanced diet that includes fresh, whole, unprocessed, unrefined, organic foods. Eating locally grown foods from farmer’s markets may offer additional value according to some authorities. Vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, eggs, small amounts of fish and meats, and some dairy are good choices for a healthy diet.

Fast foods and packaged foods generally are not healthy. They usually have high levels of trans fats, sugars, and salt, and they often have too many calories. These are the substances that are most responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that we are now facing.

Two thirds of America is now overweight or obese, and is suffering from an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and complications of arteriosclerosis such as heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease. This segment of the population should be eating a diet that is low, not only in calories, but also low in carbohydrates, especially those that have the propensity to be rapidly converted into glucose in the body—foods with what is called a high glycemic index. Foods such as soft drinks, desserts, those made from white flour, and sugary breakfast cereals should be eliminated from the diet.

Every effort should be made to maintain a normal body weight, but it is also wise to live a lifestyle that will help reduce inflammation in the body. It is now common knowledge that chemical inflammation in our bodies is the precursor of the epidemic of chronic diseases we are now facing in this country. A good program to accomplish this includes 30-60 minutes of hard exercise every day, getting 8 hours a night of restful sleep, stress reduction, avoiding environmental toxins, maintaining a healthy weight, and clearing any occult infection such as periodontal disease.

The Impact of Environmental Toxins
It should be obvious that adding substances to our diet that can interfere with normal cellular metabolism is not a good idea. None of us would willingly add toxins to our diets, would we? If a dinner guest brought a can of RAID and began spraying it on everyone’s food, no one would eat it. However, if someone sprays our food before we purchase it, somehow that is acceptable.

Man is the only specie on the planet that has had the “wisdom” to poison its food, water, and air! We have polluted our planet with more than 100,000 synthetic chemicals that have never before existed, and many of them are outright poisonous. Heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead, and PCB’s, PVC’s, dioxins, fire retardants, MTBE, fluoride, and many more toxins are now ubiquitous and are causing major health problems worldwide.

There are many studies documenting the extent of our toxic exposures. One study completed about a year ago examined 9 people from a wide range of areas in the US. Fat biopsies were done to measure for approximately 200 toxic chemicals known to be in our environment. No one in the study had less that 80 of these chemicals, many of which are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and metabolic inhibitors that put us at risk for a wide range of diseases.

These toxic chemicals frequently interfere with an already stressed out metabolism. It often takes our bodies hundreds or thousands of years for evolution to provide the adaptive mechanisms necessary to render a toxin harmless. While most healthy people have the necessary metabolic capacity to compensate for some of these biochemical challenges, sick people very often do not.

It may not be possible to escape all of the toxicity that has poisoned our planet, but we can avoid some of it. We can consume organic foods, avoid living near particular locations such as oil refineries, staying away from toxic household chemicals, avoid exposure to heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic, and using purified water.

The Role of Supplements in Our Diet
The human body has tremendous reserves that protect against disease. If we practiced healthy lifestyle measures on a daily basis, in my opinion it is probably not necessary for most of us to use supplements at all. However, this is a controversial opinion that I’m sure many healthcare practitioners and supplement manufacturers would argue with.

There is a widespread belief that it is important to supplement with antioxidants because they counteract free radical damage to the body and protect against inflammation. While the premise is correct, supplements are not the only way to build antioxidant protection. The human body can “rev up” its antioxidant levels naturally through a good diet and regular exercise.

It is well known that exercise generates free radicals that cause inflammation. Over time, however, the body compensates for this endogenous production of free radicals by producing natural cellular antioxidants in just the right form and in the correct amount. However, when we supplement with regular high dosages of antioxidants, the body does not respond to the free radical stress produced by exercise because there is no need. We then become dependent on an exogenous supply of antioxidants, which if abruptly stopped for any reason, would leave us without natural protection.

Supplements will never be able to replace a healthy diet. Nature has a time-tested way of combining vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in just the right ratios and form—food—so our bodies can use what is in it efficiently and safely. Don’t forget, She’s had thousands of years to perfect foods that are perfect for the human body.

There are, however, times when our bodies decompensate because of illness. When this happens, a healthy diet and other lifestyle strategies may not be sufficient to restore good health. Few people would recommend supplements as the main type of treatment for a serious bacterial infection, fracture, or severe gastrointestinal bleeding. These are times when pharmaceutical drugs or even surgery may be required. However, even then, supplements have some value in supporting the return to good health.

There are also times when supplementation is a good idea as a preventive measure and as an adjunctive strategy for other therapies. The most common indication for supplements is for people who do not incorporate the principles of a healthy lifestyle into their everyday lives. It may then be wise to supplement with a multivitamin and mineral, antioxidants, and certain herbs until a better lifestyle regimen can be established.

In people with chronic diseases supplements are usually effective at building good health, and they have the added advantage of being safer than medicines or surgery. There has been an impressive awakening to the fact that every year there are hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of hospitalizations in the US that are caused by pharmaceutical drugs. Many physicians are turning to nutritional strategies before turning to drugs and/or surgeries. It is a good idea to get the advice of a qualified nutritionist prior to starting supplements on your own.

As a result, there is a powerful grass-roots-driven movement that is shifting our medical paradigm from a predominantly “disease care” model to a “health care” model. Nutritionally based medical care is growing at a tremendous pace, and it is only a matter of time before pharmaceutical drugs will become a backup system that will be used only after lifestyle strategies have failed. We are going back to the future in this regard. It was 2500 years ago when the father of medicine, Hippocrates, stated, “Let food be your medicine, and let medicine be your food.”

Lifestyle management is the medicine of the future. It is a wonderful recipe for maintaining good health, vitality, and longevity. There is an enormous research database documenting the value of basic lifestyle factors that include eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, getting eight hours of restful sleep every night, keeping stress to a minimum, maintaining a healthy weight, eliminating occult infections, avoiding toxic exposures, and having meaningful purpose in your life.

Under normal circumstances, these are some of the most important factors that determine whether or not our bodies will develop inflammation—the factor we’re all now reading about that is involved in causing the epidemic of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and so many other chronic diseases that we are now facing. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

About the Author
Len Saputo, MD is a graduate of Duke University Medical School and is board certified in Internal Medicine. He was in private practice in affiliation with John Muir Medical Center for more than 30 years. His approach to healing is based on an integrative style that includes mainstream medicine, complementary and alternative strategies, and lifestyle management to restore and maintain optimal health.

For more than a decade, Len has guided the development of an integrative, holistic model of healthcare that is focused on wellness and prevention and the importance of patient empowerment. In order to accomplish this mission, in 1995 Len founded the Health Medicine Forum, which he continues to direct. “The Forum” is a non-profit educational foundation that has sponsored more than 300 public and professional events, including monthly presentations, workshops, and conferences. In 2001 Len co-founded the Health Medicine Institute, an integrative medicine center in Lafayette, California, that is bringing the model of Health Medicine into clinical practice.

Len has hosted more than 450 radio shows and has appeared in dozens of television broadcasts. He and his wife, Vicki, host "Prescriptions For Health" every weekday morning on KEST radio at 1450 am. He has also made more than 50 presentations to hospitals, medical schools, universities, and community organizations. He has contributed dozens of articles and chapters on topics in integrative medicine and has edited six books on a wide range of healthcare topics.

Len has been a strong advocate of fitness all of his life. In 1995 and again in 2001 he won the World Senior Men’s Singles Tennis Championships and was formerly ranked number one in the world by the International Tennis Federation.


Health Medicine Center
1620 Riviera Ave
Walnut Creek, CA  94596

Tel: (925) 935-7500
FAX: (925) 935-7770