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Nutrition Column

Lifestyle modification over surgical or pharmacological intervention

There is no doubt that medicine has vastly improved since the early 1900s. Technological advancements allow physicians to perform complex life-saving procedures that were not possible 100 years ago. However, there is a darker side to twenty-first century medicine. Patients and physicians have become too quick to take medications and undergo invasive procedures that are aimed at alleviating the symptoms of the disease rather than curing the disease itself. Drugs and surgery are not the answers to solving the chronic disease epidemics that plague our societies. Patients need to take responsibility for their health and make lifestyle modifications to improve their well-being.

Dr. Dean Ornish has been conducting research on reversing chronic diseases with comprehensive lifestyle changes for the last 25 years. His 1998 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology was aimed to determine whether lifestyle changes could work as a lower-cost alternative to invasive surgical procedures without increasing cardiac events.

The patients who underwent lifestyle changes decreased their LDL- and total-cholesterol levels, triglycerides levels, body weight, percent body fat, while increasing their HDL-cholesterol and exercise capacities. Most importantly, after the one year lifestyle change program, 65% of the patients reported no chest pain. This result is comparable with what can be achieved with bypass and angioplasty procedures but the cost is significantly lower and there is no risk of morbidity and mortality. Other researchers, including McDougall and Esselstyn, have found similar benefits from diet and lifestyle modification further documenting the benefits of dietary changes in disease regression and prevention.

Bypass surgeries and angioplasties are not curing the underlying cause of heart disease. Instead of offering a quick fix that provides temporary relief from symptoms, physicians should be advocating lifestyle changes that patients can take with them for the rest of their lives. In the words of Dean Ornish I dont understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it is medically conservative to cut people open. While surgery and drugs treats symptoms leaving the disease to slowly return, lifestyle changes and dietary modification treats the symptoms as well as cures the illness.

Written by Ryan Serrano with Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D. Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA.