The Foods That Help Prevent and Beat Disease
The Foods That Help Prevent and Beat Disease
In his new book, Eat to Beat Disease, physician and researcher William Li explains the body’s five defense systems that are continuously working to prevent disease. But then he goes further: Li gives us the healing foods that can support all of these systems.
Each system—angiogenesis, regeneration, the microbiome, DNA protection, immunity—plays a different role in our body and physiology. Together, Li says, these systems work synergistically throughout our lives to protect our health. By incorporating specific foods into our diets, Li believes we can intercept diseases—even diseases like cancer—before they begin.
A Q&A with William Li, MD
When we think about what our goal is with eating, it’s to keep us healthy. And when we think about health, we often think that it is the absence of disease. But it’s much more. Our health results from our body’s natural defenses, which protect us from the ravages of aging and our environment. The five health defense systems are:
Angiogenesis: This is our body’s ability to grow blood vessels. We have 60,000 miles of blood vessels inside our body. These blood vessels—our circulation—bring oxygen and nutrients to every single cell in our body and work to protect our health in powerful ways. We need to feed our healthy cells and also prevent disease from getting access to our blood supply. And certain foods can activate our angiogenesis defense.
Regeneration: This is based on our stem cells, or our regenerative system. When we were kids, we were taught that starfish and salamanders can regenerate but that people can’t. Yet the science now shows us that our bodies do regenerate. We regenerate from the inside out, using our stem cells.
The Microbiome: The food we eat feeds not only our own cells but our bacteria, as well. We have around 39 trillion bacteria inside our body that coexist with our cells as part of our ecosystem of health. Our microbiome helps control our immune system, speed up wound healing, and even influences our social hormone, oxytocin. When our microbiome is disturbed, we not only have gut problems, but we can also have immune problems. And some cancers are even associated with gut problems.
DNA Protection: People often think of DNA as our genetic blueprint, but it is much more than that. DNA is designed to rebuild and to protect us against harmful environmental stressors. From ultraviolet light to secondhand smoke, there are many ways we are exposed to harmful environmental factors that can damage our DNA. Our DNA can both neutralize this damage and fix itself. I imagine it like a road that could repave itself when potholes form. There are foods that can help our DNA do that.
Immunity: While most of us know that we need a healthy immune system to protect us against infections, recent advances in cancer research have shown that our immune system is so powerful that it can protect against cancer. In my book, I write about the foods that can help boost our immune system.
All of these health defense systems work hard throughout our lives to maintain our health, both on their own and in concert with one another. For example, when blood vessels grow to feed our healthy cells, in order to grow those blood vessels, our stem cells need to be able to help push the process along, to regenerate our blood vessels. Our microbiome can help to speed that process along, and our immune system is also connected to our blood vessel system, which protects us against infections and even cancer by regulating our blood supply. This is just one example of how these systems work with one another.
Each of the systems has its own function, too, and plays its own role, but they also all work in sync with one another in order to maintain proper health or homeostasis in the body. Balance is the golden rule for health.
Different industries are constantly trying to develop sophisticated medical treatments to boost these defense systems, but Mother Nature has already provided us with solutions that we can put into action every day. By eating certain foods, we can activate each health defense system.
Almost everyone has been touched by cancer in some way. We’ve come to look at a disease like cancer as something that we all fear and hope that we never have to contend with. Through scientific advances, we now know that cancer in fact develops in all of our bodies, all of the time.
We have around 30 trillion cells in our body, which are constantly dividing and multiplying in order for us to stay alive. Yet all it takes is for one or two mistakes to happen in those 30 trillion cells and we begin to form microscopic cancer cells. Those microscopic cancers that we form all the time in our body are harmless because of our health defense systems, and they cannot cause disease on their own. Our angiogenesis defenses prevent blood vessels from growing into and feeding the cancers, so they cannot grow or spread. Then our immune system spots them and eliminates them before they can become dangerous. This is happening all of the time in our bodies.
We know this because there have been autopsy studies that examined women who died of trauma—like a car accident—and had never been diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet, they found that 40 percent of the women between the ages of forty and fifty had microscopic cancers in their breasts. But for most of those women, it would have never become dangerous because of angiogenesis and the defense system that prevents the cancerous cells from getting blood supply.
A study found that 50 percent of men between the ages of fifty and sixty already have microscopic prostate cancers. Yet most of them will never have prostate cancer. This is due to the same process of angiogenesis.
In similar studies examining the autopsies of people over the age of seventy, almost 100 percent of people had tiny microscopic thyroid cancers. But most of those cancers will never become dangerous.
Cancer is exceedingly common. I liken cancer to pimples in the body that continue to arise, yet they never become dangerous due to our body’s natural defenses that work to prevent them from ever becoming dangerous. That is why it’s vital to keep our defense systems boosted. Through our diet and lifestyle choices, we can support and enhance those defenses to prevent diseases like cancer from ever taking off and becoming dangerous.
Cancers become dangerous for a few reasons. Some people have weakened defense systems; for others, the cancers are able to trick their defenses. Some tumors—little microscopic cancers—can hijack the angiogenesis system and grow new blood vessels to feed themselves. The research that I’ve done, similar to other research in the field of angiogenesis, has demonstrated that any cancer that does not receive a blood supply will remain there harmlessly—dormant. Yet the moment a cancer can hijack a blood supply to feed itself, it can grow 16,000 times its size in only two weeks.
The same blood vessels that feed a cancer can also allow cancer cells to escape into our circulation. We often tell women to do breast exams on themselves for general health. But the smallest tumor you can actually feel with your hand is about a centimeter in size. That’s the size of a small grape or a big raisin, and a tumor that size already has a billion cancer cells. And in order for a billion cancer cells to be maintained, they have up to 100 million blood vessels that they’ve hijacked to feed themselves. This is why we now know how important our defenses are. We have to keep those blood vessels feeding healthy cells and not disease cells, which is why balance becomes so important.
Only 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers are due to inherited genes. The remaining 90 to 95 percent of cancers are due to environment, and of those cases, about 30 percent are thought to be linked to our diet. Genes are incredibly important, but how we live our lives has the power to lower our defenses, making it easier for cancers or other diseases to take off.
We’re still just beginning to decipher the role of genetics when it comes to things like Alzheimer’s disease. It’s clear that with a disease like Alzheimer’s—or even sometimes autoimmune conditions or diabetes—an individual can inherit the disease through mutations in the genes. But because there are so many people who don’t have those gene mutations and still end up developing the disease, we need to look at our lifestyle choices and the environmental factors that we’re exposed to. Which is why it’s so important to boost our defenses against those assaults.
This information is empowering to people because it shows that even if you have inherited a mutation that puts you at risk for developing a disease, you still have the opportunity to work to boost your defense systems to help lower your chances of developing it. The same goes for those who have not inherited a disease, since poor lifestyle choices we make can still put us at risk. It is equally important to protect ourselves in both situations. We all have the opportunity to redirect our fate in part by how we choose to live our lives. If you’re at higher risk, I hope you’re more motivated to make those positive changes.
One of the things that everybody talks about when it comes to diet and health is what you should be avoiding. I wanted to redirect the conversation about food and health by discussing what you should add to your diet, not just what you should avoid. This conversation doesn’t involve shame or guilt, which a lot of people have with healthy food. It has to do with leaning into the conversation about how our lifestyle choices—including the foods we choose to eat—can protect and boost our body’s hardwired health defense systems.
There are some foods I mention that may be surprising to some and others that many people have already heard of. When I looked at how various foods affected the body’s defense systems, there were some interesting surprises for me. I present more than 200 different foods, which I call grand slammers, that activate all five health defense systems at the same time. Of those top health-defense-boosting foods, there are a few foods that are especially great at targeting particular systems. They are:
• Green tea for angiogenesis: Green tea has a natural chemical called EGCG, which is an antiangiogenic compound that works to cut off the blood supply that feeds cancers. Studies have shown that women who drink two to three cups per day of green tea have a 44 percent reduced risk of developing colon cancer because of this cancer-starving ability.
• Dark chocolate for regeneration: Most people don’t need another reason to like chocolate. But there have been studies that show how dark chocolate contains natural chemicals called flavonols, which can help activate our stem cells and regenerate our cells. A clinical study looked at individuals with heart disease. At the beginning of the thirty-day trial, the researchers measured the stem cells in participants’ blood. The researchers then gave them two cups of hot cocoa—made with over 70 percent dark chocolate, which is high in flavonols—per day. At the end of the thirty days, they measured the participants’ stem cells and found that they had doubled the number of stem cells in their blood stream. The researchers also found that the hot cocoa doubled the body’s ability to deliver blood flow to the tissues. This is important because good blood flow is vital in keeping our organs healthy.
• Sourdough bread for the microbiome: Although many people avoid carbs, sourdough bread may be an exception to consider, since it can be beneficial to the microbiome. Sourdough contains a bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri, which is a healthy gut bacteria that has been shown to boost our immune system, suppress tumor development, and speed up healing. Lactobacillus reuteri also communicates with our brain to release oxytocin. Research has shown that there are enough bacteria in sourdough bread to give us those health benefits.
• Kiwi for DNA protection: Kiwifruit has a remarkable ability to reduce DNA damage. One clinical study found that eating one kiwi per day can reduce the impact of DNA damage in your body by 60 percent. And they found that eating three kiwifruits per day promoted DNA repair activity by 66 percent. In other words, one a day helped reduce the damage in the cells and neutralize free radicals, and three a day increased the repair rate of DNA and helped it build itself.
• Mushrooms for immunity: Mushrooms contain a natural bioactive chemical called beta-glucan, an antiangiogenic and immune-stimulating dietary fiber that feeds the microbiome. While most people cut the stems off of mushrooms when preparing to cook them, it turns out that the stem has twice as much beta-glucan in it. Next time you prepare mushrooms, save the stems. If you don’t want to eat the stems, you can blend them into a soup or a smoothie or chop them into a dish making them almost invisible, while getting the beneficial properties.
I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a diet book that spoke about all the foods you need to remove from your diet. It’s about leaning into what to add to your life. Because I included more than 200 foods in the book, I developed the 5x5x5 framework to help people find an easy and simple way to incorporate the information into their everyday lives.
Most of us encounter food up to five times a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a few snacks. And for every one of those moments or windows in a day, we have an opportunity to boost our five health defense systems. Keeping the five health defense systems in mind, you should eat at least five foods a day that activate one or more of your defenses. That’s it.
We also offer a shopping list of foods on my website. This list is designed to help you navigate through the grocery store, beginning with the different sections of the market.
If you are concerned about a particular disease, look at which health defense system would need to be more supported to overcome it. What kinds of food boosts that health defense? See what helps boost those defenses and incorporate those foods into your diet. For example, if you’re at risk for breast cancer, it’s important to know that a healthy immune system can reduce your risk of getting breast cancer. It’s also important to know that breast cancer cells don’t become dangerous unless angiogenic blood vessels grow to feed those cancer cells. Also consider what microbiome-boosting foods you can eat because healthy gut bacteria helps our immune systems fight cancer cells.
There’s no magic food, or superfood, or super diet that will predict our health alone. Food is not the only way to boost your health defenses. Other lifestyle activities—like getting good sleep, getting regular exercise, socializing, and having a strong community around us—are all important to keep our health defenses strong. For example, when we sleep well, our gut bacteria tend to be happier, our immune system works better, and our blood vessels are healthier. Our DNA also repairs itself at night when we have a good-quality night’s rest. Being physically active, even walking for thirty minutes a day, will help to elevate the number of stem cells in our blood. Having a strong community around us and regularly socializing works to lower our stress.
William W. Li, MD, is a physician, a researcher, and the president and a cofounder of the Angiogenesis Foundation. He has served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and Dartmouth Medical School. And he is the author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.