The Failure of the Western Medical Model
The western medical model looks at illness from a one cause-one disease-one cure perspective. This is called allopathic medicine. If a person has high blood pressure, an allopathic physician may give him or her a drug to lower blood pressure.
The doctor may opt for the medication as the easy and obvious way to lower blood pressure. It is true that medication can lower blood pressure. Medication can “work” without addressing other underlying causes, such as obesity, lack of physical activity, poor diet, and stress.
This approach gained a foothold in the early-to-mid 20th century, and with good reason. Clearly, the one cause-one disease viewpoint makes a lot of sense in many cases. It makes sense for a once-lethal infection that an antibiotic quickly cures. It makes a lot of sense when considering polio. This once-devastating disease was eradicated in the United States with a vaccine. Western medicine works!
Unfortunately, the western medical model does not work well when viewing nutrition and long-term health. A single nutrient simply cannot be the “cure” for what ails modern humans. This includes cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, which are the major causes of death today.
How You Look Determines What You Find
Research that is conducted in the spirit of the western medical model is pared down to the lowest number of inputs and outcomes. This tends to keep things neat and tidy.
For example, which do you think is easier?
To conduct a study in which half of your study subjects take a pill with an active ingredient and the other half take an inactive, placebo pill.
- To conduct a study in which half of your study participants are:
- Counseled extensively about a healthy lifestyle
- Given cooking classes, recipes, grocery lists, and guidance on healthful eating
- Given exercise equipment and classes
- Coaxed, cajoled, and pushed into eating more fruits and vegetables, losing weight, and quitting smoking
And the other half are not counseled, coaxed, and taught how to be healthier.
Obviously, the first option is an easier research study to conduct. This is precisely what led us down the path of believing that single nutrients, vitamin pills, and fortified foods are the answer to what sickens us today.
This line of thinking is what led western researchers to conduct research on beta-carotene supplements and cancer risk. They based these studies on the previous observation that people who eat lots of beta-carotene-rich foods are healthier. Given the immense complexity of food, that’s a pretty big leap!
But the leap came straight out of the western medical model – “beta-carotene is in these foods, people who eat these foods are healthier, therefore, it must be beta-carotene that prevents cancer, heart disease, and more.”
Naturally, several large-scale trials found that beta-carotene pills do not improve health. They may, in fact, increase the risk of cancer and heart disease. The researchers went back to the drawing board. Maybe it isn’t beta-carotene after all.
What’s a Marker?
If a single nutrient such as beta-carotene isn’t the answer, what is? If we go back to the original observations, we find some clues. The first clue comes from something called a “marker”.
A marker is simply an easily identified thing that represents a whole lot of other things. Instead of tracking thousands of nutrients in healthy plant foods that may lower risk of disease, it’s easier to keep track of one. In this case, the marker is beta-carotene.
We have to be careful not to assume it is the marker itself that is responsible for lowering disease risk. With beta-carotene, applying the western medical model led some health experts to conclude that beta-carotene was the magic ingredient. They assumed it was beta-carotene keeping people healthier.
Look Beyond the Marker
However, there are plenty of other things that come along with beta-carotene in the diet. These people likely are eating plenty of other carotenes too, including lycopene, alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene, lutein, beta-cryptoxanthin, and zeaxanthin.
I bet they are also eating large amounts of polyphenols, including the catechins, anthocyanins, flavonoids, flavonols, proanthocyanidins, isoflavones, sulforophanes, and more. These categories overlap and converge too.
Consider the green tea nutrient epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). This nutrient is a catechin. A catechin is a member of a group of nutrients called flavonoids. Flavonoids are part of the larger group known as polyphenols. And all of these come from one plant – Camellia sinensis – the tea plant!
What about all of the vitamins and minerals found in these very same foods? These certainly contribute to good health too!
Markers, Markers Everywhere
Taking dietary supplements is a marker too. Would you be surprised to learn that people who take dietary supplements also tend to smoke less, exercise more and eat better than people who do not take dietary supplements? Dietary supplements are a marker for other behaviors that also contribute to good health.
Soy foods are a marker for a healthy, traditional, Asian diet. Many Asians eat soy food. Asians tend to have less cancer, heart disease, and diabetes than Americans. Is soy the magic ingredient in the diets and lifestyles of Asians? I believe traditional soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and miso are good for health.
I do not believe that simply adding soy to a typical high fat, low fiber, processed-food American diet will improve health. I also do not believe that fortifying everything from cereal, to yogurt, snack bars, and crackers will improve the health of Americans.
Getting Back to Basics
I sound like a broken record, but there simply is no better way to improve health than to eat food. Real. Whole. Food. Consider your plate. It can be your breakfast plate, your dinner plate, or your snack plate. Whatever plate is in front of you, the same rules apply.
Make sure that vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and beans cover three-fourths of your plate. Add in a sprinkling of nuts and seeds for healthy fat. The other one-quarter is for protein.
It’s that simple. You don’t need to count calories. You don’t need to fret over the “super-food of the week.” You simply need to focus on your plate. Your body will thank you.
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About the author
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition, chronic disease, cancer, health and wellness as well as the Executive Editor of Nutrition Intelligence Report, a free natural health and nutrition newsletter.