“Food is our medicine. We take it 3 times a day. The difference between pharmaceuticals is that we prescribe our own food as medicine. So, it’s up to us, we’re the kitchen doctors, so to speak.”- William W. Li, MD
Shireen: Dr. Li talks to us about the evidence for food as medicine with someone with diabetes can eat to manage their condition. He then talks to us about COVID-19 and the right foods to eat to help us fight and reduce the risk of contracting the virus. And lastly, he talks to us about the foods that one can eat if they contract the virus. William Li, MD, is an internationally renowned physician, scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller “Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.” His groundbreaking work has led to the development of more than 30 new medical treatments and impacts care for more than 70 diseases including cancer, diabetes, blindness, heart disease and obesity. His TED Talk, “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” has garnered more than 11 million views. Dr. Li has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, CNBC, Rachael Ray and the Dr. Oz Show, and he has been featured in USA Today, Time Magazine, The Atlantic and O Magazine. He is president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation. Welcome, Dr. Li!
Dr. Li: Thank you, Shireen! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Shireen: So, Dr Li, tell us more about your journey to beat illnesses. How did you make your way to that and what led you do it?
Dr. Li: Right, so, I’m a physician and internal medicine doctor. I am a scientist, I studied blood vessels. I’m a vascular specialist. And, I’m somebody who really enjoys and really finds it important to communicate knowledge about health, not only to the patients but to the public in general because everyone should try not to be a patient, and the only way to do that is by taking preventive action. So, I sort of started out being internal medicine which means that I take care of young and old, men and women, healthy and sick, and my goal has always been to try to get people to return back to their health if they were sick. And that’s a very different perspective then some specialists who are chasing diseases and that’s all they see. In my world, when I put on my spectacles, I really try to look at health and try to figure out how we can all stay healthy or return back to health. For years, I actually took care of patients using some of the very advanced biotechnologies that I helped to develop for cancer, you know, starving cancer by cutting off blood supply, by helping people with diabetes, but also itching people with [3: 30] generations of diabetic eye disease or eye diseases or aging. Some of the treatments that I was involved with actually can now halt blindness, prevent vision loss and help people become more active, or even wound healing where people, both people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are much more vulnerable to actually having wounds form on their legs because their nerves are compromised so they stop on the pebble, cut their foot, can’t feel it, and there’s an impairment of their healing. And so I helped to develop some of those technologies to prove some of the technologies, very modern technologies that prevent amputation by healing the wound, prevent vision loss by preventing blood vessels from leaking in the eye, and even help improve outcomes for people with cancer by starving cancer by cutting off blood supply. And, one of the things that I really fell after I saw so many patients that were sick is that we really turn the clock back and prevent people from getting sick in the first place. And, some of my favorite patients were veterans at the veteran’s hospital. And, you know, these were some of my favorite patients in their 50s and 60s and 70s and even older, they unfortunately tended to be really heavy, morbidly obese, have terrible heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, all kinds of ailments you could imagine. And the thing that I was always struck by was how these individuals who were the veterans of our country, they were in the 20s where they cut feet of soldiers that couldn’t even become a soldier if they weren’t in perfect physical condition. So, fast forward, you know, 20, 30, 40 years, I asked “What happened?”, you know, what could turn this perfect specimen into someone who was so filled with illness?! And I realized it was down in their lifestyle when the patients would all get dressed and leave by office, almost all of them would ask me a question. They popped their head back in before they left and said, “Hey doc, one last thing, what can I do for myself, is there something I should be eating?”. And I realized that I was never taught that answer in medical school. I mean, I knew all this other stuff, and I felt like that lack of information about nutrition was wrong, that we needed to get that answer. So, I went back and took a look at everything that I know from my science, my research, my innovation, technology. And I realized, you know, we could actually apply the tools that have been used to develop modern medicines, and apply them to study food. And so, this really led me to be one of the early, real pioneers of food as medicine. The idea is very old, but actually to be able to study food using the same tools as drug development is very, very new. In fact, it’s still in its infancy now. But when you study foods and medicine, head to head, side by side, in the same testing systems that we use to develop drugs, you know, your jaw drops because you start seeing this incredible activity of foods that really in some cases can match what a medicine can actually do. So, it gave me newfound respect for our diet. I realized that’s something I really needed to draw my attention to, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, really focusing on food as medicine.
Shireen: And so, when we look at food as medicine, and I also want to make a point that I love that you are taking a preventive approach because now medicine is mostly reactive, so I absolutely love that. But talking about food as medicine, what is that code that someone with diabetes needs to create in their lives to combat diabetes through food? I mean, of course, we’re not endorsing “drop all your medication, don’t do your insulin”, but if someone wants to sort of take control of their diabetes, and really sit in the driver seat of their health, what can they do when it comes to food?
Dr. Li: A really important question, I mean, and the answer is you can do almost everything with food starting with food. And, when we think about type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t just come out of the blue. It’s really a situation that evolves over years of lifestyle. So, most of us when we’re younger, you go to college, you pull all-nighters, and you go out and have fun with your friend and carousing, but our bodies can take a lot of damage over time, just like driving your car really hard not taking care of the oil, and you’re changing the oil. Eventually, your axle will get worn and tire. Type 2 diabetes is kind of a wearing tire condition, let’s not call it disease, let’s call it a condition. And it’s something that the earlier we do something to prevent getting into that situation, the better it is obviously. Some of the basic things, you know, like staying physically active, eating in moderation, I think it’s a really important thing whether before you have diabetes, while you have diabetes, and after you have actually reversed diabetes, I’ll come back to that in a second. And that’s choosing the right foods that you have to eat so you’re not really making a habit of choosing the wrong food. So, I got to tell you something, which is that I’m not one of those doctors who basically think that a healthy diet is about cutting everything out, that eating healthy is about shame, guilt or fear. I think there’s a lot of that around already in the healthy eating community. I think that, this is what I saw, that I always tell my patients, life is for the living. We should really enjoy what we do, and food is so important across different cultures, to who we are, our families, you know, our roots, what we feel comfortable with. And so, what I say is that, it’s really important to be honest with yourself about who you are and what you like. And if you can start with what you already like, and choose from the breadbasket of what’s healthy for you, this is like a cornucopia, fruits, vegetables, herbs. I mean a whole bunch of things that are not just veggies, there’s a lot of different foods. And in my book “Eat to Beat Disease”, I talk about a lot that can help beat diabetes, they’re all healthy types of foods as well, there are 200 of them. If you choose the ones that you relate to the most, you start with that, then you’re already ahead of the game cause you’re choosing from the things that you like. I think that’s number 1, a very important approach. Number 2, I mentioned this before, eat in moderation. The adage that many of us grew up with, our moms and our grandmas hovering over “you got to eat more”, “please, have another one”, “look how skinny you are”, “look, you need to eat more” – well intentioned, but I think that everything we know from research is the less you eat the better. And so, take something you really like that’s healthy for you, and what I tell people is, rather than pile your plate with it, we got plenty of food, start with a 3rd. So, whatever your eye sees, take only a 3rd of it. It’s really practical. And eat it slowly. And your brain will actually teach you how to enjoy what you’re eating. So, this is why you have got to start with what you like cause you got to savor it. The more time you get to savor your food then the less you put on your plate, the faster you’ll get full with the things that you really enjoy. And then it becomes an experience that you actually like. I didn’t mention anything yet about really the whole idea about the science behind this, but we know, when you limit your calories, for example, when you choose the right foods, in fact, and we say you’re physically active, which is very important, as a matter of fact many people, not all, but many can take a situation like type 2 diabetes, and you can actually normalize or get closer to normal with your blood sugars on. And the reason this is so important is because number 1, we have the ability to control that, so don’t just let the pharmacy deal with that, don’t let the prescription deal with that. We can do something ourselves that can, and again if you start with things you enjoy and love and value, cherish, and definitely relish, then it’s not so difficult to do. And if you can reverse or ameliorate, mitigate, make less, make better your situation with type 2 diabetes, you’re ahead of the game because you don’t want to have those terrible complications that I mentioned that I used to see – out of control heart disease, you know, run away complications of diabetes in terms of keeping these going down, you’re losing your eyesight. I mean, can you imagine that the difference between choosing delicious food that can actually help you live longer and be able to continue to see clearly all the wonderful things that we like to watch in the world versus losing your vision, having bad heart disease, not being able to run and maybe even losing your leg. I talked about wound healing earlier. So, this is a series of really common sense things but I personally believe the message has to start with making people not feel bad about doing the right thing, and making people feel like, in fact, they can get something good out of it which is starting with what they enjoy.
Shireen: So, Dr. Li, when we look at, now given the current climate with COVID-19, are there foods that you would suggest that can help us fight or even reduce the risk of contracting the virus or complications from the virus?
Dr. Li: Right, so COVID-19 is a brand-new situation. You know, they call it a novel coronavirus. So, I want to take the moment first to let your listeners know, I’m actually one of the researchers studying corona viruses, studying COVID-19. I’m actually doing research, I’m actually looking at, we’re learning, we’re trying to let other scientists and doctors understand what we’re discovering about this virus. So, I happen to know a little bit more than many people do. And here’s the thing, I want to clear up a few misconceptions. COVID-19 is a coronavirus, and what a coronavirus is what actually gives you the common cold. So, when people hear that COVID-19 is like a bad flu, it’s actually not accurate because flu is caused by the influenza virus. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus. A coronavirus gives us a cold. So, not even related to the flu. It’s really like a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous, lethal, deadly kind of cold. That’s one thing. And because novel means so bad, so deadly, so horrific for the world is because it’s novel meaning that in the 200.000 years humans have been around on this planet, we haven’t seen, our bodies haven’t seen this virus, our immune systems have never seen this virus. And so, therefore, this is the cough, we think it started in China, and now looks like there’s another epicenter of strain of viruses starting in Europe, this is the cough that brought an entire civilization to its knees. And so, what we’re all learning from this as we pick ourselves back up, which is what we’re doing now, we know it’s bad, we react to it by sheltering, and now we’re coming back at this thing to see how we can actually beat it. And I think that’s the thing that everybody should realize is that humans are pretty tough and we’re really smart, we’re coming back at this thing full force. And here’s what we know, a good immune system at the gate is really important to prevent this and other viruses from actually entering our bodies. That is number 1, number 2, number 3 thing I can leave your listeners with so we have to have this formed immune system. And rules haven’t changed with COVID-19. There are foods that we can eat that actually support our immunity, and they happen to be the same foods that actually help us if we have diabetes. These are foods that have high fiber. If you have diabetes, high fiber actually feeds your gut microbiome, the health you get back in your gut. The healthy gut bacteria help your body be better and metabolize blood sugar, helps it use blood sugar better and so that’s a good thing. For example, a good, healthy bacteria also help to support your immune system. In fact, some of the more recent discoveries is that about 70% of our immune system is found in our gut like the layer of jelly in a jelly roll, and the gut bacteria live right next door to it. So, remember like in an apartment or a college dorm you pound in the wall and the people next door can hear you. And that’s basically what the gut bacteria are doing, they’re pounding on the wall and your immune system is saying “hey, who’s over there? – oh, it’s healthy bacteria, I think we’re going to do our job the right way”. So, fiber is really important, good for type 2 diabetes, therefore, immunity. Other good micronutrients, we know that vitamin D is really important. We know vitamin C looks like it’s important. We know Zinc is important. We know Iron is important. So, there are lots of micronutrients that are really important. And, here’s the thing about the situation with type 2 diabetes. Oftentimes, people struggling with this condition are in fact undernourished even when they’re surrounded by food. And so, we want to make sure that we’re actually taking care of our micronutrients, and the best way to do this is to eat fresh foods, fruits and vegetables because they have fiber, they have the vitamins, they have the minerals. And that’s really the best way to do it. So, in some ways the rules haven’t changed. Eating healthy, eating fresh, whole, plant-based foods, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, herbs, are all good for you. It can actually help support your immunity. What is interesting is that the latest research, and I write about it in the book “Eat to Beat Disease”, is that you can actually boost your immunity even more, and some foods have actually shown that. So, for example, mushrooms of all sorts, and I love mushrooms, I mean, think about all the amazing things that you can do with mushrooms and cook them, prepare them, they can be in a salad, they can be in a sauté, they can be in scrambled eggs, you can do millions of things with them, whether you’re vegan or vegetarian, or you’re just regular omnivore and you eat anything. Mushrooms are great. They actually contain a lot of fiber, and one of the fibers they contain is called beta-glucan which boosts your immune system. And human studies have shown that eating mushrooms, even white button mushrooms you can get anywhere, so this is not difficult stuff, this is not rare mushrooms. This is just like the average kitchen mushroom, can actually create more antibodies in your mucus membranes, in your saliva. That’s the front line of defense. Think of COVID-19 and other viruses like, you know people trying to break into your house, burglars trying to break into your house. If you got a good alarm system, a strong door, a good lock – that’s basically what you want. And that’s where these antibodies actually come from. So, mushrooms are one of these things that can secure your front lock, they’re locking your door, really useful. Another one that’s really quite amazing, that can really also help shape that front door, the gate, is cranberry juice. Now, not the super sugar sweetened stuff, forget about that. Go for the real cranberry juice. You can’t really drink a lot of it because it’s kinda sour, but you can mix it with other juices like pomegranate juice or something. It’s not so bad. You’ve got to be careful because there’s a lot of natural sugar in some of these juices but what happens is that the immune system responds to the natural dye in cranberries. And they actually cause your immune cells to rear yourself up, boost your immunity right in those areas of your mucus membrane where you actually want to sure up immunity. Broccoli sprouts actually also help you fight off viruses. It has been shown even if you get a flu vaccine, again, this is not flu, but even when they test a flu vaccine, people had a smoothie made with broccoli sprouts. So just think about it. Your favorite juice and throw some broccoli sprouts, and this is the right time of the year when you can get some broccoli sprouts, grow them yourself, they’re 3 to 4-day old baby broccoli, kinda nutty flavor, and grind them up. And if you drink just one, just two cups of that a day, it ramps up your anti-virus defense system, like 20 times. So, really, really significant. This has all been served to humans. And again, these are just some small tips. You know, there are a ton of tips that I wrote in my book “Eat to Beat the Disease”, and there are 200 foods you can choose from. But the bottom line is that in the year of COVID-19, the rules haven’t changed. You want to be able to eat smartly. That would be helpful for your body to help your body perform its metabolism better, so you’ve got type 2 diabetes, you’re struggling with that. This all should help you get better under control, choose the foods that you like, and you can also boost your immunity and support the lock on your door, so to speak, to prevent those viruses from gaining entry into the house that is your body.
Shireen: And would you say the same for someone who’s already contracted the virus to pretty much stick to the rules?
Dr. Li: Right, well, here’s what’s interesting. If you’ve already contracted the virus and you probably don’t have time today to dive too deeply into all the details of what we’re learning about how the virus works, but suffice to say that this is a respiratory virus. So, you’re breathing through your nose and your immune system tackles it right in your nose. And so, the battle is mostly fought at the beginning right there and it could be finished right there. You get a little cold, not a big deal, and you’ll never really get sick. But if the virus actually somehow breaks in the door and you don’t have your German shepherd, you know, after you lock the door to go after them, and then you don’t have all the home defense stuff all set up, basically, the virus can get into your lungs and cause big problems. One of the problems that it causes even as your body is trying to fight off the virus is inflammation. And so, what I would say, and this is a commonly misunderstood aspect of the immunity, a lot of people in nutrition say, you know, that your immunity is inflammation. So, you want to get rid of inflammation bad and so therefore you want to have immune lowering things. Some people even say that COVID is an autoimmune disease. It’s not! It’s an infectious disease your body tries to get rid of it. Many people actually don’t get that sick and their bodies do get rid of that. So, you want a good strong immunity. What happens though is that when the virus invades your lungs, it gets into your blood vessels, and then your immune system is just trying to get rid of the virus. It’s doing its job – it is performing its job. But because your blood vessels and other tissues are in the way, the virus is sneaky, it’s kind of hidden inside the bushes. And so, if you try to get rid of, I mean imagine if like, you have a beautiful garden and you’ve got these pests that are kind of like burgle away into your flower. If all you want to do is get rid of those pests, you’re going to chop up your flowers. And that’s basically what is happening with inflammation, you get this huge amount of inflammation in your body. So, what I would say, if you have been infected, tested positive for COVID-19, you know you’re sick, you tested positive, and testing is a really important thing to do, you should try to have foods that lower inflammation. You want to boost immunity and lower inflammation – two really good things that can do that. Foods containing vitamin C are really good at that. Now if you don’t want the super sweetness and sugar of like, for example, orange juice, a great source of vitamin C that’s not so sweet is a kind of a modestly sweet fruit like guava. In terms of guava, which is not very sweet at all, actually it has way more vitamin C than an orange does, so that’s a good little swap that people with diabetes can actually make. The other thing is green tea has been shown to keep your immune system functioning but lower inflammation. This has been shown by the way with people who have lupus which is an autoimmune disease. And people who drink green tea and have vitamin C, actually they have much lower flares, and so your body is fighting the infection. What you want to do is to feel better, prevent damages, to do things that lower inflammation. And, I think, an example of things that you can eat would be tea, vitamin C containing foods, probably tomatoes is another great source of vitamin C, so, tomato juice and tomato paste, tomato sauce, salad tomatoes, there’s a lot of ways that you can actually get and put off tomatoes. And then, the other thing I would tell you is, although not everybody will like, not everybody eats seafood, a really good oily fish which is found in many cultures. So, pretty much any culture that lives by the sea has some tradition of fish or shellfish in there, in their diet, contains Omega 3 fatty acids. If you don’t eat fish you can take a supplement. It contains marine Omega 3 and that also lowers inflammation. So, I would say, focus on raising your immunity all throughout. If you’re sick with the virus, do eat foods that can actually lower inflammation, and you’ll be on your way to doing whatever you can without medicines. We don’t have a treatment. We don’t have a vaccine yet. So, food really becomes our medicine. So, this is back to the earlier point that we were discussing. Food is our medicine. We take it several times a day. The difference between pharmaceuticals is that we prescribe our own food as medicine. So, it’s up to us, we’re the kitchen doctors, so to speak.
Shireen: I loved that! So, with that, Dr. Li, how can people learn more about your work and more about the book?
Dr. Li: Right, so, my book “Eat to Beat Disease” is available anywhere where books are sold. Since you can’t go to a bookstore now, any of the online sellers like Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com, you can get it there. I’m also really trying to provide more information on my website which is https://drwilliamli.com/. And if you sign up, subscribe for free, I actually am providing a shopping list, a shopping guide. And so, these days, we go to the market, you don’t want to spend a lot of time there. And what I’ve done is that I’ve actually gone into my book, pulled out the foods that you want to encounter when you go to a grocery store, so you can kind of check it out ahead of time, pick out the ones that are healthy that you love, and make a B line and start picking things up so you can get out of the store as quickly as possible. So that’s one thing you can do. And also, I’m on Social. You can find me on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. I’m at DrWilliamLi, and I’d love to be able to help out, communicate, serve as a resource to everybody and anybody who is not just struggling with diabetes but also thinking about what do you do with type 2 diabetes in the era of COVID, how do we actually not just focus on one thing, one disease, but really focus on our overall health. And, I think, that’s when it comes down to food as medicine, and that we actually eat to beat disease.
Shireen: Okay, so with that, thank you so much Dr. Li for your time. I feel like this could have been a 2-hour interview.
Dr. Li: My pleasure!