Today’s Solutions: June 13, 2024

From The Optimist Magazine
Summer 2014

Kris Verburgh knows how you can age well and lose weight, but don’t call him a diet guru.

By Marco Visscher

Many pages into writing his new book, Kris Verburgh realized the truth. Darn it, he was writing a diet book! This from someone who dislikes diet books. “I don’t believe in diets,” he says. “I’m not a fan of them. Most diets are unhealthy.” And he’s suspicious of the motives of many authors
of diet books: write a bestseller, sell products, get rich.

A diet assumes that you will have to eat less food, which also tastes less good, and this for a certain period of time. “That’s wrong on three levels,” he says. “All health benefits matter only if you stick to a diet your whole life, and that doesn’t work for most diets.” Eating against your will? If healthy isn’t tasty, then there’s something wrong with the recipes, according to Verburgh. And why eat less? “If you eat healthy, you automatically lose weight.”

So there he was with his book, The Food Hourglass. It included recipes for such dishes as fennel salad with Roquefort, raisins and walnuts, and a ragout made with asparagus, mushrooms and quail eggs. Yet, despite the recipes, he still does not want to be called a diet guru. And rightfully so. His book is too far removed from the standard in the field of diets.

With his book, Verburgh—a doctor and researcher from Belgium—paints a picture of how we can slow the aging process. He points to scientific studies that show that ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and dementia are closely linked to our eating patterns. And he points to an almost equal number of studies that, according to him, prove that eating healthy can dramatically reduce our chances of getting these diseases, as well as a whole host of other ailments. An added bonus of eating healthy: weight loss!

The Food Hourglass became a bestseller, with more than 300,000 copies sold in less than two years in the Netherlands and -Belgium. An English translation went on sale in the UK in April, as did a Kindle version for American readers, and it’s being translated into five other languages. Readers are experiencing the book as a breath of fresh air. In the middle of the stream of contradictory advice we receive almost daily through the media—one day coffee can prevent heart attacks, the next it turns out coffee causes an irregular heartbeat—Verburgh offers a clear story with practical suggestions. (And you can rest assured: coffee is healthy, so long as you drink it in moderation.)

The hourglass in the title refers to the model Verburgh designed to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. The top half shows which foods you should reduce or leave out altogether, and the bottom shows what you can replace them with. Not everything is earth-shattering news—green tea is better than cola, salmon is better than salami—but in some cases the advice goes against ingrained notions. For example, Verburgh suggests you eat less bread, potatoes, pasta and rice and replace them with legumes, mushrooms, vegetables and oatmeal. He’s not fond of milk, either. A daily glass of milk increases your risk for Parkinson’s, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. Milk doesn’t even give you strong bones—we’d be better off replacing the calcium from milk by eating leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.

The hourglass provides an alternative to the official food pyramid and food plate on which Verburgh and his generation were raised. He is not shy in his comments about these official food models; he calls them “completely outdated.” No distinction is made between white and red meat, or between healthy and unhealthy fats. Verburgh points to research done at Harvard that showed that people who followed the official advice were not healthier than others. “The drawbacks undermined the advantages of that advice,” he concludes. “If you eliminate these drawbacks, then you lower your chances of dying from cardiovascular disease by 40 percent, according to the Harvard researchers.”

Diet gurus—who are also often critical of traditional nutrition advice—make an equally tragic mistake, according to Verburgh: They think in terms of macronutrients like proteins, carbohydrates and fats, favoring one type of macronutrient over another—like the proteins that are advised in the Atkins Diet, or the carbohydrates in a low-fat diet. However, it should be about the types of proteins, carbohydrates and fats that are consumed. Protein can be either healthy or unhealthy—it’s healthy if it comes from poultry or tofu and unhealthy if it comes from processed red meat. Sugars: healthy if from fruit, oatmeal or starch-rich legumes such as chickpeas, but unhealthy if they come from potatoes or sodas. Fats: healthy if from omega-3-rich fatty fish and nuts, unhealthy in cakes and margarine. When we completely exclude certain macronutrients—as diets like the Atkins do, cutting out all sugars—we run the risk of ailments caused by a shortage. You might lose weight, but you wouldn’t be healthy, concludes Verburgh. “Most diets and nutrition guidelines just don’t cut it.”

And the importance of exercise in getting rid of those unwanted pounds? “If you want to lose weight, exercise shouldn’t be your first step,” Verburgh says emphatically. “Exercise is important for many things—it guards your brain against aging, gives you a strong heart and works to counter anxiety or depression. Someone who takes up light jogging three times a week at age 50 lowers their chance of dementia by 62 percent. But if you eat two chocolate bars, you’ll have to spend the whole afternoon bicycling to get rid of those again. So perhaps leave out the chocolate bars?”

People who drink a glass of fresh, home-squeezed juice three times a week have a 76 percent lower chance of getting Alzheimer’s. Eating a handful of walnuts every day cuts your risk of heart attack in half. Regularly eating broccoli lowers your chance of obtaining breast cancer by 40 percent … Kris Verburgh has a nearly endless storehouse of information, and he rattles off impressive facts throughout our interview. “A photographic memory,” he says, almost apologetically. But it’s more than that.

Verburgh has boundless curiosity. Always has. As a preschooler, he asked Santa for a model of a skeleton. In elementary school, he read books on cosmology, physics and biochemistry. The passion for science was there at birth. His father has a PhD in chemistry, and his mother is a lab worker. But he says that they never pushed him. When his school offered young Kris—“no, no brothers or sisters, but we did have a rabbit”—the option of skipping two grades, his parents decided against it, so as not to rob their son of his youth. He also did not grow up a stereotype: “It’s not like I spent all my time in some dingy attic room reading and writing.”

However, his first book came out when he was only 17. The subject matter of –Schitterend! (Brilliant!) was nothing less than the universe. The Belgian newspaper De Standaard wrote that the young writer already rivaled the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking in his clear and simple writing. Three years later, Fantastisch! (Fantastic!) came out, a thick tome on evolution, consciousness and quantum physics. The enthusiasm found in the book titles, both of which were nominated for awards, is indicative of his own fascination with the world.

Now that Verburgh is 28 and a newly minted doctor, he looks critically at the government guidelines about nutrition. “It annoys me when the government thinks that the general public isn’t smart enough to understand something like healthy nutrition. People are intelligent enough to understand the difference between fast and slow sugars and that we shouldn’t go and eat six pounds of walnuts when someone tells us that walnuts are healthy.”

Verburgh points out that official guidelines are often outdated and oversimplified for the general public. “Professor Walter Willett, at Harvard, goes even further, saying that the government guidelines “provide misleading advice to the general public.” That’s why Harvard created its own food pyramid, which recommends dialing back on refined grain products such as bread, pasta and rice, and puts potatoes and red meat in the “to avoid” top section of the pyramid, indicating that people should limit their consumption of these foods.

“We need to become more aware of the power of food,” he says. “Medicine heals very little. Most illnesses we can’t cure. The only ones we can cure are infections, by using antibiotics, and cancer, by way of chemotherapy or surgery. That’s pretty much it. For all the others we can at best treat symptoms.”

As an intern, he was shocked by the drug cocktails he saw patients taking, while nothing was done at all about their nutrition. “But if patients were to lose weight, they wouldn’t have back pain anymore, and wouldn’t need to take painkillers,” Verburgh points out. “Their blood pressure would come down, reducing the need for blood pressure medications. Their blood sugar would stabilize, and they wouldn’t need insulin anymore. Et cetera, et cetera. We prescribe too many pills for things that could simply be taken care of with healthy nutrition.”

He’s equally critical of the seven years of medical training he recently completed. “As a doctor, you’re trained in acute medicine: what to do when someone has a heart attack, or if a tumor breaks through. We know very well what to do with the symptoms. But we got very little, if any, insight into the underlying causes or how we could have prevented that heart attack or tumor.” During all of his time in medical school, Verburgh counted only one hour-long lecture about nutrition. And that was during a section on alternative treatments like acupuncture and homeopathy. Verburgh calls that “sad.”

“Nutrition—that’s something for dietitians” is the prevailing attitude among medical faculty. But Verburgh is convinced that nutrition is so important that you can’t leave it to dietitians alone. Everything Verburgh knows about the health benefits of foods, he’s learned by studying the subject on his own. As a student, he always carried at least three or four scientific articles in his book bag to read in his free time. “Not everything can be solved through food,” he admits, “but as doctors we should be looking at a patient’s nutrition before prescribing medications.”

Verburgh doesn’t want to be placed in the “alternative” corner. He is well aware of that possibility, which is why his book has 19 pages devoted to scientific references and a detailed bibliography. Moreover, his ideas are not exactly in line with many of the strongly held opinions found in alternative circles. Verburgh, for instance, sees no added health benefit from eating organic (“not scientifically proven to be healthier”). Nor does he join in on the attack on aspartame, an artificial sweetener found in many low-calorie sodas, which has been claimed to cause cancer; it would really only cause cancer, he says, if you ate a whole box of it. 

When it comes to the world of “anti-aging” therapies—a field he bumps up against when studying biogerontology, the science of aging—he has strong reservations. Antioxidants and human growth hormone are all the rage there, but he considers them absurd. Antioxidants don’t slow down aging. They neutralize free-radicals, but we actually need those free radicals to keep our cellular defense mechanisms on alert. And growth hormone might keep your skin tight and your muscles strong, but it increases your risk of diabetes and cancer. Growth hormone, in fact, accelerates the aging process.

In a restaurant in Antwerp, we are having lunch consisting of a salad with smoked salmon and parsnip chips. It’s a very good salmon; this is the verdict at the table. “It proves that eating healthy can be tasty, too.” Verburgh has been explaining what he consumes on a typical day. Right after waking up, he has a glass of water (room temperature). Then  he prepares a bowl of oatmeal (heated in the microwave, because he does not believe there is any harm from electromagnetic radiation) with strawberries, a banana and a few walnuts, followed by a handful of red grapes. Then he squeezes two oranges and adds two scoops of pulp. At around 11 a.m. he has an apple. Lunch can be a salmon salad with mushrooms and broccoli, followed by soy yogurt with blueberries for dessert. Halfway through the afternoon, nuts and a piece of dark chocolate. And for dinner, a light dinner salad with mackerel and white beans. Spread throughout the day: another cup of green tea and lots of water.

Without a doubt, nutrition is going to start playing a more important role, says Verburgh. It has to—health care is getting too expensive. A solution is needed, and fast, because, he says, “you can’t solve everything with pills.” That means prevention should get much more attention. “When we talk about prevention, doctors immediately think of mammograms, Pap smears or some other type of screening,” says Verburgh, “but that is not prevention. That’s just detecting a problem sooner rather than later.”

He talks about the toll we pay for our increased prosperity. Our aging process was a “mistake of nature,” says Verburgh. “Nature gave humans a lifespan that’s appropriate to a time when we’d stay fit till our 30s and then die. Let’s face it: Our ancient ancestors rarely lived beyond 30. They would have been killed by a rival tribe, fallen to their death or been eaten by a hungry predator. So there was no need for nature to maintain our bodies beyond the age of 30. That’s why the deterioration starts to happen after 30.”

With the first development of civilization came the first signs of aging. We grew smarter and lived longer, and 40,000 years ago this led to a new phenomenon: grandparents. There has to be a reason, he says, that people suddenly started living to 50 or 60. Maybe the answer lies in the cultural evolution that took off around that time, he posits. Cave paintings and jewelry became more complex, “perhaps because knowledge started to get passed down from elders.”

Then, for the first time, he falls silent; he admits he could go on forever discussing his passions. “I’ve seen many patients die from age-related ailments,” he says. “And I can tell you, it’s not pretty.” True -prevention of these degenerative, age-related diseases is found in eating healthy. “Food is the best medicine,” he says, paraphrasing Hippocrates, the founder of modern Western medicine, “and I believe it is also the best prevention. If our food is healthy, we will still be afflicted by aging-related diseases, but much later in life. The goal is to increase our healthy life span, to reduce the decades of suffering before you die.”

How do you encourage healthy eating? Educating the public better is a start, obviously, but Verburgh is uneasy about trusting that people will find their way among all the choices available to them. “I don’t think people are all that free to choose,” he starts. “You can’t go out and not spot at least one hamburger chain. In every supermarket, the shelves are loaded with brightly colored foods that scream ‘Eat me!’ We’re inundated with advertisements for unhealthy snacks. Even at work, we often can’t choose what’s served at the cafeteria. Parents can’t always control what their kids eat at school.”

Therefore, he sees the government playing a role. Not so much by instituting a fat tax, dictating school lunch menus or declaring a ban on junk food, as some would like to see. Verburgh is of the opinion that agriculture should be reformed. Only then can we get back to the source. In agriculture, he says, subsidies are handed to the wrong crops. “By subsidizing corn and other grains, it becomes extremely cheap to make sugars. This leads to poor-quality candy, but also poor-quality meat. Meat and dairy from cattle raised on grain is far less healthy than cattle raised on grass.”

He quickly plucks more numbers seemingly out of thin air. “Since the 1980s, sodas have gone down in price about 25 percent, whereas vegetables and fruit have gone up by about 35 percent. People want to eat healthier, but a tin of walnuts or a pint of blueberries costs quite a bit these days. Which is why agricultural subsidies should change—so that vegetables and fruits become significantly less expensive.”

Unfortunately, agricultural policy won’t change easily, Verburgh admits, and we don’t have much influence over it. In the meantime, there is plenty we can do to live healthier and longer lives. “Every atom in our bodies was once in our food,” he says. “We are literally built from the food we eat. Through eating healthy, men can add about 8.5 years to their life expectancy, women around 15 years. Without too much effort, we could all remain healthy well into our eighties. Who wouldn’t want that?” 

Marco visscher would like to receive an agricultural subsidy for the grapes and figs in his community garden.


5 tips to a longer life

1. Eat less. Eat about 25 percent less than what you think you need and you will live longer. Kris Verburgh is not explicitly recommending it, but research clearly indicates the benefits. For example, a woman has a daily requirement of 2,000 calories. If she were to eat only 1,500 calories, her body would go into a kind of savings mode. This slows down aging and can add as much as 15 years to her life expectancy.

2. Don’t diet. Rapid weight loss is bad for the body. It can damage the metabolism, according to Verburgh, thereby shortening life expectancy, as proven in animal studies. In addition, rapid weight loss releases toxins stored in the fat into the bloodstream. In body fat, these toxins do little harm, but in the bloodstream it’s a different story.

3. And definitely skip the protein diet: Proteins clump up in our bodies. The stacking up of those proteins in and around our cells causes those cells to get clogged, function less well and even die off. Protein clumping is involved in many aging diseases. A protein-rich diet like those recommended by Robert Atkins speeds up the aging process.

4. Be careful with sugar: Sugar sticks to everything in our bodies. To the collagen in our skin, which means you’ll get wrinkles faster. To cholesterol, which sticks to the walls of arteries, causing narrowing of the arteries and possibly leading to a heart attack. High blood pressure and cataracts can also result from excess sugar, which according to Verburgh acts like a “molecular glue stick.”

5. Never get your advice from popular media:
Journalists often interpret scientific studies wrong or draw the wrong conclusions. It’s better to look at meta-analysis (which takes into account a number of studies) or read professional journals with a “high impact factor,” such as Nature, Science and The Lancet. These often list better-organized studies with greater numbers of test subjects and are led by more experienced researchers. | M.V.

Print this article
More of Today's Solutions

Breakthrough blood test detects breast cancer recurrence earlier than ever be...

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL STAFF A novel blood test, described as an "incredibly exciting" advancement, demonstrated the ability to detect the recurrence of ...

Read More

Why do fish swim in schools? New study reveals unexpected benefits

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL STAFF Schools of fish moving in synchrony have long captivated those lucky enough to observe this phenomenon, often appearing ...

Read More

Bumblebees help solidify the link between microbiome and memory

The term 'microbiome' has been thrown around a lot over the past few years with many studies and health companies finding that a healthy ...

Read More

A neuroscientist’s 4 favorite ways to decompress

Negative feelings have a way of creeping up on us, particularly if we find ourselves in an especially emotionally charged situation. If you find ...

Read More