Dr. Mark Hyman Paves the Way For Change with FOOD: What The Heck Should I Eat?

Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and best-selling author, recently published a book titled FOOD: What the Heck Should I Eat? As suggested by the title, Hyman targets individuals struggling to reconcile what to eat, between conflicting promotions for various diet fads and scientific evidence that is rarely backed up but advertised with confidence. As a nation, we have collectively been led astray by labels like “low-fat”, “high-fiber”, “whole-grain”, and “gluten-free” that seem like the better choice, but in reality are no healthier than their stereotypically unhealthy counterparts.

Whether it be the demonization of fats and oils by the American Heart Association or promotional advertising for certain products punched with a label that certifies government approval, we have essentially lost control over our diet: “[we] have become food consumers, not food producers or preparers, and in doing so, we have lost our connection or our world and ourselves.” Hyman’s goal through publishing this book is to restore that control and effectively transform our health while improving the condition of the environment we live in. To do so, he exposes the prevalence of baseless claims that have shaped the expectations for the diet compositions a majority of Americans follow.

Cover of Dr. Hyman's new book

Cover of Dr. Hyman's new book

For example, just one of the outrageous but true facts he discovers and shares is about a study on saturated fats conducted by the AHA. The study, which strongly claimed saturated fats cause heart attacks, was funded in part by canola oil processors. Their study, albeit being baseless and fueled by a conflict of interest, effectively led to a change in consumer behavior as Americans began purchasing the “healthier” omega-6 vegetable oils.

With this in mind, it’s clear that a majority of us have been subconsciously brainwashed into supporting large corporations at our own cost. By reshaping our diet and choosing to replace processed food with grass-fed, organic products, Hyman suggests that we are not only providing ourselves the ideal fuel to function, but we are fundamentally taking the control over our diet back into our own hands.

Below is an interview with Dr. Hyman himself that gives us insight into his motivations for writing this book and delves deeper into the implications of forgoing control over our diet. If you are interested at all in functional wellness, the effect of meat consumption on climate change, or are simply intrigued by his claim that oatmeal is not a healthy way to start the day, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

1. Dr. Hyman- you have become recognized as one of the leaders in the knowledge and practice of functional medicine. What initially drove you to work in this field?

About 20 years ago, at the start of my medical career, I went from being a healthy, thriving physician to becoming a disoriented and terrified version of myself. I woke up feeling like I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I was depressed, anxious, forgetful. It got so bad that I had a hard time following what my patients were saying during their appointments. I tried to take careful notes and keep track, but I couldn’t focus on our conversations. I couldn’t even remember anyone’s name. Some doctors, including my colleagues, said that I was depressed and recommended taking antidepressants. I saw a few psychiatrists who suggested anti-anxiety medication. My family doctor prescribed me sleeping medication, and a neurologist told me that I had ADD and needed stimulants. Other doctors told me that I had chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. At that point, I was exhausted and I needed answers. It was at this time that I discovered the power of Functional Medicine and the idea that every system in our body is connected — everything we eat, do, say, think, and how we live can influence all aspects of our health, including that of our brain. Becoming my own patient led to me to the world of Functional Medicine.  Although suffering from anxiety, depression, ADHD, and brain fog was difficult to say the least, I truly believe that I went through this experience to discover a revolutionary approach to treating chronic disease.

2. How is your most recent publication different than others of its kind devoted to diet and wellbeing? Why publish this book now?

Even the most health conscious among us have a hard time figuring out what to eat in order to lose weight, stay fit, and improve our health. And who can blame us? When it comes to diet, there’s so much changing and conflicting information flying around that it’s impossible to know where to look for sound advice. I wrote this book because I wanted to create a comprehensive guide that takes a close look at every category of food we eat and explains what we’ve gotten wrong, revealing which foods nurture our health, and which pose a threat. This book literally answers the question, “What the heck should I eat?”

3. In your book, you offer a convincing amount of data as evidence to back up the claims that you make with regard to what to eat and what not to eat. However, if we listen to promotional advertising, it can be hard to discern the truth from inaccuracies. Are there steps that we, as citizens, can take to influence public policy regarding false and injurious claims made by food companies?

This is a real challenge for most people. We don’t actually know who to trust because there is so much conflicting advice and evidence presented by the media, the government, and even doctors and nutritionists. I don’t expect citizens to sift through the research and science to make informed decisions. That’s why there is one simple rule that I tell my patients and readers to follow: Eat real food. If a man made it, leave it, and if nature made it, eat it. An avocado and broccoli don’t need nutrition labels. So stick to real, whole foods. If a packaged food has a list of claims like all natural, whole grain, heart healthy, etc.. it’s almost 99.9% of the time bad for you or trying to trick you. Also, your body is the smartest doctor in the room. It will tell you what it likes and doesn’t like, so before you listen to someone else, check in with yourself.

4. What are the two most important lessons a reader should take from this book?

This is a tough question because I think there will be a lot that surprises readers in this book. If I had to pick two, the first would probably be that our nutritional guidelines have led us astray for many, many years. For example, the low-fat movement that swept the nation for years actually did a lot of damage, and it’s because of that movement that Americans decided to favor simple carbs, which is the single biggest driver of chronic disease. The other important lesson is that food and the way we produce and consume it is the nexus of most of our world’s health, environmental, climate, economic and even political crises. This means that what you eat can have profound effects not only on your health, but the health of your community and the planet. You vote with your dollar every single day.

5. How can the conundrum between the obesity rate in America and a rising general interest in diet and physical wellness be explained?

This is a good question. We have more knowledge about food and more options than ever, and yet, people are getting sicker and sicker because of lifestyle diseases. The challenge is that even us health conscious consumers are confused about what constitutes proper nutrition. Additionally, eating a whole foods diet filled with organic fruits and veggies, grass fed and pasture raised meats can become expensive and not easily available. It is possible to eat these foods on a budget, but it’s definitely easier and more convenient to eat cheap, processed foods. 160 million obese Americans are not just lazy gluttons. The chronic disease epidemic is not an accident.

The truth is that the food industry is hijacking our taste buds, our brain chemistry, our metabolism and waistlines with biologically addictive food made cheap and readily available on every corner in America (and increasingly the world) especially our school cafeterias, fast food restaurants, and our grocery stores.

Foods like breads, pasta, rice, cereals, cookies, pizza, oatmeal, and crackers are kept cheap and accessible to everyone because of federal farm subsidies and our tax dollars. Just one example of how we make the food industry rich and the taxpayers poor is how we subsidize wheat, corn and soy which get turned into junk food and fast food. So yes, we as consumers are responsible for this health epidemic, but so is the food industry.

6. How important of a role does diet play in human diseases like high cholesterol versus genetics?

Epigenetics suggests that our behavior can influence which of our genes are turned on or off. This has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine. Most people tend to attribute far too much power to their genes. I’ve seen thousands of patients who have blamed genetics for their ailments and diseases; however, it is your lifestyle washing over your genes that determines who you are in any moment. What you eat, how you move, how you restore your system, along with your thoughts, feelings and social connections, regulate your genes. Those genes end up creating the expression of who you are and how you are. You can turn on genes that create health or disease, weight gain or weight loss.

Some genes can predispose you to obesity, type 2 diabetes or heart disease. But predisposition is not ‘predestiny’. Ninety percent of our current health is controlled by the environment in which we bathe our genes – the food we eat, our exercise regimen, our resilience in the face of stress, and our exposure to environmental conditions.You don’t have to sit back and accept that you’re doomed to become overweight or sick.

7. In the time that you’ve spent in this industry, how strongly would you agree with the statement that says we are successfully moving towards a greater awareness about the ingredients we are consuming?

I agree with this 100%. Wellness has become a hot topic, and I am thankful for it.

8. In your most recent publication, you go into great detail about the benefits and drawbacks of each food group, ultimately concluding with promoting a “paleo-vegan” diet. Could you briefly explain to our readers what this diet entails?

The choice of diets is endless these days: We can go vegan, Ketogenic, Paleo, Flexitarian, Mediterranean, high fat, raw food, on and on. Navigating through these eating plans and trying to find the best one can be overwhelming, even for me. For years I tried different diets. I was vegetarian, and then Paleo, and finally, I was fed up. What I knew was this --- each of these healthy diets was built on the same foundation: eat real, whole food. They all focused on foods that didn’t raise our blood sugar, with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, healthy protein and fats, and no crap. Each of them had their strengths. I took a little from here and a little from there to create a dietary plan that changed my life and worked for my patients, too.

A few years ago, I was involved in a debate about the best diet with two of my friends who are also physicians. One of them adheres to a Paleo diet, while the other is vegan. When it was my turn to chime in, I admitted that I essentially combined what I liked about both of them to create a diet that worked for me. We joked that it must be called the Pegan Diet, and the name stuck. Now thousands of people all over the world are following the Pegan Diet. This is not a quick fix that you follow for 10 or 30 days and then quit. I recommend eating this way every single day. The foundation of the Pegan diet is low glycemic, with an emphasis on eating plant foods, healthy fats, and high quality protein. The reason this diet is sustainable because it allows room for pleasure foods. They are not the staples I recommend, but once in a while I enjoy tequila and dessert with my friends. Guilt over every bite that you eat is not recommended. Do the best you can 90% of the time.