Over the last two centuries, extraordinary
progress in medicine, hygiene and technology
gave us the gift of living much longer lives
than our ancestors. But as things are right
now, unfortunately, for many of us, and the
people who care for us, living a longer life
is less of a gift and more of a burden, since
the years we have gained are often plagued
by disease, mental illness, neurological symptoms,
physical pain, or, what’s probably even
worse, a lack of self-sufficiency. I think
everybody agrees that our real goal is not
just living a longer life, but rather, living
a longer healthy life-span.
And although both genetic and environmental
factors determine our health and disease,
we learn time and again that lifestyle and
nutrition can go a very long way in helping
us stay healthy and dramatically reduce risk
If we look at the statistics of the main causes
of death in our post-industrialized countries,
and we compare it with what they were a hundred
or so years ago, we can observe very dramatic
At the beginning of the 20th century, the
leading causes of death were acute, infectious
diseases, like tuberculosis, pneumonia, diphtheria,
diarrhea, or the flu.
Today, these diseases are much less deadly
and some of them have virtually disappeared,
but they have made way to another kind of
insidious killers: non-infectious, chronic,
lifestyle related disease. These diseases
are not caused by viruses or bacteria, are
not transmissible, and are not as explosive:
they develop slowly and silently, over the
course of years or even decades, until it’s
too late to reverse them.
The number one cause of death today is cardiovascular
disease, and its acute outcomes such as heart
attacks. If we include cerebrovascular disease
that leads to strokes, and type II diabetes
that leads to cardiovascular complications,
all conditions that are strictly interrelated,
we account for the vast majority of deaths.
Following closely we find malignant tumors,
and the four leading cancer sites are lung
cancer, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer
in men, and colorectal cancer in both.
Chronic respiratory diseases and neurodegenerative
diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, also
claim a lot of lives.
In this statistics, we refer to ‘cardiovascular
disease” or ‘cancer’ as “causes”
of death, but really, these are just the endpoints,
the “diseases” that resulted in death.
But what “really” caused the diseases?If
we take a step back, we see that disease is
the result of a combination of genetic and
environmental factors. The genetic component
is the natural predisposition that each of
us has to develop any disease, and that is
written in our genes. The environmental factors
are all the external influences that increase
or decrease the likelihood of developing a
disease, such as being exposed to risk factors
or engaging in protective behaviors.
Some diseases are uniquely genetic, such as
cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. Luckily,
these diseases are very rare. Other causes
of death are uniquely environmental, such
as murders or accidents. However, most diseases
are a combination of both. And as it turns
out, as far as the leading causes of death
are concerned, such as cardiovascular disease
and cancer, genetics only plays a minor part.
These diseases are almost never “caused”
by our genes. Our genes can determine a predisposition,
but a predisposition is never a done deal.
The last word belongs to our environment.
With appropriate lifestyle and dietary choices,
we can counterbalance detrimental genetic
predispositions and ‘outsmart’ our genes.
We know for example that overweight and obesity
are key risk factors for cardiovascular disease,
type II diabetes and many types of cancer.
And we also know that eating a balanced diet
is the best strategy to maintain a healthy
High blood pressure, excess blood cholesterol,
HDL to LDL unbalance, excess triglycerides,
exaggerated platelet aggregation, a pro-inflammatory,
pro-oxidant state, these are all widely recognized
risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and
they can all be controlled with diet.
The risk of developing type II diabetes increases
with frequent and excessive blood glucose
peaks, hyperinsulinemia and development of
insulin-resistance. And again, it is with
diet that we can most effectively intervene.
Constipation, alteration of gut bacteria composition,
lack of antioxidants are important risk factors
for colorectal cancer, and an adequate diet
can fix all of these problems at once.
We could go on and on listing similar connections
that show how diet and nutrition are strongly
linked to obesity, hypertension, atherosclerosis,
cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer,
osteoporosis, neurodegenerative disease, liver
disease, and many others. We will explore
some of these associations more in depth later
in our course, but the underlying idea should
be clear by now: a healthy, balanced diet
has a tremendous potential to keep us healthy
and minimize the risk of developing those
chronic diseases that are the leading causes
of death of our times.
We have learned so far that we can ask nutrition
to help us prevent deficiencies and avoid
excesses. But there’s a lot more that we
can ask. Even without deficiencies and excesses,
our dietary choices can promote health or
So the other major goal of nutrition, besides
just preventing deficiencies and avoiding
excesses, is much more ambitious: we can ask
nutrition to promote optimal health and prevent
And now I’d like you to meet Mr X. Mr X
is 42 years old, his father and grandfather
both died of heart attack in their forties,
his older brother already has three by-passes,
and Mr X’s blood pressure is high, to the
point he needs to take medications for it.
And now I have a question for you. Do you
think that there is some sort of inescapable
divine curse that says that Mr X will have
to die of cardiovascular disease?
Let me now introduce you to Miss Y. She is
33 years old, her grandmother died of breast
cancer at age 39, and her mother also had
breast cancer at age 46, but luckily it was
diagnosed in time and she survived. Question.
Do you think it is inevitably written in her
destiny that Mrs Y will develop breast cancer?
And here is Mrs Z. She is 52 years old. She
has been overweight since age 16, and obese
since age 27. She has gone through countless
weight loss diets, some of them worked, but
she was never able to keep her weight off
for more than a few months. She eats less
and exercise more than her friend Mrs W, who
however doesn’t seem to ever gain a pound.
Question: Should Mrs Z just give up and resign
herself to the fact that no matter what she
does she is condemned to forever be obese?
And finally, please welcome Mr J. He is 48
years old. His father has always smoked two
packs of cigarettes a day, but happily lived
until age 94. His mother was as sedentary
as a sloth, yet she’s always been healthy
and happily lived until age 91. Mr J himself
is a smoker, has a sedentary lifestyle and
never worried about his diet, but has been
in good health and normal weight all his life.
Question: Should Mr J keep doing what he is
doing, since clearly he is genetically protected
The answer to all of these four questions
is a resounding NO.
Our genes can certainly make us more or less
susceptible to a disease, some of us are lucky,
and our genetic protection against disease
is able to offset some of our unhealthy lifestyle
behaviors; some of us are less lucky, and
just a little deviation from a healthy lifestyle
results in detrimental consequences.
However, for the vast majority of our leading
causes of death, including cardiovascular
disease, 95% of cancers, and type II diabetes,
there is no genetic curse that will inevitably
result in disease. The last word is always
ours. Accumulating unhealthy lifestyle behaviors
and psychosocial stresses, will dramatically
enhance our risk of disease no matter how
much our genes are favorable, and on the other
hand, with our lifestyle and our behavior
we can compensate a genetic disadvantage.
Remember that our genes may load the gun,
but WE pull the trigger.