Dr. Aseem Malhotra is an award-winning British cardiologist who's launched an international campaign to promote healthier living. In his new documentary, The Big Fat Fix, he's teamed up with filmmaker Donal O'Neill to show how a Mediterranean lifestyle can help prevent and treat many chronic diseases. Here, he explains why the future of health care should be lifestyle medicine:
We've been guzzling sugar, refined carbohydrates, and industrial vegetable oils as never before, with devastating consequences for public health. In fact, poor diet now contributes to more disease and death than physical inactivity, smoking, and alcohol combined, according to The Lancet. It's also a tremendous waste of resources: In the U.K., the combined costs of type 2 diabetes and obesity to the National Health Service and economy now exceed £20 billion. Similarly, in the United States, the cost of type 2 diabetes has risen dramatically in recent years and is now well in excess of $200 billion a year.
The brutal fact is that the increasing burden of chronic disease will not be solved by even more conventional medicine. Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of NHS England, has pointed out that one in seven NHS treatments (including operations) should never have been carried out in the first place. The situation is worse in America, with an estimated one-third of all health care activity bringing no benefit to the patient. A "more medicine is better" culture lies at the heart of this, exacerbated by financial incentives within the system to prescribe more drugs and carry out more procedures.
The harms of overmedication are now colossal. According to Peter Gotzsche, the co-founder of the Cochrane collaboration, prescription drugs are actually the third most common cause of death, after heart disease and cancer, across the world. And yet a billion NHS prescriptions are handed out every year.
There is good news, however: Relatively simple changes in diet can rapidly reduce your risk of disease, without the need for medication or interventions. As I tell my heart patients, adopting a Mediterranean diet after a heart attack is actually a more powerful lifesaving tool than aspirin, statins, or even inserting heart stents.
It's time to wind back the harms of too much medicine and prescribe a little more food instead. Four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a handful of nuts, lots of vegetables, and quitting sugar are just some of the daily prescriptions I recommend. My new documentary film, The Big Fat Fix, goes further in explaining how simple lifestyle changes can have a dramatic impact on health.
The general practitioner Dr. David Unwin, for instance, has managed to save £45,000 in diabetes medications in the U.K. through a simple message to patients: Cut out the sugar and other refined carbohydrates from your diet and your blood glucose levels will improve. If this were adopted across all medical practices in England, it could save £423 million in diabetes medications alone.
Those potential savings are massive. But what should inspire us most is the considerable benefit to the public's health and longevity.