Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why does this physician endorse Permaculture?

Why am I, as a physician, so excited about Permaculture?

Let’s look at the following chart:

  Causes of death in the U.S. from 2006/2007.

The #1 cause of death (Heart Diseases), #3 (Stroke), #4 (COPD, Emphysema), and #5 (Diabetes) are almost exclusively related to lifestyle choices.  The #2 cause of death (Cancers) has fairly strong associations with lifestyle choices depending on what type of cancer we are talking about.
There is also some evidence that lifestyle choices may contribute to #8 (Alzheimer’s Disease).

 So, basically there is from strong to contributory evidence that lifestyle plays a role in causing six out of the eight leading causes of death.

As a physician, I have a growing frustration in treating “lifestyle” diseases.  Lifestyle diseases are things like Hypertension (High blood pressure), Hyperlipidemia (High cholesterol), Diabetes Mellitus Type 2 (adult onset or diet caused diabetes), Lung diseases from tobacco use, etc. that are directly or strongly associated with lifestyle choices.

Now I know that not everyone with one of these diseases has them based on their lifestyle, but I would venture to guess that over 95% of them do.  Which probably means that if you are reading this, and you have one of these diseases, then it is most likely due to choices you have or continue to make.  Before you get upset and think I am condemning you entirely, know that I lost over 40 lbs before starting medical school.  I was living a life that was leading to the same diseases I am currently trying to treat.  I understand the struggle and the frustration.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it.

I do not like to be the doctor who treats the symptoms and not the disease (or the root cause of the disease).  Treating High Blood Pressure and High Cholesterol and Diabetes with medications is just putting a band-aid on the symptoms.  It is not treating the root cause of the disease.  The real root of these diseases are poor lifestyle choices, specifically poor decisions in the food we eat and our low activity levels.

Treating these conditions with medications is only giving a person the ability to continue living a life that is slowly killing them.  As a physician who is supposed to be truly helping people, I seriously question my ability to continue contributing to this cycle.  The cycle I am referring to is outlined in the graph I made below:

The only way to break the cycles in yellow and red is to change our lifestyle.  As I said before, the lifestyle I am talking about is the food we eat and our activity level, but what does all of this have to do with Permaculture?

Geoff Lawton, the head of the International Permaculture Research Institute, once said “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”  Keep this in mind as I continue.

Let’s talk about activity level first.  Let me start by saying I do not expect anyone to become a marathon runner.  In fact, I think most people should not become marathon runners.  Cardiovascular exercise is great, but you can cause a lot of joint damage by running.  If we take up gardening (especially with a Permaculture method), our activity levels will be greatly improved.  Yeah, it can be that simple.

Now let’s talk about the food we eat.  The “Typical American Diet” is killing us!  There is growing information on this that is just too hard to ignore any longer. 

Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilema and the lead consultant to the movie Food, Inc.  I highly recommend this book and movie if you want excellent information (facts and sources) that support the idea that the American diet is very unhealthy. 

I rarely endorse books on health/nutrition/diet.  One of my few exceptions is In Defense of Food.  It is not written by a physician or a dietician but a journalist, the above mentioned Michael Pollan.  This is probably the best and simplest instruction on why and what we should eat.

In Defense of Food proclaims three basic guidelines:
1. Eat Food: Real food… not processed food-like substances with over a dozen ingredients that you cannot pronounce and that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.
2. Not Too Much: Avoid overeating… fairly self-explanatory, but the book gives great information on this.
3. Mostly Plants: I hate to feel hungry.  If you eat mostly fruits and vegetables, then you can fill up and feel full without excessive calories.  Plants have large amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients which keep your body healthy.  But you should still eat some meat and dairy as well.

Now, bringing this back to Permaculture

When you are growing your own food in a Permaculture way, you are eating real food (without chemicals that do poison our bodies regardless of what the agribusinesses tell us).  You are eating mostly plants, since that is mostly what you grow.  The diversity is so much greater that what you get in the grocery store (check out this entry on Heirloom Agriculture) which means even more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients for our health.

If all Americans were involved in personal Permaculture projects where they live then they would increase their activity levels and improve the food they ate.  And this doesn’t have to be an all-or-none thing.  Any change in the right direction will have growing benefits.

As a physician, I am excited because I firmly believe we could greatly improve the health of our nation if we embraced Permaculture and I also firmly believe that, to paraphrase Geoff Lawton:
Most of our health problems can be solved (or greatly improved) in a garden.

Will you join me?


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