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Disease-Proof Your Body: Interview with Dr. David Katz

Katz DL headshot

While Dr. David Katz was completing his medical residency in internal medicine two decades ago, he developed a desire to understand the ailments his patients were suffering. What was the root cause for the inflammation behind chronic illness? Now a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health and founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, Dr. Katz has published nearly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, nearly 1,000 newspaper articles, and authored or co-authored 15 books to date, including his just-released, Disease-Proof, co-authored with Stacey Colino.

Disease Proof

Named one of the 25 most influential people in the lives of children by Children's Health Magazine, a nominee for U.S. Surgeon General in 2009, and a contributor for publications like O Magazine, New York Times, and Huffington Post, Dr. Katz has one very full (but healthy) plate. On top of all that, he is husband to wife, Catherine, and five children.

So I am thrilled that he took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

BOW: Dr. Katz, in your book, you reference a figure of "80%". We have the power to reduce our risk of any chronic disease- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, dementia- by 80% through lifestyle choices. How did you get that figure?

Actually, this is very well established in the peer-reviewed literature, and we address the particulars in the book. The first study to establish this stunning figure was published in 1993:

Actual causes of death in the United States, 1993

Since then, a steady drumbeat of publications has reaffirmed that same, compelling truth at regular intervals:

Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000

Healthy living is the best revenge; findings from the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition- Potsdam Study

Influence of individual and combined health behaviors on total and cause-specific mortality in men and women: the United Kingdom health and lifestyle survey

Following cancer prevention guidelines reduces risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.

There are many more studies where these came from!

Our feet, forks, and fingers truly are the master levers of medical destiny. We truly can reduce our lifetime risk of ANY major chronic disease by 80%. But most people simply don’t know how to get there from here. That requires skill power, and that’s what Disease Proof is for.

BOW: Oh, I like that! We talk a lot about will power when it comes to lifestyle, but you say we should focus on "skill power". What is the difference and why is that important?

Will power is desire. But if you want something badly, but don't know how to get there- it’s a formula for failure, and frustration. Most worthwhile things require a skill set. Driving a car does; working on a computer does; using a smart phone does. We learn the skills we need, and apply them; we don’t just hope that ‘wanting’ to drive badly enough will substitute for actually learning how!

In the modern world, getting to health- eating well, being active- just doesn’t come naturally anymore; it takes skill.

That skill set can be learned, and applied. You still need will-you have to care to get started. But then, instead of leaning on will every step of the way, you can count on a skill set to take over. That’s skill power; it’s not just knowing WHAT, but knowing HOW.

We all know we should eat well, but that means being able to identify better foods; find them; afford them; get your family to love them; prepare them; make them be convenient; and on and on. With the right skill set, all of that is manageable; without it, it’s overwhelming. We want to put that skill set into everyone’s hands. That’s why we wrote the book.

BOW: That is very smart. And so true. People do get frustrated and beat themselves up when they can't immediately jump on board with an entirely new lifestyle. Back to genes, because I find this topic so fascinating. While we can't change our genes, the exciting new sciences of epigenetics and nutrigenomics continue to show that we CAN change genetic expression. Can you offer a little scientific insight as to how that works?

Genes are not set in stone; they can turn on and turn off, dial up or dial down their activity. That activity is called transcription- it’s what the genes tell the body to make, usually some protein. So, what matters most, generally, is not what genes you HAVE- but what the genes you have are DOING. By changing our behaviors for the better, we can do the same to our genes. Gene products- proteins- associated with better health, such as suppressing cancer growth- are propagated by the very same behaviors that foster health in general.

BOW: You address sugar addiction in your book, which is a huge concern these days. The average American consumes up to 140 lbs- an entire person- in added sugars annually. But sugar addiction is tough. Describe a solid baby step that somebody could make this week to address that addiction.

We show in Disease Proof how to identify ‘stealth’ sugar- gram after gram of sugar hiding in foods you never even thought of as sweet (pasta sauce, for example). By trading up these choices, you can remove all those grams of sugar from your diet without ever even touching a ‘sweet’ food. Before long, your favorite sweet foods will be too sweet, because cutting out all that stealth sugar will put your taste buds through rehab, and make them more sensitive to sugar; you will actually prefer less. That’s the beauty of SKILL power. Will power means toughing it out as you give up your favorite dessert. Skill power means taking a much easier path, and turning your favorite dessert into a food you love, that loves you back!

BOW: Love it! I always say that it's not about denying yourself sugary treats, but about getting to a place where you really don't want those things anymore.

Dr. Katz, you continually profess the importance of adding life to our years. Western medicine has done a great job of adding years to our lives, but not necessarily the other way around. In your opinion, what is the most important thing we could do today to begin adding life to our years?

Recognize that the power to do just that resides with you, and no one else. A doctor can’t do it for you. Then, once you know it’s up to you, you should care enough to want to make it happen. Then all you need to do is acquire the skill set that makes it possible. Most of us want a long and vital life; we certainly want that for those we love. It is within reach. Really knowing that, and acting accordingly, changes everything!

Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Katz! If you'd like to read more of what Dr. Katz has to say, check out these links:

Don't Call Obesity A Disease

Holistic Care: Can We Handle The Truth?

Weight Is Not A Choice

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