World-renowned doctor & scientist, Dr. William Li, shares tips from his book, Eat to Beat Disease, on how to harness the power of food to heal.
William W. Li, MD, is an internationally renowned physician, scientist, & author of the New York Times bestseller “Eat to Beat Disease.” His groundbreaking work has led to the development of more than 30 new medical treatments and impacts care for more than 70 diseases including cancer, diabetes, blindness, heart disease, and obesity. His TED Talk, “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” has garnered more than 11 million views. He is president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation.
Maria Marlowe: [00:00:34] Welcome back to the Happier and Healthier Podcast. Today, we’re chatting with Dr. William Li, an internationally renowned physician, research scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. So Dr. Lee is on the show today to share some tips from his book, and he’s going to be sharing what foods we should be eating more of to improve our gut, improve our immunity, and ultimately help protect us and reduce our risk of various different chronic illnesses and diseases.
Maria Marlowe: [00:01:09] What I really like about Dr. Li is his very balanced approach. He really focuses more on what foods to add in versus what foods to take out. And I find this really refreshing. I think you will, too, and I think you’ll find it very practical and doable, which this show is all about. So we will jump into the interview shortly. Just a quick announcement and reminder the name of this podcast is changing from Happier and Healthier to something else in the coming weeks. So stay tuned for that. There’s going to be a new name and new artwork on your podcast platform, so be on the lookout for that. All right, let’s jump into the episode.
Maria Marlowe: [00:01:56] Dr. Li, welcome to the show.
Dr. William Li: [00:01:58] Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Maria Marlowe: [00:02:01] So the first question I have to ask is how did you get into being such a huge proponent for food as medicine? Because I know that’s a big part of your work, your book as a physician, but this is not something that’s really taught in medical school. So how did you come to discover the power of food as medicine and why are you such a big proponent?
Dr. William Li: [00:02:22] So I’m an internal medicine doctor, which means that I’m trained to treat men and women, young and old, healthy and sick, and something that I always felt really strongly about as a doctor is to not just chase disease, but really try to preserve health. And that’s really something that I’m, I would say, most mindful of as a doctor. And when I have a patient who’s sick, my goal always is to return him or her back to health, not just to, you know, be okay, prescribing the next round of medication. So that’s sort of my natural orientation.
Dr. William Li: [00:03:00] I’m also a research scientist, so I’m what they call a vascular biologist. So I study blood vessels – vascular. And it turns out the blood vessels are the sixty thousand mile channel that’s packed inside our bodies so extensive that it delivers every molecule of oxygen and every nutrient that we eat and breathe actually goes through these blood vessels and get delivered to our cells in our organs. And so I suppose I should also say that I have run a non-profit organization to try to find common denominators of diseases. So we’ve been very successful, actually helping to develop forty-one FDA-approved new treatments for cancer, diabetes, and vision loss – blindness. And it’s really because of that success in using science to move the needle forward in disease treatment.
Dr. William Li: [00:03:53] But I started realizing, wait a minute, what are we doing here? We’re just inventing to actually treat and chase disease, which is not something that I actually fundamentally think we should be focusing all of our time in. What if we could actually turn the clock back and figure out how to use the same science to be able to prevent the disease? If you can talk about prevention, you can’t talk about drugs. You’re going to talk about being safe and widely available like food. And so now it’s actually using the science of drug development to study what Mother Nature has put in her pharmacy, not with the p-h, but with an F. Farmacy. And that’s actually how I came to study food as medicine.
Maria Marlowe: [00:04:34] Yes. And so your book is called Eat to Beat Disease, which you know we all eat. So that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I know when I was growing up, I had this idea that when we got sick, whether it was disease or cancer, it was basically just bad luck. And so I now know that’s not the case, but I still think there are many people or places where this belief is still very prevalent that we are doomed to whatever our genes are. And if our parents got something, then we’re going to get it. So can you speak a little bit to genetics versus food and the science of epigenetics? We’re not doomed to our genes, right?
Dr. William Li: [00:05:16] That’s right. You know, our destinies are not set based on who our parents are and not even set based on what our lifestyle is. I mean, people do all kinds of things to themselves when they’re younger, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re actually going to meet with bad fate that we all fear. So. Let me just sort of say that how do we think about health? Health is not just the absence of disease, so that when we get sick, oops, it’s bad luck, you know. That’s Russian roulette. Not really how it all works.
Dr. William Li: [00:05:50] Our health from the time we’re born to our very last breath is a result of something really phenomenal. And that is, our body is hardwired with these health defense systems that form actually when we’re in our mom’s wombs. And actually, when we’re born, those self-defense systems actually fire up. Now, what are the health defense systems in the body? Well, first, I want you to think about a medieval fortress, right? Like everybody’s seen the Disney castle, and maybe some people have actually traveled to a real castle. And what you see is that there’s the moat, there’s the archway, there’s the big doors, there’s sloped walls, there’s little slits that the arrows get shot through.
Dr. William Li: [00:06:30] A castle is designed to keep the people inside safe and all around it are these defenses that prevent the enemy from invading easily. And our body is designed in the same way only instead of bricks and mortar, so to speak. Actually, our bodies are made of these incredible biological systems. So what are they? And once I tell you what these are, you’ll see why our fate isn’t set in stone.
Dr. William Li: [00:06:55] So the first of the five health defense systems that I write about in my book Eat to Beat Disease is our circulation. So this is that sixty thousand mile channel that I told you about that brings oxygen and nutrients to every cell. You have enough circulation. You’re fine. Your organs are going to be fine. Your cells are going to be fine. You don’t have enough circulation, well, your organs and tissues are going to be in trouble. So we know that this can happen if you have a stroke or if you have a heart attack or you have diabetes and a wound just doesn’t heal. And we also know that it can be a problem if diseases like cancer hijack your blood vessels and feed themselves.
Dr. William Li: [00:07:34] So the health defense is our body keeps just the right amount of blood vessels going all the time. It’s like a gardener coming to your lawn and mowing it every week to keep it at the perfect length or going to a golf course and making sure that everything is pruned exactly perfectly. So here’s the good news is that we all know that people do develop cancer and some people are at a higher risk. You could have a genetic risk for cancer if you had BRCA gene, for example, or some of these other inherited cancer genes but doesn’t mean that that’s your fate, necessarily because you can eat foods and you can even take some medicines that are common in the medicine cabinet that actually help your body. Your defenses prevent blood vessels from feeding those cancers.
Dr. William Li: [00:08:21] Now, medicines are less appealing than foods, but foods like green tea and even dark chocolate and leafy green vegetables and tomatoes, they all have been shown in the lab and in human studies to cut off the blood supply feeding cancer. So you can starve a cancer by eating the right foods yourself and so your fate isn’t set.
Dr. William Li: [00:08:43] Second health defense system is our stem cell, so I’m sure like me, when you were in grade school, your teachers told you salamanders can regenerate and starfish can regenerate, but humans can’t regenerate, right? Wrong. Turns out now that that chapter in a textbook has been ripped out and thrown away, and a new chapter has been written because humans do regenerate. We regenerate from the inside out slowly, and so our stem cells, our body’s ability to regenerate is another health defense system so that, you know, if you wind up actually cutting yourself or burning yourself, your body will regenerate part of that.
Dr. William Li: [00:09:24] If you lose some hair, it’ll grow back. You ever eat a really sharp chip or something and you cut the inside of the roof of your mouth? Man, that hurts, right? Guess what? Next day, it’s regenerated. It’s healed right back up. So our regeneration system is amazing. And so here’s the great thing is that we can actually speed up our regeneration by eating foods that will cull out our stem cells so that we can actually get more of this regenerative power as another example of how our fate isn’t necessarily set in stone.
Dr. William Li: [00:09:59] You know, somebody said, my parents seem to age much more quickly than I would like to. Well, you know, you have the power of not only avoiding too much sun and avoiding cigarette smoking and you know, and a hard life. You can also help yourself by eating foods that can help your stem cells regenerate. Same thing with gut health, with microbiome. Same thing with our DNA, which is another defense system against the damage that we can receive from the environment. Most people don’t know this, but if you have a home and you’re near the ground, radon, which is Earth’s natural radiation, penetrates through the ground. It’s like a microwave, and it kind of nukes us from the bottom up. All right?
Dr. William Li: [00:10:39] Now, how come we don’t actually wind up developing cancer all day long? It’s because our DNA actually protects any damage that that radon it seeks to the ground might get to us. And then finally, our last defense system is our immune system. That’s the fifth one. And we do know that we can pump up our immunity at the same time of lowering our inflammation. So even if you actually had a condition that might actually damage your immunity, we can actually boost it back up. So we know that we can enhance our immunity with immunotherapy, for example, is a big deal when it comes to cancer treatment. We also know that if your immune system is overactive, autoimmunity or inflammation, we can turn down the volume on that too. And foods are also able to do that, so our fate is far from being set in stone.
Maria Marlowe: [00:11:31] Yes, I love that, and I think that puts the power back in our hands and I think really encourages us to make those decisions. So let’s talk about the stem cells a little bit because that’s really interesting. Are there any foods in particular that are especially beneficial?
Dr. William Li: [00:11:48] Well, yes, absolutely. We all know the benefits of eating whole grains, right? It turns out that whole grains like barley, in the wintertime is more satisfying and heartwarming than sort of like a comfy bowl of barley soup or stew. And it turns out that barley has a natural, that whole grain has a natural chemical called Beta-D-glucan. It’s actually a kind of fiber. And when you eat that fiber, research has shown that it will actually coax out more stem cells in our bone marrow. So let me tell you a little bit about the stem cells that’s really fascinating.
Dr. William Li: [00:12:26] We are all made of stem cells so when we were formed, when our mom’s egg and dad’s sperm met, we were just a couple of cells. New cells kept on dividing and growing into a little ball, looks nothing like a baby but what happens is they turn into stem cells. These stem cells then start to figure out, am I going to be an eye or a nose? Am I going to be an arm or going to be a leg? Am I going to be the face or I’m going to be the butt, right? So the fact of the matter is we’re all made of stem cells.
Dr. William Li: [00:12:58] When we’re born and formed we’ve got excess stem cells over, just like a painter that comes to paint your house, they bring in a couple of extra cans, right, just in case they run out. Same thing. When we’re born, we’ve got some extra stem cells leftover, not used. And what happens is our body stuffs those into our bone marrow. So it’s kind of like that extra paint. You just stick it into your garage and put it up on a shelf just in case you need it. Well, throughout our lives, we pull out some of those extra stem cells and feed them to our organs to regenerate. So barley whole grains can actually grow that.
Dr. William Li: [00:13:36] Another one that’s kind of a crowd pleaser whenever I talk about this is dark chocolate. So studies have been done to show that dark chocolate, and I’m talking about 80 percent or more, so it’s pretty dark, actually, has polyphenols, flavanols. These are the natural chemicals that are found in chocolate. Now here’s the key thing. Chocolate is a confection. Usually, you put a lot of sugar into it, but the really skilled chocolatiers actually are able to play with pure cacao powder and make something really dark taste great without adding a ton of sugar to it. So we’re now kind of almost going back to the Aztecs that actually were the maestros of chocolate.
Dr. William Li: [00:14:18] And don’t forget, cacao actually is a plant-based food, right? So here’s how you take something that had this kind of not-so-healthy reputation, and it comes right back to thinking about getting as close to nature as possible. Well, studies have been done and people who are in their 60s, who had heart disease, who definitely had damaged blood vessels and poor blood flow, and it was found that they had two cups of hot cocoa made with dark chocolate twice a day for a month. And you measured their stem cells at the beginning and then you measured it again a month later, 30 days later, you could double the number of stem cells in their bloodstream. So culled it right out of the bone marrow.
Dr. William Li: [00:14:59] And then the question is, does that make a difference? Yes, because when you actually measured their resiliency, their blood vessels using a test, a test called flow-mediated dilation, you blow up a blood pressure cuff, you take an ultrasound, you see how resilient the blood vessels are. Those men who actually had hot cocoa for a month actually had twice the recovery, the ability of their resiliency, of their circulation as well. So again, that’s an example of a stem cell mobilizing food.
Maria Marlowe: [00:15:31] Well, I’m really glad to hear that because there’s not many people who don’t like chocolate, and I’m glad you brought that up, about the sugar part, because that was going to be my next question. Because we know that sugar, refined sugar is generally regarded as a food that is very bad for our immune system and bad for our health. So how to balance that? But of course, even using cocoa powder, adding that to a smoothie so you’re not getting any of the added sugar or going for those super dark chocolates.
Dr. William Li: [00:15:57] Exactly. And you know, by the way, here’s the thing our bodies need a little bit of sugar. Our brain basically subsists on sugar, so we don’t want to actually remove all evidence of sugar from our body. We want to be careful, very careful that we have as little added sugar as possible. So I think a typical can of soda, which is the most common place people get added sugar has got like 10 teaspoons of sugar added to it, right? So that’s not good for you. You know why? Because it actually stunts our stem cells.
Dr. William Li: [00:16:32] In a hypoglycemic, highly sugared environment in our bloodstream, our stem cells, which we were just talking about in our bone marrow, they’re stunned. It’s like they got blackjacked over the head and they can’t do the job that they were made to do very well. So we don’t want that to happen. We want to actually stay as resilient and as self-defended from the inside as possible.
Maria Marlowe: [00:16:57] And so in the book Eat to Beat Disease, you talk about over two hundred foods that are beneficial for our health. In terms of plant-based versus animal-based, are there any animal-based foods in there? Are they all plant-based?
Dr. William Li: [00:17:09] So look, first of all, I’m a scientist. So what scientists do is we talk about what is known, but we also talk about what’s not known. So I think that when it comes to food and health, so many people love to wave the flag of what is now and then make it sort of the gospel. So for me, what I’m going to tell your listeners is that we have to think about what we do know first. Now here’s what we do know. We know that from every research study ever done in humans that the most healthy pattern of eating is a mostly plant-based diet. What does that mean? Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Okay?
Dr. William Li: [00:17:55] So people who eat more predominantly that way, you don’t have to be a vegan. You don’t even have to be a vegetarian. But if you spend like 80 percent… This is what I do. You know, I’m not a pure vegetarian. About 80 percent of my eighty-five percent is really plant-based all the time. I think about that like plants are my main, my entree is how I think about it. And then anything else is like a side dish and I nibble at it. So and not all the time. So we know that that’s the truth. And there’s lots of reasons that those plant-based foods, they activate our health defenses, make our circulation better, help our stem cells tame our gut microbiome. So it’s a healthier ecosystem to support our brain and our immune system and our metabolism.
Dr. William Li: [00:18:42] Plant-based foods help our DNA protect us from the environment, and plant-based foods help our immune system. Now, does that mean that only plants are good? Because this is like sports or politics. You know, people choose their side and they defend it with a blade in their teeth. Well, here’s what I’ll tell you. Let’s look at the data. We know that plant-based foods are good for you. But you know what? There are some other fermented foods, including some dairy foods that have some beneficial properties. So yogurt, for example, has healthy bacteria, which is good for our gut microbiome.
Dr. William Li: [00:19:17] Remarkably, there’s been some evidence that cheese, some types of cheese can actually be good for you as well. Some hard Dutch cheeses actually have a vitamin called vitamin K2. It’s made by the bacteria that’s used to make the cheese. It can actually have cancer starving properties, for example, and heart health properties. The other thing is, some soft cheeses actually also have bacteria, the healthy bacteria that’s good for your gut, and even some grated cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, the kind from Italy that is prized and pretty costly. So you don’t have a lot of it, you have a little sprinkling, that’s made with the bacteria, by the way, called Lactobacillus Reuteri, which actually is a natural gut bacteria that helps our immunity and it can even lower the risk of breast cancer in research studies.
Dr. William Li: [00:20:02] And so, so there is some evidence that some forms of dairy are okay. Now obviously, I’m not recommending people eat a lot of cheese. That’s a lot of saturated fat. A lot of cheeses is a lot of sodium. Not so good for you. But it just goes to show that if you look at the data, there are some things that are not plant-based that are good for you. Now, a lot of people talk about seafood. Studies have shown that people who eat three ounces of fish a couple of times a week are definitely healthier. Their risk of death goes down actually quite substantially. Now what is it about fish? It’s actually the healthy omega-three fatty acids that’s found in fish. Where does the fish get that? So you’re talking about anchovies and mackerel and salmon and fish like that.
Dr. William Li: [00:20:46] And actually, there’s a lot of fish that I talk about and in Eat to Beat Disease that most people don’t think about. Hake, halibut, manila clams, I mean, things that if you actually eat seafood, it’s a delight to know that all these incredible, tasty seafood actually can be can potentially be good for you. Mussels – New Zealand mussels are also good. However, where do they get it? Where do they get those omega-3s? From plants. Plants in the sea. They get it from the algae and the plankton that actually make the omega-3. So at the end of the day, it’s still a plant-based origin of the goodness.
Dr. William Li: [00:21:22] Now we do know also is that eating a lot of red meat and eating processed meat is definitely not good for you. You know, if you savor it, I always tell people, if you really, really love something that isn’t so good for you, you know, you can have it once in a while. If you spend most of your time doing good things for yourself, you can afford to actually… Your defenses are strong enough but don’t do it all the time.
Dr. William Li: [00:21:49] You know when I was growing up, there would be these steakhouses that would give you these big multi-inch steaks. And everybody was so proud of it, and you know, now today we look at that using the knowledge we know we’re like, Holy cow, that’s one of the most unhealthy things that we could do for ourselves. So we flipped the equation. We’re now talking about plant-based foods. And by the way, it’s like back to the future because people have been talking about this for thousands of years.
Maria Marlowe: [00:22:21] Yeah, I’m so glad that you brought up all those points because sometimes people feel there’s been a big vegan movement in the past few years, and you can feel like, Oh, you have to be vegan to be healthy, or that’s the only way to do it. And it turns out that that’s not necessarily true. Plants are amazing, and as long as you’re eating an abundance of them like that 80 percent, 90 percent, you can still have animal products and animal products can actually be beneficial as well. I think that’s the important part is that they’ve gotten vilified so much. And it just becomes overwhelming. People are just so confused about what to eat because you hear it’s great and then you hear it’s fat and it’s overwhelming. But I think when you just kind of go back to basics, go back to the whole foods, you have lots of plants, eat your animal products in moderation, you know, it’s not actually that hard.
Dr. William Li: [00:23:09] And actually, you just brought up a really great point, which is that whole foods are fundamentally better for us in any form compared to ultra-processed food. Now I use the word ultra-processed because frankly, whatever you do to manipulate or even cook a food is technically processing it. But ultra processing is actually rendering a food into a form that, as they say, your grandmother wouldn’t recognize necessarily. And so this is where they extrude the food. They break it down. They color it. They do all kinds of crazy things to it. I mean, like little tarts that you put into the toaster, don’t grow on trees kind of thing.
Dr. William Li: [00:23:52] So those, I always tell people is to look at the side of a package of something you buy in a store. And if it’s got 20 or more ingredients and you can’t pronounce most of them, it’s probably an ultra-processed food. Again, those are the things that we should be eating way, way less of. Cut them down or cut them out. It’s your choice. But that’s the whole thing about, the wonderful thing about food and health. It really puts the power in our hands, so we get to decide that what we want to do.
Maria Marlowe: [00:24:23] So let’s talk a little bit about gut health. You brought it up and some probiotics earlier. So what is the role of our gut health in our overall health and how can we improve our gut health?
Dr. William Li: [00:24:36] So when I was in medical school learning to be a doctor, one of the things that we were taught in our first year is that bacteria are bad and we memorize all these bad bacteria. And then pretty soon we learn what antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria. So the mindset in even among doctors or maybe especially among doctors, is that you know, we want to get rid of, we want to destroy our bacteria. Well, I can tell you, that’s another kind of piece of entrenched thinking that is now giving way to a more enlightened, more scientific view that in fact, most of the bacteria in our body are actually good.
Dr. William Li: [00:25:17] Now when I say most, how much bacteria do we have? We’ve got thirty-nine trillion bacteria in our body and we’ve only got 40 trillion human cells. So pretty much we’re one to one. One part bacteria to one part of human. In fact, like you and I are looking at each other like this, we’re not even actually fully human. We’re 50 percent bacteria. And so that’s pretty amazing to think about that a human is actually composed of this ecosystem, this teeming ecosystem. What I try to say is that it’s mostly in the gut. Think about it like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This amazing ecosystem with these brilliant corals and creatures and fish and everything else living in harmony. And because we know a healthy coral reef makes a healthy sea right and we need them, we need that ecosystem.
Dr. William Li: [00:26:09] Same thing in our body. We need that barrier reef inside our body. Now those bacteria not only cooperate with each other but the important thing that we have begun to realize and I say begun because, you know, a lot of people talk about the gut microbiome like it’s a done deal, you know, gut health, you’ve got to take this probiotic and you’re done. It’s the super probiotic. We’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg. But I will tell you what we do know. We do know that if our gut bacteria is healthy, it helps our metabolism, helps our blood sugar, helps our blood cholesterol.
Dr. William Li: [00:26:41] We also know that healthy gut bacteria and this is research I’ve done at MIT can help us heal our wounds faster from the inside out. We cut ourselves, we always look at the cut from the outside, right? Is it scabbed over right? Actually, your gut bacteria help to heal it from the inside out, which is actually more important. We also know that gut bacteria, by the way, impacts our brain. So there’s the gut-brain axis some people may have heard about. So there’s this amazing, the same bacteria, by the way, that I told you is in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Lactobacillus reuteri also found in sourdough bread.
Dr. William Li: [00:27:17] Lactobacillus makes lactic acid. Lactic acid is what gives the tanginess of sourdough bread. It’s also in yogurt, and so this Lactobacillus that normally grows in the gut, now how does it get into our gut? It comes from mother’s milk. Something really amazing is that when a mom’s about eight months pregnant and she’s got 30 more days before the baby’s born, the uterus knows the timing and sends a signal to the mom’s colon – gut, lower gut, bowels. And it basically says we got about a month left. Let’s start moving the troops. And so bacteria essentially send a signal. It’s like calling an Uber.
Dr. William Li: [00:28:04] And these small cells called neutrophils, come by and pick up the bacteria from the mom’s gut and move them to the mom’s breast. And just like an Uber drops off that bacteria from the mom’s bowels to the breast right by the nipple. And so when the baby takes their first suckle, they are getting the mom’s Lactobacillus into their gut. Now, why is that important? Because think about it, this gut-brain axis, this one bacteria, and there are many bacteria that we don’t even know what all of them do. This one bacteria Lactobacillus helps your brain release oxytocin.
Dr. William Li: [00:28:40] Oxytocin actually is a feel-good social hormone, a bonding hormone. It’s the same hormone that we that our brains surge when we actually see a friend that we haven’t seen for a long time or when our relatives show up that we like. When you have a kiss and even at orgasm, our brain pumps out oxytocin for a real short burst. So the bottom line is that our gut bacteria, healthy gut bacteria is really important. Now many people are walking around with crappy guts, right?
Dr. William Li: [00:29:11] I’m sure all of us have gone through periods of life where, you know, it just doesn’t feel right. We all disguise it socially, but then we feel like crap. And sometimes, like in college, I remember you pull an all-nighter to do for an exam or socializing. You feel like crap the next day, and you might feel like crap for a few days because your gut is out of balance so night workers who don’t get really good quality sleep, their gut tends to be unbalanced. If you eat a lot of soda. Actually, that high sugar also poisons the gut bacteria. Ultra-processed food, not-good-for-the-gut bacteria. Artificial sweeteners, not good-for-the-gut bacteria, either.
Dr. William Li: [00:29:47] So, you know, here’s the great irony. People drink diet sodas to actually avoid sugar because they don’t want their metabolism to be screwed up and yet the artificial sweeteners actually damage the gut microbiome, which controls your metabolism, and actually your metabolism is out of whack anyway. And so here it is. We have to take care of this incredible ecosystem in our gut, and that’s our gut bacteria.
Maria Marlowe: [00:30:12] What are some foods that are helpful? Fermented foods, for example, like kimchi and sauerkraut, those sorts of things? What else?
Dr. William Li: [00:30:19] So fermented foods are really awesome because they actually contain bacteria. Most people don’t know how kimchi or sauerkraut or frankly, originally, how yogurt was made. But you know, if you go back and see how these foods were traditionally made. Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is cabbage and water and salt chopped up really fine, and most people don’t know this. But sauerkraut is not from Germany or Eastern Europe. Sauerkraut was originally from China, where people were taking cabbage that they got in China and transporting it across the Gobi Desert on the Silk Road. And of course, this long journey a head of cabbage would never stay fresh. And so they chopped it up and they salted it and they put it in a liquid.
Dr. William Li: [00:31:03] And by the way, the bacteria from the air just drops in there and it becomes this cauldron of bacteria that ferments kind of like wine ferments, right? There’s lots of things that are meant, that we turn into our foods like wine and cheese and everything else, and sauerkraut and kimchi are all made that. So those healthy bacteria, so you think, well, maybe the bacteria in the air is really bad for us, right? I don’t want to be eating that crappy bacteria. Well, here’s the amazing thing. In kimchi and sauerkraut, good bacteria dominate, so most bacteria actually is good. Not bad. Remember, I told you how I was led to believe in medical school that most bacteria are bad? No, no. Most bacteria are actually good.
Dr. William Li: [00:31:46] So in kimchi, by the way, which is one of my favorite foods. If you have some kimchi, you cut it up and it’s just an amazing taste. They even discovered out of Korea that the tradition, thousand-year-old tradition of kimchi led to the evolution of a new bacteria that lives and grows in kimchi that fights influenza. So here’s a bacteria that actually protects you against the flu. It’s amazing, right? And basically, the bacteria we eat adjoins the ecosystem and it helps to protect our health. So fermented foods are really good, but that’s not all. Those are probiotic foods.
Dr. William Li: [00:32:25] Prebiotic foods, which is, you know, a little bit of an artificial distinction. Our foods that feed our bacteria is how I like to explain it because I can’t ever remember pre or pro. They kind of sound the same. So to me, what I say is that there’s all these foods that feed our bacteria as well. So when we sit down three times a day to eat food, we’re feeding ourselves, all right. Like, have yourself some food, have yourself some lunch. Actually, we are feeding our human cells, the 40 trillion human cells and whatever we don’t absorb, whatever we don’t use as nutrients passes down to our bowels and it feeds our gut bacteria.
Dr. William Li: [00:33:03] So the fiber in leafy greens, in a salad, in kale, Swiss chard, spinach, mushrooms, we don’t really absorb that. It passes through. And again, when I was in medical school, they taught us, oh, that fiber just stimulates the gut so you can be regular and have regular bowel movements. Not so. That’s not really what that fiber does. That fiber is the food that the bacteria eat. So we’re feeding our bacteria.
Dr. William Li: [00:33:33] So think about it. If you have a dog or a cat or a parrot or parakeet, or if you have fish, you are making sure you feed your pet every day. And that’s what we’re doing when we eat our regular food. Healthy plant-based foods contain soluble fiber that feeds our gut bacteria and makes them happy. I say that for our gut health, we provide room and board for our gut bacteria, and they pay us back for room and board. So we give them the space and then we feed them. They pay us back by actually controlling our metabolism and controlling our brain and emotions and our immune system. Because, by the way, in our gut, 70 percent of our immune system is located right next door in our gut, next to the bacteria. So there’s a really close relationship between good gut health and good immunity.
Maria Marlowe: [00:34:23] So speaking of immunity, now we’re going into the winter season where there is a lot of influenza, colds, of course, COVID is still lingering around. So what are some of the top foods for our immune system? You mentioned kimchi. Anything else or things that we might not even be aware of?
Dr. William Li: [00:34:38] Well, look, anything that’s good for our gut microbiome is going to be helpful to our immune system, but our immune system is quite an amazing thing. I try to explain immunity and the immune system to people by saying, think of your immune system like an army of super-soldiers. You’ve got your Navy SEALs, you’ve got your Army Rangers, you’ve got your marines. These are all special forces. They all have their own special weapons, their own training. At the end of the day, they’re all cooperating for the larger good right. And that’s what our immune system is. Different super soldier cells in our body that actually protect us. Some of them do a great job against viruses and bacteria, and their weapons are things like… Bullets are antibodies that we actually have.
Dr. William Li: [00:35:26] So I tell people, don’t worry about memorizing and trying to remember all the different parts of the immune system. Think about it as an army of super soldiers. Now, these soldiers need rations, they need to be fed and they respond well – when we treat our body well, they respond really well. Also, so what are some of the foods that are really good for our immune system? Well, one that some people might be surprised by are broccoli sprouts.
Maria Marlowe: [00:35:51] I had some this morning.
Dr. William Li: [00:35:53] You did? Good for you. How did you have it? What did you do?
Maria Marlowe: [00:35:56] I put them on top of eggs.
Dr. William Li: [00:35:58] Ok, cool. Great. Easy to make. They’re kind of nutty. They’ve got a little nice texture to it. They make things look nice as well. And here’s the key thing. Broccoli sprouts are like three to four-day-old baby broccoli, and everybody knows what a big broccoli looks like. It’s like a gigantic stem if you’ve ever seen them at a farmer’s market? Some treetops, the florets. And it turns out that the big broccoli is filled with a natural chemical called sulforaphane. That’s kind of what makes broccoli taste classically broccoli-like.
Dr. William Li: [00:36:30] And we’ve done studies on this, and it turns out there’s a lot of it in the florets, the trees that, like our moms, told us to eat when we were kids. But there’s twice as much in the stem so never throw your stems away. But that’s where we go down to the broccoli sprouts because the broccoli sprout is no treetops, really. It’s like a little tiny bud. Mostly the stem. And it turns out broccoli sprouts have one hundred times the sulforaphane so that grown-up broccoli does. So pretty much when a broccoli sprouts literally from its seed, it’s got all the sulforaphane it’s ever going to have. And as it gets bigger just to get distributed.
Dr. William Li: [00:37:05] Now, studies have shown in young people getting a flu vaccine. This is a research study where they took half of the people that actually got the flu… Everybody got the flu vaccine. Half of them got a placebo shake which was just like a green shake that looked green and the other half got a shake made with broccoli sprouts. And it turns out that when they looked in the bloodstream of people who had the flu vaccine and the broccoli shake that the broccoli sprout eaters, the broccoli sprouts shake had 22 times better immune response. So this tiny little thing that you sprinkle on your eggs can really ramp up your immune system. That’s not, by the way, not food versus medicine like one is better than the other. This is just an example of how foods can actually help our medicines even work better.
Dr. William Li: [00:38:00] Blueberries are great for pumping up. Our T-cells, our natural killer cells. These are defenses been shown in athletes. If you work out really hard after you stop, your immune system takes a little dip before it comes back up. If you eat blueberries, your immune system never dips down. It stays the same the whole way. So there’s lots and lots of good stuff with blueberries. Cranberries. That old adage that you know women should drink cranberry juice to prevent bladder infections. It’s true, actually. But now we know exactly what it does it takes these delta gamma T cells and coats the lining of our bladder, which then helps us fight off bacteria faster. So those are just a couple of examples of immune-boosting foods.
Maria Marlowe: [00:38:41] And what I think is most interesting about these foods is that you don’t need a ton of them. You know, you might think, oh, I need to eat like a pound of blueberries a day in order to get the benefits. No, actually, you don’t. I follow you on Instagram and you had posted maybe a couple of weeks ago something about what is the amount that you need? I believe it was… Was it blueberries to prevent breast cancer? And what was the amount?
Dr. William Li: [00:39:03] Well, it’s just like a cup and a third. I mean, it’s not very much. And this is, I think, the thing that makes the science different than the fad. You know when you talk about fads or you talk about trends and you talk about marketing, you know, somebody is making some statement and usually, it’s a little bit of hyperbole to catch attention or to make a sale, and then all of a sudden everybody thinks, Oh, I got to have it right? It’s like a tennis shoe I got to have or a pair of glasses I got to have. Well, with food it’s not really that way.
Dr. William Li: [00:39:35] And more isn’t always more. That’s one key thing about the body that people need to understand. A little bit, not enough, a little bit more, better. A little bit more, better. And then a ton of it, you might not actually get the benefit anymore. The benefits may actually go down. This is a concept called hormesis where you’re always looking for the balance. You’re looking for just the right amount, right?
Dr. William Li: [00:40:02] So think about it. You’re getting dressed and getting ready to go out for the evening, all right? And you’re getting dressed for a date. And like, you know, exactly when you’ve done a little too much. A little too much, make up a little too much jewelry, a little bit too much on your outfit, so you want to prune that back. And that’s basically the same thing with food. There are food doses that I write about in my book. It’s a new concept. Food is medicine means that we need to know something about how much we should be eating to get the right result of what we’re seeking.
Maria Marlowe: [00:40:33] And the good news is that it’s not a ton, so even if you have that handful of blueberries or that little sprinkle of broccoli sprouts, these foods are so powerful that that’s all you need.
Dr. William Li: [00:40:44] I’ll tell you another amazing research study that was done with eight hundred and twenty-six people who had stage three colon cancer, right? So that’s pretty serious for many people. That sounds like a death sentence, but they’re getting treated with chemo and other standard treatments. So this was a study done by Harvard and all these other major cancer centers, and they found that those people with stage three colon cancer if they ate two handfuls of nuts – tree nuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, macadamia, Brazil nuts, you name it, that if they only had two handfuls per week, not very much, their chances of dying were 50 percent lower.
Maria Marlowe: [00:41:27] Wow.
Dr. William Li: [00:41:28] 50. Five zero. And so there’s no other drug you can add to chemo to actually get that kind of an effect. So again, food is powerful. Now by the way, what do these nuts do? They contain healthy oils like omega 3s, plant-based omega 3s, and they also contain a lot of fiber, that guess what? Feeds our microbiome, which then talks to our immune system and our immune system with these super-soldiers help fight off the cancer as well. So again, it actually makes sense when you think about the science.
Maria Marlowe: [00:42:02] So I’m curious. I mean, there are so many diets out there now, and I think that you were talking about science and politics and how people kind of pick their side and they stick on it. I feel like that’s kind of the way with diets, it’s very vegan or paleo or now the caveman diet. So, you know, it’s popular, keto, all these things. So I’m curious…
Dr. William Li: [00:42:20] By the way, I heard recently, somebody told me that there’s a new diet called Ento. Have you heard of this?
Maria Marlowe: [00:42:27] Oh, no. What is that?
Dr. William Li: [00:42:28] E-n-t-o. It’s where you only eat bugs.
Maria Marlowe: [00:42:31] Oh, wow.
Dr. William Li: [00:42:32] Like, like entomology for sustainability. But anyway, go ahead.
Maria Marlowe: [00:42:36] Wow. I know crickets, like cricket powder and cricket protein powder was a thing. I didn’t know that we were taking it that far right. I’d love to hear just like, maybe like a rapid-fire. What are your thoughts on different diets? So paleo? What are your thoughts on that? Where is it? What are the good things? Or maybe where is it may be falling short?
Dr. William Li: [00:42:59] There are dozens of popular diets out there. South Beach, Keto, Paleo, you know, you name it. Pegan, vegan. They all have some history behind it, OK? And I think that history probably, you know, a lot of these healthy diets often contain a lot of healthy foods as well. Sometimes they don’t. But at the end of the day, what winds up happening is once you slap a label on it and you put somebody who’s marketing it, who’s not a scientist who doesn’t know the data, who is really trying to promote the approach, the fad, as opposed to looking at the evidence or the science, you wind up kind of drifting away from the course that you started out, which is, people are totally fair game to try to find a better way to eat.
Dr. William Li: [00:43:50] And by the way, here’s the other thing I think it’s so important Maria, is to communicate is that every one of us is individual. Every one of us is different. Every one of our bodies are going to respond to food slightly differently. My body’s going to respond slightly differently than your body to the same food, and that’s okay. That’s why, in part, we have preferences besides what we were introduced growing up in our household, where you can remember your mom’s cooking, the smell of your mom’s cooking, honestly as we kind of go through life there are certain things that we naturally gravitate to, and that’s our body is speaking to us, right? And that’s OK as well.
Dr. William Li: [00:44:27] And that’s why these rigid diets that get marketed and get this shiny kind of code of armor about it. And then these klieg lights and then they go all over the internet and everybody starts buzzing about them. That’s what we kind of veer off the path. I think that the principles that I told you is regardless of paleo, keto, vegan, south beach, Ornish diet, I mean, any of these, they all have good intentions, and I think they all the good ones have a core of some plant-based foods, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, good sources of dietary fiber, healthy fats and minimizing red meat.
Dr. William Li: [00:45:05] So anything that actually diverts from that general path, I would say, got to be careful about because you do want to actually, our bodies were designed for that pattern that I was telling you about that really, really does use plants as our main source. Good for us and good for the planet too, right?
Maria Marlowe: [00:45:25] And so I’m curious, what do you eat in a typical day? What’s your breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Dr. William Li: [00:45:30] People always want to know. Dr. Li, what do you eat? So I will tell you this morning, I had a small glass of pomegranate juice. Why? Because I like pomegranate juice. I always do things that I like. It turns out that the ellagitannins in pomegranate actually help my gut secrete healthy mucus, which then will grow a healthy gut bacteria called Akkermansia that communicates with the immune system and helps protect you against cancer and other diseases as well. I had a little tiny glass of that. It’s wintertime, so I actually had a Mandarin orange. I just peeled it up, and it’s a great source of vitamin C. There’s a ton of dietary fiber in it.
Dr. William Li: [00:46:12] Vitamin C has been shown by studies in Japan, for example, to lower the flares of lupus because it’s anti-inflammatory. And if you don’t like oranges, I happen to like oranges. But if it’s summer, if it’s not winter and orange is a winter fruit, winter citrus. But in the summertime, I’ll have strawberries, which are a good source of vitamin C or guava. It’s also a great source of vitamin C as well. So I basically, I just had a little thing of pomegranate juice. I had a Mandarin orange and I had my coffee. So coffee has chlorogenic acid. Chlorogenic acid has been shown to lower the rates of dementia. It’s going to help to protect you against cancer. It helps your blood vessels stay healthier as well. And here’s some recent research that I think is really amazing. So this chlorogenic acid, it’s the coffee bean, the coffee plant’s way of protecting itself against insects.
Dr. William Li: [00:47:13] So if you have coffee that comes from a conventionally grown coffee plantation, it’s sprayed with pesticides. And so the bugs aren’t eating it. And so it doesn’t need to make as much chlorogenic acid because it’s covered by the pesticides. If you go to an organically grown coffee plantation or organic-style plantation, they don’t actually use pesticides. The bugs are nibbling at the coffee plant the whole time. And how does it respond? It protects itself by making more chlorogenic acid. So if you have coffee, organic coffee, it’s not that you have less pesticide, it’s that you got more of the good stuff in it as well. So I had a double espresso made with organic coffee this morning.
Maria Marlowe: [00:47:59] And what do you usually do… what’s a typical dinner in your house?
Dr. William Li: [00:48:03] Well, I’ll tell you how I actually choose dinners. I first will look at what’s seasonal and what’s in the market. I spent a gap year in Europe, and so I kind of live this life where I learned a lot of traditional practices. And, you know, people in Europe used to go to the market twice a week and they would avoid the supermarket. Except for emergencies. And so I’m always trying to think about what seasonal mushrooms are seasonal. There’s winter vegetables that are hardier, sometimes the leftover from the summer, like cabbages and radicchio. You see a lot of these hardier vegetables, so I want you to go for those. So I always choose the veggie first, and then I’ll figure out how do I plant a meal around that?
Dr. William Li: [00:48:50] So I don’t choose a meat first. I don’t choose a pasta first. I’ll choose the vegetables and see how I want to build around. And so last night, let’s see, what did we have? We had delicata squash that was oven roasted and mixed with some dates to give it a little natural sweetness and mixed with some red onions. And these are all roasted in the oven and then a little side of a little bit of sourdough bread on the side. So again, you know, just picks up like the seasonal stuff. And then we had lots of other… Oh, you know what? There was also a really, really nice salsa verde with capers and olives and parsley and a little bit of olive oil chopped up to go with the bread.
Maria Marlowe: [00:49:31] Oh, nice, that sounds so good. Capers are really good. Those are great food, too.
Dr. William Li: [00:49:36] Yeah, exactly. And packed with chlorogenic acid.
Maria Marlowe: [00:49:39] So this has been a really interesting talk. If you guys want to learn more about the foods to beat disease, you can check out Dr. Li’s book called Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How You Can Heal Itself. It’s a New York Times bestseller. You can find it wherever books are sold, and you can also find Dr. William Li on social media on his website, and I’ll put all those links in the show notes. Thank you so much for being here.
Dr. William Li: [00:50:06] It’s such a pleasure to have this conversation. Thank you.