It’s Not What You Know; It’s What You Do!

Healthy Eating Tip: Health is in the big picture, not the details!

Part 5: It’s not what you know; it’s what you do!

This is the fifth and final post in the series of healthy eating tips; health is in the big picture, not the details. This topic is born directly out of my own lifestyle modification experience.

When I bumped into heart disease in 2003, I applied the critical thinking skills I’d developed as a hands-on food and beverage troubleshooter and consultant to my new heart disease challenge. I was severely overweight, my blood pressure was elevated, I was pre-diabetic and exhibiting signs of glucose intolerance, was always constipated and tired, and I wasn’t sleeping well. I didn’t look or feel good, and there were parts of my body I hadn’t seen in a couple of years! Fresh from the emergency room, I ran directly to the internet machine and started searching for answers. It didn’t take me very long to run into the phrase “lifestyle modification” and discover that food can heal. But when I lined up all the lifestyle modification advocates to compare them, they weren’t all holding hands singing kumbaya! They all had slightly different dietary protocols and were arguing about the details, and that was no help to me at all. As I dove deeper and deeper into the minutia of nutrition, it became clear that it was a minefield of utter confusion down in the details, and absolutely none of it was going to help me decide what to have for supper!

It seems like everywhere I turned, another expert was detailing exactly where I’d gone wrong with my lifestyle. My hands were in the air already.”Okay, I give up, I get it, but what do I DO?!” Right at this time, I discovered Bruce Lee and the quote that I had framed and hung in my gym. It is in my living room right now, hovering over me as I write.

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Willing is not enough; we must do.”
– Bruce Lee

What mattered to me on June 23, 2003, is the same thing that matters to every recently diagnosed person I meet: what do I do?

I decided to back up from the details and look at the whole “big” picture. I saw that all of the lifestyle modification advocates disagree on the details, so what did they all agree on? They all agree that we need to consume less salt, fat, sugar, meat–especially high-fat meat, dairy–especially high-fat dairy and we need to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I don’t know any self-respecting nutrition expert, dietitian, medical practitioner, or public health official that would disagree with that statement. Frankly, it would just be irresponsible to say anything different! If that is what we are doing wrong, might we not find health in doing the opposite? I researched every kind of diet out there and found out that every responsible and effective diet on the planet is built on these general macronutrient principles; eat less salt, fat and sugar, reduce fat–especially saturated fat and cholesterol, reduce all processed food and increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains. All effective diets on the healthy diet spectrum from the moderate DASH diet to the more rigorous plant-based whole food diet all follow those same general guidelines. I call them the pillars of healthy eating.

The second Bruce Lee quote I found was also directly applicable.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless,
and add what is specifically your own.”
– Bruce Lee

One of the most wonderful work experiences I have had was as a traveling food and beverage instructor for the Caribbean Hotel Association. I lived and worked in the best resorts in the Caribbean and was given access to the back of the house on all of those properties, where I saw how all of them did things behind the scenes. It was a look behind the curtain at some of the best resorts in the world! I quickly discovered that there was no “right” way to anything, just what was best for that specific time and place, given the resources at hand at that particular moment. The staff at Sandy Lane on Barbados did things differently than the team at Malliouhana or Cap Juluca on Anguilla, and the staff at Curtain Bluff on Antigua did it a completely different way as did the staff at the Half Moon and Tryall Club on Jamaica. All of them were the best solutions for that time, given the resources at hand. That has since tainted the way I look at every logistical challenge. It is like a pair of sunglasses that allows me to come up with solutions to problems specific to an individual facility and time. I looked through those glasses and used the advice of Bruce Lee as I started to create a lifestyle modification plan that was right for me in 2003, given the resources I had on hand.

Don’t pay any attention to what people say; watch what they do! When I put those special sunglasses on, it also reduces what I hear people say to mumbling and enhances what I see people do. That’s what matters!

Armed with all of this, I started to look at what the people that have been successful with lifestyle modification do.

In my search for who is doing it and not just talking about it, I came across the National Weight Control Registry. The NWCR is a large, now 27-year-old study of more than 10,000 people that have lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least one year. The average weight loss is 66 lbs, and the average duration is 5.5 years. What they do in the study is to ask the most successful weight losers in the United States what they did to lose the weight and how they keep it off. They then compile all of that information and make it available to all of us. Cool right? All we have to do is look at that information and do the same thing! Here’s some of what the researchers found.
A full 45% of them lost weight on their own.

  • 94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.
  • 78% eat breakfast every day.
  • 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.

After hurting my head looking at all those nutrition details, my first observation was that it seemed pretty simple. I was happy to see that! Change the way you eat, get up off the couch and move around some! Just walking was the most reported form of exercise. Now there’s a straightforward call to action from people that have done it!

I never stopped looking for advice from people that were doing it, and later I found a National Geographic expedition designed to uncover the secrets of longevity led by Dan Buettner. Buettner and his team found the five demographically confirmed, geographically defined areas with the highest percentage of centenarians:

  • Loma Linda, CA, USA;
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy;
  • Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan.

They called them “Blue Zones,” and the team’s findings were later published in a book entitled “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.”  It has since blossomed into a website with a newsletter I would suggest as a learning resource for anybody interested in lifestyle modification.

In blue zones, people reach age 100 at ten times greater rates than in the United States. A team of anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists, and researchers worked to identify the lifestyle characteristics that explain this longevity. They found that the lifestyles of all Blue Zone residents shared nine specific characteristics, and they have little to do with isolated markers and more to do with general lifestyle habits.

The nine things that all of the centenarians shared are:

  1. They move naturally. That is exercise is not specifically sought out as an activity; it is incorporated into their natural life over the course of a day. None of them pump iron, run marathons, or even join gyms. They just live an active lifestyle.
  2. They have a purpose to their life. The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de Vida”; for both, it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” It is their sense of purpose.
  3. They “downshift” away from stress and practice routines that reduce chronic inflammation that is common to many chronic diseases. The routine doesn’t seem to matter and the activities run the gamut from remembering their ancestors, prayer, napping, and taking part in happy hour.
  4. They do not overeat. All of the successful centenarians practiced a form of the “80%” rule. They stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full is the difference between losing weight or gaining it.
  5. They all ate a plant-based diet. That is plant-based, not always vegan. Some cultures eat meat, but as a few as 4-5 times a month and no more than 3-4 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.
  6. Very moderate, but regular drinking of wine. All of the cultures except the Adventists in Loma Linda, California, drink 1-2 glasses of wine with food and friends.
  7. All of them belong to some manner of a faith-based community. The religion or denomination does not matter.
  8. They are a member of a family and commit to a life-long partner. Many live with full extended families.
  9. They are all members of a small social network support group that supports healthy behaviors. “Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So, the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.”

Recently the well-known lifestyle modification advocate Dr. Dean Ornish pulled it all together in four very simple things we can all do to improve health; eat well, move more, reduce stress, and love more. That is precisely what Dan Buettner found in the blue zones! Dr. Ornish’ s book, “Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases”  is another valuable resource for people interested in lifestyle modification. His website is also a good source of information and inspiration for those on the lifestyle modification journey.

In regards to exercise, you need to start very slowly! Especially if you are highly motivated, you will have to fight the urge to start out doing two-furs like you were 18 years old again. I eventually did two workouts a day each for 2-3 hours, but I didn’t start there, and if I were to increase my exercise regime right now, it wouldn’t be anywhere near that level! Especially if you have not exercised in a long time, or ever, it is very easy to injure yourself. You need to make sure that your doctor approves of you starting to exercise and follow their recommendations. Walking is a great way to start. That’s how I started. I walked until I was short of breath, and my heart rate increased, and then I stopped, sat my fat butt down, and started again when I caught my breath, and my heart rate was back to normal. I couldn’t walk 20 yards when I started, and the following year, I ran two 26-mile marathons in one weekend on my elliptical trainer.

Start slow, don’t worry about what you look like, stay motivated, and be patient, but do it!

Here are the references for today’s Healthy Eating Tip:

The National Weight Control Registry.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society, 2010.

Buettner, Dan, and Sam Skemp. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American journal of lifestyle medicine July 7, 2016;10:5 318-321.

Ornish, Dean, and Anne Ornish. Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases. Ballantine Books, 2019.

Dean Ornish’s s condensation on Articles. Accessed March 15, 2020.

Campbell, T. Colin, Jacobson, Howard. Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. BenBella Books, 2014.