By Kathryn Hayward, M.D. and Elle Stetson-Dibble
International Integrators Facilitator Caty Genestra Villalonga has started a movement in Spain around the common expression “cuatro cosas” or “four things” to increase awareness about the benefits of eating whole, plant-based foods. As discussed in the January 25th blog, the 4 COS4S Project started by inviting restaurants on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca to add to their menus “4 things” whose ingredients are whole food, plant-based and do not include any animal products and at most a small amount of refined products such as oil, sugar and salt. 4 COS4S now includes a Restaurant Project, an Education Project and a Medical Project.
Caty was born in Mallorca in 1952, during a time of economic crisis. When she was five years old, her parents emigrated to Venezuela, where she spent her childhood. Caty always had aspirations to become a doctor but ended up working in the world of finance. During her 35 years in that profession, she led initiatives in a financial institution founded by an educator, which, she says, “was the first in Spain to introduce ethics into the world of money.”
Caty believes that “we come to this world to learn, and our unique legacy is the love that we leave in things that we do and people that we touch.”
The 4 COS4S Mission
The expression “cuatro cosas” (“four things”) is used frequently in Spain. For instance, on your way to the grocery store, you might say, “I’m picking up four things.” Or you might ask a friend to meet you in a café, saying, “I want to tell you about four things that happened at work last week.” The number of things usually is not four, but the literal translation of the expression is four things.
Eating a diet primarily comprised of whole, plant-based foods is good for:
- Our Bodies
- The Earth
- Animal Welfare
- World Hunger
This week’s blog will focus on the first of the four areas of interest (Our Bodies), and upcoming blog posts will explore the others (The Earth, Animal Welfare and World Hunger). Contributing as an author to this series of posts is Elle Stetson-Dibble, who co-founded Veg Heads, a student-led initiative in her Massachusetts high school. She recently became aware of 4 COS4S and has added her strong writing and strategic-thinking skills to the project. Elle’s involvement in 4 COS4S has expanded its reach beyond Mallorca and the borders of Spain.
The top three contenders in the competition among things that sicken and kill humans in developed countries are cancer, cardiovascular disease and medical errors. In 1930, heart disease replaced infectious disease as the biggest threat and, by 1940, cancer, which until then had occupied the eighth cause-of-death spot, crept up to number two and has stayed there. An interactive graph from a 2012 article in the New England Journal of Medicine illustrates these points.
The 20th century’s advances in conventional medicine, which improved health and lifespan through the development of antibiotics, vaccines, and antimicrobial and surgical procedures, knocked infections out of first place. During the same century, changes in lifestyle, mostly related to diet and sedentary habits, brought heart disease and cancer to the top killer slots. People now also increasingly suffer from other lifestyle-related conditions including respiratory diseases, obesity, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, chronic pain, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.
The medical system is increasingly becoming a primary part of many people’s lifestyles. A 2013 Mayo Clinic report found that nearly 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug. In 2014, Americans spent $31 billion on non-prescription drugs.
While conventional medicine has its place, we have become overly reliant on it and need to take more responsibility for our own health. With its offers of a vast array of medications, tests, procedures and hospital experiences, the medical system, while meant to help us, can contribute to illness and death, and statistically is the third most common cause of death among Americans. Medication errors cause one death per day and injure 1.3 million people in the US annually, according to the FDA. Unnecessary surgery and testing, other preventable errors in hospitals, hospital-borne infections and adverse drug effects contribute to injuries and deaths. These themes have been explored in many venues, including in a September 2013 NPR report and in a May 2015 New Yorker Magazine article entitled Overkill by Dr. Atul Gawande.
Peace of Mind Comes with Consciously Overcoming Delusions
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.” Letter Feb 12, 1950, Albert Einstein
Einstein wrote these words in a letter to Robert S. Marcus, a father distraught over the death of his young son from polio. In comforting the grieving father, Einstein encouraged him to free himself from the delusion that any human being is separate from the rest of the universe.
Einstein’s antidote to this “delusion” is consciousness. A delusion lives in the dark shadows of our lives. Consciousness shines light on delusions, inviting us to see what is really there and make positive change.
Delusion: “I am aware of the consequences of my food choices”
As this relates to how we care for our bodies, we start with an admission: much of what we do with and to our bodies is unconscious. For instance, we think that we “choose” what we eat, but many of our decisions are guided by these “delusions”:
- What tastes good
- “It’s just this once, for this special occasion”
None of these takes into account what that particular choice does to the rest of the universe, the “whole” (the body, the Earth, the other living things on the Earth).
Delusion: “I eat healthfully, and even when I don’t, my body will recover so it’s no big deal”
What most people eat today is very different from the food that our ancestors ate. Dr. Tom Campbell, in his book The Campbell Plan, describes three food groups in the modern diet:
- Animal products
- Processed plant products
- Whole, plant-based foods
Until industrialized food production became the norm, diets were mostly comprised of whole plant-based foods along with small amounts of animal products (because people had to hunt, raise and milk the animal to obtain them), and no processed foods (because they had not yet been invented).
The evolution of the human body over millennia is now challenged with and jolted by this enormous change in how we feed ourselves. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s not a good turn of events for the health of our species.
Delusion: “I am in charge of my food choices”
Walk around a grocery store filled with aisles of appealing packages with seductive labels promising this or that health benefit, tasty samples, hummable music, aromas of roasting meats and baking bread, and notice what you are tempted to put into your grocery cart.
Spend 15 minutes standing at the check-out line and look in the passing grocery carts. How much processed food and animal product do you see? These products are:
Modern eating habits are governed by convenience.
Delusion: “What I don’t know does not hurt me”
Farming today is very different from what it used to be. Modern industrialized farms have replaced small-scale family farms of the past with highly mechanized factories. While the animal agriculture industry typically uses images of happy, natural and healthy farm animals when marketing their products, these images are tools of deception and do not represent the truth. Animals are kept in crowded conditions that prevent natural movement and make them sick. They are given antibiotics to fight these sicknesses and to keep the rates of infection below government-mandated levels. They also are given hormones to make them grow faster and produce more dairy and eggs. These antibiotics and hormones affect the health of the humans that consume the meat, eggs and milk of the animals by altering our hormonal systems and creating drug-resistant bacteria.
Delusion: “I know what I like, I eat what I like and that’s just who I am”
“A little while after transitioning to a vegan diet, I ate a piece of fruit and I felt like my mouth woke up!” Elle Stetson-Dibble
The mouth is the opening of the 30-foot digestive tract, an organ meant to convert the food that we chew into nourishment for our bodies and eliminate the rest. The mouth is exquisitely designed to let us know if something is safe to eat. Up to 10,000 taste buds populate the tongue, mouth and upper tract, detecting various taste sensations, including bitter, salty, sweet, savory and sour. The smell receptors in the nose commune with the taste buds to give us the full experience of what we’ve taken into the mouth.
When we have a cold, a viral illness that stuffs up the nose, sinuses and chest, the ability to taste becomes altered. The rest of the body is affected by the virus, too. Our limbs are achy, we feel sluggish, we have a fever and need to rest. We live a few days or weeks in a state of misery. When we awaken on the day that we can finally taste food again, we know we are on the mend.
Eating unhealthful food is like putting the body in a constant state of having a bad cold. Regularly consumed processed foods and animal products limit the taste organs’ ability to enjoy a wider variety of flavors, and we also lose our detection system for what is healthful for the rest of the body. This shrinks the size of the banquet table as we gravitate mainly toward salty, sweet and fatty products. When we are in this state, we miss out on the deliciousness of foods with more complex or subtle seasonings and flavors.
Delusion: “It’s too hard for me to learn a new way of eating”
While changing habits takes effort and a willingness to learn, the benefits of transitioning to a healthful, whole food, plant-based diet exponentially surpass the initial effort needed to begin. By transitioning the diet to a whole food, plant-based way of eating, we detoxify our mouths and noses. Taste buds renew every two weeks or so. Before a month has passed, our taste sensations awaken to the delicious complexities offered by the wide variety of flavors held in whole foods, plants and seasonings. A mouth that gets used to eating whole food finds that unhealthy, processed products are now not so appealing.
The joy of how good we feel once we have made the transition moves from the mouth and nose to the rest of the body. We clear chemicals and processed products from our bodies, and our energy and concentration levels vastly improve. Once we experience the wonders of healthy eating and renew our bodies and minds, our desires to fall back into our old ways dissipate.
A diet consisting primarily of whole, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and water promotes health by giving the body the variety of nutrients that it needs, and promotes the satisfaction the body feels as it settles into a state of good nourishment. The more we eat this way, the healthier we are, as evidenced by the scientific work of T. Colin Campbell, PhD, Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, Dean Ornish, MD, Michael Greger, MD, Neal Barnard, MD, Amy Joy Lanou, PhD and many others. These scientists have helped shed light on misconceptions and delusions, and have invited conscious exploration of our food choices.
The 4 COS4S mission is to help raise consciousness of food choices and address the misconception that transitioning toward a healthier diet must be an “all or nothing” process. As restaurants, schools and hospitals increase offerings of whole food, plant-based meals, more people will begin to move toward a better diet, improving their own health and helping to care better for the Earth, improve the welfare of animals and relieve world hunger.
During Living Whole Ávila, Spain, our next immersion retreat, we will delve into these themes. We will learn how to enfold into our daily lives whole food, plant-based deliciousness, infused with Spanish flair. One appealing feature is that all participants have the opportunity to work in the kitchen alongside Caty Genestra, David Thomas, Andoni Nieto and Teresa Jiménez for hands-on experience in preparing simple, delicious, nourishing meals. Register here and join us June 12-17. You also may register for a full two-week experience including the retreat and at least eight days in Madrid with guided day tours of the city and near-by towns and sights like Segovia, Toledo, Ávila, El Escorial and Valley of the Fallen.
Kathryn Hayward, M.D. was a primary care internal medicine specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School for 20 years. She now lives in Mallorca, Spain, where she practices Integrative Health in the United States and elsewhere through Odyssey Journey: A Collaborative Approach to Wellness, and is co-founder of International Integrators, a community devoted to the global promotion of Integrative Health.
Elle Stetson-Dibble first began to explore vegetarianism in middle school after making the connection between animal welfare, the animal agriculture industry and a meat-free diet. Elle is the cofounder of Veg Heads, a student-led initiative at her high school, Concord Academy, in Massachusetts. The club aims to raise awareness about animal agriculture and the importance of adopting a lifestyle that supports the well-being of animals, the environment and humans. She is an activist dedicated to pursuing a future where people love and respect animals, the planet and the health of all.