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Episode 44: Using Food to Overcome Disease with Dr. William Li | Eat to Beat Disease

Posted by Manoj Perumal on

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About This Episode

Using Food to Overcome Disease with Dr. William Li | Eat to Beat Disease 

In this episode of Discover with Dr. Dan | Proactive Health, Dr. Dan meets with health food expert Dr. William Li who has a rich background in food research. Dr. Li brings a fresh perspective to diet culture by teaching people that a healthy lifestyle is about loving the food you eat rather than cutting out food you love. Listen to the podcast to learn just how Dr. Li has mastered this idea.

Proactive Health Beats Reactive Health Every Time

Dr. Dan’s podcast is about living a proactive lifestyle that promotes preventative factors like eating right and exercising often, so what better way to celebrate this idea than to have Dr. Li share his insights to the world of proactive health? Dr. Li’s goal with his research is to prevent diseases before they ever start to develop and to teach others that preventative medicine can be more effective than treatment for disease control. 

Dr. Li finds that many health professionals shy away from traditional medicines and plant-based healing because there isn’t much research done in these fields, especially when compared to that of big pharma drug research. He mentions, “If you’re talking about prevention, it’s very difficult to talk about drugs and it’s a lot easier to talk about food.” He hopes to diminish the stigma of plant-based nutrition through educating the masses and showing how eating right can help prevent diseases from developing.

Connecting to your Food

Food is so much more than something that fills your belly. Food connects us to our heritage. It reminds us of home, of our culture, and how we were raised. It also impacts us on so many levels beyond the feeling of being full. From a young age we’re taught to eat our fruits and veggies because they’re good for us, but what truly makes them nourishing to the human body? This is where Dr. Li’s research is mainly focused. Through his research he’s discovered how food has profound effects on our mental health. For example, “Having some dark chocolate … can actually help to uplift your mood as well,” because dark chocolates are often rich in polyphenols and other mood-boosting, bioactive compounds.

“First thing [that] I tell people is that when it comes to your mood, you should eat something that makes you happy. So you should love your food to love your health.”

Understanding your food and creating a connection to what you eat is really important when eating for health. As Dr. Li mentions, we should be enjoying our food and loving what we consume without worrying about what to cut out of our diets. To do this, we need to have an understanding of what makes certain foods good and healthy for our bodies on a molecular level. Foods rich in nutrients, often plant based, are some of the best things we can eat and it doesn’t always have to be boring. If you’re tired of eating “rabbit food,” try spicing it up by adding red pepper flakes to your dressing which are metabolism boosters. Sprinkle on some olive oil and fresh berries to take it up a notch.  

Why You Should Shop Organic

The war between organic and nonorganic produce is ongoing as new research uncovers benefits to both. According to Dr. Li, the best foods to eat are usually organic but if you don’t have the means to purchase such items, do what you can to get fresh produce. One of the many reasons that organic trumps nonorganic produce is the lack of pesticides left on the skin. Dr Li suggests that it’s nearly impossible to scrub pesticides off the skin of produce so when possible, we should eat organically if able. Another benefit of organically grown food is the defense mechanisms that happen naturally within the plant to give us higher amounts of nutrients. Dr. Li uses the example of strawberries and how they are so much better for us to eat when grown organically. “An organically grown strawberry has more ellagic acid per unit weight because the insects have been nibbling at the leaves and the stems. And so it responds to create more defense, which then we get to benefit from.” 

As we build connections with our food and learn more about what makes certain foods better for the human body, we will be able to prevent more diseases from ever developing and will live longer, healthier lives.

To learn more about loving the food you eat and eating to beat disease, check out the Discover | Dr. Dan Proactive Health podcast episode below, and be sure to subscribe for new episodes each Tuesday. 


Transcription

Dr. Dan Gubler: (00:00)

Welcome to Discover with Dr. Dan | The Proactive Health Podcast. This podcast is sponsored by Brilliant, an innovative wellness company. Brilliant helps people live proactively and a healthier and happier life by discovering and using bioactive compounds from plants to help people discover and unleash their innate brilliance. See feelbrilliant.com for more information.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (00:37)

Dr. William Li is an internationally renowned physician, scientist, and author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. 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 TedTalk, Can We Eat to Starve Cancer, has garnered more than 11 million views. Dr. Li has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, CNBC, and the Dr. Oz Show and he has been featured in USA Today, Time Magazine, the Atlantic and OWN magazine. He is President and Medical Director of the Angiogenesis Foundation and is leading research into COVID-19 Dr. Li, it’s so great to have you on the show with us today.

Dr. William Li: (01:30)

Yes, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me on.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (01:33)

Wonderful. So tell us to begin with, tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got into studying the medicinal properties of food.

Dr. William Li: (01:43)

You know, it’s a question that I get asked a lot because I’m an MD, I’m a medical doctor. I trained in internal medicine and I’m also a research scientist. I write and what they call a vascular biologist. So I study blood vessels. And then on top of that, I spent 25 years really involved in biotechnology. So helping to figure out ways for biotechnology companies to really develop treatments for cancer, diabetes, complications, and vision loss and wound healing. And so my journey really started because having been very well-trained in sort of the practices of modern medicine and really contributing to developing new medicines for diseases, I realized that using drugs to treat disease was really treating, chasing the horse after it had really left the barn and that if we could prevent disease, that would actually be a much larger, more valuable goal.

Dr. William Li: (02:51)

But if you’re talking about prevention, it’s very difficult to talk about drugs and it’s a lot easier to talk about food. So when I looked at my own journey where I’m somebody who did a gap year between college and medical school, and I traveled to the Mediterranean and to Asia and I lived there and I studied the food and the culture and the health, this is long before anybody talked about the Mediterranean diet. I could never forget the fact that the healthy ingredients, mostly plant-based, but not entirely so, but the approach to food, the approach to ingredients, the respect for what the land actually delivers to our body, when we eat seasonally, that was something that I always remembered from those many years ago when I actually lived outside of the United States. And when I started to think through foods for prevention, where do we actually go to look for the chemicals that are found in plants and in seafood and in herbs and in legumes? What I realized is that some Mother Nature’s Farmacy with an F as opposed to a P-H, but one of the big challenges that I think a lot of the medical community has with plant-based healing medicinal properties already, frankly, food is medicine, is the lack of kind of the rigorous scientific data you see with drugs.

Dr. William Li: (04:21)

Because I actually helped to develop drugs, biotechnologies I had, and I was a researcher, I had the ability to be able to actually study food in the same systems, experimental system, laboratory system, clinical systems that we used to develop drugs. And that was really kind of how I got into this is my desire to generate that evidence, to help to understand something I had observed so many years ago, living in other cultures where food was naturally perceived to be medicine and understanding why.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (04:54)

Yeah. It’s amazing around the world when you go to different cultures and whatnot, the different types of food they use for the different need states. I remember sitting in a small mom and pop restaurant in China and sitting down there and eating, I was an out of towner. So they were looking at me like, who is this guy? Everybody else was local. And when they come and ask you what to eat, usually they say, “Well, what do you want to eat?” I was shocked when this small restaurant owner of this family restaurant asked the person that came in, who was a local, “How are you feeling today?” And then based on that, and then that person started to say something, “Well, actually I’m feeling a little bit of this or that in my back.” And then based on that information, they went to make the food. So it was really interesting that it wasn’t just here in Western society. It’s just, “Oh, I have two minutes before my meeting,” cram something down and go. It seems more thought out.

Dr. William Li: (05:48)

You know, and I think that what you just described, I’ve also experienced in my travels in Asia, whether it’s Japan or China and I think other places as well. The idea of eating to live, which is sustenance, how do we get enough energy into our body to fuel our metabolism, whether you’re going to the gym or you just want to kind of get by is different than living to eat. And I think that in many other cultures, the respect for food and what it can do for us is so profound that it’s natural for somebody to go into a restaurant and then look at a menu, which by the way, mostly will be whatever is fresh and seasonal and whatever the local production allows to be able to choose what they’re, people are more in tune with their bodies. That’s what I always tell people is that when it comes to food and health, it’s not just about the food.

Dr. William Li: (06:48)

Like in the United States, we tend to get the, well, is it celery today? Or is it some magic tropical fruit tomorrow? I think that when it comes to food and health, it’s not just about the food. There are lots of bioactives in food that I’m sure we won’t talk about, but it’s as much about how our body responds to what we put inside it. And so really understanding ourselves, that self knowledge is something that I think everyone should come to understand is very much a part of connecting us with the food that we eat.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (07:24)

I love that. So speaking about bioactive compounds, good food is medicine. We know that pharmaceutical drugs, anywhere from 20 to 50% of them come from molecules and plants, or at least that’s their starting point. So what’s the medicinal compounds in plants? Is it vitamins and minerals? Is it macros? Is it these organic compounds?

Dr. William Li: (07:51)

Yeah. I mean, so this is where I think there is a new science of nutrition that has come out of hundreds of years of historical nutrition research, where you’ve got your macros and your micros and your essentials. And what we now realize is that Mother Nature has imbued into almost every food that we would grow or catch, and a series of not a couple, but literally hundreds or thousands, probably more than that, of natural chemicals that all have functions, by the way, in the plants in which they exist. So these are what, I know that you’re familiar with this whole idea of bioactives. So we call them bioactives. I think the term meaning they’re biologically active. And, but I like to think about it versus what do these things do for plants that they are in?

Dr. William Li: (08:50)

So this could be the resveratrol. This could be the catechins in tea. Resveratrol in grapes and in chesnuts. This could be the sulforaphane in cruciferous vegetables. But they all have functions in the plants in which they actually grow. And so I think that this is where sort of agricultural science, plant science meets biological sciences and life sciences, really means food science. This is, food is medicine is this incredibly integrating world where you get people with different perspectives and different points of view and different expertises coming together to figure out what is it in the food that we eat? So if you were to look at a natural products database, you would see the whole plant-based foods that contain identified molecules, chemicals that actually have been purified, identified, the chemical structures known. And many of them have actually been studied in the laboratory, or sometimes in the clinic, to see what their effects are in cells, in organs, on tissues and in the human body. And that’s, I think the wellspring from where food is medicine, modern system of food is medicine is coming from is understanding how those natural substances impact our body and how our body responds to it.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (10:24)

Yeah. The field of, like you said, chemical ecology, where these plants are developing these bioactive compounds to ward off predators or signaling or whatnot, the fact that they have medicinal properties in the body, I find that fascinating, just a beautiful web that’s woven together.

Dr. William Li: (10:43)

Yeah. Well, if you think about it, many of these natural chemicals that we now today see as useful for the body and healthy, most of them had a primary function to help the plant defend itself in some way, shape, or form. So it’s either a natural insecticide, or as you say, a signal to attract mates or attract butterflies, to attract pollinators, to come to really spread the seeds so that you could actually have the next generation of plant. And so they all serve defensive mechanisms in one shape or form. And when humans kind of began to eat plant-based foods, those natural plant-based substances suddenly had to put on another hat. So in other words, they gained another job description which is now, they’re outside of the plant interacting with human cells. And that’s really what’s really interesting is, and this is what I study and I wrote about in my book, Eat to Beat Disease, is how do we know what’s important to activate in the body when it comes to health? And how do we know which substances, which bioactives in plants and other foods actually activate those systems to our benefit?

Dr. Dan Gubler: (11:57)

Wonderful. So when it comes to medicinal compounds in food, let’s talk about some different examples here. So it’s autumn right now in the Northern hemisphere where we are. Seasonal affective disorder is a big deal. It impacts many of us. What foods could, and what molecules in foods could help us to support and regulate mood during this time, which can be quite difficult for many of us?

Dr. William Li: (12:29)

Yeah, well, so we’re always looking for that single food or that single substance. And I think that mood is so complex. I mean, all of us are still treading water or swimming our way out of this crazy last 18 months of the pandemic. And so I think most of us still have a lot of anxiety and depression and we’re not feeling that great about how life is going. And so let’s be really clear, and a doctor can write a prescription to change your state of mind, but food is so much more complex and sophisticated in how to actually address things. So, first thing what I tell people is that when it comes to your mood, you should eat something that makes you happy. So you should love your food to love your health.

Dr. William Li: (13:18)

And you should pay attention to your body. So everyone can, when I think about food is it’s a very intimate substance. I mean, it’s an intimate topic. Everyone, food is something that connects everybody, but it also connects us with our past, our families, how we grew up. Everyone can remember some smell from a food that mom cooked in the kitchen when we were growing up. It tells us about our families. It tells us about our communities. It tells us about our culture. And so that’s why to some extent, finding foods that make you happy or things that you somehow relate to that can be comfort food, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a bowl of chili or something like that. But it’s, there is something to that. So that’s one thing that I think. Secondly, is that if we eat foods that actually are, we know, can actually make our gut happy. So our gut health becomes really profound. So I write about my book, five health defense systems in the body. The microbiome, our healthy gut bacteria is one of them. And this is an area of research that I’ve looked at, which is of the 40 trillion human cells. there’s like 39 trillion bacteria in our body. So just about the same number of bacterial cells as we have human cells. Those bacteria in our gut, we now know command centers, signaling centers in our brain. And so if our gut bacteria is happy, they signal through a lots of different channels to release social hormones, like oxytocin that can actually influence how we feel. So speaking of better mood, one of the areas of research I worked on is looking at a bacteria called lactobacillus reuteri. Lactobacillus reuteri is a bacteria you find in fermented foods, so you can find them in yogurt.

Dr. William Li: (15:03)

It naturally settles out in, for example, sauerkraut is one of the areas. It’s also used as a starter for parmigiano reggiano cheese, for example, although not everybody eats dairy. And it’s also used as a critical part of the starter for sourdough bread. Lactic acid is what makes the tang in sourdough bread. So that bacteria has been studied. As a bacteria, when we ingest it either as a dietary supplement or in our food, actually signals to our brain to release the social hormone, oxytocin. That’s the hormone that makes us feel good. When we see a friend, we have a hug, you get a kiss. It’s also the hormone that our brain releases during orgasm. And so that’s sort of like an amazing kind of piece of research.

Dr. William Li: (15:54)

And this is with a colleague that I have a bit, been doing this research. I’d like to assist her with right from the Massachusetts Institute of technology that’s been actually done. And that is actually one of the interesting new angles of how to modify our mood. Cacao has also been studied. So this is cacao, comes from, is basically the basis for chocolate. So most of us think about chocolate is not that healthy. And if you have chocolate that’s got a ton of dairy and ton of added sugar and a ton of preservatives, yeah. You’ve sort of diluted out something that’s inherently rich with flavanols and natural bioactives with all kinds of other stuff that may not be so good for you, but dark chocolate, cacao, high flavonol cacao, 80% or higher, which you can now find in bars.

Dr. William Li: (16:52)

So bars when you go out to the store, those polyphenols, so proanthocyanidins, some of those bioactives have actually been shown to uplift your mood. So having some dark chocolate actually can actually help to uplift your mood as well. So again, this is one of these things, but if you don’t like chocolate or you don’t like dark chocolate, you’ve got to find something else. So this is where understanding who you are, where you are, how you are, being in touch with your own body, allows you to actually go into that database of foods to choose the ones that are actually suitable for you at that time.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (17:28)

Okay. So we can actually go and look at the mode of action of what we know with these foods and what we want, and then we can pick and choose. So, like you said, if for instance, I don’t do chocolate, I can choose something else.

Dr. William Li: (17:40)

Right. Exactly. And if you don’t want to have parmigiano reggiano cheese, you can have a yogurt that might have lactose. If you don’t have dairy at all, then you would choose something else. Or you could actually take a look at times, some people who have more restrictive diets, sometimes you can take a dietary supplement. Although I like to encourage people to get all of their nutrients or micronutrients from whole whole foods if they possibly can.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (18:08)

Right. So one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about this was good food is medicine, I guess it’s the scientist in me that really wants to standardize things. It’s, how do I know when I go into the store and I buy apples and there’s tons of different varieties of apples? There’s organic, there’s not organic, there’s different varieties. And we know that polyphenols are some of the medicinal components of apples and whatnot, but how do I know? Like, what’s a good one? Is there, if I hold an apple in my hand, does it have X number of polyphenols? But just to the right and a different bin, there’s an apple that has X times five, five X polyphenols. What are your thoughts there?

Dr. William Li: (18:51)

So this is where from the medicine world, we have gotten used to something called comparative effectiveness. So something’s effective, but there’s multiple versions of things that are out there. So you want to test one versus the other and see which one wins. It’s a simple race. And that’s actually what researchers and food as medicine are actually doing now. So for example, we took a look at apples in fact, and we wanted to find out like, okay, so what’s in apples? You’ve got a lot of different polyphenols in apples. Quercetin is one of the things that are in the flesh and in the skin, in the appeal of apples you have ursolic acid. That’s another type of polyphenol flavonol, and they do different things. So ursolic acid actually stimulates your stem cells out of your bone marrow, which can help you regenerate your body from the inside out.

Dr. William Li: (19:42)

Quercetin has other properties, like for example, they can actually starve cancers by cutting off the blood supply that cancers hijack and try to grow to feed themselves. All right. So we, because my work is in blood vessels, we once looked at a series of apples to try to figure out like, which ones are best. And it turns out when you do a whole bunch of apples and you take a look at which ones have the highest polyphenols, we found that the [inaudible] apple, which is a medium size European apple, had the highest levels of quercetin and anti-angiogenic cancer starving activity, but golden delicious was not too far behind. And so I, again, these were, these are ideas where you can actually take a look at the top.

Dr. William Li: (20:26)

We did it with red wine, by the way, as well. We compared bottled wines from the same year, from the same vineyard that actually had the same terroir, right? Same soil, same climate, same sun, even the same machines, picking the things. And then we actually pick these wines from the winery and just tested them head to head again for an anti-angiogenic cancer-starving property. And we actually found that merlot actually was pretty potent compared to pinot grigio. Now, most people say, well pinot noir actually has, the Pinot noir grape, actually, it makes more resveratrol because it’s trying to resist that resveratrol is an antifungal agent to prevent rots, the noble rot that grows on grapes. And so that’s one of the, again, defensive systems.

Dr. William Li: (21:24)

So resveratrol naturally helps the grape resist a mold that grows in humid environments. So you would think that the pinot noir grape would have, if you pinned everything down just to that one molecule. But we said, you know what? Let’s not go for the individual molecules. Let’s just recognize that we eat foods often whole. We often mix foods together. So let’s just look at the net biological activity, and that’s kind of what we were looking at. We just took different wines and we extracted them and then we actually put them into cell culture. And we found that merlot is actually one of the winners, which imagine like Robert Parker, the wine Raider. About a one to 100, you had a whole other scale where you could actually see who’s the winner when it comes to some health benefit that is comparative effectiveness as well.

Dr. William Li: (22:18)

Well, I’ll tell you one last thing we did with tomatoes. You talked about like being overwhelmed at the market. In a flawless apples. So in the summer there’s tomatoes. You go to a farmer’s market and a good one will have so many varieties, and a regular grocery store as well. Do I go for the roma? Do I go for the heirloom? Do I go for the, which one do I go for? Well, obviously there are different taste profiles of these as well and different cooking profiles. So if you’re there for the culinary aspect, which is very important, choose the one that you know is going to work for your dish. If you’re going for the health aspect, we have looked side-by-side at the different levels of lycopene and biological activity. From the lycopene, which is the bioactive in tomatoes.

Dr. William Li: (23:06)

And we found that the San Marzano tomato is the hands-down the most potent of all the tomatoes in terms of its lycopene potency concentration. Now, so then the question is, well, that’s a volcanic tomato grown in Italy. I actually, I’ve grown in my own backyard before. So it does grow in the United States, not that common. So where would you get a San Marzano tomato? If you went to Amazon or your click, your grocery delivery service, well, they come in cans and they come and paste. So we tested cans and paste, and it turns out that the potency is preserved in the canned tomatoes and in the paste as well. So it’s really cool. I think we’re just at the beginning of this era of looking at comparative effectiveness, but I’m so glad you asked that question because it’s a big issue I think is for those of us who care and who want to know which one has the highest levels of the right potency when it comes to health. I mean, look, when you’re out there for a peach, this is what I do. I’m at the grocery store. I will ask the produce manager if there’s a bunch of peaches, which one is the best peach. And invariably, they will actually pick one out and say, this is the one that that’s really good this week. That’s what I want to know. I want the tribal knowledge. The same thing for health. We want to know which ones are best.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (24:36)

Right. Yeah. It’d be interesting. And I wonder in the future, if it’s going to be that way. Like with the antioxidant activity, they have ORAC values and you can go into olive oil shops and the specialized ones, and they have ORAC values of the different olive oils and polyphenol content. I wonder if in the future, when we go to the store, there’ll be maybe some sort of an analysis, total polyphenol content of this apple is this, or minimum content of ursolic acid is that.

Dr. William Li: (25:06)

I’m so glad you mentioned olive oil because not only is that a healthy oil with that’s polyunsaturated, but it’s a great oil to cook with. From culture, the Mediterranean that actually is known for its healthy cuisine and it’s a plant-based product as well. So one of the incredible polyphenols that are found in olives is hydroxytyrosol. And of course, other polyphenols as well. And for hydroxytyrosol, it’s really interesting because, this is by the way, why it also pays off. If you’re the inquisitive kind of person, which it sounds like you are, to ask the question like, how do they handle or process or manipulate these foods once they’re picked off the plant? So olives, you take this gigantic press and you crush a ripe olive and all the water and oil comes out of it.

Dr. William Li: (26:05)

It’s like squashed flat. Like the Road Runner. You need to get this bulldozer running over it and it’s flat. Now it turns out that when we want the oil, the oil floats to the top and the water is on the bottom. And then the water’s flushed away. Hydroxytyrosol present in olive oil, which is a beneficial anti-angiogenic, anti-inflammatory, stem cell protective, gut health promoting, antioxidant activity bioactive. But it turns out that it’s also more water-soluble. So actually the olive water carries 80% of the hydroxytyrosol. Now one of the interesting things is there some sustainability that we can actually capture instead of throwing away the water, should we be bottling that because maybe the health benefit of the olive water, which tastes great by the way, maybe there’s something even more there. But there are three olives, three varieties of olives that have the highest levels of polyphenols measured.

Dr. William Li: (27:11)

So in Spain it’s called the picual olive. In Italy, it’s the moraiolo olive from Umbria and in Greece, it’s called the koroneiki olive. So when I go to the store to buy olive oil, I actually, and this is what I recommend to people, I pick up the olive bottle and I check on how it’s bottled. I want to know where it’s from and then I actually look for the type of the varietal olive it’s pressed from. And if I see picual from Spain, koroneiki from Greece, moraiolo from Italy, those are the ones that I buy because I want the highest level.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (27:45)

Wow. That’s the ticket. What a great tip. Yeah, it’s, I wouldn’t say frustrating is not the right word, but you go to the store and like you said, you want to get the best bang for your buck when it comes to being healthy. And so those are great tips. One other thing I wanted to ask you, so it seems, my last name is Gubler from Switzerland. And so when I go to Switzerland, I noticed some of the native Swiss apples they’re really, really small. Like you said, the wild apples are pretty small versus the ones in the store today that are, some of them are as big as your head almost. When it comes to, I know food is being bred for higher moisture contents, taste, it’s more sensory stuff. During this breeding process, have studies been done showing that, are some of these bioactive compounds, like polyphenols being reduced in foods? Are they’re being bred out in favor of a taste and sweetness? What are your thoughts there?

Dr. William Li: (28:46)

Well, that’s one of the things that I’m actually really trying to champion is that we actually begin instituting the study of the healthy aspects of food, as much as we look at the visual aspects or the sensory aspects. So we’re not quite there yet when it comes to these commercial foods that we’re able to see in a grocery stores. It’s something that really, really needs to be done for sure. Now, another interesting aspect that you’re talking about in terms of how we grow the foods has to do with organic versus conventionally grown. Now, part of the whole wisdom of conventional growing besides the ordinary use of insect control materials, pesticides, if you have, if you’re growing in a region with tons of pests and the pests are demolishing your crops, then you’re not going to have anything to bring to market.

Dr. William Li: (29:39)

That totally makes sense. It doesn’t justify the use of pesticides on the planet, nor does it actually mean that you’re actually going to be having a better product from a health perspective to eat. However, this whole issue about organic versus conventional and the pesticides on the skin, I’ve been working on that question for some time now. And recently there’s been some important breakthrough information. So yes. Pesticides on the skin of fruits and vegetables, they’re difficult to get rid of and so, unless you’re peeling it and not eating the peel, it’s better to have at least organically grown style, the style of organic growth without using a ton of pesticides in your food. Because who wants to eat pesticides, right? It’s just, that’s just not good for you. Now, but there’s another reason that’s like less bad.

Dr. William Li: (30:32)

So what about more good? Well it turns out horticulturers have known this for a long time, that if you grow without pesticides and you look at the bioactives, a great example that was published in the Journal of Nature a couple of years ago is with strawberries. Now, strawberries are sweet and tart, and the tartness comes from a natural acid called ellagic acid. That’s also a bioactive. And ellagic acid is found in a lot of other types of fruits, but strawberries is like a classic one that I bring up. And it turns out that when a strawberry plant is grown organically or organic style and the natural insects that buzz around during the season naturally get onto the plant and they nibble on the leaves, then they chew on the stem, the plant’s not a perfect looking plant, but it turns out, we now know that the plant itself, the strawberry plant views that insect chewing as an injury and the plant has a wound healing response. And in that wound healing response, it creates more ellagic acid. So an organically grown strawberry has more ellagic acid per unit weight because the insects have been nibbling at the leaves and the stems. And so it responds to create more defense, which then we get to benefit from. And so that’s another sort of that, to me, that’s a pretty profound concept. It’s more good. Not less bad.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (32:02)

Wow. That’s fascinating. Very cool. So would you say in general, buying and looking for organic fruits and veggies over non-organic, or is that an oversimplification when it comes to bioactives?

Dr. William Li: (32:15)

I think it’s a little bit of an oversimplification. What I try to tell people is to be really pragmatic. If you’re gonna eat fruits or vegetables, first of all, eat fruits and vegetables, eat produce because it’s good for you. So don’t not eat produce because you can’t get only organic. Number two, it’s gotta be accessible, so it’s gotta make sense for you and your budget. So better to get it however you can get it, but just recognize that if it’s conventionally grown, like that skin is, it’s a little creepy in terms of the pesticides. If I’m being honest, so you want to peal it and make sure that if you can buy organic and not everybody can find organic, but if you can find organic, this is now what some of the things we’re realizing, not only is there a benefit of not having pesticides, but you may actually have better, more good stuff in it.

Dr. William Li: (33:06)

So strawberries, I’m telling you has been studied. So for me, no brainer, organic strawberries. And by the way, it’s impossible to wash off the pesticide of the skin of a strawberry. So just think about it when you buy strawberries in a little container from the store, you’re rinsing off the dirt. You’re not scrubbing off the pesticides, so don’t even go there. That to me is a no brainer and you get more ellagic acid. The other thing that’s been studied recently, and I looked into this in great depth is coffee. Now, organic coffee, right? So you think about free trade and sustainably grown and good for the environment and all that kind of stuff. But it turns out that when you look at chlorogenic acid, which is another bioactive that’s found in the coffee bean, and there’s thousands of bioactives, chlorogenic acid has been pretty well studied. It turns out that that all the big studies have been on comparative effectiveness, looking at which one has got more cholorgenic acid in every research study is always the organic coffee bean that has more chlorogenic acid. And because, again, the chlorogenic acid is one of those natural insecticides as well. And so nibbling at the coffee plant, the coffee bush actually causes this wound healing response.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (34:24)

Interesting. Wow. So it looks like it’s a potential motive action thing that’s causing the organic varieties in these two examples to be a bit more beneficial then?

Dr. William Li: (34:36)

More good as well as less bad.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (34:39)

I love that. Oh, I love that. Cool. So when it comes to mood and cognition, we talked about foods for those, longevity is one of the big things right now. Obviously everybody wants to live longer. Are there certain foods that stand out for you when it comes to longevity? Obviously with the caveat of, we want to eat a variety of things and different bioactive compounds from plants, but are there certain ones that have been more studied than others for their longevity promoting effects?

Dr. William Li: (35:12)

Yeah. So I mean, longevity is what one could call it the holy grail of research. Because if we, I mean, and this is by the way in, for thousands of years, the mythology of finding that chalice that has the magic stuff, the fountain of youth. So this is something that we, as humans have aspired to figure out for thousands of years. I’ll tell you we can start to break longevity down into parts of the body, functions of the body that need to really be in really, really good shape. Our metabolism, our protecting our DNA, the telomeres, which are sort of those life fuse on the ends of our chromosomes. They protect our genetic material from burning down like a candle over the course of time.

Dr. William Li: (36:04)

And so what can we do to slow down cellular aging has been studied. Interestingly, tea and EGCG, which is one of the catechins found in green tea and in some in black tea as well, it has been shown to really slow down the burn down, the shortening of the telomeres, which is kind of a short hand approximation, a biomarker for cellular aging. Which then becomes a shorthand for sort of how our organism ages. So I’ll just tell you an anecdote and I’m telling you as a scientist, and I’ll tell you this as an anecdote only. But my great uncle lived to 104 years old, completely vibrant, good eyesight, good cognition, physically active. He planned his own hundredth birthday party. He got in the car, he hosted his own party and he lived in China at the base of a team mountain.

Dr. William Li: (37:00)

And every morning he would get up and he would walk at four in the morning up to this path up to the tea plantation. And he was sit in a kind of a pagoda and they would just sip this tea for a couple of hours. Well, that means that he’s physically active and he’s moving his joints. So physical activity is really, really important. We talk about diet and lifestyle. Sometimes we separate those two. Diet and lifestyle, diet is part of life but we tend to sort of think about like diet being including other things into our body, whereas lifestyle’s just us and our bodies. Like exercise and sleep and stress and those kinds of things make a big difference. But he lived to 104 and he had six to 10 cups of tea every day for most of his adult life. So that’s my personal anecdote of like, why I drink so much tea as well. Coffee also slows down cellular aging by preventing telomeres from shortening. And in fact that even lengthens, makes the cellular aging not just slow down, but kind of reverse itself a little bit. And coffee is that something that I also enjoy drinking and also commonly consumed in the blue zones where people live to ripe old ages routinely as well.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (38:19)

Yeah. So with the blue zones, that’s a phrase that’s popping up here and there. For our listeners that don’t know, what does that mean? The blue zones?

Dr. William Li: (38:29)

Okay. So a friend of mine, Dan Buettner, who is a journalist, coined this term to really try to unify, bring a common term, to describe about five parts of the world where people routinely live to a healthy, old age. Some people say a hundred or more, yeah, there’s more centenarians or people who live to a hundred or more in many of these places, but it’s more about the quality of life, as much as it is about the length of life. So you can be, you can live long and healthy as sort of like what we all aspire to. And so there were five places around the world. One is off a Greek island. One is off of an island in Italy. One is off of Costa Rica. One is in California, and where’s the last one? In Japan, one is an island off of Japan. And these are more traditional communities where they have good social, close knit social communities and obviously decent genetics, but they also tend to eat simply.

Dr. William Li: (39:38)

They don’t overeat, they’d eat the fresh whole, largely, mostly plant-based foods. And then they eat the things that they grow and they grow locally around them as well. And they exercise quite a lot. They stay very physically active. And so this idea of blue zone. And I think it’s really important that we tell your listeners, let’s not oversimplify things. As scientists, I mean, you and I know that the biggest danger in science is to oversimplify. And yet we have to, we do have to simplify things so everybody can understand what we’re talking about, even our colleagues. And so what I’m saying is that there are these remarkable places in a world where people age well. They live a long time and they live a healthy, they have long health spans, not just lifespans. And they tend to, we can learn something from them, I should say, and they tend to drink tea. They tend to drink coffee. They tend to exercise. They tend to eat locally. They tend to have good tight social communities. These are the kinds of things that I think that we view aging, there’s no magic bullets to really prevent us from aging. What we want to do is to have the longest health span possible.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (40:58)

Awesome. Wow. Very cool. A lot to think about. So it’s not just as simplistic as eat good food. There’s a lot that goes into this. It’s holistic.

Dr. William Li: (41:09)

Yeah, I’ll tell you, you just brought to mind a recent paper that came out in the medical journal, the Lancet, and there was a study that was done looking at people who ate foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. So you’re talking about plant-based foods like nuts and seeds and legumes and chia seeds, things like that. Or seafood. So seafood of various sorts can actually contain lots of omega-3s. As we think about salmon and tuna, but it’s some of the smaller, oily fishes like sardines and anchovies, even clams can have a lot of omega-3 fatty acids that are good for you. It turns out that when they were studying the blood of people who, for omega-3 fatty acids, they found that those who ate the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids extended their life, done over 20 years, by 4.7 years, almost five years. And when they compared that to the benefits of people who were smokers and quit smoking, if you were a smoker and you quit smoking, you gained five years. If you’re a non-smoker and you more omega-3 fatty acids, you gain five years. Here’s a food interaction. Now here’s a food action you can take where you can gain almost five years of life, which is the equivalent of quitting smoking if you were a smoker. That’s profound.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (42:31)

Wow. That is wild, huh? Yeah. Oh, well, I love omega-3s. Being converted to these specialized pro resolving mediators that help to resolve inflammation. Speaking of omega-3s though, a lot of people, I live in Utah and there’s not a lot of fresh fish around unfortunately. We do the best we can out here. But if I don’t live by the coast, is there a way that I could still get fish seafood with okay amounts of omega-3?

Dr. William Li: (43:01)

Yeah. So it’s a great question. First of all, about a third of the world lives by coast. A third of the population lives by some coast. And most people who live on a coast grew up eating seafood. Well, people who live inland, they don’t grow up eating sea food. I mean, they might have a lake trout every now and then, but like stuff from the sea, that’s kind of like maybe at a restaurant you see it on the menu and try not to order it because you don’t know where it came from. Well, although I think that, we always have to be careful of how the food that we can eat arrives in our plate, meaning we have to take great care of our planet and the place in our oceans. It turns out that fish is now easily found in grocery stores, flash frozen.

Dr. William Li: (43:47)

So you can go to, in fact, I was in Utah this summer and I went to a grocery store, like a big standard, gigantic big box grocery store. And I was able to, I did, I think I did an Instagram and I actually went live on this. I went and I opened up the freezer cabinets looking for omega-3 fish, and I could find it. I found a haddock and I found a salmon and I found tuna. And so flash frozen fish, people don’t know, is caught off the boat and then it’s immediately frozen. And it locks in all those omega-3s. In fact, sometimes the flash frozen fish that you would get frozen rock solid inland in a grocery store actually is a little fresher tasting than the stuff that isn’t fresh frozen that gets carted and bussed and flown and sits on a truck.

Dr. William Li: (44:37)

And then it gets moved into the back of a grocery store or a fishmonger and then moved out onto a pile of ice. So not to worry, however, you should, the other thing to realize is that if some people just don’t like fish or if they’re allergic to iodine, which is often found in seafood, you know what? No problem. You can actually just get an omega-3 supplement. That’s an easy peasy way to do it. Oh. And we talked about the other thing about fish that I’m now really starting to talk about because I like to cook. There’s a really great way to eat fish. So you’re inland. If you want her to have omega-3 fatty acids and you want to eat lower in the food chain. You can go to a grocery store anywhere you live inland and you could probably find tin, sardines or anchovies. Now I remember growing up when I was a kid, I always considered canned fish to be cat food.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (45:33)

Right. Yeah.

Dr. William Li: (45:35)

Like people don’t eat that kind of stuff, but it turns out that if you look in Europe, Italy, Spain, Portugal, south of France, parts of Greece the tin fish is actually a delicacy. Sometimes more expensive than the actual fresh fish itself. And so here’s something here’s like a super inexpensive, late night snack thing that I used to do when I was in medical school. You can load up your pantry with little buck and a half tins of sardines, skinless, boneless sardines, packed in olive oil. And sardines have a lot of omega-3 fatty acids. You can boil a little bit of whole wheat pasta or gluten-free pasta. Just a handful. You can actually whip open one of these tins of sardines and while the pasta is boiling, you saute the sardines in their own packed olive oil with a little bit of chopped up onions for some of these other bioactives found in olive oil. Throw in a little capers for some quercetin. Squeeze some lemon in for some lemony, for the bioactives there. Get some great antioxidant anti-inflammatory, put in some red chili pepper flakes for the capsaicin, which actually help can activate your metabolism, your brown fat and burn down some of the extra white fat, harmful white fat. Stir that together. When your pasta’s done, you just put some of the pasta right into that pan. Stir it all together and you’ve got an omega-3 and bioactive rich midnight snack. And that’s what I used to in med school when I was like studying late in the library.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (47:11)

Oh man, that sounds delish. It’s getting close to dinner time here for you and I. Forget midnight snack. I might, we need to go a score that right now. I love that though. That’s a great example of how easy it is to be able to grab, with the knowledge, to be able to grab different bioactive compounds from different sources and put it together to provide a really easy medicinal dish.

Dr. William Li: (47:36)

And you can put all that stuff I just mentioned, most of it that you can put into your pantry so you don’t have to stress all the time. You got to shop every couple of times a week, whatever. Like I actually think, what I recommend to people who want to be healthy, absolutely shop at the farmer’s market. Shop in the produce section, like all the fresh stuff, for sure do that. But don’t forget stock up, be thoughtful, use your knowledge to create a really strong pantry because that’s the go-to. Your dried spices, your dried herbs. Your beans. Your fiber rich foods. You can put your whole grains. There’s a ton of stuff you can actually put in your larder as they used to call it where if you run out of fresh food, you can always whip something up that’s tasty and healthy.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (48:29)

Nice. So you can build up your, what’s in my pantry or your wimp meals or something like that?

Dr. William Li: (48:38)

Or it really is sort of like your personal health arsenal.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (48:44)

Oh, there we go.

Dr. William Li: (48:44)

It’s like the James Bond movie, you go to your Q branch. That guy who’s to give James Bond all his gadgets. That’s what should be in your kitchen pantry, all the stuff that you will use to arm your body to be healthier and to fight disease.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (49:00)

Oh, I love it. This is amazing. So one last thing about supplementation, you mentioned taking an omega-3 supplement. We’ve talked about resveratrol and the amazing properties that has for regulating, signaling gene expression, those sorts of things. Would it make sense to just take a supplement that’s standardized to 200 milligrams of resveratrol? To take a supplement that has 500 milligrams of EGCG? One of the good catechins from tea. What are your thoughts there?

Dr. William Li: (49:34)

I think that that can make sense if you’re an individual who feels okay with supplements. I know people who really like the idea of having their supplements in the morning and they have a checklist and they pop it down and they feel great during the day. And they’ve kind of taken care of business, so to speak. I also know people who have a hard time looking at the amount of stuff that they’re not getting to enjoy it. They got to pop it down the gullet and just wash it down and it’s not easy for them. So I think supplements are very individualized. So if you are somebody who is sort of inclined towards that, by all means, go for it. I mean, and different supplements are different.

Dr. William Li: (50:24)

Resveratrols are very difficult to get out of food. Not that bioavailable. It’s not that common. Like you’d have to drink 20 bottles of wine to be able to what you can get in one standardized resveratrol pill. So you’d be drunk. You’d kill, you’d knock out your liver. You couldn’t get enough of it. I mean, peanuts have more resveratrol than a grape. So the reality is that you want to be selective of the supplements that you would actually take, because I think that you, don’t forget, whole foods have hundreds, if not thousands of as yet undiscovered bioactives. So don’t miss out. Like that whole idea of FOMO. Like if you just have a simple supplement that’s standardized, you might get that one thing, but you’re missing out on everything else.

Dr. William Li: (51:11)

So I think that it’s kind of like if I wanted EGCG, if you’re somebody who likes tea, I love tea. It soothes me. I know it lowers my blood pressure. It’s good for lipids and cholesterol. It’s anti-inflammatory, and it’s not just the EGCG. So I know a lot about what EGCG is good for, but I also want that other stuff. And I also enjoy it, which is why my whole mantra is love your food to love your health. It’s not, it used to be, if you wanted to eat healthy, think about all the things you have to cut out of your life. I like to turn the whole argument around to say, look, think about the things that you already love that are healthy. Start with those, because then you’re already ahead of the game.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (51:59)

Love it. This is amazing. Dr. Li, sure appreciate you being with us today. Tell us where we can go to learn more. I mean, my mind has been blown from the time that we spent together, and I know our listeners have as well. Where can we go to learn more about the wealth of information that you provide for us?

Dr. William Li: (52:18)

Well, yeah, so I’m a researcher and basically I’m continuously posting and delivering information that’s just coming out of my research or the research that I’m analyzing, that’s coming out from around the world. So anybody wants to learn more, they can come up, sign up for my newsletter. They can find it on my website, drwilliamli.com. Sign up. It’s all completely free. And then the other thing I’ve been doing during the pandemic, I realized is that when we were all kind of like figuring out, like, what the heck are we going to do if we don’t have drugs and treatments, and we still have almost no drugs and almost no treatments for COVID, I started realizing that food is medicine and people are really interested in knowing what they could do for themselves to have stronger immunity, to lift their mood, to actually have more physical strength and all those things that we needed, because there’s one thing we learned in the last 18 months from 2020 is how important our health actually is. And food is something that we could do something about. And so I’ve been teaching these masterclasses that’s completely free to sign up for it. And I just, it’s just my way of actually delivering kind of cutting-edge information to people who can take information and use it right away because food’s value has immediacy.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (53:32)

Wonderful. And we’ll post, on the show links, there’ll be a link to your masterclass there. And your book, tell us a little bit about your amazing book.

Dr. William Li: (53:41)

Yeah. So I wrote a book called Eat to Beat Disease, and the byline is really the most important part. It’s called Eat to Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. So when we eat food, we are prompting our body’s health defenses to do better by us. It’s not the food doing all the work. It’s our body doing all the work. The food is making, helping our body do it faster, better, more powerfully, more effectively. And so we want to activate these body’s health defenses. So Eat to Beat Disease is the book that I wrote. It’s a New York Times bestseller. You can buy it online or in a, like a local bookstore. I want to support local bookstores, but really anywhere books are sold. It’s translated into 20 languages. I have people from 30 countries writing me, telling me about how they were able to relate to the information in that book to foods that they find locally in their own area from, I mean, anything from Utah to Maine, to Florida, but to Malaysia, to South Africa, to Egypt, it’s really, really amazing how food connects all of us and so does good health.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (54:50)

Wonderful. Well, thank you Dr. Li, again, for being with us and thanks to our listeners. This is Dr. Dan signing off.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (55:16)

The information presented by guests in this podcast is their sole opinion and in no way represents the views of Discover with Dr. Dan | The Proactive Health Podcast or Brilliant. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not replace professional medical care. Please consult with your medical doctor before making any changes in your lifestyle.

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