Today I interview a pioneer physician and scientist who empowers readers by showing them the research for preventing, treating, and even reversing disease using surprising foods. Dr. William Li is an internationally renowned Harvard-trained medical doctor, researcher, and president and a founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation. His groundbreaking work has led to the development of more than 30 new medical treatments, has impacted more than 50 million people worldwide, and covers 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. Dr. Li has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, CNN, MSNBC, Voice of America, and has been featured in USA Today, TIME, The Atlantic, and O Magazine, Dr. Li has served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and presented at the Vatican’s Unite to Cure conference.
Today we are going to dive into his book, EAT TO BEAT DISEASE which I had the pleasure of reading. Now this book isn’t about what foods to avoid, but rather is a life-changing guide to the hundreds of healing foods to add that support the body’s defense systems, including San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, Pacific oysters and even squid ink! I hope you will be inspired by these physicians recommendations, as was I. Here’s Dr. Li.
[Continue reading below]
Dr. P: All right. Welcome to the show today. Dr. Li I’m happy to have you on.
Dr. Li: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Dr. P: So I have to say the first time I met you and you showed me your book I wanted a copy of it. But at the time it hadn’t been printed yet. And now that I’ve actually had the chance to look through it and read it I’ll just have to say I was really impressed and I’m excited for your lunch coming up.
Dr. Li: Well thank you very much. It’s an important mission for me to really be able to take the latest information about food and our health and put it translate in a way that everybody can understand. And I think that’s the biggest challenge out there is there are so much information and some confusion about what’s good for us and why I thought you know to put everything into a book that would be easy to read but actually have new information would be helpful.
Dr. P: Yes speaking of easy to understand one of the concepts you talk about right in the beginning and essentially believe it’s what you’ve formulated a lot of your workaround which is angiogenesis so what led to your interest in that. And explain a little bit of what it is for people who don’t know yeah.
Dr. Li: So the word angiogenesis is a Greek word naturally and Shell is blood like blood vessels and Genesis that is growing. And angiogenesis is how our body grows blood vessels. I started research in this area about 30 years ago at a laboratory at Harvard Medical School that was just trying to figure out how to blood vessels grow to heal wounds and how sometimes to diseases like cancer or hijack that natural process. That helps us heal in order to be able to feed itself and then become sort of this runaway train that we have so much trouble stopping. And so I started in 1994 an organization a nonprofit called the Angiogenesis Foundation that would be committed to looking at this process of blood vessel growth and is finding out a way of actually bringing the science forward to change people’s lives and we found some amazing things out about angiogenesis. First of all blood vessels are one of the biggest organs in our body about 60000 miles of blood vessels or pap under the skin. That means that if you pulled all of the blood vessels out and they would form a line where we’d go around the Earth twice these blood vessels bring oxygen and nutrients to every single cell in our body. And therefore they’re incredibly important. So we began taking a look at how two blood vessels stay healthy and what happens in disease when you don’t have enough blood vessels and you need more or you have too many blood vessels and you need to kind of prune them back and that’s what the genesis foundation does and it’s from that platform that we helped to develop. Thirty-two FDA approved medicines for cancer and vision loss from aging and diabetes and also wound healing and then actually we turned the entire thing upside down to say in addition to treating the disease can we prevent disease and instead of medicines can we use food. And that led to the journey that I was on to write my book. It could be a disease is the process that you’re explaining essentially trying to increase blood flow to certain areas. It’s actually both. So our body is filled with health defense systems and this is really where the science has advanced. So I’m a medical doctor internal medicine doctor and I’m a research scientist and you know when you combine what I see with patients with what the science is bringing to into focus what we now know is that when it comes to understanding food and health it’s not just about our food with the food we eat it’s actually about how our body responds to the food and energy Goji or our blood vessels is one way that foods can impact our body but there are other ways as well we want in our health defense systems that perfect balance of defense. So when you talk about blood vessels you don’t want too many you don’t want to feel you want just the right amount. When it comes to another defense system which is our stem cells or our regenerative systems so we can replace repair and replace our organs as we age we don’t want too many stem cells nor do we want to have too few our microbiome the healthy gut bacteria is another perfectly balanced defense system where when we have just the right amount it fuels there is a body’s ability to function in a healthy way from our brain to our fingertips frankly our DNA also perfectly balanced in function and of course our immune system is the final defense system that is actually to be imperfect balanced too much immunity and you have autoimmune disease too little and you have immunodeficiency and so when it comes whether it’s the angiogenesis or any of these other body defenses it’s actually the most common sense thing to function properly to give us our health our health defense systems have to be in a perfect state of balance.
Dr. P: Yeah it was as I was reading your book that’s kind of a common thread that goes through everything that you explain essentially. You talk about things that are good for you and the common misconception as well if it’s good for me then I should just load up on it and with something as important as immunity seems to be a concept that we all understand. But it’s really hard to quantify or measure or even great. And so with this gap in understanding how does one gauge one’s own immunity and what the impact is right?
Dr. Li: Well so you know I come at this really by thinking about immune to our immune our immunity and a couple of different ways. First of all the way that everyone’s going to know is whether or not you’re feeling healthy or and resistant to sickness. So when we have a runny nose we know our immunity is down where Well we have the flu we know that you know we’ve been infected and we need to kind of fight our way back to health. And so one way of knowing whether or not we are positive our immune system is overactive as can happen in autoimmune diseases. We can have bad joint pains and we can have bad skin rashes and many other symptoms like that. So the first way of kind of gauging our own immunity and how well our defenses are at work and whether it’s balanced is how we’re actually feeling in general but at a deeper level what science is bringing to the table is what the immune system is as a marvelous defense system where there are two main parts of it. You’ve got the part that’s responsible for inflammation and then you’ve got the part that’s responsible for immune cell killing inflammation. Oftentimes people view that as a really bad thing we want to get rid of. So how many times have we heard about an anti-inflammatory diet or you know an anti-inflammatory lifestyle but in reality a little inflammation is really good when we cut ourselves. You noticed right away the area around the cut actually swallows up a little bit. That’s inflammation that helps our jumpstart our healing but after things have been taking care of in terms of the injury the inflammation calms down and that’s a theme of our immune system for balances are getting back into balance. We turn it up and then we turn it down. And so the other part of our immune system is where our immune cells and there they come with a bunch of names like T cells and natural killer cells and dendritic cells it’s a whole ecosystem of immune cells they go to work to find invaders in our body whether it’s a bacteria a virus or a cancer. And again when we actually you know are invaded by these systems a doctor can go draw some blood and measure how many white blood cells or immune cells are actually elevated in the blood. And even we can send further send them to a special lab to find out the types of immune cells and this is what happens with you know when a patient with HIV is tested we can get really granular and find out exactly how their immune system works. But for most people, after an infection in our immune system actually is done with its job. What’s really important is that we are our body as part of this defense ratchets it all the way back down to the immune system is kind of like it’s not an on an off switch it’s more like a volume switch you have the regular volume where it needs to be at and then you kind of turn it up when you need to and turn it back down. How do you measure it? You measure by how you feel.
Dr. P: We measure by how well the immune system is functioning when you need it and then how well it actually comes back down to a comfortable level for defense that hit home for me because I have a little one who has rheumatoid arthritis and so you know we talk back and forth about you know the different dietary aspects of my family and even how the kids see it differently. And in fact, when I got to the part of rethinking the kitchen I really took it to heart. Your chapter in the book. And do you have a few great tips for essentially rethinking the kitchen can you share a couple of those that you see our most common needle movers in the American kitchen?
Dr. Li: Yeah sure. Well look I mean all of us have a kitchen or access to the kitchen. You know it’s where we spend actually a fair amount of our lives you know preparing our meals and having snacks and for most of us, the kitchen is sort of a storehouse whether it’s a pantry or a refrigerator or a freezer. And we just go there to grab the things out of it. And as you know most people wind up accumulating a whole bunch of things I encourage in my book Eat to Beat Disease, that people rethink their kitchen as a healing center. So if you look at the kitchen as sort of a center of your life at home think about it a place that you can go to rejuvenate refresh and actually you know to get your body into good shape. It’s just almost as important as you know the gym where the workout center is like your kitchen. So the first thing I always talk about is you know cleaning out the cupboard and cleaning out the fridge all those things that have accumulated if they’re highly processed if they’re artificial. You know if they are or frankly if they’re old and outdated those things need to go and moving taking out the old stuff and the things that aren’t good for you leave more room for the good things. So what are some of the good things that every pantry, for example, should have in it? Well, one thing if you have anybody who cooks in the kitchen which is most of us you should have a healthy cooking oil like olive oil. And in my book when I talk about is not all of the olive oils made the same way it’s created the same way as some olives are much higher in the healthy polyphenols that fight diseases than others. And so most of us who go to the store pick up our favorite bottle of olive oil may be the one that we’re most familiar with. But I encourage you to look pick up the bottle and look at the back and find out what type of Olive was used to make that olive oil. So, for example, there is Greek olive oil made with a Greek olive called a core in Turkey Olive. That one is really high in polyphenols. There is an Italian olive oil made with Moray although olives. And that’s from Umbria. That’s really high in polyphenols. And then the third really powerful Olive is from Spain proper pick. Well, Olive and that’s really high in all. So Greek Italian Spanish olive oils have you. If you go back and pick up the bottle and look for the specific type of Olive that can actually be really helpful because when we all like to have the best the most powerful the most healthy version of anything. So you know. So that’s one example and something to keep in your pantry. Dried beans. Another great ingredient to keep in the pantry full of fiber feeds is good bacteria. A can of tomatoes likes especially San Mariano tomatoes which have a pack rich with lycopene. Great to have easy to use conveniently. You know another thing they actually have your pantry keepers. Another great put all kind of tasty explosion of flavor that can be put in jars in your pantry and of course coffee and peas are packed with natural bio-actives. These are natural chemicals that you can keep in a cool dark place make a drink. I mean all the research shows that drinking one to three cups of coffee a day or tea you know three cups of tea or so a day actually can reduce your risk of a number of diseases. When it comes to the refrigerator I actually tell people the fridge should not be a storage unit. It should be used to keep fresh fruits and vegetables. Most don’t last more than a week or two. And don’t buy more than you can actually eat. And so the refrigerator should look more empty than full and there’s a chart in my book to be dizzy that shows you about how long his fruit and vegetable keeps. And in terms of having the freshest kind of fruit, the last tip I’ll give you about rethinking the kitchen is actually you can do yourself a huge health favor by removing plastic from the kitchen. And that’s what I’ve done in my kitchen. You know to take away the plastic spoons the plastic utensils the cookware remove the plastic storage containers. One study actually found that in just eight fluid ounces of bottled water you know everybody’s got bottled water somewhere that there are twenty-two thousand four hundred pieces of microscopic plastic in bottled water and there are just tiny pieces that come off into the water and we’re drinking that stuff. And in fact, a recent report research report showed that even the deepest part of the ocean the Mariana Trench that the fish down there actually filled with microplastic particles from the surface. So keep the plastic artery out of your kitchen as an alternative you know use Glass picture filled with chilled water. You can put all kinds of bio-actives in it. If you put fruit in celery and cucumbers and things like that to make a water taste really great. But those are just a few tips of many that I offer in the book.
Dr. P: Glad you brought that lesson up because you don’t know this we didn’t talk about this ahead of time but this was one of my wife’s favorite things to hear because obviously what she wanted to do is go replace of her kitchenware which is exactly what we did. So it took a trim and we got rid of all of our cookware. We had a few things with like Teflon in it. And and so we got rid of all of it. We went to stainless steel and ceramic as you talked about we got rid of all of our plastic cups. We got new since stainless steel tumblers and the dreaded Tupperware like you said. That’s so convenient for storing meals and keeping things in. But like you said I mean I know as I look at it you could just see the plastic breaking away. We went to Costco and got some of those glass containers with the covers. And my wife absolutely loves them. So I appreciate those tips. And my wife thanks you as well because of the new kitchenware.
Dr. Li: It’s a great excuse to refresh your kitchen and to speak to the healing center which is how I want people to think about their kitchens.
Dr. P: Now you state the most powerful way to beat disease is to prevent it in the first place. And although I agree 100 percent in theory in practical terms this can sometimes seem implausible. So prevention in my practice seems like one of the hardest things to sell. How do you suggest we overcome this hurdle?
Dr. Li: Well I guess here’s how I think about it. No one is untouched goes untouched by disease and you know we’re all very sensitive to the fact that that there are people around us that are sick that we may ourselves have a challenge a health charge or challenge we’re dealing with. But the best way to think about the good news is that there’s plenty to be able to restore and protect our health. So whether you’re healthy or whether you’re struggling with an illness the goal is to really keep your health or return to your health. And so you know prevention is sort of a polarizing word. You know it kind of seems like extra work but really what we want to do is to keep our body just firing on all cylinders the way that we want it to be in the same way that people exercise regularly or take care of their car to maintain their car and change their oil every day or wash their clothes. I mean I think that this really if we think about eating to beat disease as eating mindfully by knowing how our body naturally protects itself and how we normally resist disease. Choosing foods every day at every meal. So we’ve got three meals a day on average. And actually, usually a couple of other times about five times in total where we’re choosing the foods that we eat every single moment that we choose to make a food decision as an opportunity to actually do something for ourselves paying ourselves forward and they think that’s a healthier way to think about prevention. The other thing really is that whatever we do when it comes to food it has to be sustainable. Oftentimes you know they’re called Healthy diets involve elimination and elimination is just a difficult thing to keep up over time. We might be able to do it for a couple of weeks maybe even a couple of months. But human nature abhors deprivation so when there is a special diet that says we can’t do this or we can’t eat that you know naturally we actually want to try it or put it back in our lives or eat it. But also there’s something that we actually genuinely like it becomes really difficult. So in my book, Eat to Beat Disease, what I do is I have a completely different approach. I say there is evidence that the foods that we enjoy are actually healthy for us. So I’ve created a list of more than 200 different kinds of foods that are the kinds of things that we all like. You know if you can’t find something in that list that you don’t like you probably haven’t really lived. And so everything from fruits and vegetables but chocolates even cheeses there’s even beer on the list and it’s all supported by scientific evidence and so by leaning forward and choosing the foods that you know you like. The first step you’ve taken is already something that you are you can already stand up for. You can get behind your own choices. I think all of these types of approaches which is what to add to your life which you actually prefer is a great step forward in putting prevention into your life.
Dr. P: And I love how you kind of break it down and make it simple as you said just making these choices. And in fact, if you list sample 5x5x5 plans in your book and included a couple of things that I admit I’ve never even tried. Where did you find the inspiration to add squid ink or purple potatoes where they come from. And how is it. How easy is it to add these things to a diet?
Dr. Li: Yeah. So listen I am a scientist, so I spend a lot of time involved with research and keeping up with the research that’s going on around the world. What’s amazing is a lot of research on food is being done not only in the United States but also in Europe and Asia and even South America and no matter where you go. Food researchers tend to work on foods that are important in their cultures. So for something like squid ink squinting is not so common in America although you can go to a restaurant today and even a grocery store easily and find black pasta right. He starts we’re starting to see that on the menu. But if you go to the Mediterranean and you know the Mediterranean diet is healthy. If you go to Spain or Italy eating squid ink is really having food with squid chicken. It is actually very common. And there are many important cultural regional dishes I can think pain twinning it’s kind of brainy it tastes delicious I love it myself and the researchers there have actually found that some squid can actually protect your stem cells it can boost your immune system it can stop cancers from getting a blood supply so really quite remarkable what it can do. So how do you actually added to your diet? Well, it’s not that common an ingredient in North America but what I would say is that if you go to a grocery store and you look in the past section and you see black pasta look carefully you’ll see squid ink as an ingredient, and try it that you cook it just like regular pasta. But you know it’s got a little bit of a seafood flavor and that great to just have plain with a little bit of tomato sauce sandbars on tomato. So the highest amount of lycopene so I would recommend that but a little bit of olive oil made from those three olives I talked about and it’s really simple. On the other hand, if you aren’t seeing in your grocery store just pay attention to the menu when you go to an Italian restaurant next to them and I think you’ll know sooner or later you’ll come across it because it’s increasingly popular. Purple potatoes. I have a colleague at the Penn State University who’s a researcher who brought to me a research discovery he made which I found to be stunning. Purple potatoes which used to be the prize potato like a treasure of the ink in Kings actually contain a natural chemical and another sign that kills cancer by knocking out their stem cells. So let me just explain a little bit. Cancers are abnormal cells that are growing into a ball and they can get bigger and bigger and bigger and sometimes and usually we can treat cancer and or take out remove them by surgery. But too often the cancers will come back and when cancers come back after they’ve been treated or removed it’s because there are these cancer stem cells baby cancer cells that are giving birth to new babies. It’s kind of like the termites in your you know in the wall that actually keeps giving birth to new termites hard to get rid of it. In fact, cancer stem cells are the holy grail for cancer researchers to find a way to get rid of them. So Professor Jerome Varner Mala Penn State showed me this stunning research that purple potatoes when fed to mice with colon cancer, would cut the growth of the colon cancer by about 50 percent. But the way they did this is by killing stem cells in that cancer. So purple potato remarkably maybe the anchors were right actually had this you know secret activity of being able to knock out cancer stem cells. You know this is really new discoveries that are going to change the way we think about our food. Where do you get them? Well I mean just go to restaurants these days and heels and even the potato section in the grocery store don’t look for you know obviously the regular russet potatoes and the White potatoes and even the red potatoes and there. But I think it’s not too difficult to go and look around to some stores and find purple potatoes there. They’re kind of dark blue and purple-ish potatoes that are found in the potato section. What’s interesting is that the researchers actually looked at a variety way of looking at looking at the potato raw cooked fried meat into chips and they all had the same activity of being able to say these colon cancer stem cells.
Dr. P: Well that’s really cool. There’s going to be a rush on purple potatoes now, maybe not the squid ink but that may take longer to catch up. But the purple letters for sure. Now you see that no Whole Food is universally good or bad. The impact of food on each person is unique depending on a number of factors including genetic makeup. So this is an important point that I’d like you to expand on especially how do we as individuals know which foods are good or bad for us. Do we go again go by feeling or is there hope for households made up of people with different needs?
Dr. Li: Right. So you know I wrote about my book to be to see is that the individual has their own makeup and genes our DNA is really incredibly important. It’s really the blueprint for who we are, however. And by the way that’s actually the way that medicine is starting to evolve. We’re beginning to realize that there’s no blanket way that we can treat a patient just because there is a particular disease we throw the same formula at the disease and actually that’s how medicine used to be practiced. We’re beginning to realize we need individualized our approach to every single patient whether they’ve got pneumonia whether they’ve got cancer whether it’s kind of autoimmune disease and looking at the genetic makeup actually gives us really important clues that this is something in medicine that’s called personalized medicine it’s individualized for the person based on what their makeup. So we know for example that there are certain genes that are cancer increase the risk of cancer like Bracco. So it puts a woman at higher risk for ovarian cancer or breast cancer. We also know that their genes that are actually associated with dementia like Alzheimer’s disease and there are certain genes that are associated with heart disease as well. We know that when you find individuals with these higher risks those are the types of diseases that we can take some steps to try to avoid or Dodge or minimize the chances we’re going to get that if you knew that you were at high risk to develop for example when real estate is breast cancer we know that there are specific steps you can take to actually lower the chances that that could happen and you know 2008 is one of those things in medicine. We are taking samples of tumors and we’re taking blood samples and liquid biopsies and cheek swabs. You know this is sort of what we hear about commonly Ancestry.com if you take it to the hospital that level we can really begin diving deep into the individual. We’re not there with nutrition yet but we are moving in that direction. So one day probably sooner than we think in the future there’s going to be the concept of personalized Precision Nutrition that’s going to match our own individual makeup with what it is that we actually need. It’s still a few years away but it’s super exciting. In the meantime, we know what our risks might be. We know that there are things that we also crave that might not be so good for us. And it’s a matter of kind of putting the whole equation together. Not everyone is the same. And that’s really why having a preference-based approach to healthy eating is so good. I mean you know something that you and I went out to have lunch together. What you prefer was on the menu is likely to be what is different than what I prefer. And that’s OK. We can both make healthy choices. And I think that’s why the reality is is that we will all be will continue to make individualized choices and we will probably never get to a point where there’s one prescription food that’s good for everybody. So there’s no match when it comes to food and health there’s no magic food no super foods no super diets. It’s all about how our individual bodies respond to the food.
Dr. P: So as I was reading through your book I had to learn more about you and just kind of digging through what I could find online. And it’s just I was just really impressed and I could tell as you’re just talking about the future of this. Individualized nutrition I can I can tell you going to be on the cutting edge of it. But with this book Eat To Beat Disease and all of the things you’ve accomplished up to this point what drives you to be so successful?
Dr. Li: Well I went into medicine to help people. That’s something that I just I’m naturally drawn to and I grew up with members neighbors surrounding my family that would always be ready to help whenever somebody was second. I was really inspired by that. And I also am a researcher because I believe in the power of science. And I think with really good science we can start to address the problems that really are vexing today we can’t solve these terrible diseases and so science can give us a clue. So when you combine sort of faith the science with medicine what I see is that there is an opportunity to change people’s lives in a big way. And so that’s really what a wake up excited to do every day is to bring the latest cutting edge and in fact really push the edge as forward as fast as they can in order to be able to come up with new breakthroughs that can. That is available to anyone. And that’s very important to me on why I wrote it to be disease there. You know with this new science that teaches us how our body heals itself and the impact of food there is an immediacy that you can actually translate into an action that can help yourself right away.
Dr. P: And what’s that one biggest health hurdle you deal with personally or the thing that you find the hardest to keep up with?
Dr. Li: Well I’m fortunate to be quite healthy. I’ve always been fit and quite active in my work. I actually travel a lot. And so I know that anybody can relate to this if you’re traveling alone whether it’s on an in a car on a train or on an airplane you’re on the road and it’s really hard to actually find healthy food the conveniences that are offered to us from our traveling when it comes to food tend to be less than healthy choices. So I think I found that I’ve had to develop the mindset of first of all recognize things that are healthy and think a little bit ahead about where I’m headed and what I’m likely to find there. And if I’m going to be kind of in a do we call them food deserts range so places that are not going to have a lot of choices healthy choices. I’ll bring snacks myself and really try to take care of myself that way. Here’s something that’s important. I think that I’ve learned it’s OK you know not every day is going to be the same. We’re going to all encounter points where it’s difficult to actually get some healthy food. It’s all right to be off the health wagon every now and then. Well we have to do is sort of just be mindful so we can get back on it. And if we make more good choices every day it all the benefits will overcome the bad choices that sometimes we have to make. And so I would say you know the biggest health hurdle is just sort of keeping up with things when I’m traveling.
Dr. P: Well I really appreciate this book. Again this book is called Eat To Beat Disease… The new science of how the body can heal itself. It is on sale as of March 19th, 2019. Go out and get this book it’s an excellent resource to have. Dr. Li I appreciate the time you spent with me here and if people want to find out more about you where should they go.
Dr. Li: Well they can go to my Web site www.drwilliamli.com. That’s Li spelled L i. And you can find me at on Facebook Twitter Instagram at Dr. William Li. And the book Eat to Beat Disease is available wherever books are sold.
Dr. P: All right. Again thank you for all of your time and the hard work that you put in this book.
Dr. Li: Appreciate you having you on the show today thank you, Michael, it’s a pleasure.