Dr. David Katz: Disease-Proof Your Life

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on September 20, 2013
Katz DL casual headshot

Claim to Fame: Lauded as the “poet laureate of health promotion,” Dr. David Katz MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is one of the most prominent and charismatic voices in the field of nutrition and disease prevention today. Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine and Public Health, Dr. Katz is the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, where he oversees diverse studies in disease prevention and health promotion. A regular contributor to major media, news and television outlets, he has written more than 150 scientific articles, nearly 1,000 newspaper articles and 12books to date. His latest project, Disease Proof, is set to hit shelves in September. Additionally, Dr. Katz has undertaken a mission to curb childhood obesity rates and currently serves as editor-in-chief of the publication Childhood Obesity and founder/president of “Turn the Tide Foundation,” a non-profit organization dedicated to the fight against childhood obesity. He is also the brainchild behind the influential NuVal® nutrition guidance program, an easy-to-use point system for evaluating food choices, that is currently offered in more than 1,600 supermarkets across the nation, reaching some 30 million consumers. Dr. Katz resides in Connecticut with his wife and their five children.

Health Philosophy: “Healthy people have more fun!”

Favorite Workout: “My standard workout is daily use of an elliptical and rower—high-intensity, low-impact. My favorite activities are horseback riding and skiing.”

Favorite Healthy Meal: “Every meal my wife makes,” Dr. Katz says. “Here’s a good example: grilled wild salmon; quinoa; asparagus; mixed green salad; Chardonnay; homemade whole-grain dark chocolate chip cookies for dessert.”

Favorite Motivational Saying/Quote: “I have both Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If,’ and William Ernest Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ committed to memory. I recite them to myself when I need to fortify my fortitude.”

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Spry: You are one of the leading authorities in the realm of health and nutrition today. What inspired you to get involved in this field in the first place?

Like many stories, mine has a personal beginning. My interest in fitness really started when I was 13 years old and I tried out for the junior high school wrestling team. I got feedback from the coach about the number of pushups and sit-ups I should be able to do; I couldn’t do any. It was sort of a reality check—I thought, “Gee, I’m not as fit as I should be.” After that, I took the lessons about fitness to heart. I started exercising, and now, 37 years later, I pretty much never stopped. Once I started getting into exercise, it became natural to think about nutrition as the fuel that powers all of that activity. I started taking a strong interest in my own nutrition. I began transforming my own diet and becoming committed to practicing the principles I would later preach over the course of my career.

And then, when I went into medicine, I saw lots of people who were very sick in hospital beds. I started thinking about the great opportunities to prevent people from getting quite so sick in the first place. Near the end of my training in internal medicine, I started looking around for ways to get trained in preventing all of that. I ended up doing a second residency in preventive medicine. In preventive medicine, we have a consistent body of scientific research going back at least 20 years telling us that the master levers of medical destiny are feet, forks and fingers. By that I mean, feet are the patterns of physical activity; forks are what we eat; and fingers are not holding cigarettes. In other words, if we don’t smoke, eat well and are active, we have the potential to reduce our lifetime risk of all chronic disease—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes dementia—by roughly 80 percent. That’ s just incredible. Once you open your eyes to that possibility, it’s hard not to devote your career to that, and so here I am.

Spry: You have a new book coming out, Disease Proof. In this book, you make the claim that simple habits can slash disease risk by as much as 80 percent. Can you explain this?

The book makes the case that the overwhelming power over medical destiny does not involve your doctor. Rather, the master levers of medical destiny are all of the small lifestyle choices we make every day. The stuff we control. It’s really about how to use your feet, fork and fingers in a way to optimize health and slash disease risk. I lay out the evidence to show that chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes can be prevented 80 percent of the time. In other words, the power to defend against chronic disease resides with you. Genes are not your destiny—yes, you have the genes you have, but the way your genes behave is in turn shaped by how you behave. Lifestyle factors can dramatically alter gene expression.

And then most of the book is about what we call “skillpower.” Until the world changes to make living healthy the default everywhere, we need skills to be healthy. Healthy living takes skill, but thankfully we can acquire those skills. People learn the skills they need to drive a car; they learn the skills they need to ride a bike; they learn the skills they need to work a computer or smartphone. Similarly, you can learn the skills you need to be a master of healthy living and make good use of your feet, forks and fingers. That’s what the book helps people do; it’s basically a how-to guide for making good use of your feet and fork everyday to attain more years in life, more life in years. That’s the goal. The book addresses weight—and for people who need to lose weight, it should help with weight loss—but we’re much more interested in people finding health rather than losing weight.

Spry: One of your biggest priorities is “turning the tide,” so to speak, on childhood obesity. Do you think this is a trend that can be reversed, or do you think our nation’s children will continue to get fatter? What can be done about this?

It’s absolutely a trend that can be reversed. If you think about the long sweep of human history, calories were relatively scarce and physical activity was unavoidable. By contrast, we have devised the modern world in a way where physical activity is hard to get and calories are unavoidable. That’s a radical departure from everything humanity has ever known. We applied human ingenuity to solve problems, but we overshot—we now have too much technology and too much food. But we can learn to master the danger in our success. We can learn how to use technology to be more active. Think about active gaming, for example. If kids are going to be using video games, let’s at least turn them into active games so that screen time and physical activity time are one in the same. If we have to redesign physical activity to fit it back into the workday or school day, we can do that. We now need to use the very same ingenuity that created the problem to solve the problem. We absolutely can do that, but it’s a bit like turning the Titanic around. The solution requires everybody to get involved. It requires that we have programming every place food and people come together. Little by little, I do see promise in science and think that we’re starting to move in the right direction, but we have miles to go before we sleep.

Spry: You’ve written numerous books on diet and nutrition. If you had to boil it down, what are some of the key strategies for attaining long-lasting weight loss success?

First, think about weight loss in the long-term. A quick fix is never going to be the answer to a long-term or permanent problem.

Two, in general, eat close to nature. The foods that have the shortest ingredient lists are inevitably among the best foods for you. The very best foods have ingredients lists that are one word long.

Three, trade up your choices. If you like chips, you can still eat chips, but it’s all about finding the most nutritious chips available. My NuVal® nutrition guidance program helps people with this. NuVal® is a system we developed in my lab. It’s a scale of 1 to 100—the higher the number, the more nutritious the food. We show consumers the incredible opportunities to trade up food choices. By trading up your choices, you can eliminate grams of sugar and salt from of your diet and add grams of fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. One of the many virtues of more nutritious foods is that they help you fill up on fewer calories. The key to weight control is not going on a diet where you deprive yourself, but going on a diet where you improve the quality of your food choices so that you fill up on fewer calories and control your weight without being hungry.

My fourth bit of advice is that in unity there is strength. Do not go on a diet alone. If you’re part of a family, take advantage of the strength of that unity. For one thing, as a parent, it’s your responsibility to look out for the health of your kids. Also, if your kids are eating better, it makes it much easier for you to eat better too.

Fifth and finally, my advice is to love food that loves you back. We shouldn’t have to choose between the pleasure of good food and the pleasure of good health. Rather, we should familiarize our tastebuds with the very foods that will support vitality. Vitality is a good thing. Healthy people have more fun. It’s not that you’re depriving yourself by eating a more healthy diet—you’re giving yourself more health. Health is fun—it feels good. I think we can combine the pleasure of good food and good health and love the food that loves us back. As one example of that, think about the famous Mediterranean diet. We’re all aware it’s one of the healthiest diets out there, but it also happens to be a dietary pattern many of us would happily spend a lot of money to enjoy on a vacation. We go to that part of the world, and we love the food.

Spry: You just mentioned making health a family affair. You and your wife have five children—how do you pursue healthy living as a family?

We love food that loves us back. My wife is a fantastic cook—she was raised in Southern France on Mediterranean-French cuisine. Our children were born into an environment where we valued nutrition and trading up our food choices. But we weren’t food police. My wife and I had the skillset to pick better choices for our kids, and our kids got used to that. Tastebuds are very malleable things, so if you feed your kids more nutritious foods growing up, they learn to prefer more nutritious foods.

On the physical activity side, we always take active vacations together. We go walking with our dogs. We go sledding in the winter, we go swimming in the summer, we go biking and hiking year-round. We’re always active, always enjoying the vitality of our bodies rather than rolling our eyes when we have to get up off the couch. Health can be a family value—it can be part of the culture of a family. The choices parents make are very indelibly impressed onto our kids. If you walk the walk and teach your kids the benefits of healthy living, you will wind up with kids who grow up to be lean and healthy and vital. Frankly, that’s the greatest gift you can give your children: The prospect of a long, vital life.