11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Real Health Care Reform Begins in the Kitchen

The debate about health care rages on, with both sides weighing in at a level of lunacy I have never seen. Conservatives are screaming about death panels, government takeovers and socialism, and extreme liberals are screaming about the ignorance and close mindedness of the conservatives. And in the middle of this circus? You and me: with our over-the-top insurance premiums, inadequate or lack of insurance...and little in the way of a comforting explanation of the far-reaching effects of this bill. Our congress can take all the time they choose to carry on this way; they have coverage.

It's time to have an authentic, no bull discussion about this. Real health care reform begins in the kitchen. No one, not one person at the core of this debate, is talking about taking care of our health as the foundation of health care.

With Americans knowing how to make healthier food choices, why don't we? We must choose food that serves the purpose of our lives and supports health, not steals it. Then we could avoid this cold sweat panic over health care reform, because by virtue of being healthy and fit, we'd prevent most of what has created the exorbitant health care costs that threaten to bankrupt us and break our spirit.

According to Dr Dean Ornish, more than 75% of all health care costs are spent on what we now call 'lifestyle diseases:' obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and even some cancers. That's a staggering number, considering we spend more than $2.1 trillion on it...but what's even more staggering is how quickly we could turn these numbers around if we just chose to eat food fit for human consumption.

In all the screaming that has become the health care debate, no one seriously addressing the role of lifestyle factors. Health care reform talks a great deal about who is and isn't covered and not about what it takes to be healthy and avoid becoming a statistic.

The 'EPIC Study' (concluded on 23,000 people) revealed that people eating a diet rich in whole grains, beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds and low in animal food; exercising regularly, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight reduced their risk of most chronic diseases; 93% of type 2 diabetes, 81% of heart attacks, 50% of strokes and 36% of all cancers could be prevented! Why isn't that part of the debate? Or even a part of the bill?

We can continue to simply increase coverage for drugs and surgeries on ever-skyrocketing numbers of people, but until we address the root of the problem, health care costs will continue to soar and this plan to cover all will crack under the sheer weight of the need.

How do we create our own personal health care reform policy? Prevention, pure and simple. Not preventive care, like physical check-ups (although they are wise) or getting your teeth cleaned (also wise), but by working to prevent disease in the first place.

I'm talking about putting down the fried chicken, grilled chicken (un-think that, KFC!), donuts, burgers and stuffed crust pizzas. It's time to follow the examples of societies that have created health and longevity for people around the world.

For many people, eating a plant-based diet can be foreign, esoteric; just plain freaky. Let me simplify it. Think Mediterranean. It's alluring, familiar; we've heard about it; we know it's good for us. It's that terrifying little word: 'healthy' that lacks appeal, right? So think azure seas, leisurely meals, Greek Isles, Italian villas, Leonardo Di Caprio and Sophia Loren. Think sexy. Now I have your attention.

For thousands of years, inhabitants of the Mediterranean coasts have enjoyed this delicious style of eating, along with regular physical activity. Centered on whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, some fish, nuts and seeds, this humble style of eating isn't considered a diet. It's a healthy, delicious lifestyle that can lead to a long life virtually free of the types of chronic diseases that plague us.

Eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods provides thousands of micronutrients, macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, essential fatty acids and other compounds that can protect the body from disease.

And it gets better. Because the Mediterranean Diet is high in fiber from all those veggies, grains and beans, digestion is slowed, 'preventing wild fluctuations in blood sugar, reduces insulin resistance and improves insulin sensitivity' which helps prevent obesity.

Research continues to mount indicating that consuming an unprocessed plant-based diet (along with being physically active) is absolutely key to controlling weight, reducing blood pressure and heart disease, reducing the risk of diabetes and stroke.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why every single American isn't eating a healthy diet. I can't believe that there's one person who wants to be fat, at risk of disease, lethargic, foggy and achy. It doesn't get easier or more delicious than the Mediterranean approach. You can even transition slowly if that helps.

Start by substituting whole grain products for bread, pasta and grains (like brown rice for white). Choose nuts, seeds and beans for your protein (for those of you eating animal products, go for wild fish, but seriously, you can skip it and be just fine...remember, cows eat grass; gorillas gorge on berries and nuts); get rid of the saturated fat that's clogging your veins and arteries. Drizzle olive oil or other mono-unsaturated fats in place of butter. Skip the meat and dairy. Your heart will be grateful and not attack you!

I could go on for days about all the reasons to eat healthfully. But for some reason yummy, delicious food is not enough. Robust health is not enough. We who promote healthy eating beat our heads against the wall daily to inspire people to eat well and still, Papa John wins the day. WTF?

Bill Maher recently talked about this very subject: America's obsession with junk food and being unhealthy. He said that we had few role models for healthy living and used an example. President Obama's designee for Surgeon's General, America's 'doctor-in-chief,' Dr. Regina Benjamin is overweight and actually served on the nutritional advisory panel for Burger King, helping the junk food giant to 'promote balanced diets and active lifestyle choices.' Are they kidding? I agree with Bill Maher that her advice to them should have been simple...stop selling food! While she resigned the position, it makes me wonder about her judgment.

Her work with the underserved and poor rural regions of the country is admirable and amazing and she is to be honored for that. But now she will be giving America guidance on what a healthy lifestyle looks like. The person doing that job should look like they know what they are talking about and live the lifestyle they are promoting.

Now there are those who are arguing that Dr. Benjamin looks 'just like us' and works hard. So she may not have the time to work out and take care of herself. That is just not acceptable. I don't want a Surgeon's General who is just like most of America. America's doctor needs to be better than us, a role model to emulate.

If the Surgeon's General doesn't have the time to take care of herself, to show us that it can be done in the midst of a busy life, then how can she give America the hope and inspiration it needs to get off the coach, work out and make the healthiest food choices we can?

Rich, poor, educated or not, eating well is not an elitist fad, but the birthright of every human and the only way to ensure a future of healthy vital well-being with health care that actually cares for our health.