The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the “Wellness Mama Podcast.” I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and wellnesse.com. That’s wellness with an E on the end. And this episode is about “How to Eat to Beat Disease,” the new science of how your body can heal itself. And I’m here with Dr. William Li, who is a physician and scientist, and he’s the president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, and the author of the book by the title of this podcast, “Eat to Beat Disease.

 

In this episode, we go deep on specifics related to this topic, including how he got into this field, how health is the natural state of the body, and how often we just need to support the body and get out of its way, the surprising research showing that certain foods might have as much or more power as drugs to help the body beat certain diseases, how the body interprets messages from food in various ways, including foods that can prompt stem cell growth, how fasting comes into play, ways to reframe our food choices to support the body without feeling deprived.

 

He debunks some urban legends about certain foods, and a couple of them might surprise you. His surprising research, and his take on beer and wine drinking. And then we go a lot into gut health. We also have a fun wrap-up at the end on a mutual topic that neither of us expected the other to be interested in. So very fun conversation for me. I think you will learn a lot, as well as Dr. Li, is a wealth of knowledge. So without further ado, let’s join him. Dr. Li, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

 

Dr. William: Thank you very much, Katie. It’s a real pleasure.

 

Katie: Well, I have so many fun questions, and we’re gonna go in so many fun directions today. But before we do, I have a note that you took a trip across the entire U.S. and I would love to hear a little bit more about that, because I did the same thing with my kids a few years ago, and it was definitely memorable.

 

Dr. William: Well, you know, the thing that I have always marveled about the United States is just how different parts of the country are from one place to the other. And, you know, I live near Boston, so near a big city, and we hear about big cities having great food, and you hear about places called food deserts. And so, one of the things I was really interested in, besides looking at gorgeous scenery, essentially, just to kind of experience what it was like to look for different types of food, healthy food, that anyone can choose, no matter where you are, that was one of my own personal agendas is to actually take a look and to see, how difficult would it be. And what was really surprising is whether I was in Ohio, or whether I was in Montana, or whether I was in Wyoming, I always was able to find something that I recognize that I could eat, that would help my body be healthier. And so that actually was really good news to me. And, of course, we saw a lot of amazing country, which makes me much more appreciative of where we live.

 

Katie: That’s wonderful. I had the same experience. I feel like it takes a little more work sometimes, but it’s definitely possible. Not always as easy as our home kitchens. But that’s encouraging that you had the same experience.

 

Dr. William: Right.

 

Katie: And you are most known for your work, at least, to me, you’re most known about your book, “Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself”. And I love even that languaging about the body healing itself because I feel like it’s important to keep that top of mind. Often, we think of looking for outside sources to heal us. And really, we work best when we support the body’s natural process and ten moving to a state of healing itself. But let’s start really broad. And I would love to hear a little of how you got into this specific field of research. And then also, how is it really possible to eat to beat disease? Because I think this is a really important concept.

 

Dr. William: Yeah. Well, I’m a physician, so I’m trained in internal medicine, which means I take care of young and old men and women, healthy and sick. And although in medicine we’re trained to write prescriptions and to chase diseases with more and more interventions, the reality is, is on a personal level, my philosophy has always been to keep people healthy. And if they get sick, they fall off the wagon, kind of how do you get people back on the path of health? Which is really where our body wants to be. Now, that’s really important, because when I was in medical school and in training, one of the things that we were always trained to do is to identify disease, to find disease. What is cancer? What is heart disease? What is diabetes? What is dementia? And, you know, what is obesity? So, we get really good in the medical community, speaking for myself, in identifying and labeling disease, and explaining why they happen.

 

But actually, what I got more interested in is how do we define health. What is health? And I realized that even when I was answering that question, I would often say, “Health is just the absence of disease. If you’re not sick, you’re healthy.” Right? But that actually always wound up being really frustrating to me, and not a very satisfactory answer. So, fast-forward, I actually wound up starting a nonprofit organization called the Angiogenesis Foundation. And angiogenesis is how your body grows blood vessels. And it turns out that that’s a very important feature of many diseases, more than 70. But even more importantly, our circulation, our blood vessels are critical for health. Now, in the work that I’ve done with my nonprofit, we’ve actually helped to develop more than 40 FDA-approved new treatments for cancer, complications of diabetes, and even vision loss. And so, it’s been a thrilling ride to be able to be involved with developing new treatments that can help patients.

 

When I wear my kind of medical hat, that gives me great satisfaction. But I realized as I was getting more and more successful in this, the question that my patients were always asking me is, “Hey, Doc. What should I be eating?” And I started to realize that the biggest opportunity that I could address and I could really try to bring to the forefront was not how to actually chase diseases and how to treat diseases. That’s important. That’s never gonna stop. But how could we roll the clock back and prevent disease, in the first place? And that gets back to the question of what is health and that led me to really ask the question…health can’t be the “absence of something”. It has to be the result of something else. And so that something else happens to be your own body. Our own bodies are hardwired to heal itself, which is really remarkable. And that, to me, is the clue to how to actually choose foods that can activate those hardwired systems to help our body do what it really wants to do.

 

Katie: And I know you have a TED Talk about this as well, that’s gotten a whole lot of views. I’ll link to that in the show notes about how we can actually eat to starve cancer. So, before we go deeper, I wanna touch on all disease. But I’d love for you to just hit some high points of that specific approach because I’m hearing from quite a few people who have cancer or have a loved one with cancer right now.

 

Dr. William: Yeah. Well, look, I mean, cancer is that one disease that we all fear, and every single one of us has been touched, you know, probably one or two, or maybe zero degrees of separation by this dreaded disease. And here’s kind of, like, the newsflash. Cancer is something that we all, healthy people, form in our bodies all the time. I’ve got cancer in my body, you’ve got cancer in your body, everybody listening to this has cancer in their body. And the reason is, our human bodies are made out of 40 trillion human cells. And these cells, to keep us alive have to divide, they have to make more of themselves, right. So, you get rid of some old ones, old ones that are actually retiring, and you get the new ones. And the new ones are really what allows us to go day-to-day getting better. One of the big things about dividing cells is that if they don’t go perfectly, and you make one or two mistakes…think about 40 trillion cells, like, 40 trillion things on an assembly line being assembled at the same time, all day long, 24/7 for 70 or 80 years. You’re gonna have some mistakes. And all it takes is one or two mistakes, and you’ve got what we call a microscopic cancer, it’s a mutation in a cell.

 

And so, from the time when we’re young, kids to, however old the listeners are today we’ve got these tiny little mistakes, microscopic cancers being formed. But the great news is that microscopic cancers are like pimples, you probably have a few forming on your back all the time, and you’ll never even know it because they go away by themselves. And when they go away, when cancers go away, it’s because our immune system wings by and prevents them from actually becoming a problem. It’s like cops on the beat seeing a dude that doesn’t look so savory on the corner, puts them in the back of the squad car, and takes them away. Now, the other reason that cancers don’t grow normally, okay, is because our body has this tremendous health defense system, like the immune system. Another system is the angiogenesis system. Our body wants to feed our healthy organs, but when there’s a cancer, it doesn’t allow blood flow to feed the cancer. So, that’s what I gave my TED Talk about is, how do we actually get rid of those blood vessels that cancers want to grow for themselves.

 

So, I’ve been involved more than 20 years with developing new treatments, biotech treatments, many of which have been FDA-approved, that can cut off the blood supply to a cancer. It’s not chemo, it’s not radiation, it’s not immunotherapies, actually it’s a standalone way of pre-treating cancer called anti-angiogenesis. It’s changed the game because it doesn’t have the side effects of chemo. And it’s very natural because it helps your body just starve the cancer. But with the amazing thing that I talked about at TED was having done all this with drugs and biotech, what I realized is that we can use the same system to test food. So, when you test green tea, and soy, and cabbage, and herbs, and spices, and citrus, and into these same systems we use for drug development, the jaw-dropping result was that many of the foods surrounding us have as much, and sometimes greater power locked inside, something that’s edible and delicious than the drugs that we’ve been spending 20 years creating itself. And so, this is food as medicine.

 

I wound up actually becoming a real proponent of using science to look at nutrition. And this allows, I think, the medical community to participate in this conversation as well. Previously, it’s sort of, like, “Well, you know, it’s nutrition.” “We’re not a nutritionist,” the doctors say, or they don’t wanna believe in it. But you know, every cancer patient always asked their doctor, “Hey, Doc. What should I be eating for myself?” And the answer is often, “Don’t worry about it,” or “You can eat anything you want.” Or, you know, “There’s no data support anything.” And that’s now changed. Just three weeks ago, a new paper came out to show that if you eat five grams of dietary fiber a day, if you have cancer and you’re being treated with something called immunotherapy, five grams of dietary fiber is amount you’d have in a medium-sized pear or a large apple. Okay. Not very much, that having five grams of dietary fiber a day decreases the risk of mortality death while you’re getting treated by 30%. So, what you eat, does matter. And in fact, it can be a matter of life and death.

 

Katie: That’s so fascinating. And I’m so glad to see this research catching up because I feel like the best outcomes happen when we can merge nutrition and the latest science, and also probably some age-old techniques that we’re now learning the science to support that cultures have known for years and years and years. And it’s so exciting. I’ve seen a, for instance, a graphic online, where a patient went to a doctor, and the doctor told him, “You have a metabolic disease.” And they were like, “Oh, so should I change my diet?” And the doctor said, “No, you should take a pill.” And I love that that’s now not what’s happening, that we’re seeing people like you who are in the research who are applying this, and we’re seeing good results. It’s so exciting. So, on that note, I would love to hear maybe some of these top foods that you’re finding in the research that are really surprising. Like, you mentioned fiber but, like, what are some of the others that have a really surprising potential here?

 

Dr. William: Yeah. Well, so being somebody who works in food as medicine, I have been gratified to discover that it’s not one food, “the old superfood idea” but in fact, there’s more than 200 foods and more being discovered, literally every single week, foods that can activate our body’s self-defenses. And so, you know, the question you’re asking is so important. So, what are some good foods that people should know about? But I would say first, let’s talk about how your body uses food. When you put something in your body, what happens that actually can protect your health?

 

So, our body, our health is protected by our blood vessel system and our angiogenesis system. Our health is also protected by our stem cells. So, most people don’t realize that, you know, it’s true salamanders and starfish can regenerate, but humans also can regenerate, just slowly. And so, while biotech companies are trying to figure out how to deliver stem cells, Mother Nature’s beat everyone to the punch, and there are foods that can actually prompt our stem cells to heal us from the inside out. This is true regeneration. Third, we’re protected by our gut microbiome. Now, a lot of people have been talking about the gut microbiome, but it’s 39 trillion bacteria packed inside our bodies, most of it in our gut, our colon. And these gut bacteria do everything, from streamline our metabolism, they help us lose weight, bad, harmful fat, to help us heal. And the amazing thing is that some of these gut bacteria seem to text message our brains and tell our brain to release social hormones, which then governs our emotional health as well.

 

Our fourth health defense systems are DNA, much more than a genetic code, you know. They can use antioxidants to defend themselves, they can also fix damage to prevent cancers from growing. And our DNA actually protects us from the environment we live in. And then finally, our immune system, which is more powerful than we ever thought because when you actually have a good immune system, not only are you resistant to bacteria and viruses, and everybody knows about the viruses and immunity, you know, after the pandemic, but actually what most people don’t realize is that the same immunity that we want to be able to defend us from invaders from the outside world, like bacteria and viruses, also protect us from invaders in the inside world, which is actually inside our body. And that’s cancer. Remember, I told you about the cop on the beat, driving by picking up the bad guy. That’s what a good immune system does, it takes out the garbage. And so, we want to be able to find cancers and get rid of them. And so, these five health defense systems are chugging away from the day we’re born to our very last breath. And the great news is that there’s more than 200 foods, most of them are considered delicious foods in food cultures, that can actually light up our health, activate these health defenses, and help us ward off disease.

 

Katie: That’s so fascinating. And it makes sense. And I’ve always thought of that in terms of how do we just naturally support the body in these processes that are already built-in, and you hear all the cliches about, you know, we don’t get sick from a lack of…we don’t have a chemotherapy deficiency. We don’t have a whatever, but it’s, like, learning how can we meld science with what we know now to actually best support the body’s natural processes versus work against it. And I would say probably a lot of foods in the modern diet actually probably actively work against those systems you just talked about, and make them less efficient. And so, it seems like there’s a good balance of foods that can probably be very supportive, foods that could be overtly harmful. And maybe there’s an individualization aspect there as well that for certain people at different times…so, I’d love for you to touch on that.

 

Dr. William: Yeah. Well, this idea that we’re all different is something that’s permeating everywhere when it comes to our understanding of health, and even our treatment of disease. You know, what I wanted to kind of bring to light for your audience is that, you know, as a medical doctor, we’ve been trained to write the same prescription for the same condition, no matter who it is, right. But actually, if you think about it, you know, would you really wanna give the same prescription to the old grandma, who’s a thin, little stick, as opposed to the young guy, who’s big and burly, like a football player, or somebody who’s obese? The bottom line is that we’ve known for years that every individual is different. When it comes to food, the differences are even more dramatic because our metabolism…all is different because the amount of body fat that we actually have in our own unique metabolism. So, how do we work with, adapt to, you know, the individual? Now, let’s overlay one additional thing, Katie, that’s so important, which is our personal preferences, right.

 

Everybody has got their favorite foods that they love to eat. Usually starts with that aroma that you smell coming out of your mom’s kitchen, that brings you back to your childhood, that everyone can relate to. Man, I remember that’s exactly what my mom used to cook. And I love it. Usually, people love those kinds of foods. But everybody will…you know, if you went to a buffet line, everybody’s gonna be able to pick out the things that they prefer to eat. Preferences are so important. We all want to choose what we want, as opposed to being restricted or deprived of something that we want.

 

And so, this idea of a shift, you know, the idea of being told what you shouldn’t eat, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, create a state of deprivation, nobody likes that, and it doesn’t work. When you actually point people towards foods that they love, and this is what I always do when I talk to people. Tell me what foods you prefer, and let’s choose among those foods that are known to actually help you. So, in my book, “Eat to Beat Disease”, I list 200 foods. I tell people to take a Sharpie, and a list of foods and just start circling the foods that you like. You know, and if it’s a strawberry, or if it’s salmon, or if it’s buckwheat, or, you know, whatever it is, people start circling those things. And then I tell them, “Hey, guess what? Look at all these things you circled. These are your favorite foods, your preferences, and they all are good for you. So, start with these foods you’ve preferred, and you’re already way ahead of the game.” It’s building confidence that people can make the right decisions that are good for them.

 

Katie: That’s such a great reframe, and a great point in not having that focus on deprivation. I think that applies to all areas of health, not just even disease but even if someone’s trying to lose weight. You can’t punish yourself. Then you can’t…that deprivation mindset will only get you so far, and eventually, hormones will beat willpower, and you have to address all of those. And I think that’s a great solution to that. I’d also love to talk about…so we’ve talked a little bit about foods themselves. When it comes to beating disease, I’m curious your take on the absence of food and if that also has a role. I know I’ve read some studies related to fasting and their potential role in cancer or not. And it seems like there’s a lot of opinions here. So, I’d love to hear your take on this and what you’re seeing.

 

Dr. William: Yeah. So, it’s a great question, Katie. And here’s how I approach it. Fasting is viewed as restriction from unbridled eating, right. So, basically, kid in the candy shop, you walk into this thing, and there’s infinite amount of choices. Let’s go ahead and gobble it all up. Okay. That’s actually where our society has evolved to starting from, you know, really the 1950s, post-World War II, this idea of industrialized food, you can get food anytime, anywhere, you know, and in any quantity. Abundance is something that is viewed as something wonderful for a prosperous society. And yes, you know, in America, we are fortunate to be able to live in that world. But actually, go back in time, not so long ago, a couple of generations, and people really were careful about their food. And if you really take a look at how any type of living creature subsists in the world, they are not stuffing their face, they are eating mindfully, choosing what they can find when they can find it in ways that they know are good for them.

 

And I think that it’s almost like when you talk about sort of fasting and restricted eating…I’ll come back to that in a second. It’s almost like we have to shake off this mindset that we’ve developed that more is better. If you really think about it, our body is designed to process nutrients and to look for…and our minds are programmed to look for what our body needs. And so, we listen to our body, okay, as opposed to listen to our eyes, or marketing, or whatever else it is. The bottom line is that, you know, we will eat when we want to eat. Do you remember that, you know, like, we were all younger…I’m sure, you know, every kid will remember this. I don’t wanna eat dinner. I’m full. I don’t wanna at lunch. I’ve had enough. You know what? That’s listening to the body. That’s an incredibly important thing. And so here we have, eat three times a day, eat three square meals. Make sure you have this. You know, now we even have a plate that actually has a portion…it used to be a pyramid. Here’s what I think. I say that we should know that we probably all eat a third more than we’re supposed to be eating, that’s sort of the research on average. And we cut back a third on what we’re supposed to. Think about that.

 

You know, if you went to a family dinner and you had a plate that you’re loading food onto, if you just took a third less than what you would, instead of two heaping servings, you know, you take just one. All right. Now you’re down to a third. Eat that slowly, make sure you pick the food that you enjoy. You will be actually restricting your own calories. And actually, all that’s been shown there is that, in fact, eating what your body tolerates, in terms of the amount and the rate it tolerates, actually improves your health defenses. You don’t overwhelm your body, right. So, when you’re filling up a cup of water under the sink, if you turn on the spigot, and it’s running through pretty slowly, that’s fine. If you turn it on full blast, it’ll quickly overflow the mug, right, and we don’t want to do that to our bodies. So, restricted eating is relative. Now, when we actually time restrict our eating, and we eat, you know, 16/8. So, you know, that’s kind of like intermittent fasting. It turns out, that’s just a technique to discipline ourselves to allow our body to recover from the amount of calories we’re dumping into it.

 

Here’s what’s interesting. When we do intermittent fasting, all of those body health defenses I mentioned, our circulation improves, our stem cells reboot, our gut microbiome resets the ecology, gets healthier. It’s a better community. Our DNA fixes itself a little better. And our immunity also refreshes itself when we actually gave ourselves room to breathe. Okay. So, the remarkable thing is that eating less than we’re used to. If you wanna call that caloric restriction, then so be it. If you wanna call it fasting, so be it. If you wanna make it really extreme, you know what? That works, too. But you should just know that anytime you do anything to an extreme, there will be consequences. So, the extreme of fasting is being on a shipwreck or a desert island, you have no food. Okay. Or being lost in a desert, and you will whittle away. I mean, your defenses will get stronger for a little bit, and then you’ll eventually whittle away and you’ll die. And so, we don’t wanna go to any of those extremes. We wanna find that sweet spot for our health. And that’s where these personal preferences and listening to your body all make a difference.

 

Katie: That was such a clear summary of all of this research surrounding fasting and caloric restriction. And the data seems pretty clear, at least from what I’ve read that there is an element of caloric restriction correlating to longevity. And that gets even more intense when we’re talking about specific disease. But you’re right, I think it only works when it can become sustainable. And that maybe, for some people, things like time-restricted feeding can help be a tool to learn that process and to learn to listen to their body, or to at least restrict calories within a window, so they’re not over-consuming for as many hours of the day.

 

I also think this is maybe an interesting tie-in that doesn’t get talked about enough when we talk about Blue Zones, which, of course, had been a buzzword in the news. And everybody wants to hyper-focus on what are the specific foods that they’re eating. And I’ve always thought, “Well, hang on. Let’s take a step back from that.” Because it also could be about the timing of when they’re eating or the fact that they’re walking there, or they’re eating slowly, or they’re with community. And we know that community…and that is a huge factor in health that we’re not talking about enough. I guess that also, of course, comes into play with disease pathways. Are there any other specifics related to food that really surprised you or that could be, like, tangible tips for people as they’re trying to adopt healthier eating habits?

 

Dr. William: Yeah. You know, one of the things that I tried to do is to use the scientific research to help people get some clarity so that they’re less confused when it comes to nutrition, right. I mean, that’s one of the things about nutrition that’s so overwhelming sometimes is that you hear, “Well, we’re told this one day, and then we get whiplashed the next day. They told us it’s not good for us to eat anymore.” And so, then people are like, “Well, what’s the point of even listening to anything if nobody can actually make up their mind?” Well, this is where science actually comes clearly through, shines through this. And one of the things that I like to do, and in terms of some surprises I wanna talk about are really that there’s a lot of urban legends out there. And I think that science allows us to, you know, kind of open up and bash those urban legends like a pinata, you know. So, what’s inside there? What’s the kernel of truth that’s really there, and why is it misunderstood? And so, what do we really do?

 

So, I’ll just give you a couple that’s out there. Right, now, there’s an urban legend that’s very common among women that they should avoid soy products because soy actually can cause breast cancer because there’s a phytoestrogen, a plant-based estrogen that could be dangerous for breast cancer. And this is…not only is it legendary, even doctors are quoting it to their patients who have breast cancer or who have a high risk for breast cancer. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Let me tell you where the origin of this myth came from. So, it is true some human breast cancers are sensitive to human estrogen. And the human estrogen, the hormone estrogen, can actually fire up the breast cancer to grow. It is true that the plant has something called a phytoestrogen, a plant estrogen. But unless you’re a chemist, you wouldn’t actually know. But if you held a picture up with a plant estrogen and held up a picture up of the human estrogen, they look nothing alike. The plant version looks nothing like the human version. And then the research has shown that plant version actually blocks the human version. So, kind of the plant estrogen is kind of like Mother Nature’s tamoxifen, which drug companies have developed, and doctors prescribe their patients to block the human estrogen. Okay.

 

So, that’s one kind of, like, layer of the onion to peel back. Plant estrogens are not dangerous because they don’t replicate what human estrogens do. Second, turns out the plant estrogens are anti-angiogenic, they starve cancers by cutting off their blood supply. This is research I have done along with many, many others now. When you eat soy, edamame, when you eat tofu, when you eat fermented soy products or drink soy milk, it actually cuts off the blood supply to cancer. Now, how do we know this? We’ve tested soy and its extracts in the same systems we actually used to develop drugs to treat breast cancer. And actually, it works. Now, what about humans? Does it actually work in people? Turns out that a study of 5,000 women, who are at the highest risk for breast cancer, which is women with breast cancer, have been studied. And it was found that those women who have the most soy in their diet actually have a decrease in mortality, 30% decrease. If you eat more soy, how much soy? About 10 grams of soy a day, that’s about you would get in a tall glass of soy milk. So, easily, easily achievable.

 

And if I told you this one study, which was called the Shanghai Breast Cancer study, women’s breast cancer study is just one study. So, all the critics come out and say, “Well, you cherry-picked the study.” Here’s what I will tell you, the meta-analysis, which is looking at all the studies show 14 studies in a row with women, breast cancer, and soy, and survival. In every single case eating more soy is better for survival, and in zero cases, no case is eating more soy resulting in more mortality. So, that’s a really important example of something to give. And by the way, for moms that are thinking about what they should feed their kids, you know, like, if you have a daughter and you’re trying to decide, “Should I feed her, you know, soybeans or edamame? Are they gonna be dangerous for her?” Totally safe. Soy intake actually is something that is really healthy, it’s a great source of protein, it’s a vegan source of protein, that can actually be really, really helpful. Now, obviously, you don’t wanna eat too much of anything, but, you know, reasonable amounts of soy protein are useful. So, soy is one myth, there’s other myths on tomatoes and chocolates, and even red wine, that, you know, we can actually break into to really kind of get down to the nuggets of what’s good and why and where are the myths coming from.

 

Katie: That’s so fascinating. And I’m curious in the soy research, is there any specificity around sourcing? I would guess there are still probably processed forms of soy that we would still want to avoid. Or, for instance, I’ve been pretty vocal about not consuming very many vegetable oils because I feel like there are just better alternatives, talking, like, olive oil and things like that. But I would love if…was there any specificity in the research or any guidance you have on that?

 

Dr. William: Yeah. So, it’s a great…that’s such an important question. Because, you know, if you look at the junkiest food you can pull out of the middle aisle of a grocery store, ultra-processed food, pick a box, any box, pick a can, any can, and you look through. There’s, like, 20 or some ingredients. You can’t pronounce most of them. That’s what we call an ultra-processed food. It’s something that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, you know, all those ways of defining ultra-processed foods. A lot of soy is processed and uses filler material for ultra-processed foods. And we do know that the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the higher the risk of all kinds of diseases including some forms of cancer. And so, you know, that’s an example where the source, the form, the processing, all makes a lot of sense. It turns out that, like, raw soybeans are fine, roasted soybeans are fine, fermented soybeans are fine. The closer you can get to the whole food and the minimally amount that you can actually, you know, have a factory process it, it’s probably in the okay range. But anything, you know, that if you actually start to grind it up and process it and make it less and less recognizable from its original source, the less healthy it actually is.

 

So, I’m with you on that. And that’s a good rule of thumb, by the way, you know. How does one go about navigating healthy food? You know, like, a lot of people I carry around this kind of guilt or confusion, like, “Look, I’ve just grown up my whole life doing it this way. I don’t know where to start.” And what I really try to do is to basically say, “When you go to a grocery store, you know, first go around the outside, go to the produce section,” that’s what I do first, “And see if there’s anything that’s appealing to you there at all. Start with that. Spend the most time in a produce section” Could be an apple, it could be a carrot, it could be a mango. You know, those are the kinds of ways that…I think if you go to traditional villages in Europe and Asia, you talk about the Blue Zones, people go to the market, and the first thing they do is they don’t go for the cheese or the butcher shop first, they go to for fresh fruit and vegetable and the herbs section. That’s where everybody goes right from the beginning because that’s where the freshest stuff is. Start there, and you can go and build out your shopping cart after that.

 

Katie: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think the process distinction…I’m glad you got to clarify that. Because often I think when people think of food, they think of calories, and that’s a very basic oversimplification, of course. But that’s what a lot of the mainstream conversation starts around. And I have a friend who says, “Your body is not a bank account, it’s a chemistry lab.” And so, we pay attention to the signals these foods are sending, not just the foods themselves and the calories in them. There’s so much more to that discussion. You did mention red wine, and so with a bunch of moms listening, I would love for you to get a little more nuanced on the wine discussion. And I’m hoping it’s not a no-wine-ever recommendation, but I wanna hear your take on it either way.

 

Dr. William: No. Well, look, first of all, I really can appreciate a nice glass of red wine, and even white wine. But all the health research has shown that, you know, a glass or two of red wine has been generally beneficial to you. You know, there’s been good studies looking at heart health and brain health, and even obesity. But here’s the real crux of it. The good stuff in red wine is not found in white wine. It’s what makes the red wine red. And it’s the fermentation process of the grape skin. So, if you’ve never toured a winery, it’s worthwhile doing it if you can, or even looking at a YouTube video to check out, you know, like, how wine is actually made. The red wine is made with red grapes. Keeping the grape skin, and the grape skin has a lot of these polyphenols. The meat of the grape also is pretty good, but the skin actually has a lot of it. And so, when you ferment grapes, which is how red wine is actually made, the natural fermentation process with sugar and alcohol actually draws out these natural chemicals from the skin of the red grape. They’re called bio-actives. And why they’re called bio-actives is, well, the name says at all, they’re biologically active in your body. Okay.

 

And so basically red wine is filled with these luscious…that’s what makes red wine ruby colored. All right. And it also gives wine its characteristic…red wine is characteristic kind of flavor that when you hear those people who are wine experts describe the flavor of wine, the blackberry notes, the tobacco notes, whatever, that’s also due to the bio-actives, the flavors that are in there. And those chemicals, alone or together, including resveratrol, actually activate our body’s health defenses. They make our circulation better. They help to grow blood vessels, they help recruit stem cells, they are good for our gut microbiome, they’re antioxidants for our DNA. They actually even improve immunity, if you look at those bio-actives.

 

What about the alcohol? What about ethanol? Okay. Ethanol is what makes us drunk. That’s what gives us the buzz. That’s a lot of times what makes alcohol kind of social. Well, look, when it comes to health, in zero cases, no case is the alcohol responsible for anything beneficial to your health. You know, that gives you the buzz, that makes it social, that’s fine if you have it in moderation. And some people can’t even tolerate the alcohol. Part of you are missing some enzymes in your liver. But it’s never the alcohol, it’s the other good stuff that makes red wine red that’s good for you.

 

So, if you actually had alcohol-free wine, that is high quality, you’re gonna get those bio-actives. Same thing as beer, you know. Oddly, beer-drinking actually seems to be associated with some improvement in health and reduction of some forms of cancer like kidney cancer. How could that be? Doesn’t beer make us fat? It can help us gain weight? Doesn’t it cause cancer? The alcohol is not good for you. Okay? I mean, you know, we’re humans, so it’s okay for the human part of us, like, the social part of it, but actually all the good stuff in beer is coming from the fermentation of the hops, that actually is the cloudy stuff that’s in our beer.

 

And so, again, if you have alcohol-free beer, you’d wind up having all those bioactive. So maybe less fun to drink, but that’s actually where all the good stuff is. And so, what I always tell people is, “Look, life is for the living, and so if you’re somebody who just enjoys red wine, just make sure you have it in moderation, one or two glasses, you know, a couple of times a week, that’s probably fine.” I mean, you should always talk to your doctor if you have a problem with alcohol, and listen to your body. If you don’t feel good after drinking wine…some people have sulfate allergies and other reactions to wine. By all means, listen to your body, don’t listen to your friends. Stay away from the things that don’t agree with you. But that’s really kind of a little bit of the de-mythologizing red wine and beer.

 

Katie: Well, that’s encouraging. I’m glad there’s good news, and caveats that are important to know. That’s super helpful. I know you also talk a lot in your work about gut health. And certainly, this is an area that we’re also learning much more about, and I’m glad this is becoming a focus. Can you kind of give us an overview of gut health specific to disease and supporting the body in all these ways that we’re already talking about?

 

Dr. William: Yeah. Our gut starts from our lips. Once you get inside your lips, you’re into the gut already. And when you go to the very end, which is where, you know, we poop, that’s also part of the gut. So, how long is our gut? It’s 30-feet long in the average adult. So, think about that. It’s longer than your car laid out end-to-end. And at the very end of the gut, in the colon, that’s actually…it’s called the ilium. It’s actually the first part of the colon. And that’s actually where most of our gut bacteria in our body lives. And we do have some in our skin, and we have some in our crevices, and in our nostrils and our ears. But the reality is that most of it, 99% of it, actually lives in our lower gut. Now, why is that important? Well, when I was in medical school, we were aware that there was gut bacteria, but we didn’t know how important that is. But our gut bacteria…when we eat, we’re feeding ourselves, we’re getting the nutrients, you know, the calories, the proteins, the sugars, the fats, and the bio-actives, by the way, we just talked about. And then anything that our human bodies don’t digest, passes on, and then we’re feeding our gut bacteria.

 

So, our gut bacteria, we eat first, our gut bacteria eat second. Now, when we feed our gut bacteria…like, think about your gut bacteria like a pet. If you’ve got a cat, a dog, a bird, fish, every day you’re feeding them, and you’re pretty careful you’re feeding them the good stuff, right. Like, nobody wants to feed their pet something deliberately bad. When you feed the pet the good stuff, you have a happy pet, right. And your pet’s grateful to you, and actually, reward you with whatever it is that you get out of your pet.

 

Now, if you feed your pet something bad, it will actually get sick. And eventually, that relationship you have with the pet is gonna be really off-kilter. Same thing with our gut bacteria. When we feed our gut bacteria, it’s they eat second, right. If you think about it, like, adults’ and kids’ table. Kids eat first, adults eat second. So, basically the grownups get to eat, that’s our gut bacteria. If we feed them something bad, they’re not gonna do well. And our gut bacteria, 39 trillion bacteria form an ecosystem. And that ecosystem, when it actually is working well together, it helps our blood sugar, it helps our lipids, it helps control our blood pressure, it helps us regulate our fat, it helps our immune system. The immune system part is really fascinating, Katie, because, again, we now realize something new about the human body, which is that 70% of our immune system is in the layers of our gut right next to the bacteria.

 

So, think about your gut like a jelly roll, and there’s gut bacteria stuff in the middle of the roll, and our immune system is in the layers around the jelly roll, okay, inside the intestines. And what happens is that the gut bacteria, when we feed them well, communicate with our immune system. I call it, like, college roommates. You know, you’re in a dorm and you have a really thin wall. The gut bacteria is like pound through the wall and talk to the roommate next door, which is the immune system. And just like in college, you know, you could say what kind of pizza you want just by shouting through the wall. The bottom line is that our immune system listens carefully to our gut.

 

When our gut is healthy, being fed good things like leafy greens with great dietary fiber, and you wind up actually getting fed a prebiotic diet that’s mostly fiber, or when you’re actually eating a probiotic diet, which can contain bacteria itself, like yogurt, or kimchi, or sauerkraut, or even sourdough bread, the good gut bacteria talks to the immune system and recommends what the immune system does to protect your health. When you screw up the bacteria, you screw up that communication to the immune system, and now your immune system is haywire and can’t defend your health in the right way. And so, I’m just kinda giving you, like, an eagle’s eye view of why it’s so important to feed our gut bacteria fiber, which it loves, that’s prebiotic foods, probiotic foods, which is the bacteria itself, you can replenish the ecosystem, and how that actually protects lots of different parts of our health, including our immune system.

 

Katie: That’s such a good explanation. And I know in your work, you talk about something called the 5x5x5. And I’d love for you to give us an overview and explain this as well.

 

Dr. William: Yeah. So, look, I’ve just tried to make things as easy as possible for people to kind of digest literally, which is, how do you actually take all this information that we’ve been talking about and I’ve been sharing with my public on science and research and boil it down into some simple ways you can remember. 5x5x5 stands for the fact that…just remember you’ve got five health defense systems in your body. You don’t even need to know exactly which ones they are. You don’t have to memorize those complicated terms. You get five systems to feed. Number two, the second five, 5×5 is that we should be feeding each of those every single day. Do something to feed each of those health defenses. So, you’re covering yourself, you know. It’s kinda like you’re watering every plant, you’ve got five plants, make sure you water each of your health defense systems and do a good thing to it. And then the third five is really the fact that every single day, we’ve got on average five times that we encounter food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and probably a couple of snacks.

 

Okay. And so, the bottom line is that each time you eat, encounter food is a shot on goal. So, every time you have a shot on goal, go ahead and do something that’s good for your health defenses. And so that’s 5x5x5. Now, which foods and which health defenses? This is why, you know, I kinda created all these simple tables and charts in my book. You can actually take a look at a defense system, there’s a list of 100 or so foods in some of the systems. And what I tell people to do, just, you know, when you open up the book, take a picture with your cell phone of the page. Actually, first of all, open up the book, circle the ones that you like, your faves, and then take a picture of it. And that way you can just always call it up when you’re actually going out shopping, or even when you’re at a restaurant, you’re sitting around looking at the menu. “Man, what should I eat?” Well, of course, go for your preferences. But among your preferences, take a look and see if your preferences actually have any of the good stuff because that’s the shot on goal, you can actually activate your health defenses. And now you’ve done something that you want, that’s also good for yourself.

 

Katie: That’s a great tip. And I do feel like the body starts to also get very intuitive and crave these foods, the more we feed it good things. And it’s a compounding thing. But I often like to think in terms of instead of just calories from food, what is the most nutrient density I can get into these calories I’m already gonna be consuming. Like, how can I best support my body through my food choices, which naturally leads to very vibrant colors and lots of herbs and foods that are great for you? It’s also way more exciting to eat that way.

 

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And I know you have so much more research than we can cover in a one-hour podcast, including a series of masterclasses, and I wanna make sure we touched on these. I’ll put links in the show notes. But can you talk about your masterclass series?

 

Dr. William: Yeah. Well, my masterclass series is something I do. It’s for free. I do it, you know, every month, and you can just go to my website, drwilliamli.com, and check out when I’m doing them and sign up for them. But here’s the reason why I did it, the reason is actually quite important. You know, when the pandemic was first declared in 2020, I was like everyone else. I was sort of, you know, in my house staring out the window wondering, you know, what can we do. And look, I’m a doctor, and I knew very well that there were no prescriptions to write at the time. The hospitals couldn’t do anything for us, and people didn’t know what to do. And in fact, they didn’t wanna go to the doctor. And I realized, at that moment, something really profound, which is that this was a moment that we could see that doctors and health systems, and hospitals couldn’t do everything for us. And yet, here we were, myself included making a decision. You know, three or five times a day, I had to go out to buy food, I had to go figure out what to put in my fridge, I had to figure out what to cook every day. And it was never more clear to me.

 

And there was information that people needed to learn about, about how to make some really good healthy choices. How do you get to know your body, your five health defenses? How do you know which foods are actually good for our health defenses? And, of course, you know, immune system is such an important thing. But all of our health defenses are an opportunity for us to kind of lower our risk for cancer, and heart disease, and diabetes, and obesity, and Alzheimer’s, all these important conditions. And it was that moment that I realized that, you know, there was an opportunity for me. I really felt a sense of mission to be able to do these free masterclasses.

 

And what’s really great is that, you know, I’ve had up to 8,000 people from 38 countries sign up for a single masterclass. And so, the idea that, you know, we had this, like, crazy time we were dealing with but we learn how to use digital medium like Zoom or these virtual things to be able to touch people around the planet, was incredibly empowering. And so, what I’m trying to do is, you know, kinda set into motion an “Eat to Beat Disease” movement that puts the power of health in everyone’s own pocket, and you don’t have to rely on the health system as step number one. Now, obviously, you should see your doctor, you should have a doctor. It’s not a replacement for, but it’s all that healthcare that we do between visits to the doctor’s office.

 

And so, from the masterclass, which you can sign up for, I also, for people who really wanna do a deep dive, I created an online course, that allows you to actually drill in and to really understand the nuances of our five health defenses, and the specific foods and how do you buy and store and prepare the foods as well. So, you know, it’s something that I found myself gravitating more and more towards this. This is really, you know, kinda like what you’re doing, which is, how do you get the word out about important information that can change people’s lives in ways that aren’t burdensome, but actually are empowering.

 

Katie: Yeah, that’s so important. And you have so many great resources, like I said, I’ll link to where people can find those. So, if you guys are listening while you’re on the go, that’s wellnessmama.fm. We’ll have a link to the book, the masterclasses, and your TED Talk, as well as a lot of other information I’ve found from you online. And as we get near the end of our time, a couple last questions I love to ask. The first being, if there is a book or a number of books, of course, besides your own, that’s been very impactful for lots of people, but that have had a profound impact on your life. And if so, what they are and why?

 

Dr. William: You know what? I will tell you that some of the books that have been most impactful for me when it comes to health have actually been cookbooks. And I love to look at cookbooks that are coming from food cultures, whether it’s Italy, whether it’s Japan, whether it’s China. And then if you take a look within an area like Italy, for example, if you look at the foods of Sardinia or the foods of the Amalfi Coast, these are things now on Amazon. You can easily search on Amalfi coast cookbook, and they’ll pop up. All these local regional recipes, I find those to be incredibly transformative because it teaches me something that I didn’t know before, that would actually entice me to try something I haven’t done before. And to use ingredients that I just might learn to love. You know, I mentioned the Amalfi Coast, but I’ll tell you, I looked at a couple of cookbooks from Venice, Italy, which is a place I visited in the past, but it’s so different because a lot of seafood and a lot of vegetables that we don’t normally encounter, but I wanted to try to be challenged to learn things that I haven’t learned before. So, I would say, you know, cookbooks are actually been really influential for me.

 

You know, I’ll tell you another book, this is not about health, per se, that actually was really influential to me, so, you know, there’s a field of mixed martial arts, which, you know, we see on television and it’s kind of a big deal now. And it’s a combat form that’s a sport that involves using different skills like boxing, and wrestling, and kickboxing, and judo, and all that kinda stuff. Well, I read a book that was written by the father of mixed martial arts or he’s been attributed to be one of the fathers of mixed martial arts, Bruce Lee. So, Bruce Lee was a martial artist. He died many, many years ago, in the ’70s. But he came from Hong Kong…he was an American, actually. He went back to Hong Kong and grew up in America. And he realized that sticking to one style of anything, karate, judo, taekwondo is too limiting and that what you really wanna be able to do is to adapt yourself to learn different styles and to adapt yourself to different circumstances.

 

And so, he wrote a book called, the “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” which is actually his style. And it’s an old book now, you can still get it online. There’s a Bruce Lee Foundation that reissued it, a wonderful collector’s version. But it really talks about his philosophy. So, although he was a fighter and a martial artist, he was actually a philosopher. He studied philosophy in college. And so, I sometimes will go back to read that because, you know, he talks about this idea of being like water, like, to actually navigate through life. You don’t want to be rigid and broken like a branch that could snap but you want to be flexible and adapt yourself. And I think that’s really important when it comes to food and health is to learn how to…know yourself and adapt yourself to your circumstances around you. And that’s actually also been something that’s been quite influential for me.

 

Katie: That’s a new recommendation I’m actually really personally excited to check out. I’ve, in the last year or so, started training, actually in Jeet Kune Do, and also some other arts like Kali and different forms of that. And I love the movement aspect of them, but I also love the meditative aspect of those patterns and the energy interaction with another person. But that’s so amazing because I’ve never heard anyone else talk about Jeet Kune Do. That’s so exciting.

 

Dr. William: No, that’s cool. Well, you should go to the…check out the Bruce Lee Foundation, which was the family foundation, that his daughter and his wife set up. And they just republished this incredible philosophy book called the “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” and it really talks about…I mean, it’s all his original philosophies and writings. So, really worthwhile for anybody who wants to delve a little bit more into the roots of how to be in touch with your body, how to be flexible and adaptive, and why you wanna break away from rigid styles of anything, rigid styles of eating, rigid styles of fad dieting, rigid styles of fasting even. This is about getting in touch with who you are yourself.

 

Katie: Yeah. Well, I’m so excited to check this out. And this may actually have already answered the last question I had for you, or at least touch on it, which is, if you had any parting advice for the listeners today, that could be related to something we’ve talked about or entirely unrelated.

 

Dr. William: Well, no, I do actually. You know, I’m somebody who really appreciates food culture. I love foods from traditions that actually really value these recipes that have been handed down for hundreds of years. You know, like, I’ve had my fair share of, like, fancy meals over the course of my life in my career. But honestly, like, the traditional foods that, you know, frankly, families and peasants ate, or for celebration, or just even simple eating, is something I really enjoy. And so, I think that, you know, I’m a big proponent in respecting the food cultures that are out there. They’re usually incredibly delicious and tasty. They’ve been time-proven. You know, they’re not gonna be harmful to you, they’re probably gonna be healthy for you. But when it gives you the opportunity to do, and this is really my parting words, is to love your food, to love your health. If you can align what you love about something that you’re gonna eat along with how much you care about your health, now you’ve got the perfect alignment of how to actually make a food choice, how to plan a meal, and how to actually share food with your community in a way that’s healthy for everyone.

 

Katie: That’s beautiful. And I think very applicable to moms who are often the food prepares for our families. And I think a perfect wrapping up point for today, although I could talk to you for so long because you’re such a wealth of knowledge. I’m very, very grateful for you being here today and sharing. Thank you so much.

 

Dr. William: Thank you.

 

Katie: And thanks, as always to all of you who are listening for sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did, and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the “Wellness Mama” podcast.

 

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.



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