Dr. Milton Mills, Rethinking Food
Dr. Milton Mills is the Associate Director of Preventive Medicine with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and co-author of PCRM’s report on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Dr. Mills serves as the Race & Nutrition Specialist and Board Adviser for A Well Fed World. Whether internist Dr. Mills is practicing at Fairfax Hospital in Virginia or at free clinics in Washington, D.C., his prescription for patients is likely to include some dietary advice: go vegetarian. “Medical research shows conclusively that a plant-based diet reduces chronic disease risk, so that’s something I absolutely encourage my patients to move toward,” says Dr. Mills, a graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Mills doesn’t limit his message to his patients. He takes it to audiences around the country as well, speaking at hospitals, churches, and community centers.
Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and we’re back with It’s All About Food. Thank you for being with me this afternoon on a lovely February 22nd, 2012 and I want to bring on one of my favorite vegan doctors Dr. Milton Mills. He’s the Associate Director of Preventative Medicine with the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-author of PCRM’s report on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Dr. Mills serves as the race and nutrition specialist and board advisor for A Well Fed World. Whether internist Dr. Mills is practicing at Fairfax Hospital in Virginia or at free clinics in Washington, D.C., his prescription for patients is likely to include some dietary advice: go vegetarian. “Medical research shows conclusively that a plant-based diet reduces chronic disease risk, so that’s something I absolutely encourage my patients to move toward,” says Dr. Mills, a graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Mills doesn’t limit his message to his patients. He takes it to audiences around the country as well, speaking at hospitals, churches, and community centers.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Dr. Mills welcome to It’s All About Food.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Thanks for having me.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’ve been wanting to talk to you on this show for many many months and a couple of years. … How are you today?
DR. MILTON MILLS: I’m good.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Good. I’m remembering the time we actually met and it was when you were doing one of those wonderful good deeds here in New York City at a church. It was a weekend program on diabetes I think, something like that.
DR. MILTON MILLS: That’s correct.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’m not exactly sure how we connected but the person who was going to be doing the food demo for you got sick or something and I came in to help you out and it was really fun.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Yes, it’s good to talk to you again.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Yes. … I’m frequently saying on this show that we need to rethink the way we feel about food and I think you agree.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Yes, absolutely. The way I look at it and the way I try to get people to conceptualize this is that when most humans think about food we think about it in a romantic sense. We think about it in terms of you know, Grandma and Thanksgiving and First Dates and Favorite Meals and we think about the romance of foods but we don’t think about what food really is and what it’s supposed to do. Quite frankly, one thing I want people to realize—food is just a bunch of chemicals. If I handed you a bottle of some sort of liquid chemical and said “drink this”, first thing you’d ask me is “wait a minute, what is this going to do to me?”. That’s what we need to start realizing: When we’re putting food in our bodies we’re putting chemicals in our bodies. And these happen to be chemicals that ideally our bodies can derive energy and nutrients from. Those are the kinds of questions that we need to start to ask about the food we eat because food is supposed to be a vehicle for energy and nutrients. And unfortunately it now has become this pornographic escapade and self-indulgence. All we care about is “what does it taste like?” How much fat and grease and calories and salt does it have? But we don’t really ask “is this food I’m ingesting really delivering any nutrients to me”. One of the most disturbing commercials that I see on TV now a days…there is a commercial that comes on where kids talk about where they don’t like spinach, they don’t like broccoli, then their mother pops up and says “well how about I feed you some chicken nuggets” which if you know anything about how these chicken nuggets are made you know they are made from basically paste that’s collected from scraps in the slaughterhouse that’s processed into these so-called nuggets that are then deep fried in God-knows-what and then fed to children. They are absolutely nutritionally horrible things to be giving to kids. The message almost is if your child doesn’t want to eat something nutritious, you can always feed them some chicken nuggets and that’s going to solve everything. In fact, it solves nothing but creates a whole host of different problems.
CARYN HARTGLASS: This is brilliant. I hope to see a lot more on this concept: The whole idea that food is chemicals. The first reaction most people would have is “what? chemicals?”. When we think about chemicals we think that they’re bad.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Right.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I don’t always think that they are bad, I studied chemical engineering. I know that there are good chemicals and there are bad chemicals.
DR. MILTON MILLS: I was a chemistry major in college as well. We are kindred chemical geeks.
CARYN HARTGLASS: This is really brilliant because a lot of people think that if it’s a chemical it’s toxic. We don’t realize we are carbon-based and everything we eat is carbon-based which is a chemical and water is oxygen and hydrogen and we’re breathing chemicals. Chemicals are good.
DR. MILTON MILLS: We do understand that some chemicals are good. Those are the chemicals we call medicines. If I come and I say “I have this wonderful medicine that’s going to cure all your ills”, people are like “oh I want some, let me have it”. This is why food can potentially be curative and restorative for our bodies because if we put the right kinds of chemicals into our bodies, i.e., the right kinds of food, then in fact, they can have a salutary effect on our health and a restorative effect on our health.
CARYN HARTGLASS: How do people start rethinking the way they feel about food.
DR. MILTON MILLS: The first thing is to, again, at some level to step back and divorce yourself of the romance of it and say that, number one, this is a bunch of chemicals. When it comes to the amount of chemicals that we will ingest over a lifetime, nothing comes close to the amount of food with the exception of water which is a chemical ….of its own. With respect to the amount of chemicals we will ingest in our lifetime nothing comes close to the amount of food we’re going to ingest in a lifetime. Given that fact when you understand that you realize that this really can have probably the most important impact on how well I live, how healthy I am and how well my body will be able to fend off disease and to continue functioning in a very healthful manner well into my advanced years. I think we have to step back and realize, number one food is a vehicle for nutrients. That’s its number one purpose. Everything we eat…rather than saying “what do I feel like eating?”, “what do I feel like tasting?”, “what does it taste like?”, we need to ask ourselves “what nutrients are in this plate of whatever I’m planning to eat?”. That requires a little bit of education about what kind of nutrients should we be ingesting. And conversely, what kind of food chemicals should we be avoiding? I think that’s a first step—to realize that I’m ingesting nutritive chemicals so the question is what nutritive chemicals, if any, will this food be giving me? When you take that approach to it there’s no comparison to a bag of cheese puffs and a plate of broccoli.
CARYN HARTGLASS: But I can hear people saying “but I like cheese puffs and I don’t like broccoli”.
DR. MILTON MILLS: You’re right. And you know what I say to them? Did you ask for those cheese puffs in the delivery room? No, nobody asks for fried chicken, pork chops, cheese puffs, or ice cream in the delivery room. Everything that people believe they like they had to learn to like. And just like we were taught to like or desire things that may not be beneficial for us or healthy for us, we can learn to like things that are good for us. Let’s face it, what we’re dealing with, when you’re talking about food, is an addictive behavior. Just as you would tell any addict, the issue is not whether or not you like it. If you are talking to someone who has a problem with alcohol or cocaine or heroin, of course they like it but that’s not the issue. The issue is what is this stuff doing to you? And is it something that is allowing you to live a wholesome healthy life or is it something that is actually tearing apart your body and ultimately going to cause your life to end too soon. If the answer is the second answer, that’s in fact something that’s destructive to your health, something that’s going to end your life too soon, it doesn’t matter that you have developed a desire for these things, You have to break that addiction and supplant it with something that is better for you. The bottom line is just like we learned to like stuff that is not good for us we can learn to like things that are healthy and beneficial for us. There’s this really weird dynamic in American society, it may even run through Western society to some extent where’s this idea that things that are pleasurable or things that are fun are necessarily things that are self-destructive or are destructive to the environment.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Are not good for us.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Yes, or not good for the planet. When I see programs about how manatees are injured by boat propellers or how the wilderness is being torn up by ATVs and snowmobiles, the first thing out of people’s mouths are “well, you know, I have a right to have fun.” Who says that in order to have fun you have to do something destructive? We’ve got to get rid of that idea. We’ve got to embrace an ethic that where we understand that we can have fun, we can derive pleasure from things that do not destroy our health and in a larger sense do not destroy the environment and do not hurt other creatures.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Personally I know that if I’m damaging something it’s not going to be fun. But there are lots of different kinds of people out there. Do we all need to become dieticians or nutritional experts?
DR. MILTON MILLS: I don’t think you need to be a nutritional expert but you do need to educate yourself about what you’re ingesting. Anybody who is going to get ready to go out and buy a computer or a refrigerator or a washing machine…everybody understands that the first thing you need to do is not walk into the store and say “hey I’ve got a pocketful of money, help me spend it.” No, you need to read up on what it is that you want to buy, which brands are the best, what are the features they offer, you need to educate yourself. This is a practice we readily embrace in other aspects of our lives. Let’s stop pretending that when it comes to the things we eat it’s so hard because it’s not. There’s nothing more important than what we actually ingest or then in turn what we feed to our children. So we have to do the basic education to learn about the food that we eat, to find out what’s important, what kind of nutrients we should be ingesting and what kind of things we need on a daily basis and what kind of things to avoid. Just like if I want to go out and buy a refrigerator I need to find out how much energy it uses, how much space it has inside, how energy efficient it is and so on and so forth. You don’t have to become an expert but you do have to educate yourself a little bit. And fortunately there are now a number of different websites out there that can help you in this regard by providing this information. Most of the legwork has been done. Go to these sites and read about these things so you’re more familiar with them.
CARYN HARTGLASS: This is good, Milton, this is good stuff. It’s funny how we decide what our priorities are. Or maybe sad. I like to talk about organic food a lot and about how I think it’s important for so many reasons. The first reaction is “but it’s so expensive”. What I usually do is look at their feet and see some really expensive running shoes that they’re wearing. Where are your priorities?
DR. MILTON MILLS: Precisely. At least for me, one of the greatest ongoing tragedies is, I will see people who will say, “I know it’s not good for me but I like it”. OK fine. It’s bad enough that you’re doing this to yourself, but you know what, in some respects you don’t have the right to do it to your children. Because they come into this world as blank slates and they look to us as adults and parents to teach them the skills and give them the knowledge that they’ll need to basically navigate this world and this life successfully. Why would you intentionally teach your children habits that you know are self destructive and teach them dietary habits that you know are going to place their health at risk. That’s just not fair. Absolutely not fair.
CARYN HARTGLASS: People aren’t thinking.
DR. MILTON MILLS: No, they’re not. We need to think. We need to start to think about these things and to realize that, you know what, if you’re not going to do it for yourself, you’ve got to do it for your kids because they deserve better.
CARYN HARTGLASS: You work in a variety of places as a physician. You do a lot of emergency room work?
DR. MILTON MILLS: Actually critical care in ICUs.
CARYN HARTGLASS: What do you see? What kind of patients come in?
DR. MILTON MILLS: I see people at the end of the American diet. I see people coming in the door with the heart attacks, the end stage kidney disease, with the end stage liver disease, with the bodies that have been ravaged by a lifetime of ingesting the wrong kind of chemicals and pursuing the wrong kind of habits. Yes a significant portion of it is drug use but the vast majority is because people have spent their lives eating things that have been slowly tearing their bodies apart and tearing their bodies down. Over time, ultimately, their body begins to break down and their organs begin to suffer permanent damage as a result they end up having a heart attack or losing so much kidney function that they need to go on dialysis and so forth. The great tragedy of all this is that so much of all this is avoidable and preventable.
CARYN HARTGLASS: What’s amazing to me is how much crap the body can take. How many decades of abuse, abuse, abuse, abuse that’s just mind boggling so what’s inspiring there is that as soon as you start treating your body better, it heals.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Well, that’s true. Every leaf has both an over and under side. Two weeks ago…I have been invited to the United States Census Bureau to speak to their…they were having a heart healthy month…they asked me to come and talk about heart health. One of the points I made to the attendees at the luncheon there was that every twenty-one days our heart completely remakes itself. That’s because the heart works so hard, just doing your regular daily activities, I’m not talking running a marathon or anything special, your heart’s going to pump at least two thousand gallons of blood a day. One gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. Blood is actually slightly heavier because it has cells and all kinds of other stuff in it. When you add that up, that’s a couple of tons that your heart is doing every day, all day nonstop, round the clock…
CARYN HARTGLASS: …without complaining….
DR. MILTON MILLS: Yes, a thankless job. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of wear and tear, the heart has to continually replace its contractile protein so that it can go on doing the work that it is constantly being required to do. So literally over a twenty-one day period the heart completely remakes itself, over and over and over again. The beauty of that is if you start today by eating a healthier diet, in twenty-one days you’re going to end up with a healthier, stronger heart.
CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s nice. Do you tell some of these patients what they can do and what’s their reaction?
DR. MILTON MILLS: Actually what’s really interesting is that sick people are very willing to listen. Of course you have your knuckleheads no matter what they don’t seem to get it but for the most part when people suddenly realize “oh my gosh I actually am mortal” and “I just might die since I almost just did die”, they are generally willing to listen to what you have to say about trying to do things differently. The tragedy is that unfortunately for a lot of people it’s simply too late. Meaning that they come in with such a severe heart attack that they suffer irreversible brain damage or they don’t get to the hospital in time and their heart has suffered irreversible damage, so they don’t have the option of trying to change their diet and lifestyle to take advantage of a healthier lifestyle but for those that do have that option, a lot of them are willing to listen. Everybody knows nowadays that if you get a heart attack the first thing you do is call 911 and they whisk you off to the hospital and they roll you into the cath lab and they snake a catheter up through your arteries and they find a blockage in those arteries and they put a little metal wire cage in there to open up—called a stent—to open up the blockage and restore blood flow to your damaged heart muscle.
CARYN HARTGLASS: And everything’s better.
DR. MILTON MILLS: The problem is a lot of times people think “OK I’ve been fixed”. Well, no you haven’t, not really. The analogy I use is let’s say you had some vacation property, you had 50 acres of vacation property, and running through this 50 acres of vacation property there were three streams. The streams were beautiful streams, there were trees and plants and you go up and spend summers with your family and have a wonderful time. You drove up one day and you find that oh my gosh a family of beavers have moved in and had dammed all three streams. Now your property is flooded and the trees are dying and everything’s a mess. The first thing that you would do is blow a hole in those dams, correct , to restore flow to those streams, to relieve the flooding. Now, if you did that would you say to yourself “my problem is solved”? Everything back to normal? No, because you still got beavers. Now until you relocate—obviously we don’t want to kill the beavers—we would relocate them, but the point is if you don’t do something to move those beavers to a different place, they’re just going to dam that hole back up. Pretty soon your property is going to be flooded again. Likewise, when you have a heart attack which is a blockage in one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart when we go in and open up that artery, we have relieved the acute problem, the situation that places your life at risk but we have not addressed the underlying disease and that is the process that was blocking up those arteries. That problem is those things that we have been choosing to eat and the way we’ve been choosing to live and until you address and change those issues you really have not addressed the underlying disease process. So it’s not enough to just get a stent or bypass, you’ve got to change your diet and lifestyle so that you will not continue to develop new blockages or re-block those arteries that have been opened.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s such an important thing and I don’t think a lot of people get that message when they go in. They just think I’m good to go and they should get as part of the “fixing”, as part of the surgery there should be a workshop in healthy eating.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Yes there should be. Unfortunately the problem is nobody wants to pay for it.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We’re seeing that the money that goes into nutrition training and helping people to eat better actually saves money.
DR. MILTON MILLS: Of course it does.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We’re out of time. We’re going to have to pick this up another time. Thank you Dr. Mills you are one of the best.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, 2/11/2013