Stuart M. Berger

We Are What We Eat

VTR Date: September 15, 1985

Dr. Stuart M. Berger discusses the American diet.


GUEST: Dr. Stuart M. Berger
VTR: 9/15/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I don’t know quite when you’ll see this program, but when we record here in mid-September 1985, Americans are still enormously wrapped up in a book that now, after nearly four months on The New York Times Bestseller List, is still Number One in the Times’ tabulation of book sales in its wide-ranging category. The book, Dr. Berger’s Immune Power Diet, published by New American Library. Its author, Dr. Stuart M. Berger, is our guest on The Open Mind today. Not because I really know how to deal with celebrities – and Dr. Berger is indeed a celebrity these days – nor because I know anything about food or diets, but rather because today Americans seem alternately or even simultaneously so incredibly obsessed with eating and with losing weight. And I’d like to ask psychiatrist Berger just what these twin addictions tell us about what it means now to be an American. Dr. Berger?

BERGER: Richard, that’s a good question. I think that it means that the American populous is finally discovering for itself that eating and health, as it’s related to eating, is enormously important in terms of living longer, having a higher stamina and more energy, and being able to enjoy quality of life. The word “obsession” somehow …

HEFFNER: You don’t like that one.

BERGER: … connotates a pejorative, you know, an overly inappropriate concern. I’m not sure that one can have an inappropriate concern about health. And in fact, I’m quite certain that one can’t. And I think that what we’ve seen over the past decade, the numbers are awesome. Nathan Pritikin 30 years ago started to talk about high complex carbohydrates, low fat. It became, quote, “a national obsession.” And there was a 50 percent reduction in stroke rates, and a 30 percent reduction in cardiac disease. That’s probably the most significant event in medicine in the past 50 years, I mean, outside of antibiotics.

HEFFNER: But you know, at the same time that there is this concern about diet – I’ll drop the word “addiction” or I’ll drop any other pejorative word or word that you think is pejorative – at the same time, there’s all this involvement with food. Not just food that is good for you, but food that tastes particularly good. Fancy food, unfancy food. Doesn’t there seem to be some kind of contradiction and some kind of very strange American involvement with food and diet?

BERGER: Well, first of all, I think that the word “diet” really has to be defined.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?
BERGER: The American populous perceives the word “diet” as “weight loss regimen.” It’s grown to have that meaning as a result of all the diet books that have taught you how to lose weight. That is not what diet consists of. One can concern themselves about diet, and it has nothing to do with weight loss. I mean, for example, if you are a cardiac patient, you can be a thin cardiac patient, you should be on a diet very low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. And there are a lot of other kinds of examples. If you’re prone towards gout, you would be on a diet low in urates. The point is that diet is an essential part of good health. Now, our obsession with food, I don’t know that we have a monopoly on it. When I was in France last month, it seemed to me that the French were pretty obsessed with foods, and so are the English. I think that what we have done is exported a brand of bad food around the world. For example, in Japan, up until we kindly gave them McDonalds, they did not have cardiac disease to any extent. And now we’ve donated to the Japanese society the opportunity to have cardiac arrests on a regular basis. That’s our; that’s the American impact on the world. I mean, it’s poor nutrition, and it’s quick foods, and it’s, you know, the kinds of high-fat, poorly developed foods that have become so popular over the past 30 or 40 years.

HEFFNER: I like that word, “poor nutrition.” Do you think that’s really where we are now?

BERGER: I think that the major national problem that we have, I mean, the Number One health hazard in America is poor nutrition. I think that it’s responsible for more illness than anything else that can be probably identified. For example, I think poor nutrition is worse than the epidemic of smoking and it kills more people, clearly. There’s no doubt about it. Poor nutrition, based on my work and the work of others that we’ve discussed in the book, probably contributes, well now we know it contributes to cancer. And that’s been clearly documented, you know, by the American Cancer Association in terms of colon cancer, which is the Number Two cancer in men, killer in men, breast cancer, uterine cancer, probably all others. It affects the immune system rather dramatically. So we’re talking about all immune-mediated problems, from arthritis and headaches to MS and others. It clearly undermines one’s heart and affects diabetes. I mean, we’ve known that for many years. So if you think about it, there’s virtually nothing that one can’t develop from poor nutrition. I mean, there’s nothing.

HEFFNER: You know, I was trying to get you to pun on poor, poor nutrition by, I thought you were calling it poor, “porno, pornotrition.”

BERGER: (Laughter.)

HEFFNER: And in a sense, I have the feeling that that is exactly what it is that you’re talking about, a kind of pornography in foods. Are we the leading culprits in the area, we Americans?

BERGER: Well, I think we lead in so much in terms of marketing capacity and media phenomenon so that when we grab onto something and really push it, we push it a long way. I think it’s probably in the context of us as a society and the nation and the ability that we have to sell things that we sell poor nutrition well.

HEFFNER: You know, when I was a kid and went to school, nutrition was not unimportant in class. And I presume that that was the case even decades later when you went to school, and so that there are generations of Americans who were introduced at least to some basic principles in school. Are you suggesting that our merchandising has overcompensated for that teaching in nutrition?

BERGER: I think that premise is absolutely incorrect.

HEFFNER: You don’t think we did learn?

BERGER: The ignorance in the area of nutrition and prevention is absolutely staggering. I mean, it’s staggering. There was a study released a few weeks ago out of Washington that cited that doctors know nothing about nutrition, I mean, literally nothing. When I graduated from medical school in 1977, during the course of four years I had two hours – two hours – of nutrition. That is not an adequate amount of training. And that’s a doctor. You know, you’re treating the human body. The nutritionists in the nutritional centers are still working with the nutrition of 1940, 1950. The recommended vitamin levels that we see coming out of government levels, they haven’t changed significantly in ten years. Our environment has changed enormously. It’s much more toxic. If there is a role for vitamins, it’s a function of our lifestyles. Why doesn’t that happen? I mean, why aren’t people considering it? I think that at every level the degree of nutritional ignorance is extraordinary.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting. You talk about what has happened to our environment, to the air we breathe, the water we drink. Are you suggesting that we have to have a new approach now to the foods we take because of environmental air, water, pollution changes?

BERGER: Absolutely. I think that the epidemic of the 21st Century is in immune-mediated disorders. I think that that range ranges from … I see today women and men in their 50’s and 60’s coming into my office for the first time with allergy-related asthma, who had no history of allergies in their childhood. That was unheard of, unheard of ten years ago for a physician. I see patients who have viruses, CMV virus or Epstein-Barr virus that last two and three years. And they suffer with chronic fatigue and low-grade temperatures for two or three years. When I was going to medical school, people didn’t have viruses that long. I mean, a good case of mono was four months, five months. Three or four years. There’s a … And then we see the epidemic of cancer. And there is an epidemic of cancer. There’s a reason for this. I mean, it’s not just serendipitous that our immune system is falling apart as a nation. And the reason is, in my opinion, that our environment is increasingly more toxic, that we breathe more chemicals, that we’re surrounded by pollutants, that our foods are full of all kinds of chemicals that we don’t know the long-term side effects of. I think that we’re experiencing these problems because of – and also stress; and obviously stress plays an important role in undermining one’s immune system – but clearly there’s a problem.

HEFFNER: But then you’re saying you can, through diet, your presumption is, your hope is, that we can, through diet, compensate for the diminishing health of our environment.

BERGER: I think I’m saying that. I’m clearly saying that. And perhaps more succinctly, what we have to focus on is preventive immunology. What we didn’t do for years in this country is preventive cardiovascular disease. And as a result, we had an extraordinary amount of unnecessary disease. When we thought of preventive cardiovascular disease, we saved a lot more lives than we have with changing hearts. I mean, a lot. Now, we do have to think in terms of preventive immunology. How do you make your white blood cells live longer? How do you augment the integrity of your body before you become ill? How do you protect yourself against certain areas? I mean, we know that if you have a high-fiber, low-fat diet, there’s less likelihood of developing colon cancer. That’s preventive immunology. I mean, there are very real things based on well-established, good fact – I mean, from medical schools, the finest institutions around the world – that one can engage in in terms of preventing catastrophic illness. That doesn’t mean you’re never going to get it, and it doesn’t mean that it’s a cure-all. It doesn’t presuppose that. But what it does say, simply, is that the likelihood of getting it becomes less. If you have a family predisposition towards colon cancer, you should be watched no matter what kind of nutritional program you’re on, because there’s a genetic predisposition towards colon cancer. But clearly, you should also be having a high-fiber, reduced-fat diet.

HEFFNER: All right. But now, I understand what you’re saying, but you are moving away just a bit from this concern that you expressed for the environment, not in terms of just the foods we eat, but another kind of environmental pollution.

BERGER: There’s a synergistic relationship between environmental factors and pollutants and food factors. For example, in the allergy area, if one is allergic to environmental molds and yeasts, and then if one eats mold from aged cheese, the two together will trigger the symptoms of allergy. But if you remove the mold from the cheese, you won’t have, the manifestations will be less severe. That’s one very small example. But there is a very real correlation between environmental toxins and nutritional problems.

HEFFNER: And you’re suggesting what? That at this point, given the point that you’re making, doctors are being better trained in terms of understanding the balance that you’re referring to?

BERGER: I don’t think so. I think that …

HEFFNER: Well, then, where are we?

BERGER: We’re in trouble. We’re in big trouble. I think that it’s a very, very difficult problem. Doctors aren’t, this is not a nation that … I’ll tell you why we’re in trouble, or why I believe we’re in t trouble. This is not a nation, this is a nation whose medical system is illness oriented. And we focus on disease states. We don’t think in terms, we don’t think like the Chinese, that a physician should be paid as long as their patient remains healthy, and that when the patient becomes ill, then the physician hasn’t done their job properly. As a result of that, this kind of abdication of responsibility on the part of the medical community, you have, and the desire on the part of the nation to be able to be more aware of nutrition and prevention and health, you have this group of quacks, of totally uneducated, irresponsible people that dominate the airways and that are giving information and advice that’s not real. I mean, that’s insane. So the American …

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me ask, what kinds of advice – I don’t mean to name names – but what kinds of advice are you talking about?

BERGER: Oh, I recently heard a nutritionist – quote, “a nutritionist” who doesn’t have a degree – in New York who suggested that the treatment of diabetes to someone who called in and asked a question was eating cherries, was eating sugar. That’s crazy.

HEFFNER: And for my kidney stones, cranberry juice?

BERGER: Well, the cranberry juice is different. In cranberry juice is …

HEFFNER: How different?

BERGER: All the difference in the world. What cranberry juice does is acidifies urine. And for certain kinds of stones, they won’t form in an acidic environment. Eating sugar for a diabetic is life-threatening. They should be taking insulin; not eating sugar.

HEFFNER: So what do you doctors do about that? You’re talking there about advice that you suggest is dangerous, and it sure as hell sounds that way. What do you do about it?

BERGER: Well, I’m not quite sure. I mean, I’ve written a book. I think other people should try to communicate. I think there should be clearly more of a responsibility on the part of the networks and of the media to utilize people that are moderate. You have these orthodoxies. The orthodoxy of medicine that ignores prevention and ignores nutrition and the ideas of preventive immunology, and then you have these irresponsible quacks, and there’s this dearth in the middle. There are people that are reasonable. They might not be as charismatic or as dramatic or as exciting as the people that are prescribing cherries to diabetics, but they would be a lot more prudent.

HEFFNER: But Dr. Berger, you’ve done rather well. Your book has sold incredible numbers of copies. Obviously you get around a great deal and reach a great many people. What kind of reception do you think there is on the part of the American people, on the part of the young in particular, to whom we have to look for a better balance in thinking about food? Are college kids interested in the kinds of messages that you deliver?

BERGER: First of all, I think it’s clearly a national phenomenon.

HEFFNER: The interest, you mean.

BERGER: Yes. And don’t let me forget to get back to this. I’m sure you won’t. But unfortunately, all too many times the kinds of people that immediately go and buy a book like mine are people that are suffering from ailments that we discuss in the book, say they’re arthritics or people with irritable bowel or people with migraines, who have a disease and haven’t had any kind of success taking traditional medications or treatment. But after awhile it becomes embraced by the youth of America. And we’ve seen that happening now. So that when I go around the country doing television shows or radio shows, I get 25-year-olds or 18-year-olds calling me and saying, “I’m on your diet and I couldn’t find X vitamin in level B. What should I do?” And that’s wonderful. That’s great. Because there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re healthy people; they want to stay healthy. And that’s really the goal. I mean, that’s the focus. You want people to start thinking about this, and at the earliest possible time. One of the great joys that I experienced recently in my practice was having a mother bring in a 15-year-old who was in perfect health. And after we did an evaluation, I said to her, “You know, I am so pleased that you did this. I think it’s so wonderful that your concern now for your child at 15 is what they can do nutritionally to stay as well as they are.”

HEFFNER: And the establishment of your profession? Where is it in this regard?

BERGER: I think it’s very confused. For example, in New York City, where I work, we work extensively with some of the medical schools in the area of headaches, stomach disorders, some cancer patients, and referred regularly patients from these medical centers. At the same time, the official position of the medical centers is that this kind of, that there isn’t … you know, up until recently we had a hard time convincing people that there was a relationship between food and irritable bowel, which just makes sense.

HEFFNER: But I want to know a little more about what the establishment … you said, you started to say there is cooperation, on the other hand?

BERGER: On the other hand, there hasn’t been gross hostility that I’m aware of. In other words, I haven’t seen any reviews that are aggressively hostile. There’s either ambivalence or they tend to ignore me. I think that by and large that’s the response.
HEFFNER: That’s worse.

BERGER: Well, the American people aren’t ignoring me. And I think they can’t ignore their patients. And that, in the long term, will make the impact; not me.

HEFFNER: Do you think that we generally know enough to make use of the kind of chemical formulations that you offer? A very serious question. And I read the book. I thought to myself, “Make sense? Too confusing. Too confusing.” I couldn’t follow it. After noting that it made sense. We’re not very sophisticated people along these lines.

BERGER: Well, then, that’s my problem, and it’s my responsibility.

HEFFNER: As a communicator, you mean?

BERGER: Yeah. It’s my responsibility to make sure that the next book isn’t that complicated. You know, the concepts aren’t … And we did make mistakes in the course of, you know, it’s not … I don’t know how to cook, for example. I mean, I can’t boil water. And so therefore in the development of the recipes, I wasn’t very attentive. I mean, I said, “Well, this is how much fiber I want and this is how much fat, unsaturated fats I want, and this is the ratio of carbohydrates to protein that I want.”

HEFFNER: Now you’re taking cooking lessons?

BERGER: No, I’m not. But I’m getting different people to work with me. “Now you fill in the foods, because, you know, you’re the experts in cooking.” I don’t think the American public expects their doctors to be cooks. The point is that in the book we recommend arugula on the second week on a Tuesday. I mean, people …

HEFFNER: What’s in arugula?

BERGER: (Laughter) You know, people don’t know what’s in arugula, and especially in Wyoming. So that’s unrealistic, and that’s my responsibility. The kinds of doses, vitamin doses that were involved are highly scientific and very accurate. The problem is that they’re not readily available in the health food stores.

HEFFNER: Dr. Berger, the most important thing, of course, is preventative use of your concepts. I do want to go back to this matter of how we are lousing up our environment. What are the areas in which we’re doing that?

BERGER: Well, I think we’re doing it in every area. Our industry pollutes our environment. We’re not cleaning. I mean, our agriculture is full of herbicides. I mean, the kinds of toxic wastes that are dumped into our rivers are destroying the, you know, fish have cancers now that didn’t exist five years ago. And, you know, this is a fixed environment. We’re not going to get a new world in 20 years, but we might get no world in 20 years if we keep on behaving the way we are. But the point is that it’s a very fixed environment. And so as we destroy it, it’s not going to get better.

HEFFNER: You know, I have the feeling that we’ve moved from a time a decade or so ago when we were very, very, very tuned in to environmental dangers to a time when I doubt that there are terribly many people who are aware that the air they breathe and the food they eat and the water they drink are as contaminated as you suggest they are.

BERGER: I think you’re right. I think that we have a real problem. And the problem exists in so many areas of American life today. It’s part of this Reaganism of the decade, this kind of conservatism, the abdication of fundamental responsibilities, to community, to needy, to the environment. I mean, they’re, quote, “liberal issues.” Environmental concern is a liberal issue. What we need to do in this society, people perceive, is to, you know, make money, develop industry. I mean, and this short-term thinking is kind of societal insanity or suicide permeating the medical field as well, and certainly the environment is a victim.

HEFFNER: Do you think there’s room now and there’s time now for a little bit more of apocalyptic thinking, some scare thinking? Because I, as you do not think, that most people are as aware even as we were a decade ago.

BERGER: I think that unfortunately it’s difficult to get the message through. I mean, there are very articulate people who talk … I mean, Carl Sagan is a brilliant man. He argues persuasively that we’re on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. Nevertheless, the kind of response that we get nationally to this nuclear insanity is minimal.

HEFFNER: Yes, but he has to interpret this point of his into, turn it into political action on an international scale, and that makes for more of what you call the politicizing of these issues. Here we’re talking about what we are doing to our bodies. The poisons we are taking in. And I would think that if the medical profession were to join together and end the infighting and make that point more clearly to us, that maybe something could be done.

BERGER: Oh, a lot could be done. And I think, I’m listening to myself talk, I sound so negative. I sound so depressing. And if I were listening …

HEFFNER: You sure as hell depress me!

BERGER: (Laughter) If I was listening to myself, you know, “What’s wrong with that guy? He’s young and he’s writing about nutrition. Why isn’t he saying that we can do this and get it together?” I think that the hopeful message, the important, positive message is that the American public can do it if they pressure their physicians. I think that the medical establishment cannot withstand being barraged by their patients. I mean, if, just as a function of the popularity of this book, there are patients coming in to doctors all the time and saying, you know, “What role do vitamins, should I take vitamins?” And the doctors will respond, “Oh you don’t need any vitamins. You get what you need in your meals.” And they say, “I’m not sure that I believe that. Why do you know? I mean, what’s your background?”

HEFFNER: Dr. Berger, we’re almost over, our time is almost gone. Are you saying that you believe that whatever it is we’re doing to our environment we could, through intelligent use of diet, more than make up for the poisons we’re taking?

BERGER: I’m certain that we could extend our average lives by about 15 years if we integrated healthy nutrition, removed, you know, cigarettes, concern ourselves with basic, some stress control and good exercise, we could extend our lives by 15 years.

HEFFNER: I’ll do it. Thank you, Dr. Berger, for joining me today.

BERGER: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”