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Spoiling for a good argument? Post the following on your favorite social media homepage: “I believe that [list your dietary choice] is the healthiest way to eat.” Then sit back and watch your friends and family tell you how wrong you are.

Trust me, whether you list vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian (a partial vegetarian), organic meats, or raw foods as your chosen sources of nutrition, you’re going to have people telling you that, while they certainly respect your choice, you’re totally off base when it comes to health. Suggest that you’re into herbs and other natural remedies and your comment section will overflow with from-the-heart corrections, arguments, counterattacks, articles, Web links, contradictions, or even downright ridicule.

The problem with both your post and most of the comments you’ll receive isn’t that they’re not valid. The problem is that they’re not scientific. Believing something doesn’t make it so. Having faith in a lie doesn’t transform it into a truth. Jump out of an airplane without a parachute and you’ll fall to the earth and die whether you believe in gravity or possess an unshakable faith that you can fly like an eagle.

Those who educate themselves concerning the scientific laws that undergird optimum health are much more likely to obtain it than those who don’t. Today, those long-misunderstood or often-ignored laws have been clearly identified by modern science and are readily available for immediate application. Taking advantage of what research has made clear, we can literally choose our level of health, how long we live, and how well those years will treat us. When it comes to health, we can be—as George W. Bush would say— the deciders.

Kitchen stove hood revelation

Not long ago, the exhaust fan and light in the hood above my family’s kitchen range stopped working. I hurried to our local hardware store for a replacement and was met with a dilemma. There were three replacement hoods available, not just one. I would have to choose whether I wanted the good hood, the better hood, or the best hood. That’s exactly how they were labeled. Each came with a list of features that grew longer as you moved up the chain. The price, of course, followed suit. After carefully balancing the features with our needs, I made my choice, paid my money, and went on my way rejoicing.

As a health journalist, I’m always trying to figure out ways to express to my readers just how much we are in charge of our own health. After almost a decade of interviewing the brightest scientific minds in the fields of health and nutrition, I realize that the choices we make on a daily basis determine the level of health we enjoy.

That’s when it hit me. “Good, better, best” precisely describes the process of deciding our well-being. We make our choices and we move up or down to whatever level those choices generate. And, as with replacement kitchen stove hoods, we always get what we pay for.

No exceptions

First of all, I want to remove the exceptions to the rules—the ones your social media friends love to highlight. We’ve all heard of the 110-year-old who smoked all of his or her life or the vegan who died of heart disease at the age of 29. We’ve all seen the gauntlooking vegetarian compared with the plump, sexy meat eater. Yes, I suppose it is possible to jump out of an airplane with no parachute and survive, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Scientific researchers reject such exceptions as unrepeatable flukes of nature. The men and women in lab coats are more interested in what their data reveals in broad strokes. Forget the exceptions. Concentrate on the rules.

In our search for that sustainable and testable truth on which to build our good, better, and best levels of health, we need to begin with a baseline created by the “Standard American Diet.” I think we can all agree that this chosen lifestyle earns its well-deserved label: SAD.

Scientists such as T. Colin Campbell have clearly identified why our common high-fat, high-calorie, low-nutrition fare, made up mostly of refined foods and animal products, generates such an incredible amount of chronic illness. To learn the awful truth concerning SAD, Campbell headed for China.

It seems that China plays host to two distinct lifestyles supported by two different dietary regimens. During their study, researchers discovered that country folk eating mostly whole-food fruits and vegetables enjoyed low levels of chronic disease, while their city-dwelling counterparts eating high levels of refined foods and animal products suffered terribly from the same chronic illnesses as Westerners.

After several years of research and data crunching, here’s what Campbell concluded, as expressed in his best-selling book The China Study: “Everything in food works together to create health or disease.” “The evidence now amassed from researchers around the world shows that the same diet that is good for the prevention of cancer is also good for the prevention of heart disease, as well as obesity, diabetes, cataracts, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, cognitive dysfunction, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and other diseases. . . . There is one diet to counteract all of these diseases: a whole foods, plant-based diet.”

OK, now we know the secret. But it’s the application of that revelation that determines the level of benefit we experience. That’s where the good, better, best scale comes into play. While any move away from the SAD lifestyle offers advantages, how far up the scale we choose to climb determines how far reaching those advantages will be.

Good health

Let’s let typical Americans Jack and Judy serve as our guides. They’re overweight, sedentary, diabetic, and doctors have warned that atherosclerosis (narrowing of their blood arteries due to a buildup of plaque) is taking place because of their constant intake of dietary cholesterol. They’re both scared of developing cancer, and each has a family history peppered with heart disease.

Bowing to the overwhelming evidence that eating plant-based foods is the answer, they both decide to cut back on their meat (their source of dietary cholesterol) and refined food consumption and toss some fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and beans into their diet.

Sure enough, their health improves a bit. They may even drop a few pounds. With the fiber from the plants coursing through their digestive tracks, more toxins and other carcinogens exit their systems before they have a chance to cause damage, thus reducing their risk of cancer.

But that’s about it. They really haven’t done much for longevity, and heart disease remains a very real possibility. As Dr. Campbell discovered, “Even . . . small amounts of animal-based food in rural China raised the risk for Western diseases.”

So, Jack and Judy make one more decision.

Better health

Out go the steaks. Out goes the chicken. Out go the pork and veal and hotdogs. In come more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and colorful selections from the produce section of their favorite grocery store. Both learn to make delicious meals from these fiber- and nutrition-rich foods.

More pounds melt away. Their energy bumps up a notch. They look better, feel better, and are even able to lower the dosage of some of the medicines they’ve been taking to combat their chronic ailments.

The only remnant from their old life are dairy and eggs. Many of their new, healthy foods still get slathered with cheese, washed down with milk, and textured by eggs. So they switch to “healthy” extra virgin olive oil when baking or cooking.

However, even with these changes, heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer still remain dangerous threats. Jack and Judy are simply postponing the inevitable. Why? Because of the “meat” they’re still consuming.

Meat? They gave that up, right? Well, only partly. Most people overlook the fact that dairy is an animal protein, and dairy is a very potent source of cholesterol. In milk form, it’s also a source of casein, which some nutrition researchers claim can promote cancer. What Campbell and his team discovered in the lab using mice has now been shown to be true in humans. He concluded that “nutrients from animalbased foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased tumor development.”

Learning this, Jack and Judy decide to take that all-important final step up their health ladder. While their previous steps may have offered a small degree of benefit toward their longevity and quality of life, this next one proves to be huge.

Best health

In the rarefied air of the whole-food, plant-based vegan diet is found the full and lasting possibility of outliving everyone. It’s here, where absolutely no animal products are consumed and no refined foods are tolerated including those high-calorie, blood-thickening, and diabetes-supporting processed oils that Jack and Judy finally gain optimum health.

They lose weight without trying. Their arteries shrug off their internal coating of plaque and become flexible again. The threat of heart disease, diabetes, macular degeneration, erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, and most cancers becomes a distant memory. Their bodies are changing from the inside out, and even the aging process seems to slow down as the overall health of their skin—their biggest organ—gains new vitality.

They’ve discovered the most powerful tool for obtaining optimum health—a tool that overrides genetics, slick marketing by food and drug manufacturers, the dire predictions of family doctors, and even what their friends say on Facebook. They may get hit by a truck, become poisoned by their environment, or succumb to any number of other causes of death, but they can live their lives knowing that whatever takes them out wasn’t connected to what they took in at the dinner table.

Good, better, best. Life is determined by our choices. So, it seems, is health.

Good, Better, Best

by Charles Mills
From the June 2013 Signs