We asked Dr. Michael Greger how to stay healthy during the holidays and eat to strengthen our immune system and try to avoid COVID-19 as best we can. Dr. Greger is an MD and bestselling author of How Not to Die, as well as How Not to Diet, two thick books that help you learn all the ways to stave off illness and diseases like heart disease, Alzheimer's, and type 2 diabetes, as well as all other killers. His diet book gives unique and reliable advice on how to lose weight and keep it off, all while eating a healthy, sustainable whole-food plant-based diet. His books did not deal with COVID-19 specifically, so we asked him to come up with the best strategies to stay safe, healthy, and virus-free this holiday season, as we still want to enjoy the comfort and traditions of family and home.

The Beet: What is your best advice about staying healthy over the holidays? With Coronavirus, it seems even more important than ever to take care of ourselves.

Dr. Michael Greger: Quite simply, we should eat natural foods that come from the ground and from the fields, not factories, and from gardens, not garbage. 

Studies have shown plant-based eating can improve not only body weight, blood sugar levels, and ability to control cholesterol, but also emotional states, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, sense of well-being, and daily functioning. Researchers have shown that a more plant-based diet may help prevent, treat, or reverse some of our leading causes of death–including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure—all of which have been shown to be conditions that lead to the most severe cases of COVID-19.

The Beet: Do those same foods help our immune systems function better? How does eating healthy keep us safe from COVID-19?

Dr. Greger: Only one way of eating has ever been proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients: a diet centered around whole plant foods. If that’s all a whole-food, plant-based diet could do—reverse our number-one killer—shouldn’t that be the default diet until proven otherwise?

The fact it may also be effective in preventing, treating, and arresting other leading killers seems to make the case for plant-based eating simply overwhelming.

For example, studies of plant-based diets have shown, 90 percent reductions in angina within just a few weeks. Plant-based diet intervention groups have reported greater diet satisfaction than control groups, as well as improved digestion, increased energy, and better sleep, and significant improvement in their physical functioning, general health, vitality, and mental health. 

The Beet: Do you have an immunity holiday recipe? Something simple? Even a holiday dessert with dates and turmeric (immune-boosting foods)?

Dr. Greger: My Pumpkin Pie Smoothie recipe from The How Not to Die Cookbook is perfect for getting you into the holiday spirit with a pep in your step. It tastes like pumpkin pie in a glass! This recipe is as easy as can be and makes one 1½ cup serving.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup solid-pack pure pumpkin (pumpkin puree, not pumpkin pie filling)
  • 1 small frozen ripe banana, cut into chunks before freezing
  • 3 soft Medjool dates, pitted
  • 1¼-inch piece fresh turmeric, grated (or ¼ teaspoon ground)
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 tablespoon almond butter

Instructions

Combine all the ingredients with 1 cup of water in a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. Serve and enjoy immediately.

Q: Do you have any tips for not getting off track diet-wise, or even trying to lose weight this season?

Dr. Greger: It’s not what you eat today that matters, or tomorrow, or next week, but rather what you eat over the next months, years, and decades. As the days get shorter and colder, it’s harder to get outside to exercise and move around, and with the social limitations put on us due to the pandemic, this season may bring us some sadness and anxiety, rather than happiness and cheer.

They don’t call it comfort food for nothing. Overeating may be a sign that something is eating us.

The Beet: So how do we stop stress-eating?

Dr. Greger:  Though some people eat less during stress, the majority of us not only eat more, but tend to gravitate toward foods high in sugar, fat, and calories. If you give people their own private snack buffet, those with high chronic stress levels eat less fruits and veggies and more chocolate cake. We suspect it’s cause and effect because you can demonstrate the acute effects of stress in a lab. Randomize people between solvable and unsolvable word puzzles, for example, and food choice shifts from a healthy snack (grapes) to a less healthy snack (M&M’s) in the more stressful condition. Even just watching a video with distressing scenes, including traffic problems, financial hardship, or sexual harassment can evoke the same shift in eating behavior toward chocolate.

The best way to relieve the effects of stress is to relieve the stress itself. To the extent possible, we should try to reorient our lives to avoid major stressors and use exercise to work off what’s unavoidable. This can include yoga, walking, or resistance band stretching. Mindfulness techniques can be used to reduce stress and deal with cravings. To buffer the release of the stress hormone cortisol, we can reduce our intake of saturated fats and added sugars, and pile on the plants.

And when it’s time to prepare a meal, think of it as an opportunity to do something good for yourself. To treat yourself. To give yourself food that is delicious and healthful.

The Beet: How do we prevent weight gain during the holidays?

Dr. Greger: It’s actually quite simple: It turns out the healthiest diet also appears to be the most effective diet for weight loss. Indeed, we have experimental confirmation: A whole food, plant-based diet was found to be the single most effective weight-loss intervention ever published in the medical literature, proven in a randomized controlled trial with no portion control, no calorie counting, no exercise component: the most effective ever.

The Beet: What do YOU eat for TG? A fake turkey? Which one? Or do you make your own? AND why does real turkey make you feel drugged?

Dr. Greger:  Though it’s commonly thought the amino acid tryptophan in turkey makes us feel lethargic and even sleepy, any large such meal will do it. I most definitely keep turkeys off my plate on Thanksgiving and all other days of the year, but I also tend to stay away from the plant-based turkey alternatives readily available these days. Don’t get me wrong: I think they can be great for those wanting a close approximation to a traditional holiday entrée, but without all the myriad downsides of consuming animal products, but I prefer foods that are less processed. Foods that are whole and hearty.

Some of my favorites are included in my The How Not to Diet Cookbook, including Roasted Root Vegetables on Garlic-Braised Greens, Baked Grain Loaf with Umami Gravy, Roasted Kabocha with Kale-Cranberry Stuffing, and Balsamic Butternut, Brussels, and Beets.

The Beet: Everyone who is interested in going splant based asks the question — BUT WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR PROTEIN?

Dr.Greger: Anyone who doesn’t know how to get protein on a plant-based diet doesn’t know beans! Protein from plant sources is preferable because of the baggage that comes along with protein from animal products. Food is a package deal. Beans and other legumes, such as split peas, chickpeas, or lentils, are the protein superstars of the plant kingdom, and we should ideally enjoy them every day.

Dr. Greger is also the founder of Nutritionfacts.org, a site devoted to eating plant-based for your health, from the perspective of a science-based career treating patients and educating the public on how avoiding foods with animal fat and instead choosing to eat vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes is a healthier approach. For more information on how to adopt a plant-based diet, visit Nutritionfacts.org.