I am happy to connect with Dr. William Li today! He is a world-renowned physician, scientist, speaker, and author. He is known for leading the Angiogenesis Foundation, and his groundbreaking work has impacted more than 70 diseases. He is also a Ted-X speaker and the author of Eat to Beat Your Diet, one of my favorite books thus far this year.
Dr. Li’s latest book is about what happens in the body, how it should operate, and the steps we can take to restore the body to its hard-wired level. We dive into how body fat impacts our health, the role of metabolism throughout our lifetime, the differences between the three fat-impacting hormones, including leptin, adiponectin, and resistin, and gender differences. We speak about new drugs like Ozempic and Semaglutide, the role of brown fat, the impact of the microbiome and specific bacteria, and we also discuss nutrition and lifestyle.
“As we gain extra weight, develop extra body fat from behavior, hormones, and all kinds of lifestyle circumstances, that excess body fat sits on our metabolism and, in many people, derails it.”
– Dr. William Li
IN THIS EPISODE YOU WILL LEARN
- Why Dr. Li chose this time to write his latest book.
- Why Dr. Li believes 60 is the new 20.
- The four stages of metabolism all humans have been hard-wired to go through throughout their lifespan.
- How does excess body fat derail the metabolism, and how can we unleash our inner metabolism?
- Why is it better to eat slowly?
- Why should we learn to respect and tame our fat instead of hating or fearing it?
- Dr. Li shares his views on new prescription drugs like Ozempic and Semaglutide.
- Interesting facts about body fat
- Changes that occur in our body fat distribution as we get older
- How can we help our bodies fight excess body fat, let our inner metabolism come to the surface, and lower inflammation by being aware and mindful?
- How modern-day lifestyle choices contribute to metabolic disease.
- Dr. Li gets into the interplay between the gut microbiome and our metabolism and the role of Akkermansia.
- Some everyday foods contain natural chemicals that can activate our body’s health defenses, tame the metabolism and fight body fat.
William W. Li, MD, is an internationally renowned physician, scientist, and New York Times bestselling author of the forthcoming book “Eat to Beat Your Diet: Burn Fat, Heal Your Metabolism, Live Longer”. His groundbreaking work has led to the development of more than 30 new medical treatments and impacts care for more than 70 diseases, including cancer, diabetes, blindness, heart disease, and obesity. His TED Talk, “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” has garnered more than 11 million views. Dr. Li has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, CNBC, LIVE with Kelly and Ryan, and the Rachael Ray Show, and he has been featured in USA Today, Time Magazine, The Atlantic, and O Magazine. He is the president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation.
Connect with Cynthia Thurlow
Connect with Dr. William Li
On his website
On social media: @ Dr William Li
Dr. William Li’s latest book, Eat to Beat Your Diet: Burn Fat, Heal Your Metabolism, and Live Longer is available from most bookstores.
Cynthia Thurlow: Welcome to Everyday Wellness Podcast. I’m your host, Nurse Practitioner Cynthia Thurlow. This podcast is designed to educate, empower, and inspire you to achieve your health and wellness goals. My goal and intent, is to provide you with the best content and conversations from leaders in the health and wellness industry each week and impact over a million lives.
Today, I had the great fortune of connecting with Dr. William Li. He’s a world-renowned physician, scientist, speaker, and author. He is known for leading the Angiogenesis Foundation, and his groundbreaking work has impacted more than 70 diseases. He’s also a TEDx speaker and the author, most recently of Eat to Beat Your Diet, one of my favorite books I’ve read thus far this year. Today, we dove deep into his background and the impact of how body fat impacts our health. We spoke about the role of metabolism throughout our lifetime, differences between hormones that impact fat including leptin, adiponectin, and resistin, gender differences, the role of new drugs like Ozempic and semaglutide, the role of brown fat, the impact of the microbiome and specific bacteria like Akkermansia, the role of nutrition, as well as lifestyle. I hope you will enjoy this discussion as much as I did recording it.
Dr. Li, it is such a pleasure to connect with you. I’m a huge fan and I have to tell you, as I was telling you before, I get a lot of books to read for the podcast. But as soon as your new book arrived, Eat to Beat Your Diet, I read it immediately. Welcome.
William Li: Thanks very much. It’s a real pleasure to be here.
Cynthia Thurlow: And so, we were talking before we started recording and you mentioned that this book was easier for you to write than your first book. Why was it this book at this time? Was it out of the changes that have occurred in our lives over the last several years coming out of the pandemic, but really talking about metabolism and ways and strategies that we can improve our metabolic health?
William Li: Well, as a fellow healthcare provider by background one of the things that I’m sure you can relate to is that we are trained in our education to really memorize certain aspects of science that get really applicable in treatment of disease, but not so much for prevention. And yet, as we go on, we start to open our eyes to the fact that many of these diseases could be prevented in the first place. So, as a scientist, as a doctor, as somebody who’s had a career as a communicator, my first book was really about unpacking the secrets of the body that protect our health. That’s something I spent 20 years helping to actually develop treatments to chase those diseases until I realized we should be preventing them in the first place.
When I finished my first book, I really felt like there was a story that still was untold. That untold story was not just about how do you protect your health, but how do you optimize it from wherever you are. That’s where metabolism comes in and perhaps, you’ll also resonate with me on this and as a fellow healthcare provider is that I think most doctors and nurses can talk about metabolism, but not so differently than how the average person can talk about metabolism who doesn’t have a medical background either. We all make certain assumptions that seem like they should be true, but may not actually be true. So, I decided to write a sequel. And that sequel is called Eat to Beat Your Diet, which is a trick title because it’s not a diet book, it’s anti-diet book.
What it really talks about is what I’m now really passionate about, which is that if you really understand how your body works, we are all hardwired with a metabolism that serves us our entire lives. What happens over the course of everyday existence for most of us is that we wind up actually crushing, and derailing, and actually injuring our hardwired metabolism. And then people wind up throwing up their hands saying, “I don’t know what to do now.” This book is really about what is actually happening in your body, how should it actually operate, and how can we actually make steps to restore it back to its hardwired level.
Cynthia Thurlow: I think it’s really important for people to understand this because I think the common misnomer and research suggests otherwise is that our metabolism slows as we get older. You talk about in the book about the fact that from the age of 20 to 60 our metabolism is quite stable. But yet, most people have the assumption and clinicians included that, once you get north of 40 years old or as women get closer to menopause or man andropause that all of a sudden, the brakes go on and actually the research doesn’t support this.
William Li: Yeah, that’s right. One of the things that as a research scientist, I live for jaw dropping moments in science. That’s basically whether you’re in the lab or you’re doing clinical research, what every research scientist actually tells the tale of is like, “I was doing this and then this discovery happened and this light bulb went off.” And I’m like, “Jeez, if this, then this must be true.” It’s exciting. So, my passion for metabolism was truly ignited, set on fire. Really just about two years ago while I was in the middle of writing this book and asking questions about metabolism, when a discovery was made which has really changed the way that we understand human metabolism.
So, here’s where the research study. Research study was done with 6,000 people over 20 countries and was led by a group of several dozen researchers that looked at or asking the question about human metabolism and what should it be. So, think about it. The average person like, “Well, I’m this tall, and I weigh this much, and this is how much I should be eating. This is how many calories.” That’s dieting, right? So, I was writing a book about how do you beat your diet, how do you not need a diet? So, that led me to say, “Well, how does metabolism work?” Well, that’s where this research study came into play.
By the way, the research was headquartered at the International Atomic Energy Center in Switzerland. This is a global study. They studied 6,000 people that ranged from 2 days old to 95 years old. That’s the entire human lifespan, okay? What they did is they studied everyone’s metabolism in the exact same way. The way they did this and the reason that it was atomic in terms of its headquarters and sponsors is because they gave everybody a drink of water. Water is H2O, two hydrogens and one oxygen, and they tweaked the atoms, so you can actually measure them. That means that whether you gave a baby some very safe water to drink, or gave an elderly person safe water to drink, or anybody in between, you could actually measure these tweaked atoms in their breath, in their urine, or in their blood.
Now imagine this. 6,000 people studied in exactly the same way and then what they did is when they looked at results by measuring that, you actually get a sense of metabolism. You get a measure of metabolism. By measuring that, they found that, not surprisingly, everybody’s metabolism is all over the map, just like you’d expect. Just like people pull their hair out and say, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know why– My sister was so lucky. She was born with a fast metabolism. And I was not lucky, because I was born with a slow one. That’s why I struggle with weight and she can eat anything,” right? That’s the standard trope that everybody–
It’s a myth really. It turns out to be an urban legend because when they looked at all the data and it was all scattered, they did one ingenious thing. This is something that really, I think, modern technology allows us to do. They were able to develop an algorithm that removed from this data cloud the effect of excess body fat, based on the body size, based on the sex, based on everything else. When they did that, which over 6,000 people, you need high technology to be able to really put this into place. So, 20 years ago, there’s no way we could have done this research. But when they removed out of this confusing cloud of data of metabolism everywhere, they removed the effect of excess body fat. What they found was jaw dropping to me. They found that human beings are hardwired to all go through only four stages of metabolism across the entire lifespan. Zero to one, metabolism shoots sky high, about 50% higher than the adult. Phase 2, stage 2 is 1 year old to 20 years old.
When you’re going down, down, down, down, down, during adolescence, when teenagers are sprouting up and eating two dinners and bouncing off the walls, I used to think, “This is what I was taught.” When their metabolism is going up as you got to feed it. Actually, it’s not true. Their metabolism is going down, down, down. They’re actually getting bigger and they’re flushing out, but their metabolism is hardwired to go down. Then from 20 to 60, it is almost rock stable. That’s through pregnancy, that’s through menopause, andropause as you said, rock stable. That was shocking because what that means is that 60 is a new 20, right? So, if you choose it to be, that’s how your body wants it to be and then from 60 to 90, your metabolism does slow down slightly. When you’re 90, your metabolism is about 17% slower than it was at 60 or at 20, all right? That’s it. That’s how we’re wired. When they added the fat back into the system, what they found is that these four patterns of metabolism, these four stages got crushed by the effect of excess body fat.
So, it’s not the metabolism we’re born with that causes us to gain body fat and therefore, gain weight, actually, the other way around. We are hardwired to have a certain metabolism. As we gain extra weight, develop extra body fat from behavior, from hormones, from all kinds of life circumstances that excess body fat sits on our metabolism and basically many people derail it. And so, the good news is that that makes it something that we can do something about because we actually have the ability to uncloak, unleash our inner metabolism.
Cynthia Thurlow: I think that’s absolutely fascinating. And certainly, it flies in opposition to everything I learned as a nurse and a nurse practitioner. But let’s talk more about fat because I think people think of fat as fat, but it’s actually a highly sophisticated endocrine organ. In your book, you talk specifically about three different types of hormones. I think most people are probably familiar with leptin, but two others that are probably less known but the interplay between these vis-à-vis adipose tissue is fascinating.
William Li: Yeah. Well, so, leptin is sort of the satiety hormone. It actually lowers our appetite, but people make a mistake about thinking like it’s an off switch. It’s not. It’s really a volume switch. So, it just like when you’re driving the car or maybe your kids driving in a car, they turn the radio out really loud and you want to turn down. That’s basically how all these hormones actually work, but especially leptin. And so, basically, it’s the volume switch between our stomach and our brain and it’s influenced by a lot of other things, but basically, it’s like, “Hey, we’re getting kind of full, time to slow it down.” If you eat slowly and your stomach actually– Your body fat actually produces leptin. It signals to your brain. It’s kind of a text message to the brain that says, “Hey, slow it down.”
That’s why if you gobble down your Thanksgiving dinner, all right, and you wolf it down, you’ll eat two, maybe three servings, and you’re going to feel like crap afterwards. We’ve all done it, all right? But if you eat slowly and think about how in the Mediterranean or in Asia, how they tell you to savor your food, eat smaller quantities, enjoy it, eat more diversely. When you eat slowly, that text message is a chance to be sent to the brain. The brain is able to slowly reach over to the volume button and start to tweak it a little bit, so that it is actually happening at the right time. You tend not to overeat. It’s harder to overeat when you give yourself time. And so, leptin is one of those hormones that actually controls that. These are all, by the way, produced by body fat, these hormones. This is why it’s an endocrine organ, like your thyroid, like your adrenal gland, like your pituitary.
Another one is called adiponectin. Now, adiponectin, most people may or may not have heard about it, but this term ‘adipose’ really refers to fat tissue. Most people don’t know this, but adipem, which is where adipose comes from, it’s Latin for lard, pig fat. For 10,000 years human beings have been eating fat from pig. In the old, back in the Stone Age, eating fat actually was part of energy. That’s the other key thing that I write about, which is that we should not fear fat nor should we actually hate it. We should respect it and we should tame our fat.
It’s like a German shepherd. When there’s a really nice shepherd, you love your dog. [Cynthia laughs] But when there’s an untamed dog, it can be nasty. Just hard to live within the house and hard for anybody to visit your house. Same deal with our fat. You want to actually have a well-controlled tamed fat. So, adiponectin, which is also made by fat, actually is, by the way, it’s a hormone in the blood that is present like a thousand times higher than most other hormones in your body. You know it’s important because it actually is part of our metabolism that allows our cells to absorb fuel. And so, when adiponectin is high, it basically allows our cells to be very sensitive to insulin, which is the hormone that allows us to absorb energy, glucose, and other forms of energy from carbs, etc., into our cells so that we can power ourselves. It’s the fuel nozzle that allows our car engine to actually work. So, that’s a very important hormone to recognize as well. It’s actually really good. Some foods can actually turn up, turn down leptin, turn up or turn down adiponectin.
Then one other one is called resistin. Now, resistin does exactly what it sounds like. It resists. Just like the rest of our body, our body is a bunch of checks and balances. They’re not on and off switches. My book is an anti-diet book. But people who tend to follow diets, they’re all into all in or all out. That’s basically why you yoyo all over the place. Bottom line is that our body is a bunch of checks and balances. It’s a gigantic yin and yang. When adiponectin is absorbing energy, you sometimes need to create a little resistin to counter it. You got 1 foot on the gas pedal and 1 foot on the brake. You can make the whole trip that way. That’s really the trip of our metabolism is gas pedal and brake. These kinds of concepts are really important.
The fact that our body fat makes these hormones that control our metabolism means that we don’t want to get rid of all of our body fat. You don’t want to cut it out, suck it out, artificially burn it out. Nor do you, you know, like a big deal right now is actually to use drugs to interfere with that text message to your brain, so you don’t even feel hungry. That’s like smashing with a hammer the fuel gauge in your car. You have no idea if you need more fuel. To me, I think that what we want to do is respect how the body controls our metabolism. Metabolism is all based on fuel. Fuel in your body is like fuel you run in your car.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, because you talked about this, I’m actually going to ask your opinion about semaglutide and Ozempic. These are these new drugs that are out that are interfering with this communication, so that people feel satiated, they don’t want to eat as much, maybe they get a little constipated, it slows their gut motility. What are your personal feelings? Are you prescribing these drugs for your patient population?
William Li: Yeah. Well, so, look, first of all, as a medical doctor, as an MD who’s actually been involved with developing new biotech drugs for cancer, diabetes and its complications, and also vision loss among other health conditions. I’m a big believer in using the right medicine for the right situation in the right person at the right time. I totally understand that there may be dire situations in which a prescription weight loss drug could be exactly the right thing to do for a patient. What I think is that our body is complex enough and hardwired in wonderful ways that unless you’re in that dire position, reaching for that prescription drug or as a doctor writing that prescription drug often at the request of the patient is just not the best way and probably not the right way to do it either.
I think that if you think about it, we live our lives without medication. We have to eat, we have to move, we have to sleep, we have to manage our stress levels. All those things are important for keeping us healthy. There are times when we actually need assistance. And sometimes, you need to supplement whatever your body can do. That’s the role of supplements in– It’s topping off something that you can’t get or you don’t get enough of and then once you go beyond that, look, pharmaceuticals are lifesaving. If you take a look at how people live to 40 years old a hundred years ago and so I take nothing for granted. I think there can be instances in which these prescription drugs, which are quite powerful and also have some powerful side effects are completely appropriate. But that needs to be the decision between a doctor and a patient. Ideally, a doctor who is adequately informed and has really thought through things.
By the way, while we’re on this topic, this is another big challenge that I think patients face all around the world, which is that the people that you’re supposed to trust, the doctors, nurses who are advising you that you trust your life to in almost every other circumstance. Childbirth, managing your heart attack, getting a heart transplant, they’re not adequately educated about diet, metabolism. And so, what winds up happening is that patients become consumers of information and they will go for whatever they can get rightfully so. We’re all self-sufficient to look for stuff, but there’s no filter and no way to tell what’s really credible. You and I are rooted in working on credible information and credible science, but that’s not true for everyone or all the sources of information. So, I think that’s one of the big challenges is educating the healthcare community, so that they’re also able to actually communicate clearly. So, obviously, what you do and what I do, we’re one step in the right direction, but there’re a lot of other health professionals that also need to step up to the plate.
Cynthia Thurlow: I could not agree more. While we’re talking about fat, I find it fascinating that there are a lot of gender differences, which I think for many people, the way that a woman’s body habitus or a man’s ends up looking is driven by changes during puberty and other life changes. So, let’s talk about some of the changes that are occurring in fat distribution as we are getting older. So, north of 40, into our 50s and beyond, what changes with fat deposition?
William Li: Yeah. Well, so, one of the things I talk about in Eat to Beat Your Diet, the first third of the book is really new discoveries and things you need to know about metabolism and about body fat. Both are completely able to be controlled by actions that we can take. Both are working on our behalf most of the time, they should be, and both are really under our control. So, let’s talk about body fat for a second. Before we talk about what happens in middle age and above, let’s talk about some amazing things about body fat that occur long before you worry about it. And that is body fat begins when you’re in the womb.
So, when your dad’s sperm met your mom’s egg and they combined and started to create little ball cells and started to create the shape of a human, some of the first tissues that form are blood vessels, because we need a good circulation for every organ that forms. Nerves that also form. Nerves run along with blood vessels. The third tissue that forms is fat, adipose tissue. So, we’ve got little globules of fat. You had fat long before we had a face to feed it, number one. Number two is that fat actually surrounds blood vessels and also is connected to nerves. Remember, we just talked about it a little bit earlier about this, it’s an endocrine organic produces hormones that supports the function of our organs that are going to form later on. So, this is way before you’re even born.
Number two, when you’re born, think about it, every culture in the world, every country in the world will appreciate the wonderful sight of a newborn. Pudgy, chubby, they’ve got arms and legs that look like the balloon animals that you twist. Big cheeks, chubby cheeks, right? In fact, fat in babies is something that we can associate with health. Look at how cute that baby is. If you actually saw a baby at birth that looked like a fashion model, chiseled jaw, thin stick arms and legs, you’d be really worried with that baby. You’d be right. You’d think there was something wrong with that baby. So, number one, just from the get go, you got to realize that fat actually has a role long before you peek at it in the mirror or step on a scale. That’s really a wonderful thing. What happens is that as we grow up from that pudgy little baby, our fat starts to redistribute in ways.
Now, boys and girls, actually, when you’re five, seven, eight, actually all track along pretty similarly. The three kinds of fat, which is subcutaneous fat, which is subcutaneous under the skin, you can see it. Visceral fat, which we need some of, inside our gut. Viscera means gut. So, the fat in our gut. And also, some brown fat, which we can talk about, which is a third kind of fat. Visceral fat and subcutaneous fat, the subcutaneous fat is the muffin in your waistline. Visceral fat, you can’t see. That’s the yellow stuff hanging off the chicken when you actually open it up. And then brown fat is something that we only really started to appreciate actually exists in humans. It is paper thin and it’s not close to the skin. You can’t see it. It’s close to the bone. It’s paper thin. It’s around your neck, it’s behind your breastbone, it’s under your arms, a little bit in your back, a little bit in your belly, and they all form different things.
But when we’re kids, boys and girls, the genders are kind of convergent. They’re forming differently, but that’s why little boys and little girls look the same. You go to a grade school, you could dress the kids exactly the same way. If it wasn’t for the legs or the hair, they’d look at a distance exactly the same. What happens in junior high school with puberty? Hormones start pouring out. And now, the gender specifics start to really flesh themselves out. Boys actually tend to start growing more visceral fat, which is the harmful fat. Now, it’s not harmful until it becomes harmful. As a male, we tend to start building more gut fat. You can’t see that gut fat, but our waistline starts to enlarge. It’s like just putting a lot of meat in a sausage, it’s casing. It’s going to get a fatter sausage, all right?
The female gender starts to distribute fat differently; around the hips, around the thighs, around the butt, eventually around breast tissue. And so, you wind up actually starting to see this wonderful distribution. This was the fascination and the focus of some of the Renaissance artists capturing the wonderful human form and differentiating the male and the female figure. If you went to Rome or you went to the Louvre, or you just went online to look at paintings, some of the most famous paintings of the world that Michelangelo’s paintings, you’ll see this being captured in its idealistic form. Now, what happens when we actually get– Don’t forget, metabolism goes up, then it comes down, then it’s rock stable.
Now, what happens during that rock stable part is really getting to that age period that you’re talking about. Like, what happens during middle age? Well, you know what? Actually, a hundred years ago, we never made it beyond middle age. People just didn’t make it beyond 40. But now that we’re living longer, and we’re getting more comfortable, and we have more resources around us, and we are surrounded by abundance; abundance of food, abundance of ultra-processed food, abundance of soda, abundance of couches and chairs and cars and laptop screens, and things that don’t make us as physically active and lifestyles that make us stressed out. Complex relationships, lots of stress from disease, economy, war. Think about all the things that have come into modern human existence.
I’m talking about decades ago. You want to talk about the last few years? Yeah, it’s been, like in sharp focus then. All these things contribute to our brain, which is one of the most important organs to allow us to make the best possible decisions. A lot of the things that were surrounded us, trick us into making not so good decisions. And so, what you wrote your book about and what I wrote my book about is really about what’s the underlying principle that one should think about to make better decisions. And so, the reason that we wind up growing the muffin at age 40 and above and the beer gut, and the reason that the double chin and the floppy arms and the big thighs, the thing that–
Look, this happens to everyone if you’re not careful. It’s about being mindful, all of us. I’m not a great big person, but I can tell you, I’m sure everyone who’s watching have experienced this as well. You step out of the shower in the morning, and out of the corner of your eye, you glance at the mirror and you see something you didn’t expect to see or you don’t want to see. Then what’s the next thing you do? You step on the scale. Whatever that number is, probably a number that you didn’t want to see, all right? So, then what do you do? You’re like, “Oh, man, I got to eat better. I got to work out. I got to exercise more.” Then that’s the cycle. Then you start reaching for extreme things that are being fed to us by the media.
What I think we need to do is to come right back down to basics, to recognize. Our body is hardwired in a particular way. We should be eating in sensible ways that like our world provided for us. We need to try to filter out some of this distraction that’s out there. By being aware and mindful, we can actually help our bodies, our own bodies fight excess body fat, let our inner metabolism come to the surface, lower inflammation in our body, and also take advantage of all those useful bioactives found in foods, mostly plant based, but not exclusively that actually allow us to get in better shape. That’s just the food part. The whole idea of activity, sleep, stress management are also incredibly important. So, there’s no one solution fix all.
Cynthia Thurlow: I think that’s really important, because we’ve been so heavily influenced by not only the processed food industry, but also the media that will hang on to a cherry-picked study that they then extrapolate. I’m sure this happens to you and your team on social media. There’ll be a cherry-picked study or some article that comes out, and people all of a sudden, they’re not sure, they’re almost paralyzed, not feeling confident in their decision to lean into eating more plants, or having more meat, or doing more physical activity, or intermittent fasting, any of these strategies. But they are designed to not just be focusing on one. It’s all of these things.
I love that you really speak about slowing down, how important mindset is, because understanding our autonomic nervous system and being in the parasympathetic, the rest and repose side of our brain is really the way our bodies are optimized to eat. Most of us are eating on the go. We’re eating standing up, we’re eating off our kid’s plates. We’re not eating at all. We’re then coming home and eating half of our refrigerator because we’re so hungry. How do you think our modern-day lifestyles have contributed to the degree of metabolic disease that we’re looking at right now? I know, obviously, broken metabolisms are likely a byproduct of a lot of the lifestyle choices that we’re making and the hyperpalatable foods that we’re consuming.
William Li: Yeah. Oh, my gosh, what a big statement to unpack. I think that if you take a look at all the research studies in totality, the ones that actually look at how our modern life has affected our health universally show– There are no studies that show eating excess ultra-processed food or having inactivity, being the couch potato or having poor quality sleep actually do anything beneficial to our health. In fact, quite the opposite. They show that in fact there’s degradation of our health. And now, we’re beginning to understand why. Because the new science of the metabolism, which is what I write about, I need to beat your diet teaches us that we’re hardwired to function in a very particular way. If we take care of how we actually operate and our metabolism operates, it will last a long time.
I try to bring things down into analogies and explanations that people understand. You buy a car. It doesn’t matter if it’s expensive or inexpensive. The bottom line is you got an engine. To run that engine, you need to have good quality fuel or fuel in order to run that engine. And how you treat your engine? The quality of the fuel that you use. How you drive that car? If you drive it hard, if you take care of it, if you are mindful of how you’re driving the car can make all the difference between– Look, in the very beginning, it’s going to drive great. Everyone’s going to actually have that same highway feel. You can take it off-roading and you’re probably okay, the same experience. But if you start to mistreat your car over a long period of time and feed it crappy quality fuel, put in the lowest quality oil or don’t put an oil in at all, run it too fast, don’t change your brakes, you just get in there and abuse your car.
To some extent, that’s what our modern life has done to us. They’ve so distracted us and so detached us from our inner selves that we’re basically just ruining our vehicles. And so, as a result, we’re not lasting as long. By the way, if you take a look at these so-called blue zones, it’s got a lot of popularity. These are the five, probably more zones around the world where people are unusually healthy and they live unusually long periods of time. There’s something mystique about how they live. I’m going to actually invite the listeners and viewers to consider something else.
Let’s turn that upside down. Maybe they’re just living modern life in a simpler way that we should all emulate. There’s nothing mysterious about it. In fact, they’re just not burdening their existence with all the things that are distracting and cluttering up our lives. If we could Marie Kondo our lives and our diets and keep things simple, we probably would all have the opportunity to be our own blue zone. I think that that’s something that is empowering to think about. Everyone needs a spring cleaning. I think when it comes to the metabolism, starting with your diet is actually a really great way.
Cynthia Thurlow: I would totally wholeheartedly agree. You talk in the book quite a bit about the impact of the gut microbiome and how that can be tied to body fat. Specific to that, one particular organism that we’re starting to hear more about Akkermansia. Can we talk about the interplay between the gut microbiome and our metabolism and this very important organism that many people may be unfamiliar with?
William Li: Okay. Everyone’s probably by now heard about gut health and thought about gut health. This isn’t something that you’ve heard about. Ask a friend or a family member, they’ll start rambling on about everything about it, okay? Here’s the thing. Gut health in scientific terms, in medical terms relates a lot. It refers to our gut microbiome. Our gut microbiome is really the bacteria that is mostly in the last part of our gut. It’s an area in the colon called the cecum. Although not all of our body’s healthy bacteria is there, a lot of it is. What’s a lot? 39 trillion bacteria. That’s a lot of bacteria. Our body is only made of 40 trillion cells. So, we’re about 50:50 bacteria and the other 50% is human, all right?
So, what we realized is, and again, I’ll confess this as a bona fide MD who went through medical school is that, when I went to medical school and you probably had the same thing, Cynthia, is that I was taught that bacteria are bad. We must kill bacteria. Now must memorize all the bacteria you must kill with prescription antibiotics that are necessary in order to stay clean and healthy. Well, it turns out that’s all a little bit misemphasized because most bacteria that we encounter throughout our lives are good bacteria. Almost all of them are good bacteria. We do encounter a few bad guys. Think about it. The way that medical community was trained is like, “Everyone’s a terrorist, must kill terrorists.” But in fact, actually, most people are good guys, most people are ordinary peace-loving citizens. Yeah, there’re a few bad actors out there. We do want to make sure that we’re keeping an eye out for them. So, what’s amazing to me is how modern science is teaching us to upend a lot of the traditional teachings that the medical community actually has been saddled with over the decades.
So, gut microbiome are healthy bacteria living in our gut. There’re a lot of different bacteria. Not only bacteria, by the way. There’re always also viruses, there’re also fungi, there’re also another small organism that most people don’t talk about, don’t even know about called archaea. That’s another kind of member of the garden that’s out there. But let’s not go there right now. [Cynthia giggles] I’ll tell you about the bacteria. We’re just beginning to understand the importance of the gut microbiome. We do know that the bacteria in our gut talks through the wall of our intestines because they’re living inside our intestines, they talk to our immune system. They talk to our immune system right through the wall of the bacteria, I would say, it’s like college roommates in a dorm with really thin walls.
Basically, the bacteria, which is one roommate pounding on the wall to the roommate basically saying, “Hey, what kind of pizza do you want?” And then the roommate can hear on the other side and shouts back, “I like mushroom or olives.” Basically, our bacteria in our immune system talk to each other that way. Good healthy gut bacteria give good instructions to our immune system. This is really kind of an eye opener to realize that our immune system is so tightly connected. When our gut bacteria are not healthy, not only is our immunity, our defense is down for immunity, but our inflammation which is another part of our immune system goes up. The gut bacteria not only influence our immune system, but it also influences our metabolism. It influences our lipid cholesterol and lipid levels in our body.
The inflammation actually is really important to control because if we’ve got extra body fat, basically, we’ve got actually a smoldering fire burning in our body, okay? It’s our healthy gut bacteria that puts out that smoldering fire, like we put out that fire to prevent it from becoming a wildfire, we need good healthy gut bacteria. Most people have not until recently paid attention to their gut. So, we’ve all been through this before. When you’re feeling okay and then one week you’re not feeling okay, you’re gassy, you’re crampy, you’re not regular, or you’re having loose stools, and you’re just not feeling that good, you’re not talking about it to people mostly, that means that you don’t have good gut health. Most likely, there’s something going on with your gut bacteria. We are just beginning to actually understand that we got to pay attention to that.
Now, a lot of people out there say that they’ve got a solution. “Do my stool test and get my probiotic.” What I will tell you is that we don’t understand enough about it yet to come up with a definitive solution. However, there are certain bacteria that are very, very interesting. One of them is called Akkermansia muciniphila. Akkermansia, A-K-K-E-R-M-A-N-S-I-A. That’s the first name. The last name, the genus of species is muciniphila. Muciniphila because it actually likes to live in the mucus of your gut. Now, I learned about Akkermansia muciniphila, not in a metabolism setting, not in a diabetes or an obesity setting, but actually in a cancer setting because I do cancer research.
A few years ago, I was with a colleague of mine, Dr. Laurence Zitvogel, who discovered in cancer patients getting immune therapy, treatments that actually activate our body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. That the people who responded well, whose immune system could be coached by the treatment to go out and destroy their own cancer. People who survived actually had Akkermansia and the people who unfortunately didn’t respond, meaning their immune system did not respond, it couldn’t be coached by the immunotherapy, lacked this one particular gut bacteria, Akkermansia muciniphila. So, that’s really interesting. One bacteria could make the difference between whether you lived or died as a cancer patient with a particular kind of treatment.
My radar went up right away like, “Oh, my gosh, we got to figure out more about this.” The more we actually discovered about this– So, what Laurence Zitvogel did, she took out the Akkermansia from these responders, cancer patient survivors and took them to the lab and gave them to lab animals that were developing cancer and gave those lab animals immunotherapy, and so they would respond if they had the Akkermansia from the patient, then she gave them antibiotics to wipe out the Akkermansia and the cancer grew right back and killed the animals just like the patients. So, this is, I think, 2017 and now the research has continued to evolve. Now, we’re finding that it’s not just cancer, which is not about cancer. It’s really about the immune system, our own health defenses.
But another defense is really about able to tame our adipose tissue and our metabolism. People with good metabolisms have more Akkermansia. This is actually a really strange observation. So, I’m a scientist. One of the important things about scientists is, you can tell somebody’s a real scientist when they tell you they don’t know something, all right? [Cynthia laughs] So, here’s what we don’t know, but what we observed. People who are suffering from obesity actually have hardly any or no Akkermansia in their gut. People that are lean with good metabolisms actually have Akkermansia. So, this is an observation that we need to pay attention to. How come one group doesn’t have Akkermansia? Is it a cause or an effect? What is Akkermansia doing? Well, it looks like Akkermansia may be controlling lipids, might be influencing inflammation, really, really being helpful.
So, then the question is, how do you grow your own Akkermansia? Well, it turns out that there are certain foods containing polyphenols, like pomegranate juice that contain ellagitannins as a bioactive, that doesn’t act directly on the bacteria, the Akkermansia. It prompts your gut to secrete more mucus. There’s more soil for the Akkermansia to grow. So, it’s basically like a gardener saying, “How do I put more fertilizer for my flowerbed to bloom, my annuals to bloom?” So, pomegranate juice, Concord grape juice, cranberry juice have all been studied. They all have this ellagitannin. The more mucus there is, the better the Akkermansia grows.
I can tell you I had a patient I once was treating who had cancer. She was about to get an immunotherapy for cancer, multiple myeloma. I told the oncologist, “Hold off for a second, because let’s test her stool to see if she has Akkermansia.” This is as a result of my knowing about Laurence Zitvogel’s work. And so, we tested her stool. She had zero Akkermansia. Why? Because her kids had had bronchitis, it went right through the house. She had gotten some antibiotics from a walk-in clinic and she had no Akkermansia. So, I said, “Wait, let’s grow some back.” So, we gave her pomegranate juice, we tried to really give her some fermented foods to really make her gut health better. We needed more mucus, we needed more gut health, more probiotics, prebiotics, probiotics.
Then we tested her again a few weeks later and she had six times above the general population’s worth of Akkermansia. So, if you’re missing it, I’m telling you, diet can actually grow it back, which is a wonderful thing. When we actually gave her the immunotherapy, she actually responded completely, like one of the best responders ever seen in history. So, I’m telling you, this is not food versus medicine. In this case, it’s food and medicine or food before medicine. It’s really about the body and the wonderful things that we can do to feed our body’s health defenses, feed our body’s metabolism, it’s all stuff that’s inside us.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, it makes so much sense and I love that it’s tangible. It’s not an unusual thing that people have to go purchase to be able to support their gut microbiome. Now, I want to be respectful of your time, but I would love to focus in on some of your favorite foods. You do a beautiful job in the book, really talking about specific foods and compounds that can be very, very beneficial for helping support metabolism, and then briefly touch on the MediterrAsian kind of concept, which is so aligned. I grew up with an Italian mother, and food was savored, and you took long meals, there was no rushing around, but let’s touch on those things.
The other piece that I want to compliment you on is that, I read so many books for the podcast. Sometimes, there are intangible things. But you do such a nice job of describing the food item in exactly the amount that you need to consume. So, you’re not wandering around saying, “Are you talking about a cup of something or is it a tablespoon?” You’re very specific about your recommendations.
William Li: Yeah. No, well, thank you for your kind words. Look, I’m somebody who really grew up like you around really delicious food. I grew up in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where there’s a lot of ethnic communities. I went to these folk festivals where we got to sample a lot of things. We all come from different places. We all have our own origin stories in terms of– Every culture in the world has its own food story and food traditions and I love that. I really respect that. One of the things in my research, I talk about that in our food ingredients, there are these compounds that might be tongue twisters for people to pronounce lycopene, chlorogenic acid, zeaxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin. I could go on and on, allicin, hydroxytyrosol. They’re all in the book, if you want to read about them.
But what’s important is that they’re all found in our foods. They’re found in things like tomatoes, apples, pears, garlic, scallions, garlic scapes, and lots of seafood as well including the omega-3 fatty acids. What I try to do is take away some of the mystery. Mother Nature is very clever and incredible. She has gifted us with so many healthy natural chemicals that activate our body’s health defenses, that help us tame our metabolism and allow and fight body fat. So, they’re in there. What are some of the favorite foods? Well, in my book, I wanted to do something that I know a lot of diet books don’t. I wanted to take people on a tour of the plain old grocery store the way that I go through it and take them on a tour to point out the things that I see as you go around. Go to the produce section, which is usually the first section. What am I seeing? I’m seeing tomatoes, I’m seeing brassica vegetables, I’m seeing the broccoli, the kale, I’m seeing the bok choy, the baby bok choy, and then I’m seeing the mushrooms, and I’m seeing the red onions. I talk about all these things and try to provide, underneath the hood, give a little clue into how do we know it’s good for you.
One of the things that I really do that you just pointed out, Cynthia, is I point out the human evidence. What is the clinical study? The lab study is interesting, especially the scientists. But the human study is what people care about. In the human study, you always have a dose, an amount, a frequency just like any medicine, which is food is a medicine. So, I publish that around. Every food that I talk about or almost every food, I should talk about the doses. What’s interesting is like pears. Pears actually have been able to reduce waist circumference. How does it do it? By shrinking the visceral fat, the harmful fat, the gut fat. It’s kind of like a baseball glove that’s like packing or squeezing your organs. In a study that was done do show that you can lose like 2 inches around your waist circumference by eating pears. How much did they give? Two medium-sized pears before lunch for 10 weeks. They even tell you what kind of pears, okay? There were Bartlett pears and Anjou pears. Hey, these are the things that you see in the grocery store. So, I literally take people to the produce section and I go to the seafood section because this is a whole other podcast. Probably, like things that people are not comfortable, with fish and seafood. I didn’t grow on fish, I don’t like fish. Look, there are so many incredible, delicious, amazing seafoods to enjoy. I’ll come back to that with MediterrAsian that I actually spent a whole chapter diving into things that you’d recognize, and a lot of seafood I’m willing to bet you don’t recognize, like the mitten crab or the mantis shrimp. These are things that are out there. I really want to punch through the brick wall and show you that there’s a lot of stuff that you haven’t discovered yet when I demystify that and tell you the dose of that to eat as well.
Then, of course, the forbidden middle aisle. I want people to say, “You know what, it’s time to grow up and get out of this, like, this elimination thing. Don’t even go to the middle aisle.” Wrong, my chapter in the book Eat to Beat Your Diet is called treasure hunt. Go into the middle aisle with your bucket, your cart to a hunt for the treasures that help your metabolism. Like navy beans, like lentils, like extra virgin olive oil, like apple cider vinegar, like dried prunes, like dried mushrooms, and chili pepper powder, and turmeric. All these things that– I’m trying to let people know that this is every day anybody can do this. This is not mystery. This isn’t about elimination. This is actually encouragement to dive right in and find the thing that fits you. So, what fits me? I always get asked this question. “Dr. Li, you write about food and health. You’re food is medicine researcher. What diet are you on?” I tell people, “I’m not on a diet, but I do have a way that I eat.” In my way, I call MediterrAsian.
I’m Asian. I grew up in a Chinese family. I had lots of Asian food. I also spent a gap year in the Mediterranean before I went to medical school. I lived in Italy, I lived in Greece, and then after that, I went to China. What I was interested in doing on those gap years is to study food, culture, and health. And so, to me, what’s really wonderful is that there is a beautiful way that these natural ingredients, whether you know the chemical names or not, have been incorporated into recipes. They’re easy to find on the Internet. Many of them are traditional. Your grandmother and her grandmother were making these foods, okay. Natural, fresh, local, seasonal, all that stuff that you hear about that sounds trendy. Cooking them, and sharing them, and eating them that contained fiber, they may be fermented, they have these polyphenols in ways that everyone can enjoy and savor without wolfing your food down.
If you went to a traditional household eating, like in Italy or Greece, and somebody watched you wolfing food down and hit you with a spoon, you’re not supposed to eat that way. I think that this is really what I talk about MediterrAsian, is going back to the basics, becoming reconnected with the traditions of some of the healthiest cuisines in the world, and appreciating the fact that these are delicious foods that you can really love your food, to love your metabolism, and to love your health all at the same time. That’s what my book is about.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, I’m so grateful for this opportunity to connect with you. My listeners know that I always am very transparent. The first book I’ve read in 2023 that is going to be a must read. Please let my listeners know how to connect with you, how to find you on social media, get to your book, etc.
William Li: Yeah. Well, anybody who wants to buy my book, you can get it anywhere books are sold. If you want to actually find out more about me, you can come to my website at drwilliamli.com, drwilliamli.com. I’m on social @drwilliamli. I’ve gotten a newsletter, I always put new research information on it. I do master classes that are free. We’ve been all around the world. People from all around the world actually attend these things. I also teach for people who are, like, serious and hardcore, some online courses, if you’re interested. But more importantly and most importantly, I want people to actually find me and realize that I actually really enjoy my food. My message is that really try to enjoy yourself. You can enjoy your life, enjoy your food. Don’t fear it. Enjoy it.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure.
William Li: Thank you, Cynthia.
Cynthia Thurlow: If you love this podcast episode, please leave a rating and review, subscribe, and tell a friend.