During his career at Duke, Dr. Walter Kempner treated more than 18,000 patients with his rice diet. The diet was originally designed as a treatment for kidney failure and out-of-control high blood pressure at a time when these diagnoses were essentially a death sentence. Patients who would have died in all other hospitals had a reasonable chance for survival if they came under Kempner’s care.
The results were so dramatic that many experienced physicians suspected him of falsifying data, because he was essentially reversing terminal diseases with rice and fruit, diseases understood to be incurable by the best of modern medicine at the time. Intensive investigations into his clinic vindicated his work, however, which other researchers were then able to replicate and validate.
Kempner was criticized for his lack of controls, meaning that when patients came to him he didn’t randomly allocate half to his rice treatment and put the other half on conventional therapy. Kempner argued that the patients each acted as their own controls. For example, one patient, after the medical profession threw everything they had at him, still had blood pressure as high as 220 over 160. A normal blood pressure is considered to be around 120 over 80—which is where Kempner’s rice diet took him. Had the patient not been given the rice diet, his pressures might have been even lower, though: zero over zero, because he’d likely be dead. The “control group” in Kempner’s day had a survival expectancy estimated at 6 months. To randomize patients to conventional care would be to randomize them to their deaths.
We can also compare those who stuck to the diet to those who didn’t. In one study, of those who started the rice diet but then stopped it within a year, 80% died. For those who made it a year but then gave up the diet, instead of an 80% chance of dying, they had about a 50% chance, a flip of the coin. Of those that stuck with the program, 90% lived to tell the tale.
Beginning in the late 1950’s, drugs became available that effectively reduced blood pressure and hypertension, leading to a decreased demand for the rice diet. What conclusions can we draw from this all-but-forgotten therapy for hypertension? Not only was it the first effective therapy for high blood pressure, it may be equal to or more effective than our current multi-drug treatments. See Drugs & the Demise of the Rice Diet.
This causes one to speculate on the current practice of placing patients on one drug, then another, and perhaps a third until the blood pressure is controlled, with lip-service advocacy of a moderate reduction in dietary sodium, fat, and protein intake. At the same time, the impressive effectiveness of the rice-fruit diet, which is able to quickly stop the leakage from our arteries, lower increased intracranial pressure, reduce heart size, reverse the ECG changes, reverse heart failure, reduce weight, and markedly improve diabetes, is ignored.
Should we return to the Kempner protocol of starting with the most effective therapy, saving drugs for patients who fail to respond or who are unable or unwilling to restrict their diet? Today many people follow a plant-based diet as a choice, which is similar to what Kempner was often able to transition people to. After their high blood pressure was cured by the rice diet, patients were often able to gradually transition to a less strenuous dietary regime without adding medications and with no return of the elevated blood pressure.
If the Kempner sequence of a strictest of strict plant-based diets to a saner plant-based type diet offers the quickest and best approach to effective therapy, why isn’t it still in greater use? The powerful role of the pharmaceutical industry in steering medical care away from dietary treatment to medications should be noted. Who profits from dietary treatment? Who provides the support for investigation and the funds for clinical trials? There is more to overcome than just the patient’s reluctance to change their diet.
What Kempner wrote to a patient in 1954 is as true now as it was 60 years ago:
“[D]rugs can be very useful if properly employed and used in conjunction with intensive dietary treatment. However, the real difficulty is that Hypertensive Vascular Disease with all its possible complications—heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, blindness—is still treated very casually, a striking contrast to the attitude toward cancer. Since patients, physicians, and the chemical industry prefer the taking, prescribing, and selling of drugs to a treatment inconvenient to patient and physician and of no benefit to the pharmaceutical industry, the mortality figures for these diseases are still rather appalling.”
Despite hundreds of drugs on the market now, high blood pressure remains the #1 cause of death and disability in the world, killing off 9 million people a year. A whole food plant-based diet treats the underlying cause. As Dr. Kempner explained to a patient, “If you should find a heap of manure on your living room floor, I do not recommend that you go buy some Air-Wick [an air freshener] and perfume. I recommend that you get a bucket and shovel and a strong scrubbing brush. Then, when your living room floor is clean again, why, you may certainly apply some Air-Wick if you wish.”
As the great physician Maimonides said about 800 years ago, any illness that can be treated by diet alone should be treated by no other means.
For background on this amazing story, see Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape. He would be proud that there is a whole medical specialty now: Lifestyle Medicine: Treating the Causes of Disease.
This reminds me of the role statin cholesterol-lowering drugs have played in seducing people into the magic bullet approach, but as with all magic it appears to mostly be misdirection:
In this day and age, What Diet Should Physicians Recommend?
Michael Greger, M.D.
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Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. Image has been modified.