Holmes’s special talent is his ability to appreciate the importance
of clues that others fail to notice, although their importance is
obvious once seen from the proper perspective. Often, this perspective
requires Holmes to look at the evidence from a viewpoint that is
precisely opposite from one that seems naturally right. In one classic
Holmes mystery, a murder had apparently taken place at a remote
country estate, with the evidence indicating that the culprit was
an intruder. Holmes determined otherwise, with his characteristic
The case of Silver Blaze
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery entitled Silver Blaze, the victim,
a resident of the estate, was found one morning on the grounds,
having been felled by a blow to the head on the previous evening.
The evidence strongly suggested that the culprit was a peculiar
stranger who had been observed on the estate’s grounds earlier that
day. The police had already apprehended the suspect, and they were
intending to charge him with the crime. Holmes intervened, insisting
to the police that they had made a mistake.
The estate housed many people, horses, and an alert stable dog.
The case turned on an obscure, but key point: After questioning
witnesses, Holmes recognized a critical fact that others had missed.
Ultimately this discovery exonerated the chief suspect. The great
Holmes explained to his astounded listeners that the key to the
case was the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. Before
he could continue, a listener objected, insisting that the dog did
nothing in the nighttime.
That was the curious incident, replied Holmes. He later explained
that the absence of barking suggested to him that the culprit was
well known to the manor’s hound. This indicated a need to re-examine
the evidence from a fresh perspective. With this new viewpoint,
Holmes solved the mystery, because of his brilliant awareness that
the absence of something is often just as important as its presence.
Though clearly true, this point is often difficult for most of us
This difficulty is the result of a natural human problem-solving
blind spot, an innate limitation of our psychology. It is precisely
this type of human limitation that Holmes was so adept at noticing.
And it is this type of limitation that results in the majority of
our society remaining blind to the key facts regarding their health,
although the facts are overwhelming once seen from the proper perspective.
Millions of people in our country are suffering and dying from
a handful of devastating conditions, including heart attack, stroke,
congestive heart failure, diabetes, and cancer. These conditions
alone account for more than 75 percent of our nation’s premature
deaths and the majority of our collective chronic disability. Yet,
the culprits in these tragedies have been difficult for most people
to accurately identify.
The evidence, to many, appears to be contradictory and confusing.
Like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, people are puzzled about finding
the causes of their health problems and what to do about them. They
look to experts in books, television, and the Internet, and to their
doctors. More than 10 million people search the Internet each week
seeking health-related information, making health information-seeking
one of our population’s primary intellectual pursuits. This is quite
appropriate, as our health problems are of epidemic proportions.
Unfortunately, most of the “expert” information dispensed is erroneous
and misleading. For example, patients often are led to believe that
the real culprits in their health problems are their genes. This
misconception can lead them to assume that any solution to their
problems will require medical intervention, because their particular
body simply doesn’t work properly, that it is “defective” by nature.
If they have high cholesterol, they are told to ingest cholesterol-lowering
drugs. If they have high blood pressure, they are encouraged to
ingest blood pressure-lowering medications. And, if they have Type
II diabetes (about 95 percent of all diabetes cases), they are told
that their health requires that they ingest or inject insulin.
In the alternative health arena, the “expert” suggestions are somewhat
different. Herbal remedies, concentrated foodstuffs in the form
of pills, vitamin supplements, and other treatments are the standard
fare. Similar to conventional thought, such alternative approaches
seem to confirm the same unspoken conclusion: The body of a person
with a health problem cannot be expected to achieve and sustain
a healthy state without adding something! Either by virtue of genetic
flaw or because of dietary deficiency, the notion once again is
that something is missing. The recommendation to “take something
for it” makes intuitive sense to the majority of people, often encouraging
them to continue down a path of self-destruction. Meanwhile, the
real culprits are ignored and continue to do their damage, unchecked.
The real culprits
The real culprits in most modern-day health problems are excesses,
not deficiencies. It is the subtraction (i.e., reduction or elimination)
of these excesses that will solve most health problems, not the
addition of medications or supplements. Although it may come as
a surprise to most people, the subtraction of excess is nearly always
far more effective at causing the restoration of health than is
the addition of anything. In atherosclerosis, for example, excess
dietary cholesterol, fat, and protein (mostly in the form of animal
products) leads to deposits of fatty substances within the cardiovascular
system. These deposits clog up the system and often result in heart
attack, stroke, or congestive heart failure, events that are responsible
for about 50 percent of the deaths in our country each day. Exquisite
research has shown that the subtraction of these dietary excesses
is the most effective way to manage the problem. In the ground breaking
Lifestyle Health Trial, Dean Ornish and his colleagues at the University
of California have conclusively demonstrated that by dramatically
reducing the amount of animal products in the diet, and by reducing
fat intake from about 40 percent to about 10 percent of calories
consumed, the body will soon begin to reverse the atherosclerosis.
Neither medication nor nutritional supplement additive has shown
Sherlock Holmes was fond of explaining to his sidekick, Dr. Watson,
that the connections he made were “elementary.” Of course, nothing
could have been further from the truth. Although obvious once viewed
from the proper perspective, the achievement of mental clarity in
a Sherlock Holmes mystery is an exciting moment for the reader,
as Holmes brilliantly maneuvers those present into seeing the facts
in a clear and accurate new light. Not uncommonly, this mental reorganization
begins with a startling conceptual leap.
Grasping that the major key to health is mostly about subtraction,
and not addition, is itself a major conceptual leap. Although seemingly
simple, this connection is perhaps the most profound and most difficult
principle in modern health science. Once seen from the proper perspective,
it is simple. But achieving this perspective is a remarkably challenging
mental task. After many years of experience at patient education,
we have come to believe that there is a powerful and fundamental
force that is responsible for this difficulty.
There must be a compelling reason why humans continue to be so
gullible about believing that adding things, such as vitamin pills,
medication, aspirin, and even wine, is useful for the pursuit of
health. There must be a reason why such solutions seem much more
plausible than the truth. The truth is that we need to subtract
meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy products, and tobacco. Although we
might speculate that the human pleasure-seeking drive might be motivating
patient resistance to the truth, we don’t think that this is the
core of the problem. And, although massive misinformation campaigns
by commercial interests do help to lead the unwary down a false
trail, our experience suggests that a more fundamental factor is
We strongly suspect that the human brain is literally biased against
grasping the concept that dietary excesses are the roots of most
health problems, in spite of the enormous magnitude of the supportive
scientific evidence. Conversely, the idea that some sort of deficiency
may be responsible continues to be popular. This is probably because
such a concept has tremendous natural intuitive appeal.
Brains and biases
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle unwittingly anticipated one of the great
discoveries of modern psychology. As he clearly suspected, human
brains are not impartial judges of the facts. Brains come into being
with hard-wired biases, with tendencies to see some connections
much more readily than others. Brains of humans (and other animals)
are much more likely to see connections that they expect to see.
The connections they expect to see are often those that were important
to notice throughout the development of the species.
In the natural world, human beings rarely, if ever, faced problems
resulting from dietary excesses, because the natural landscape was
simply not replete with excessive animal proteins and fats in the
form of cheese, ice cream, and butter. The natural world contained
no processed oils, refined sugar and flours, or excessive sodium.
And, since problems of dietary excess were not a factor in our evolutionary
history, modern-day humans are not well equipped to discern that
health problems might be the result of these excesses.
Dietary deficiencies, on the other hand, were often a very serious
problem for our ancestors. Getting enough to eat has always been
one of the major problems of human life. People walking the Earth
today, then, must all be the descendants of those who maintained
heightened vigilance about the problem of getting enough, and not
descendants of those who spent much time worrying about getting
too much. As such, the neurological circuits that make up the current
human mind are much more likely to be naturally concerned with deficiency
than with excess! This bias makes it difficult to grasp the concept
that dietary excesses are the roots of our modern health problems.
Difficulty in grasping this principle persists despite the overwhelming
scientific evidence supporting this interpretation of the facts.
Pecking the right key
Neurological biases now are being discovered throughout the animal
kingdom, but until the concept of biased brains was itself recognized,
many important facts were ignored. For example, psychologists such
as B.F. Skinner, who were attempting to uncover the laws of learning,
performed a great many experiments attempting to train pigeons.
In attempting to teach pigeons to do new things, these psychologists
would routinely reward the birds by lighting a key for them to peck,
which when pecked would then result in a food reward. This method
was used for decades without question. One day, a psychologist wondered
if the pigeons could be trained equally effectively by having a
continuously lighted key go dark in order to signal the pigeons
to peck. He decided to put this question to the test.
To the surprise of animal psychologists worldwide, his results
showed that pigeons couldn’t be trained to seek reward by pecking
a lighted key that suddenly goes dark! In principle such an event
is precisely as informative as having a darkened key suddenly become
lighted, but it is a connection that a pigeon simply cannot make.
And while we might think that the pigeon is just “stupid,” such
a judgment would miss the key point: That, similarly, people will
not normally grasp the importance of a dog not barking in the night.
Subtraction for health
In the last two decades, a great deal of psychological research
has shown that people have many biases, problem-solving “blind spots.”
People appear to have a natural bias against seeing dietary excess
as a problem. But when viewed from an enlightened perspective, the
problems resulting from dietary excess can become obvious. Once
we grasp what the scientific evidence is telling us, no matter how
counterintuitive these findings may seem, we can begin to see the
evidence everywhere. Wherever we look, we cannot help but see people
struggling with obesity, the ultimate evidence of dietary excess.
Once we begin to carefully observe what people in our society actually
eat, the connection between dietary excess and health compromise
begins to achieve clarity.
If we then follow the evidence and the logic, it begins to become
reasonable to assume that the solution is to subtract foods of excess
from our daily fare. And as we subtract the majority of meat, fish,
fowl, eggs, dairy products, oil, salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrates
from our diet, what remains are foods that are health-promoting.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, and
nuts and seeds fill the void after the necessary subtraction has
taken place. In response, the previously overburdened body begins
to experience a restoration of health.
Doyle would approve
We have argued that one of the most potent methods for the restoration
of health involves doing precisely the opposite of what most people,
and most health “experts,” would ever suspect. If most health problems
are indeed caused by dietary excesses (and research strongly suggests
they are), then it makes sense that the subtraction of such excesses
is likely to be a very effective treatment strategy. Landmark investigations
by Drs. Ornish, McDougall, Esselstein, and others have confirmed
that this is the case. But if we follow our new perspective toward
its natural conclusion, we can see that the ultimate act of dietary
subtraction might be more than just dietary improvement. The most
powerful treatment strategy, in some cases, might be to eat absolutely
nothing for a period of time - a voluntary period of supervised
Although such an experience might be seen as dangerous or bizarre,
from the proper perspective it makes good sense. The results of
a recent scientific investigation conducted at our facility indicate
that a period of supervised water-only fasting is the most effective
known treatment for high blood pressure, the leading associated
cause of death and disability within industrialized societies. [See
“Telling the Truth About High Blood Pressure,” Health Science, July/August
2000.] Our results have, not surprisingly, astonished many of our
colleagues, most of whom have not yet discovered an enlightened
The health-promoting results achieved by our patients after the
removal of dietary excesses through dietary modification and fasting
are often spectacular, by conventional standards. The power of the
body’s ability to recover its health is remarkable, once the true
culprits have been identified and effectively eliminated. And although
most modern “experts” of both conventional and alternative persuasions
are resistant to considering this perspective, we are confident
that the evidence will eventually make the truth appear obvious.
In the meantime, we also are confident that at least one 19th-century
Scottish physician would have had no trouble grasping this critical,
and highly counterintuitive, principle of health. As Sherlock Holmes
would have elegantly revealed, once seen from the proper perspective,
the crucial importance of eliminating dietary excesses is, in fact,
“Elementary, my dear Watson...”
For more information go to our web site at www.healthpromoting.com.