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Why this doctor recommends the "Pegan" diet

With so many diets to choose from and nutritional guidelines seemingly in constantly flux, deciding what to eat can be challenging at times. Mark Hyman, M.D., hopes to help simplify those decisions.

Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, is the author of the new book, "FOOD: What the Heck Should I Eat?" aimed at getting readers to think about the quality of food they put into their bodies and helping them make healthier choices.

In an interview with CBS News, Hyman says most of us could benefit from taking the ancient quote from Hippocrates to heart: "Let food be they medicine and medicine be thy food."

"That's what we're now discovering scientifically, that foods have properties that actually create healing or disease," he said. "It's not just calories. It's information. It literally speaks to your genes. It changes your hormones, it changes your immune system, it changes your microbiome. Every single bite matters."

Hyman notes that "food is more powerful than any drug to reverse disease."

This is especially important as the United States continues to fight a growing obesity epidemic. Currently, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 12 million children and teens across the country also suffer from obesity and could face a wide range of health problems as a result.

So how did we get here? From an evolutionary perspective, Hyman notes that humans were traditionally hunters and gatherers for millions of years. It's only in the last 12,000 years that things began to change, and more recently the shift in our diets has vastly accelerated.

"We ate 800 species of plants. We ate wild animals," he said. "Now, we eat highly processed foods."

To counter this trend, Hyman suggests getting back to eating simpler, natural foods.

He calls it the "Pegan" diet, combining aspects from both vegan and Paleo diets.

"It's really simple," Hyman said. "Eat foods low in sugar and starch. Eat lots of plant foods. If you're going to eat animal foods, eat sustainably grown or harvested foods. Have foods that have lots of good fat, like nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados."

A good place to start, he says, is to read the ingredient lists on the foods in your cupboard.

"If you have an ingredient you would cook with, like salt and pepper, great," Hyman said. "If it's butylated hydroxytoluene, you're probably not going to have that in your cupboard and sprinkle it on your veggies."

But these types of chemicals are in so many of the processed food we consume.

"We eat about 3 to 5 pounds a year of these chemicals in our food," Hyman said, "not to mention hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides." 

When giving talks at churches, Hyman offers the following rule of thumb: "If God made it, eat it. If man made it, leave it."