I love food. Doesn’t everybody? When I was growing up in India, my family was mostly vegetarian. But on Sundays, there was also lamb, fish or chicken as a special meal. This was a common pattern among many families then. The meat portion was small, we still had rice, a curry and possibly a vegetable dish on our plate. I was quite skinny as a child and well into my 20’s. When I came to the US, there was an increase in dairy and meat in my diet. We still loved Indian dishes but I was also introduced to Thai, Mexican and Vietnamese cuisines which were a novelty.
During my residency in Texas, we were provided with a very generous allowance to eat in the cafeteria. Of course, it was predominantly Mexican as we were in a town right across from the border. Lots of meat, cheese and beans on the menu. Boy, did I love their menudo! Needless to say, after birthing two kids, in my mid-30’s, with sleepless nights due to rigorous call duties and stressful days, I packed on the pounds!!!
After graduation when I started a “real” job, I started exercising regularly at the gym and I was able to bring my weight back to a reasonable level. Of course, there were no more high calorie free meals either. Since I didn’t really like the cafeteria food at the hospital where I worked, I mostly packed leftovers for lunch.
Through all of this however, I had never once thought about the strong connection between diet and disease. I had a vague idea of what a healthy diet was. It was not a part of my education. To this day, in most medical schools, nutrition is given scant attention. Of course, I dutifully advised my patients to eat a healthy diet, exercise and lose weight just like other physicians did. But I am guessing, if pressed, we could not have drawn up a plan with specific details.
Like most other folks, I too believed that we could just exercise away our excessive weight. Calories in, calories out right? I believed that exercise predominates weight loss more than any diet. Until I attended my first plant-based conference.
I had not heard of Lifestyle Medicine or even the term “whole food, plant based” until a couple of years ago. I was seeking a different practice style by then. As much as modern medicine has made strides, especially in acute care, we were doing a crappy job with chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, auto immune and heart disease. In spite of all the drugs available to combat these, the rates are sky rocketing and at best they can be “managed” but not cured.
By then, I had been exposed to mind-body and integrative medicine, all of which is considered by the mainstream doctors as being non scientific or not very evidence based.
Anyway, I was blown away by the presentations and studies and data about the power of a WFPB way of eating. at the first plant based conference I attended in California. I got to meet stalwarts of the field like Dr Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, well into their mid-80’s, shining examples of what they were practicing and preaching. There were other very well respected physicians at the conferences like Drs. Dean Ornish, Michael Gregger, Michael Klapper, Neal Barnard and athletes like Rich Roll, all conveying the same message as well.
Mind blown!!!! Really. I could hardly believe what I was listening to. It was such a life changing experience. I decided to try it out for myself once I returned from these conferences. I dove right in and cut out all meat and dairy products from my diet. It was not easy, as my family was not completely on board but I stuck to it. I was amazed at losing about 10 to 12 pounds easily. I felt I had a lot more energy. My mind seemed more clear. The changes were dramatic to say the least!
I felt I had found the Holy Grail!! This was it, the magic pill my patients had been asking for. Surely, I just had to take the message back to my colleagues and patients and we could help them! We could reverse chronic illness, we could decrease healthcare spending, OMG, we could change the world!!!!!
Well, things didn’t really go as expected. I was taken aback at the resistance I met with. Mostly, all the evidence didn’t really matter. I came to realize that people are very sensitive about what they eat. It’s like talking about sex or politics or money! You can touch a raw nerve by going there…
I was disappointed by the reaction (or lack thereof). Physicians didn’t want to talk about it. Others would counter how they had had amazing results by following a keto or Paleo diet. My pointing out that these diets had little to no evidence of being healthy in the long term was just shrugged away.
This new way of thinking affected me so much that it added to the disillusionment I was already feeling about traditional medicine. Just prescribing more and more medications, continuing to keep patients barely alive with a poor quality of life got old.
I could not be that kind of doctor anymore. Trying to make changes happen from within the system seems down right impossible, although there is a small cadre of physicians who are trying hard. For example, there is a local physician here in Kona who has partnered with his dietician wife in opening a lifestyle medicine practice and are having some success.
Healthcare is one field where change happens slowly.
Having realized this and with my own burnout, I am walking away from it. Part of the reason for starting this blog, is to try to spread the word through a different path. From outside the system.
Fortunately, patients are seeking better ways to care for their health. Some of them are even taking drastic measures like… changing their diet!! They are seeing amazing results and talking about it in their communities and online.
I am hopeful that things will improve. It is a movement that is spreading. Awareness is growing that there is a better way to health that does not involve hospitals and drugs.
- Forks over Knives is a wonderful documentary and a great resource. Another soon to be released documentary is The Game Changers by James Cameron.
I also had fun being interviewed for a local TV station about the power of plant based nutrition. You can check it out here.
Recently I got to attend a potluck celebrating graduates of the local Ornish Lifestyle program. I was excited to hear their stories and meet similar minded folks in my community. I was informed they have had 500 patients go through their program in the last 3 years. Medicare now pays for an intensive cardiac rehabilitation program such as the Ornish one. Also, here in Hawaii, HMSA commercial insurance will pay for their patients with risk factors such as BMI >30, hypertension, diabetes and pre-diabetes etc. to go through the Ornish program.
I am hopeful that change is coming. It seems more people are coming to the realization that the road to improved health rests in their hands, and more importantly, on what’s on their plate.
As always, please check with your healthcare practitioner before making drastic changes to your diet, especially if you already have medical issues and taking medication for them. Results can be very quick and dramatic and you will need close monitoring to make sure you don’t have an adverse outcome.