Healthy People, Healthy Planet

Ed Dodge, MDThe American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) Annual Conference held October 23-26 in Naples, Florida was the best yet. The setting at the Naples Grande Resort was beautiful. The conference theme was “Healthy People, Healthy Planet.”

Plant-based eating is healthier than the standard American diet for both people and the planet. In addition to providing strong evidence supporting this theme, the conference focus was on ways to move toward the goal of healthy people and a healthy planet. I’ll highlight a few of the presentations that impressed me.

Food Revolution

A food revolution is under way in the United States, according to Dr. Christopher Gardner, Professor of Medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. His research over the past 20 years has greatly increased our understanding of healthy nutrition. Thanks to his work, we know today that protein in whole plant-based foods is complete, providing more than adequate protein for everyone, even the most demanding athletes. Older research was simply not refined enough to detect this, resulting in the prevailing myth that one must eat meat to get adequate protein. His research also has covered many other facets of nutrition.

Beyond studying individual nutritional components, Dr. Gardner’s focus has now shifted to help solve food system problems in our world today. Five “Stanford Food Summits” involving students and scholars from all of Stanford’s undergraduate and graduate schools suggest that a food revolution is gaining strength across the country. Gardner’s emphasis is on making good nutrition so much fun that people want to become involved. He calls this “stealth nutrition” because the focus is on the joy of good eating. Improved health is simply a by-product.

Dr. Christopher Gardner - Professor of Medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center

Dr. Christopher Gardner – Professor of Medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center

Dr. Gardner and his team have developed a curriculum to teach this kind of nutrition to medical students at Stanford. This is a radical shift because most medical schools teach biochemical principles rather than wholesome nutrition. Other prominent medical schools are interested in this new approach. If this model becomes widely adopted in medical schools across the country, it will revolutionize the practice of medicine. When doctors truly understand the therapeutic power of good nutrition and become skilled in teaching it to their patients, the major chronic diseases that plague us will begin to fade away.

The National Diabetes Prevention Program

Dr. Matt Longjohn, National Health Officer of the YMCA, described the very successful diabetes prevention programs operated by the YMCA over the past few years. Type 2 diabetes has become epidemic in the United States over the past few decades, a matter of major concern to national health authorities because of its terrible long-term impact on health. Yet most diabetes can be prevented and even reversed with positive lifestyle changes in nutrition and physical activity.

A few years ago the YMCA developed a diabetes prevention program in cooperation with the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The pilot program proved to be so effective that the program is now operational in 1600 YMCAs nationally. Every $500 invested in the program has proved to save more than $2,500 in lower health care costs. Aside from cost savings, participants like the program because they feel so much better. Medicare and Medicaid agencies are impressed with these results and encourage patients to enroll in this program, reimbursing them for any costs involved.

Impact of Lifestyle Medicine Practice

Dr. Michelle McMacken told us the dramatic story of her own awakening to the power of plant-based nutrition. She was a board-certified internal medicine physician and an assistant professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine when she attended the American College of Lifestyle Medicine Conference in 2013. What she learned there about the therapeutic power of healthy nutrition was an “aha” experience in her professional life. As with most physicians, her medical school exposure to good nutritional education had been woefully weak.

Dr. Michelle McMacken

Dr. Michelle McMacken

Dr. McMacken immediately began teaching her patients about applying good nutrition in their lives when she returned to practice at the Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City. The interest of her patients and the good results she saw reinforced her decision. She became fully committed to educating her patients and medical students about the power of plant-based nutrition. Several colleagues were so impressed with her results that they’re now emphasizing plant-based nutrition in their practices. Medical students at NYU have elected Dr. McMacken as teacher of the year three years in a row!

She has said it’s crazy that doctors are not trained to use good nutrition in their practices to promote good health. It’s the most powerful therapeutic tool we have. She is clearly doing something about this. We need many more doctors like Dr. Michelle McMacken.

A Cardiologist’s Perspective

Dr. Baxter Montgomery is a cardiologist who owns Montgomery Heart and Wellness in Houston, Texas. Highly skilled, he uses all kinds of high-tech procedures to restore or maintain cardiac function. Yet, after nearly a decade of practice, he was frustrated because he saw that most patients remained in sub-optimal health in spite of excellent treatment. Most remained overweight, and they still required medications to manage heart disease, hypertension, or other abnormalities. Equally concerning, he found himself slipping into sub-optimal health, having become somewhat overweight with a high LDL-cholesterol level.

Dr. Baxter Montgomery

Dr. Baxter Montgomery

Wishing to avoid medications with undesirable side-effects, he began researching dietary approaches to better health. Eventually he discovered plant-based eating and was surprised to find how well it worked for him. His weight returned to normal and his LDL-cholesterol dropped to a low normal level within weeks – without any medication. Best of all, he felt much better than he had in years.

Realizing the great potential of plant-based nutrition for his patients, he began teaching them about it. He established the Garden Kitchen as part of his practice and he began offering the Montgomery Heart and Wellness Food RX Health Summit in 2009. This has proven to be a very effective teaching modality. Next year the 8th Annual Food RX Health Summit will be on February 18th, with nationally renowned nutritional experts coming to speak at this truly excellent wellness center.

My Commentary

I’ve given you just a glimpse of the inspiring talks given at the ACLM Annual Conference. Many other top-notch speakers shared their experiences and insights with us. The benefits to human health are dramatic. They are badly needed around the world today. The disease care systems in the USA and around the world are not sustainable. Superb as they may be, they do nothing to prevent disease, and the cost of that care is skyrocketing to the point of becoming unmanageable. Rising health insurance premiums reflect this clearly.

Preventing disease in the first place is far less costly than treating it after it has developed. Today, we know that about 80 percent of our common chronic diseases are preventable. Yet, as a society, we keep feeding these diseases and then paying steep costs to treat them.  Mainstream medicine is beginning to realize that this is not smart. It makes much more sense to prevent unnecessary disease. Growing numbers of people are starting to understand this.

So why do we keep feeding our serious chronic diseases that nobody wants? Our fast and highly processed foods are so convenient, cheap, and tasty that they’re the easiest food choices to make. Yet eating these foods on a daily basis often leads to disease, but does it so slowly that most people don’t make this connection. It can take up to a decade for early stages such as high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, and overweight conditions to become apparent. Then it may take another decade for more advanced disease states such as strokes, heart attacks, diabetic complications, and cancer to strike. Most people do not connect the dots in this progression.

Unfortunately, Big Government subsidizes our fast processed foods, and Big Agriculture and Big Foods do their utmost to confuse the issues involved. Despite this, more and more people are waking up to realities of our health situation. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine, the Global Alliance of Lifestyle Medicine, The American College of Preventive Medicine, and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control are all doing their best to educate the public about the value of healthy lifestyles. I believe we will reach a tipping point within the next few years. Plant-based nutrition will lead us to much better health in the future!

Be Well!

Ed Dodge, MD, MPH

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This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume VIII, No. 11 ♦ November 12, 2016.