Despite the fact that 75 percent of today’s doctor office visits are tied to lifestyle risk factors, like diet and exercise, prevention remains a developing field. By stalling, we’re paying the price: lifestyle disease adds up to $1.5 trillion in health care spending each year. And more chillingly, it takes seven out of 10 lives. I’m passionate about helping people prevent and treat disease. This is why I practice preventive medicine, which is often broken into two camps: treatment, which is what we turn to when we recognize a health problem, and prevention, a group of actions we take to reduce the risk of developing a problem in the first place. It’s clear that to make health care work we need to address both the symptoms and root cause of chronic diseases — obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even certain forms of cancer.
So that I could effectively do so, I earned multiple degrees. I received all of the training I needed to treat my primary care patients from medical school. As for prevention? I studied nutrition and dietetics. We all know that a healthy diet matters. Most of us eat three times a day — or more! What we eat gives us energy and the building blocks to grow and repair our bodies. If we’re missing certain types of building blocks, like amino acids and carbohydrates, our bodies will struggle to function. Our muscles need protein to recover and our brain needs glucose to run at optimal speed.
Similarly, if we get too much of something, like saturated fat, sugar, and cholesterol, our bodies can become overwhelmed. Our blood pressure rises, our metabolism slows down, and our arteries become clogged. Habitually overconsuming low-nutrient foods leads to chronic health problems, which afflict about half of all adults in the United States, or 117 million people. One out of four adults has two or more chronic health conditions, which fuel a pharmaceutical industry that brings in $300 billion each year. The good news is that by getting back to the healthy basics — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes — our bodies create an optimal ratio of macro- and micro-nutrients that enable us to thrive.
Plant-Based Diets Are Our Best Bet
When people shift to a plant-based diet rich in high-fiber foods, they’re simultaneously readying their bodies to combat pathogens and carcinogens, effectively taking a first-line approach to disease prevention. Being naturally low in fat and high in antioxidants and other anti-cancer compounds, plant foods offer the best bang for your buck when you’re looking to gain a health advantage.
Fiber, plentiful in plants and entirely absent in animal products, helps move food through your colon quickly and helps eliminate cancer-causing toxins from your body. Cholesterol is present in animal foods in the opposite pattern: plants have none, while animal products contain alarmingly high amounts. To avoid artery blockages, ideal intake of cholesterol is zero. It comes as no surprise that vegetarians have a significantly reduced risk for cancer and heart disease when compared to meat-eaters.
Eating plant-based foods has a measurable, positive impact on our risk for disease. For example, women who consume three to six milligrams of beta-carotene a day — the equivalent of half a sweet potato or six baby carrots — reduce their risk of breast cancer by about 19 percent, and increasing intake of leafy greens to two servings a day can reduce the early onset of cognitive decline by 11 years. Even small changes make a difference. Lucky for my patients, I hold multiple degrees in nutrition and dietetics, and when it’s appropriate I prescribe dietary interventions based on the latest research. My approach helps my patients lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and stabilize their blood sugar. I have counseled patients on diet and helped them avoid having to take diabetes medications. This prescription comes with only good side effects and it works.
My approach helps my patients lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and stabilize their blood sugar. I have counseled patients on diet and helped them avoid having to take diabetes medications. This prescription comes with only good side effects and it works. Studies show that doctors who spend an extra 5.5 minutes with at-risk patients to talk about nutrition help them lose five pounds, lower saturated fat intake, and lower LDL cholesterol levels. These seemingly small differences can be enough to eliminate the need for statins, insulin, or beta-blockers.
So Why Aren’t Doctors Talking With Their Patients About Diet?
It’s not the physicians themselves standing in the own way of counseling patients on nutrition. Physicians agree that it is important: 94 percent feel that nutrition should be part of primary care visits, but only 14 percent feel qualified to offer it. Furthermore, very few residents, fellows, and other clinicians are comfortable managing nutrition problems. So what’s happening here? The problem lies with the state of medical education in this country. More than half of medical students feel their nutrition education is inadequate. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that schools include at least 25 hours of nutrition education, but almost three-quarters of schools fail to meet this minimum standard, up from 62 percent in 2004. Even after a minimum of 11 years of total training, most physicians still do not feel competent in providing nutrition advice. My hope is that the medical community will soon unite and create a contemporary prescription — one that’s filled with plant-based foods — to create an over-the-counter solution for America’s most pressing health problems.
The National Academy of Sciences recommends that schools include at least 25 hours of nutrition education, but almost three-quarters of schools fail to meet this minimum standard, up from 62 percent in 2004. Even after a minimum of 11 years of total training, most physicians still do not feel competent in providing nutrition advice. My hope is that the medical community will soon unite and create a contemporary prescription — one that’s filled with plant-based foods — to create an over-the-counter solution for America’s most pressing health problems.
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