Take a moment and think back to your last wellness checkup with your doctor. Did she take your vitals, perform a physical exam, and ask you about how often you are exercising? Yes? Did she ask you if you needed refills on your meds? Of course, right? But did she ask you what you are eating? Maybe. As it turns out, less than 25% of office visits include counseling on diet, nutrition, and exercise. This statistic is shocking given that it is now common knowledge that patients are more motivated to attempt making healthy lifestyle changes and have greater success rates when prompted by their doctor. Imagine how much healthier we would all be if our doctors took the time to counsel patients on how what they eat is impacting their health.
This brings me to why I have become so passionate about this subject. I am a rising 3rd year medical student at Wayne State University, and I just completed my core science coursework consisting of 2 years of lecture based medical training. The knowledge I have gained in such a short time is absolutely incredible and will form the foundation for my clinical rotations. Starting in about a month, I will be thrust into the hospital wards, interacting and helping to treat patients every day, but am I adequately prepared to answer this question from my future patients: “Student doctor, what foods SHOULD I be eating, and what foods should I AVOID?” The mantra of most of my medical training thus far in nearly every course I have taken is that we are to recommend a “healthy diet” to our patients…but what exactly is a healthy diet? With only 23.5 hours of nutritional instruction my first year of medical school, the optimal recommended diet still seems elusive. We were taught things such as the effects on the body due to vitamin deficiencies and the role excess blood sugar has on nerve, kidney, and cardiovascular function long-term, but the specifics of what foods we should recommend to our patients to avoid health complications and how to approach these subjects with our patients remains untaught. Sure, we have been counseled on the recommended 5 servings of fruits and veggies daily, etc., but that is just skimming the surface of nutritional guidelines. What about diets that have been shown to actually REVERSE and prevent chronic illness? From my experience, we have not adequately been prepared to address this with our patients.
So how did I become aware that there is a gap between what is expected of us from our patients, and what we are being taught in medical school? Well, it all started with a visit to my husband’s primary care provider (the following medical information is being shared with permission from my husband). Being the doting wife that I am, I accompanied my husband on his second visit ever with his new PCP. He had some routine blood work taken at his first appointment because he was a new patient. Of the tests ordered, a fasting lipid profile was obtained and when the doctor entered the room, she was very concerned. My husband’s cholesterol was 304. That is 104 points higher than the cutoff for high cholesterol. Ideally, cholesterol levels should be below 200. He was 26 at that time, which is extremely young to have cholesterol in that high range. I was truly shocked. I thought we both ate a relatively, normal, healthy diet. We rarely ate out and our meals consisted of what I thought at the time were lean meats: Chicken, venison, and fish. We rarely ate any beef, and we always ate a vegetable with our meals.
My husband was not overweight and instantly, my 1st year medical training kicked in and told me, this must be genetic. He must have some genetic abnormality for his cholesterol to be so high at this age. His doctor told us that she recommended he start a high-dose statin drug to lower his cholesterol. I spoke up, and asked why we couldn’t try lowering it with diet first. She said because it was so high, she would recommend starting the statin now AND incorporating the dietary changes. My husband was not on board with this idea. He flat out told her that he is too young for medications and wanted to try lowering it with diet first. We asked what she recommended for us. I was shocked when she told me that we needed to adopt a whole food, plant-based, VEGAN diet.
It’s hard to describe what went through my head when I first heard those words. A vegan diet? What?! But I was taught in medical school that dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol levels? I was very skeptical. How would cutting out all animal products and, thus, all cholesterol from a diet lower cholesterol when our bodies naturally make it? My husband’s doctor explained to us that she has had great success with her patients who have tried it and asked us if we were willing to do it for a month to see if it had any effect. In solidarity with my husband, I joined him in his transition to a plant-perfect lifestyle since that day, October 1, 2014. We went home, got rid of (donated) all of the animal products from the apartment, and I began feverishly researching everything I could about plant-based nutrition. I was amazed. The research for this lifestyle is so strong, and it is just not being taught in the standard medical curriculum. The only diet that has been shown to REVERSE chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes is a whole foods plant based diet, and I, a medical student, had never even heard of it before. This was a problem.
Flash-forward 1.5 months and a doctor visit later and my husband got his results: 188. He dropped his cholesterol over 100 points in only 1.5 months using DIET ALONE and was now below that magical 200 number. We had changed nothing else: No exercise or medication. From that day on, I was fully convinced that diet has the ability far and greater than any medication to lower cholesterol, and I have made it my mission to have this added to the medical school curriculum. I am working with Amanda Martin, another medical student, to accomplish this task and so far the administration has been very receptive to changes. We plan to update readers as things progress in this area.
Now, nearly 8 months later since adopting this new lifestyle, I have lost 20 lbs. without changing my exercise routine and without counting calories (down from 155 in October to my current weight of 135 lbs.) My own cholesterol has also dropped from 219 to 156. Everyone I meet who is on this lifestyle journey, including myself, always says how much better they feel after switching to a whole foods, plant based diet, but until you try it for yourself, it is hard to understand. I hope you will check out the amazing resources on this site so that you can learn how to switch to a diet that will make you feel amazing, live longer, and promote overall well being. Also, be on the lookout for exciting new changes to the medical school nutrition program in the coming months!