The burden of chronic disease plagues our nation. Every day, we treat patients with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and the list goes on. As a family physician, this is what we anticipate — and even expect — to treat every single day.
But what if we didn’t have to treat patients with as many chronic conditions or comorbidities?
Physicians around the country are learning the truth to what our mothers know about feeding us chicken soup when we’re sick: Food is medicine. We need to start viewing food as a way to treat disease. After all, the majority of the top killers of Americans are lifestyle related.
A recent Time Magazine piece highlighted programs like Geisinger’s Fresh Food Farmacy, where patients can pick up fresh produce and recipes along with their prescriptions. Other healthcare organizations and insurers are following suit, including OhioHealth Riverside Family Practice Center in Columbus, Ohio.
This information is not new, nor is the advice we give to our patients to exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables. Typically, my patients respond in one of three ways:
- they want to just take a pill,
- they have no intention to change, or
- they ask, “What do I do next?”
When they ask what to do, my response is to consume a diet full of plants such as green, leafy, and starchy vegetables; beans; legumes; nuts or seeds, such as flaxseeds and chia seeds; and whole, unrefined grains. I advise my patients to strive for at least 30 minutes of a daily physical activity they enjoy that is brisk enough so they cannot maintain a conversation. I also recommend they try to avoid alcohol and smoking as well as practice mindfulness and gratitude daily.
Unfortunately, my recommendations are often met with blank stares. But, to be honest, I don’t blame my patients. There is a severe lack of education about nutrition and food in general, for our patients as well as for us physicians.
According to a recent survey in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, only 27 percent of medical schools actually required a nutrition course. Additionally, the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine also recently indicated that with “recent data on the rising cost and loss of quality of life secondary to preventable causes, there is an absolute need for a drastic reform of the US medical education system.”
I remember my nutritional education in medical school equated to around 10 credit hours. All of it was biochemistry. I did not learn about the elements of food preparation, how to read a nutrition label, or the environmental awareness of where our food comes from.
However, something I observed early on in medical school was that most of the chronic diseases we were studying were caused by a diet, exercise, and lifestyle imbalance. That made me wonder why there was a heavier emphasis on pharmacology than the eating patterns of diabetic or obese patients. There was no instruction on how plant-based dietary patterns reversed heart disease, as Dean Ornish, MD, proved almost 30 years ago through Ornish Lifestyle Medicine.