It was a chance encounter with a photographer doing a story on one of my cancer patients. At the end of the interview, I was asked if there was anything else I wanted to discuss. There was, and I mentioned that I’m taking a different approach to medicine these days. I’m asking patients to be involved in their own health care, to place value on what they can do themselves to be healthier. I believe that’s how we get the best results.
The photographer then mentioned his type 2 diabetes. “You know you can cure your own diabetes, don’t you?” I asked him. He looked stunned and not just because this was coming from a urologist, not an endocrinologist. I explained briefly how diet, exercise and stress reduction can actually reverse disease, or at least reduce the need for medication. I saw it work for my father, who also was diabetic, and I have become a believer myself.
“But I really like my cheeseburgers,” the photographer said. Well, then.
The cheeseburger is almost too easy a target. It’s really part of a much larger problem: the “Western” (or standard American) diet that predominates in our culture. In short, we’re talking about red meat, processed foods, high-fat dairy, fried foods, refined grains, snack foods, processed meats and high-sugar drinks. Sound familiar?
There’s a cost to those steaks and Friday night fish fries. Those hours of screen time instead of sweat time. The build-up of unmanaged stress and anxiety. If you’re feeling a little of that anxiety right now, it’s probably a good thing. Because high cholesterol, cardiac problems, erectile dysfunction, reduced life expectancy and a host of other problems truly stress your well-being, and they’re likely to be the costs we pay for our diet and lifestyle choices.
So, why haven’t you heard this from your doctor before, while he or she has been writing out your prescriptions for statins and insulin? Well, we physicians are part of the problem — especially our training. Too much of our learning is spent on treating disease and too little on preventing it.
Disclaimer: I’m not slamming modern medicine and medical technology. I’m a practitioner of modern medicine, and we need its interventions often. If you’re having chest pain, get to the ER; don’t make yourself a kale salad. Drugs and procedures have their place, but their limits are becoming very, very clear. The best medicine is the combination of lifestyle modification and medical science.
You have a say in your well-being, a huge say. Think about that shift in the balance of power for a moment, especially if you’ve been relying on your doctor to fix your health problems. Yes, we can prescribe multiple medications to reduce your high blood pressure, if that’s what it takes. We’ll manage your diabetes when it develops and open up your arteries when they become blocked. But, a better “fix” for what ails you is a partnership with your doctor, where you take charge of the things that only you can control, like diet and lifestyle, and your doctor prescribes the best, evidence-based medicine. Together, we can make you a healthier you, working to prevent rather than repair problems.
So chew on these super-powers you have over your own health:
- Defy fate. Your family history of health problems — your genes — don’t have to determine your destiny. In fact, your genes account for only 20% of your risk, according to studies. Be aware of your genetic vulnerabilities, but manage your other risks, too.
- Conquer cancer. Research has shown that lifestyle changes can actually alter the biology of cancer genes and improve outcomes.
- Reverse disease. Heart disease and diabetes, among other problems, do not have to progress unchecked. The evidence is overwhelming that a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to shrink arterial blockages and reduce, or even eliminate, the need for diabetes medications.
The entry point to a healthier you is a healthier diet — a whole foods, plant-based menu. Things to include: whole foods that don’t require a label for you to know what is in them; fruits and vegetables; whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts.
Things to exclude or avoid: animal products, refined foods, white flour and processed oils — really, any processed food. There’s plenty of scientific evidence for the benefits of risk reduction, improved energy and even disease reversal with this approach.
It’s a start. And one of the directions it may well take you is away from the doctor’s office. If I see less of you, or don’t have to see you at all, then I’m really working as a healer, which is the kind of medicine I want to practice most of all.