A Prescription for Change
Doctors are Using Nutrition to Reshape Medical Practice
When Physicians Committee member Jennifer Rooke, M.D., M.P.H., graduated from medical school in 1985, she did something few doctors were doing at the time: She focused on nutrition and specifically recommended plant-based diets to her patients.
That’s because Dr. Rooke and an emerging group of other doctors don’t settle for “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Especially when the way it’s always been done isn’t protecting people from diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and nutrition-related chronic diseases.
Every Physicians Committee doctor member and supporter is an agent of change. More and more are giving plant-based prescriptions and speaking out against meaty fast food in hospitals, standing up to industry, and testifying before the government. They are starting plant-based medical practices, teaching cooking classes in underserved communities, and fighting for healthier school lunch options. They are persuading their communities to try a plant-based diet. And they are working with the World Health Organization to declare processed meats carcinogenic.
More than 30 years later, Dr. Rooke is still prescribing plant-based diets as the founder and medical director of Atlanta Lifestyle Medical Center and at Morehouse Healthcare Optimal Health and Wellness Clinic. This May, Dr. Rooke, who is also an assistant professor in the department of community health and preventive medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., spoke before the board of directors of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to express her concern about patients who are exposed to McDonald’s in the hospital.
“We would like you to choose a food outlet that offers healthy low-cost, plant-based meal options,” Dr. Rooke told the board. She presented research from the Black Women’s Health Study that found eating two or more servings a week of restaurant hamburgers increases the risk of diabetes by 40 percent and that two or more servings of fried chicken a week increases the risk of diabetes by 68 percent.
“There are many benefits associated with increasing fruits and vegetables and reducing red meats—and clear benefits from reducing processed meats, given their salt, fat, and carcinogen content,” says Mariana C. Stern, Ph.D., a co-author of the World Health Organization report that declared processed meats carcinogenic to humans. “A healthy diet should be part of the conversation between a physician and a patient.”
Dr. Stern will discuss her research on nutrition and cancer with 600 other health care providers at the Physicians Committee’s International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine on July 29-30, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Despite the WHO report, many health care professionals still need education on the link between processed meats and cancer.
“In the Western diet, we have grown used to the idea of having meat as the main food item on our plate and everything else on the side,” says Dr. Stern. “Many people still think that without meat they cannot be healthy. We need to reverse our thinking and make plant-based foods the center of our plate.”
When Ana Negrón, M.D., a Philadelphia-area Physicians Committee member who recently spoke at the Barnard Medical Center’s 2016 Summer Speaker Series, saw that her colleagues and patients were unfamiliar with all but the most common whole grains and leafy greens, she embarked on a food literacy campaign and formed Greens on a Budget.
“I began interactive cooking workshops, where people used chopping boards and knives to make rainbow salads and cook steel-cut oats with quinoa and fruit.”
Dr. Negrón, whose latest book is Nourishing the Body and Recovering Health, The Positive Science of Food, also gives out plant-based prescriptions.
“At the clinic, I secure $25 grocery store gift cards, donated through a wish list by interested people in the community,” she says. “Then I write on the card ‘only for vegetables, grains, and legumes’ and give them out with a suggested list of items, instead of drug samples.”
Physicians Committee member Garth Davis, M.D., hosts the Farmarcy Stand in Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center.
“Patients seem to need a prescription to feel like they are actively combatting disease,” he says. “So I give them a prescription for fruits and vegetables. I also want doctors to understand this concept and use food as a medical prescription.”
Dr. Davis, who is the medical director of the Davis Clinic at the Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, and author of Proteinaholic, also recommends the Physicians Committee’s 21-Day Vegan Kickstart: “I really love 21DayKickstart.org. I prescribe the website many times daily.”
Dr. Rooke started the Atlanta Lifestyle Medical Center in 2010, because other medical institutions had preventive medicine programs, but the focus was not on plant-based nutrition.
“I had long conversations with insurance company representatives about coverage for my services,” she remembers. “I wanted preventive medicine/lifestyle medicine to be a clinical specialty like cardiology or endocrinology, because we were able to reverse chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes more cost-effectively.”
Dr. Rooke sees patients for individual consultations and shared medical visits. In the shared visits, she gives patients meal plans and recipes and they discuss other barriers to good health.
Reaching Underserved Populations
On May 5, 2016, Dr. Rooke also helped open the Morehouse Healthcare Optimal Health and Wellness Clinic.
“I am particularly pleased to be working with Morehouse because their mission involves improving health equity and serving underserved populations,” she says. “The clinic focuses on helping patients to transition to a plant-based diet, along with guidance on effective stress management, physical activity, and sleep.”
Dr. Negrón also works with members of underserved populations. She recalls a 48-year-old man who came to the United States and adopted a typical American diet.
“He gained 40 pounds, developed high blood pressure, high lipids, and finally diabetes. He was placed on the usual medications,” says Dr. Negrón, who suggested he change his diet when she began seeing him.
“He took control of cooking very simple meals and brought them to work, eliminated all animal products, and reduced sweets,” she says. “It took him four months to lose 25 pounds and one by one drop all his medications. He is an example not only in his circle of friends, but in the community at large.”
Nutrition Guide for Clinicians
“The single most important thing that health care professionals who are interested in plant-based nutrition for patients can do is to adopt a plant-based diet themselves,” says Dr. Rooke, who also recommends the T. Colin Campbell eCornell Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate Course.
Dr. Negrón agrees: “There is nothing like first-hand experience. You will better understand your patients’ questions and challenges if you have experienced them yourself.” But she says that many of her colleagues do not feel confident.
“I often see their patients in consultation and write a summary of our visit with recommendations,” says Dr. Negrón. “I use the Nutrition Guide for Clinicians and other Physicians Committee resources to replace traditional educational materials.”
She also teaches family practice residents the role of food in medicine. “We go on home visits and tour their patients’ kitchens—where we invariably meet the root cause of their chronic illness,” says Dr. Negrón. “With this shared knowledge, patients can negotiate a plan to reduce their sickness and improve health.”