As a third-year medical resident, Saray Stancic, M.D., went from doctor to patient. After a brief nap during an overnight shift at the hospital, she woke up to find both her legs numb and heavy. An emergency MRI confirmed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that’s often considered incurable. But recent studies show that following a diet low in saturated fat may play a key role in managing the disease.
In a new interview, I talk with Dr. Stancic about her personal experience tackling MS with a plant-based diet. Dr. Stancic is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician and the founder and owner of Stancic Health and Wellness, where she treats patients using lifestyle modification, including a plant-based diet.
Dr. Stancic will present “Code Blue: Foods, Inflammation, and Multiple Sclerosis” at the Physicians Committee’s sixth annual International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine on Aug. 10-11, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Learn more about ICNM and register at PCRM.org/ICNM.
How did multiple sclerosis start for you, and how have things gone?
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during an overnight shift at the hospital. After a break for a nap, I woke up I could not feel my legs. I was brought to the ER, and an MRI of my brain and spinal cord confirmed the diagnosis of MS.
Today, nearly 23 years since the diagnosis, I am doing remarkably well, but this was not always the case. In 1995, I started a medicine to slow the progression of the disease that had several difficult side effects. By 2003, I was dependent on a cane and nearly 12 medicines.
It was around this time that I learned of the importance of a plant-based diet. In 2003, I made the unconventional decision to taper off the medicines and instead optimize my diet and lifestyle. This one decision changed the course of my life.
Has the experience affected the advice you give to patients?
This experience changed my perspective so much so that I left my infectious disease practice to focus solely on lifestyle medicine.
What inspired Code Blue, your forthcoming documentary?
Code Blue is a feature-length documentary that sheds light on lapses in our current health care system, which regrettably fails to promote plant-based nutrition and optimal lifestyle in preventing, reversing, and managing disease states. We hope to catalyze change in how we train physicians, who currently receive little to no nutrition education. The most important aspect of health maintenance undeniably lies in the foods we put on our plates.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps) provides nutrition assistance to more than 40 million Americans. But SNAP currently isn’t set up to provide the good nutrition they need. In a new op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, musician and author Moby, who received food stamps as a child, proposes a solution: “A better approach would be to focus the program on cheap, healthy foods like beans, vegetables, fruit and whole grains. This would save money and keep recipients out of the doctor’s office.”
He’s right. Last year, my colleagues and I published a series of articles on reforming SNAP in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Our findings show that focusing SNAP on healthful foods could actually save a lot of money and provide more food at the same time. With a few tweaks, the program could be just what the doctor ordered.
- Focus on healthy staples. Currently SNAP pays retailers to provide soda, string cheese, hot dogs, steak, and other products that are keeping SNAP recipients overweight, compared with nonrecipients. These unhealthful foods are part of the reason that diabetes risk is 70 percent higher among low-income Americans. Instead, the foods in SNAP should be healthful: vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains. These are the most nutritious and least expensive foods in the store, and they happen to be the very foods that are in short supply on American shelves. A focus on healthy staples would save an estimated $11 billion per year.
What kinds of meals would those healthy staples turn into? A breakfast of oatmeal topped with strawberries, or maybe blueberry pancakes or fresh cantaloupe. Lunch could be a hearty bean chili, chickpea salad, vegetable fajitas, a bean burrito, or vegetable soup. Dinner could be angel hair pasta topped with mushrooms, chunky vegetables, and tomato sauce, black beans and rice with salsa, or veggie pizza. And all of these foods—tasty as they may be—are simple and cheap.
Harvard University researchers developed a nutrition rating system, called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index. With that rating system, economically disadvantaged people in the United States currently have average score of 33 out of a possible 110. Those in the highest socioeconomic category have a current score of 41. But a program focusing on healthy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes would score 75. In other words, we could improve participants’ nutrition and health, and save money at the same time.
- Integrate with WIC. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is already focused on a simple list of foods that women and children need. It is continually updated with health in mind and does not include steak, pork chops, chicken, sodas, energy drinks, candy, or the other less-than-healthful products that are still in SNAP. Why have two programs? Merge them.
Some mean-spirited critics hold that poor people will insist on junk food and will complain if the government does not provide it. That is insulting. I would ask these critics simply to look at WIC. The WIC program does not include junk food, and no one complains. When people need help, healthful food is a blessing. And getting the junk food out of SNAP and the healthy staples in—that’s just what the doctor ordered.
Today, Major League Baseball teams are celebrating Opening Day—and kicking off a season of increased colorectal cancer risk for baseball fans. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, baseball fans are expected to eat more than 19 million hot dogs during the 2018 season. But even eating just one hot dog a day can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, which kills more than 50,000 Americans per year.
In 2015, the World Health Organization released a report declaring hot dogs and other processed meats “carcinogenic to humans.” Studies show that consuming one daily 50-gram serving of processed meat—about the size of a typical hot dog—increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Unfortunately, some stadiums have taken baseball’s deadly processed meat addiction to a new extreme this year. “Extreme” hot dogs recently debuted at several MLB stadiums, including the Triple Play Dog at Coors Field in Denver—a hot dog topped with pulled pork, bacon bits, and purple slaw. The Milwaukee Brewers are offering a Polish Sausage Pierogi, while the Kansas City Royals are selling a Smoked Barbecue Brisket Taco.
Fortunately, other teams are stepping up to the plate and offering healthier options. The Philadelphia Phillies recently unveiled a new Vegan Cauliflower Cheesesteak, and the Toronto Blue Jays have added Vegan Nachos to their food offerings.
So, when you are soaking in the sun and enjoying America’s pastime, choose the Vegan Un-Tuna Salad or Greens and Grains Salad at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, not the Pulled Pork Pierogi Hoagie. Revel in the Vegan Nacho Grande with Beyond Meat crumbles at Globe Life Park in Arlington, and say no to the Triple B—a sandwich made with bacon, brisket, and bologna.
As some teams begin to offer healthful, plant-based options, it’s time for the rest of Major League Baseball to start incorporating our country’s health into our national pastime—and to strike out processed meat for good.
Exciting news from New York: Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams and Council Member Fernando Cabrera have just introduced a resolution to the New York City Council that would remove processed meat from the city's school lunches.
The landmark resolution cites a 2015 report from the World Health Organization that declared processed meat, such as hot dogs, pepperoni, bacon, sausage, and deli meat, carcinogenic to humans. Studies show that just one hot dog or two strips of bacon per day can increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. In recent years, colorectal cancer rates have been steadily rising in young people.
That’s why current menu options like Turkey Sausage Crumble, Egg, and Cheese Wrap for breakfast and the Meat Lovers Pizza with Bacon and Sausage for lunch don’t belong in schools.
“We cannot continue feeding our children substances that are scientifically proven to increase their chances of cancer later in life,” says Borough President Adams, who reversed his type 2 diabetes by adopting a plant-based diet in 2016.
“I know from my own experience with being diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic that it is so important to take ownership of your health and take control of what you eat,” added President Adams. “We must feed our kids nutritious meals that will nourish their bodies and help them perform better academically. Kids want to be healthy and strong, so let’s help them get there by feeding them healthy meals.”
By adopting the resolution, New York City would add to its impressive record as a leader in offering healthy school food. New York City schools already offer daily plant-based meals to every student, and the district is home to the first all-vegetarian public school in the nation.
Join us in urging the New York City Council to support this resolution.
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Fans of the hit NBC series This Is Us finally learned how the beloved character Jack Pearson died, but did they get the full story? In this week’s episode, after a fire breaks out at the Pearson residence, a doctor explains that excessive smoke inhalation stressed Jack’s heart, triggering a massive heart attack that took his life.
What the doctor didn’t mention is that atherosclerosis, which is a fatty build-up in the arteries, put Jack at risk for the attack. The physical stress his body endured through his heroic and successful attempt at saving his family from the fire likely caused plaque to dislodge and block an artery that supplies the heart with oxygenated blood. A lifetime of eating animal products floods the body’s circulatory system with cholesterol, raising the risk for heart disease.
It couldn’t have helped that the Pearson kids ditched Jack on Super Bowl Sunday, leaving Jack and Rebecca to deal with all of the food they had prepared for a full day of snacking. Food served on game day is traditionally very animal product heavy, making it high in saturated fat and cholesterol. A 2007 study from the Journal of Nutrition found that a single fatty meal can cause the heart to beat harder and raise blood pressure. And a 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the number of heart attacks in one major city doubled during a big sports event.
One has to wonder, was the state of Jack’s heart health a ticking time bomb? Could he have been due for a heart attack sooner or later anyway?
What You Can Do
Ditch animal products and switch to a heart-healthy diet centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vegan diets have been found to help reduce heart disease risk by reducing inflammation and to lower risk for heart failure. And on game day, try these doctor-approved, crowd-pleasing recipes.
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