How lifestyle medicine can change lives
Lifestyle medicine can save my patients’ lives. It forever changed mine, and I’m now on a mission to change others’ lives.
It started with a plant-based diet.
As a child growing up in a Filipino family, my appetite for meat started very early. My favorite Filipino dishes were abundantly available: juicy lechon and salty but tender chicken adobo. My love for meat became even more pronounced as I grew older and even through medical school.
Shortly into my tenure as a full-time attending physician, a nationally regarded cardiologist visited our hospital to present the case for a plant-based diet. He advocated its role in not only preventing and reversing heart disease but for treating other chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer.
As a physician, I understood the scientific benefits of such a diet, but I never stopped to consider making the lifestyle change myself. So I took a look at the evidence — and it is astounding:
The World Health Organization cited over 800 studies linking processed meats to cancer. Other recent studies have shown people who consume a plant-based diet are better able to manage their type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As a result of this growing evidence, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association both recommend diets with a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
The evidence was hard to ignore, so I made the change: I adopted a plant-based diet, and the effects of this lifestyle change alone included a 36-pound weight loss without much time spent in the gym, a wardrobe makeover, better sleep, more energy and ditching my sleep apnea CPAP machine. My LDL (bad cholesterol) also fell by 45 points.
I started counseling my patients on at least adopting a healthier diet to include more fiber from legumes, fruits and vegetables. Some of my patients saw weight loss, better control of their diabetes and improved blood pressure with diet change alone. However, with others, no matter how much I stressed a healthier diet, they remained far from their optimum health—something else was missing.
I needed more training in addressing the other aspects of my patients’ lives that were important in their overall health. Many of them struggle with mental health and substance use. Others need help with knowing how to exercise and manage stress.
This is when I began to recognize the importance of lifestyle medicine. The six pillars set by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine include whole-food plant-based eating, exercise, quality sleep, strategies to manage stress, cessation of tobacco and forming and maintaining relationships.
Lifestyle medicine uses evidence-based research in these six pillars as the first line treatment and prevention of most of our chronic diseases. It empowers patients to take ownership in their health and more importantly, allows me to be a “coach” for my patients and not just their doctor.
We absolutely need the advancements in medicine, like new technology and drugs, that society has brought us. However, wellness and prevention through healthy lifestyle choices can be a powerful first step to turn the tide in our fight against the chronic diseases that plague so many Americans today.
Dr. Desler Javier is an internal medicine physician at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. He is also a certified diplomate of the American Board of Lifestyle Medicine.