By: Micheal Greger, MD, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.
Even though the most widely accepted, well-established chronic disease practice guidelines uniformly call for lifestyle change as the first line of therapy, physicians often do not follow these guidelines. Yet, lifestyle interventions are often more effective in reducing heart disease, hypertension, heart failure, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and deaths from all causes than almost any other medical intervention.
“Some useful lessons come from the war on tobacco,” Dr. Neal Barnard wrote in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics. When he stopped smoking in the 80’s, the lung cancer death rate was peaking in the U.S., but has since dropped, with dropping smoking rates. No longer were doctors telling patients to give their throat a vacation by smoking a fresh cigarette. Doctors realized they were more effective at counseling patients to quit smoking if they no longer had tobacco stains on their own fingers. In other words, doctors went from being bystanders—or even enablers—to leading the fight against smoking. And today, he says, plant-based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.
If we were to gather the world’s top unbiased nutrition scientists and experts, there would be very little debate about the essential properties of good nutrition. Unfortunately, most doctors are nutritionally illiterate. And worse, they don’t know how to use the most powerful medicine available to them: food.
Physician advice matters. When doctors told patients to improve their diets, to cut down on meat, dairy, and fried foods, patients were more likely to make dietary changes when their doctor’s advised them to. And it may work even better if doctors practice what they preach. Researchers at Emory randomized patients to watch one of two videos. In one video, a physician briefly explained her personal healthy dietary and exercise practices and had a bike helmet and an apple visible on her desk, and in the other, she did not discuss her personal practices and the apple and bike helmet were missing. For example, in both videos the doctor advised the patients to cut down on meat, to not usually have meat for breakfast, and have no meat for lunch or dinner at least half the time as a simple place to start improving their diets, but in the disclosure video, the physician related that she had successfully cut down on meat herself, and perhaps not surprisingly, patients rated that physician to be more believable and motivating. So physicians who walk the walk—literally—and have healthier eating habits not only tend to counsel more about diet and exercise, but also appear more credible and motivating when they do so.
It may make them better doctors. A randomized controlled intervention trial to clean up doctors’ diets, called Promoting Health by Self Experience, found that healthcare providers’ personal lifestyles were directly correlated with their clinical performance. Healthcare providers’ own improved well-being and lifestyle cascaded to the patients and clinics, suggesting an additional strategy to achieve successful health promotion.
Are you ready for the best kept secret in medicine? The best kept secret in medicine is that, given the right conditions, the body heals itself. Treating cardiovascular disease, for example, with appropriate dietary changes is good medicine, reducing mortality without any adverse effects. Yes, we should keep doing research, but educating physicians and patients alike about the existing knowledge about the power of nutrition as medicine may be the best investment we can make.
Of course, to advise patients about nutrition they first have to educate themselves, as it is unlikely they received formal nutrition education in medical training:
- Doctors Know Less Than They Think About Nutrition
- Medical School Nutrition Training
- Medical Associations Oppose Bill to Mandate Nutrition Training
For more on the power of healthy living, see:
- Lifestyle Medicine: Treating the Causes of Disease
- Convincing Doctors to Embrace Lifestyle Medicine
- What Diet Should Physician’s Recommend?
- Eliminating 90% of Heart Disease Risk
- The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs
- Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure
- How Many Meet the Simple Seven?
- Never Too Late to Start Eating Healthier
- Physicians May Be Missing Their Most Important Tool
If you want to take advantage of Dr. Barnard’s transformation, check out his amazing 21-Day Kickstart Program, a free public service that starts the first of every month on how to transition towards a healthier diet.
Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.