It’s not every day you’re lying on the table in a hospital gown at your doctor’s office and he or she suggests that kale might make your ailments disappear. If only…
But for Robert Ostfeld, MD, the director of the Cardiac Wellness Program and associate professor of Clinical Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, that’s kind of what he does. (Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that.)
Dr. Ostfeld, who’s based in New York City, sees a lot of patients with cardiac issues like heart disease (as well as diabetes). But in addition to prescribing things like cholesterol-lowering meds, he also tells his patients to follow a vegan diet—and he’s seen some awesome results.
“Outside of emergency surgery, I’ve never seen anything come close to the breadth of benefits that a whole food plant-based diet provides,” says Dr. Ostfeld.
“When I got [to Montefiore], I started doing what I was trained to do. I encouraged patients to take guideline-based medications…[but] people weren’t get profoundly better. It was after that, I stumbled across The China Study.” (You know, that groundbreaking book that made a lot of connections between food and disease.)
So Dr. Ostfeld decided to start the Cardiac Wellness Program, with the goal of preventing and reversing disease with the help of a whole foods, plant-based diet. We spoke with him about some of his findings and successes.
What kind of results have you seen so far?
“The kind of patient turnaround we see is inspirational,” Dr. Ostfeld says. “It’s totally rejuvenated me as a physician.” Some of the symptoms that have improved for his patients include less chest pressure, patients who can now take fewer medications, and better cholesterol levels.
“We had one particular patient go from 19 medications to three, in the course of a year,” he says. Many patients also notice some added bonuses—like better skin (woot!) or chronic back pain disappearing, he says.
So how does it work? I’m envisioning you and your patients happily drinking green smoothies together…
“I’ll typically see a new patient in the office for an hour. We’ll go through their issues, talk about the whole foods, plant-based diet. We have a session on periodic Saturday mornings where we go into the lifestyle in much more detail. It’s an event: We have a nutritionist, we have a patient who’s been successful speak, and we serve a lunch—and we don’t charge for this. We fund it through tax deductible donations,” Dr. Ostfeld says.
“When patients really embrace it and they feel so much better, they become the best sort of ambassadors for living this way.”
Where do prescription drugs fit in?
None of this is to suggest that Dr. Ostfeld believes diet is the only answer to solving things like heart disease. “We are only lowering doses [of medications] if their blood pressure, etc., are appropriately reduced. We’re only going to do things that are medically justified,” he says.
Which includes running all sorts of blood tests after a patient has been following the diet for some time, so Dr. Ostfeld can see the progress and how things are improving.
“Sometimes patients will cry tears of joy with how much happier and how much better they feel,” Dr. Ostfeld says. “Nobody cried tears of joy when I wrote them a script for cholesterol-lowering medication.”
How skeptical are patients and colleagues about the approach?
“I get resistance and push back from both. Sometimes [patients] look at me like I have five heads,” Dr. Ostfeld says. “Disappointingly…the benefits are not well-known in the medical community. Some physicians are very open-minded to it and others are not. We should be open-minded to all things that help our patients.”
And do you practice what you preach?
“After reading The China Study, I changed my own eating habits, too,” he says. “I’ve been on a whole foods, plant-based diet for about four years. It’s wonderful from a healthy, environmental, and ethical standpoint. Those things resonate differently with different people. I like being able to touch on all three of those,” Dr. Ostfeld says. “It also gives me more credibility with my patients when I am also walking the walk.”
By Molly Gallagher for Well+Good
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