Food Power

Two doctors preach nutrition to patients and get results.

By Susan Flansburg

It’s amazing what a good book will do for your eating habits.

Six years ago, Dr. Michael Bird followed a patient’s advice and read “Eat to Live” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. The book appealed to Bird with its emphasis on scientific data, real patient outcomes and common sense diet tips. Bird, a family physician with McFarland Clinic, decided to give the diet a try. He lost 15 pounds. He gained energy. He developed a passion for sharing what he learned about the power of nutrition.

Meantime, another McFarland Clinic physician had also begun exploring the health benefits of food. Dr. Jacob Alexander, a kidney specialist, had grown increasingly frustrated by the inability of medications to keep his patients’ health conditions in perfect check.

Both physicians knew that great nutrition could not only help their patients lose weight, it could help them maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol, keep symptoms of diabetes at bay, reduce their risk for cancer and other diseases, and enhance their sense of well-being. Meeting to discuss their common concern, Bird and Alexander began looking for ways to share it.

People who listened seemed receptive, but created a small audience. Then Bird and Alexander cooked up a plan that could be more widely and formally shared. The resulting program, Food is Medicine, debuted earlier this year. Available to physicians, patients and anyone who is interested, the program – available online and in print – offers information and tips for good health by way of good nutrition.

Food is Medicine

Scott Hanson, a retired Iowa DOT engineer and patient of Bird, says he began following the program when he was diagnosed with type 2 Diabetes.

“Dr. Bird started me on medications to control my diabetes, and also recommended a book called ‘The End of Diabetes’ by Dr. Joel Fuhrman,” Hanson says.

“The medications were good, but my weight kept creeping up. I wanted to be healthy in my retirement, so I went back to that book. It had great documentation on patient successes. My wife and I decided to try it.”

Hanson has lost 40 pounds so far, and feels great. “It turned a light bulb on in my head, that I could really make a change.”

Bird is gratified to hear stories like Scott’s. A number of his patients have seen their health improve as their waistlines have slimmed down. Some have even been able to go off medications.

“In reality, you can manage many health conditions by what you eat,” Bird says. “What you eat is more important than any medication I can prescribe. There’s a lot of power in food.”

Alexander agrees.

“I tell my patients: ‘Your diet is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Instead of having to turn to medication for many diet-associated diseases like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, you can make a significant improvement in your health by making good food choices,’” Alexander says.

“I still believe that medication is an important part of medical care. But a diet more focused on plants and lower in sodium and lower in processed foods will improve overall health for everyone.”

Get Started

The Food is Medicine program provides information and resources that can be adapted for most people. And while it’s not just another diet plan, it does make big promises. In this case, however, the health promises are based on science.

“It’s hard to get started, but once you start eating a diet focused on more fruits and vegetables, you start to feel better,” Alexander says. “The old diet just doesn’t make you feel as good, so you end up wanting to follow the new one.”

Bird offers a few suggestions to begin.

“Start with one vegetarian meal a week,” he says. “Get a vegetarian cookbook or search the internet for vegetarian meals that include vegetables you like.

“One of the best things you can do is be mindful about what you’re eating. Ask yourself questions like, ‘Am I eating because I’m sad or because I’m hungry?’ Also, avoid restaurants that can’t support your goal. I just won’t go to some places.”

Lifestyle Changes

Bird and Alexander are followers of author Michael Pollan’s much-cited advice: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That advice and the Food is Medicine program can mean a lifestyle change for people – one that supports health and wellbeing. Hanson says it’s working for him, and he’s grateful to be entering retirement with greater physical gusto.

Does he miss the old diet? Although he says he did at first, Hanson’s appreciation of food and drink have changed over time, leaving him much more appreciative of the flavors of quality foods, and even water. He says he no longer even thinks of washing down red meat with “three or four Diet Dr. Peppers,” knowing that even artificial sweeteners “play with your metabolism.”

“This is the way we’re going to be eating from now on,” Hanson says. “It’s not just another diet plan for six months. It’s forever.” 

Learn more about McFarland Clinic’s Food is Medicine program, and meet Scott Hanson, a patient benefiting from it.