According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, chronic disease is one of the leading causes of death and disability in this country — and it’s also the most preventable.
A New Jersey physician who saw a dramatic improvement in her own chronic illness after changing her personal habits is now practicing what’s called “lifestyle medicine,” and a big part of her switch was adapting a plant-based diet. She shared her personal experience at the Maine Nutrition Council’s annual conference.
Twenty years ago at the age of 28, Saray Stancic’s life changed virtually overnight. She was a medical student working a 24-hour shift at a hospital. During a brief nap, she was awakened and called to the ER.
When she tried to get out of bed, she couldn’t move her lower body. She was rushed to the ER and given an MRI and a diagnosis.
“I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and that changed the course of my life,” she says.
Stancic continued her medical training and became an internist and infectious disease physician. But for eight years, she says she struggled with her M.S.
Despite taking what she calls a “parade of pharmaceuticals,” the disease continued to progress. Then, one day in her office, she stumbled on a study that connected lifestyle choice to health. It piqued her curiosity, and as Stancic researched further, she found evidence that diet has a profound impact on health.
She decided to do something radical: go off all her medications and adopt a plant-based diet.
“My disease improved, and today, nearly 22 years since my diagnosis, I’m medication free and doing very well,” Stancic says.
It’s unclear whether other factors may have contributed to her improvement, and though she doesn’t advocate that patients with MS drop their medication, she now practices lifestyle medicine.
She coaches patients to eat a mostly plant-based diet, be active every day, get adequate sleep, avoid tobacco and reduce or eliminate alcohol. The importance of adopting these healthy habits may not sound revolutionary, but Stancic says it’s a prescription that’s not typically offered by physicians.
“Medical students are not getting this information, and it’s so important. So that we are all speaking to it — all physicians, regardless of your specialty, that we value and understand the importance of lifestyle of not only preventing disease, but managing and reversing it,” she says.
Too often, Stancic says, physicians prescribe drugs that alleviate symptoms but don’t get at the root cause of disease. And many patients don’t address their lifestyle habits until they become ill — but when they do, it makes a difference.
Maine General Hospital dietitian Venus Gilley says her diabetes patients experience weight loss, improved digestion and overall better health when they eat more vegetables and fruits.
“Americans tend to eat more protein, and their plates are generally half filled with protein, and if we could reverse that and be half filled with vegetables, they will be healthier,” she says.
Nurse Ally Miller says she saw her cholesterol drop when she adopted a plant-based diet, but encouraging her patients at the Maine Veterans Home to eat more produce tends to be an uphill battle.
“There’s no sponsor for whole foods,” she says. “It’s the processed foods that have the advertisement money and the push behind it, but there’s nobody speaking up for plant-based, whole-foods nutrition,” she says.
But Stancic is. She says if other physicians start to speak for it, too, it could help change the course of the nation’s chronic illness epidemic.