Spreading the word about the benefits of a plant-based diet
By Mike Costanza
For physician Ted Barnett, medical treatment begins at the kitchen table.
“If you look at any recommendations for treatment of diabetes or heart disease or most of the other common illnesses, it always starts off with ‘make sure they’re eating right,’” says the medical doctor nicknamed “Dr. Veggie.”
The statement belies the passion that Barnett, the 63-year-old founder and executive medical director of Rochester Lifestyle Medicine, PLLC, brings to his practice.
Lifestyle medicine involves the evidence-based use of non-drug modalities — a predominantly whole-food, plant-based diet (WFBP), stress management, the establishment of healthy sleep and exercise regimens and the avoidance of unhealthy substances — to prevent or treat diseases.
“We refer to it as a new specialty, but Hippocrates was talking about it 2,500 years ago,” Barnett explains. “Basically, he was saying, ‘Eat right and get some exercise.’”
Multiple studies have shown that our lifestyles strongly influence our overall health. Researchers have estimated that nearly 82 percent of cardiac deaths and 40 percent of deaths due to cancer in the United States could be prevented if Americans lived in more healthy ways.
By switching to simpler, more nutritious diets, consistently engaging in physical activity and avoiding tobacco usage, Americans could also reduce the incidence of diabetes, colon cancer and strokes in this country by 91, 71 and 71 percent, respectively.
At Rochester Lifestyle Medicine, Barnett and his cohorts use a variety of means to help those who come through their doors avoid or combat illness. The Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP) is a major part of their effort. Developed at Loma Linda University in California, the educational program primarily focuses upon reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal products — meats, eggs, fish and dairy products — and processed foods.
“Diabetes, most heart disease and obesity are really the same disease, in the sense that it’s all basically a function of the modern industrial diet,” Barnett says. “We’re taking away all this bad food that’s causing all those things.”
Instead, patients are encouraged to adopt a strictly WFPB diet. Whole foods, in simple terms, have had nothing added to them, and have retained all of their essential, healthy elements. When consumed, they are as close to the state in which they were grown as possible — so some foods a vegan might find acceptable are out.
“We would avoid white flour, we would avoid any kind of sugar, and oils,” Barnett says. “You can chew on all the sugar cane you want, but we don’t want you eating the white sugar.”
Leafy greens, zucchini, 100 percent whole wheat, beans and a huge number of other whole foods are also in. All can be eaten raw or cooked, depending upon the food and dish involved.
Facilitators certified by the Lifestyle Medicine Institute — Barnett is one — run the CHIP classes, which include instructional videos, recipes and tips on cooking. The 18 two-hour sessions also feature presentations about healthy sleeping habits and exercise regimens, and small and large group discussions of the subjects covered.
“When I teach my course, there is a phrase that comes up again and again, to the point where my students can chant it with me, which is ‘Eat more fruits and vegetables, and go outside and run around,” Barnett says, with a smile.
Those who don’t want to attend CHIP classes can come to Barnett, the 12 part-time physicians and the four part-time nurse practitioners on his staff for individual instruction and guidance. Thus far, about 150 have graduated from the CHIP.
A 2014 study of 225 people in Athens County, Ohio found that completing CHIP training offers significant benefits for the prevention, control and reversal of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression, and the reduction of unhealthy weight. Closer to home, Barnett is awaiting the results of a survey of school teachers and school district staff from around the Rochester region who switched to a whole-food, plant-based diet for 10 days back in January.
“The question there is, ‘How do we get people to do what we recommend?’” Barnett asked.
As a staunch advocate for lifestyle medicine, Barnett travels around the region lecturing on the value of WFPB eating, and of healthy living in general. He has been a repeated guest on WXXI-AM 1370’s “Connections” with Evan Dawson, and was featured in an article in the Democrat and Chronicle. While putting in 30 hours a week at the Brighton offices of Rochester Lifestyle Medicine, Barnett is also a partner and full-time interventional and diagnostic radiologist at Borg & Ide Imaging, P.C.
“I call myself a high-tech doctor with low-tech solutions,” he says.
Lifestyle medicine has gained some acceptance as a treatment modality, both around the country and locally. Barnett’s practice offers a course on the health benefits of a plant-based diet that is accredited by the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Almost 700 people, including over 100 health care personnel —physicians, dentists, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants — have taken it.
While such gains might look promising, Barnett said it might take some time for the medical community and health care insurers to accept and make greater use of lifestyle medicine as a treatment approach.
As it is right now, insurance providers reimburse those who come to Rochester Lifestyle Medicine for only a small portion of the services they receive. Barnett hasn’t received a paycheck from the place since it opened its doors.
“I started this because I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.