Why Some Doctors Think Food Is The Answer To Longetivity And Not Pills

Photo via John Principe

Photo via John Principe

"After more than 20 years in practice, Dr. John Principe was ready to quit.

'I was just tired of doling out pills and having people die of the same disease I was quote-unquote treating,' says the 58-year-old internist. While he was helping his patients manage their illnesses, he says, he wasn't changing their lives.

Before walking out the door in 2008, he attended the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference in California's Napa Valley, a collaboration between the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America. The conference teaches health professionals about the basics of nutrition and exercise, focusing not only on what to eat but also on how to cook it, topics most medical curricula never touch.

For Principe, it was a game changer. In 2009, he founded a new practice, WellBeingMD, bringing in homemade food and sharing his recipes with patients. He taught cooking classes at a local community center. In 2010, he built a teaching kitchen in his office in Palos Heights, Ill. 

'I mortgaged my house to do it,' he says, 'but it’s something I believe in.'

Besides keeping the traditional appointments, Principe now leads cooking classes on such topics as digestive health and blood sugar control. Patients prepare their own healthy dishes, like nut milk for those who can't have dairy, or sauerkraut and other fermented foods for gastrointestinal health. One patient in a 2015 YouTube video about his practice says she was sick all the time and didn't know if she would live to see her kids graduate from high school, then recovered her health and lost almost 30 pounds. Another says he no longer needs his statins or his asthma medication. Principe cites a waiting list of more than 500 patients and says he’d love to bring them in but first needs to find a 'likeminded' doctor.

Their own diets, at least, are transforming. In 2013, Eisenberg published a study that tracked the impact on the participating health professionals themselves. Of the attendees that responded to his survey, 58 percent had cooked their own meals five or more times a week before the conference. Afterward, 74 percent did. They ate more vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Before the conference, only 40 percent had rated themselves as 'good or excellent' at helping overweight or obese patients improve their nutritional and lifestyle habits. Three months after the conference, it was 81 percent.

These doctors haven’t stopped writing prescriptions, though some say they write fewer than they used to. Principe says he writes so few that pharmaceutical reps don’t even visit him anymore. La Puma likes to use his prescription pad for recipes, but says he usually starts with food as a supplement to medication. Harlan emphasizes the evidence basis in peer-reviewed literature for the culinary counsel he provides, but doesn’t hesitate to give patients the pills they need." - Deena Shanker via Bloomberg