This spring, Food Well Alliance partnered with The Common Market Georgia to host the Local Food & Healthcare Working Table. We convened representatives from our local food movement and healthcare institutions to determine how we can work together to improve health outcomes across Metro Atlanta. After the meetings, we interviewed some of our participants - a hospital chef, a food provider, an urban farmer and a doctor.
Today’s story comes from Dr. Neil Cooper, a physician at Kaiser Permanente.
“I knew that heart disease ran in my family,” said Dr. Neil Cooper. “I had all the risk factors, but thought I was doing well. I took medication to combat my high blood pressure and made a conscious effort to work out regularly. I thought I was being healthy eating fish and turkey burgers instead of hamburgers, barbeque chicken instead of fried chicken - things like that.”
In 2012, after working out, Dr. Cooper had significant chest pain. When he got to work, a nurse took one look at him and said, “You look horrible, something’s wrong.” In that moment, he dropped to the floor with a massive heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. Fortunately he recovered, and his life soon took a significant turn.
“As I was getting discharged, my wife asked the cardiologist what we could do to prevent this in the future,” said Dr. Cooper. “He just happened to be boarded in lifestyle medicine and suggested a book called Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. After reading the book, my wife was determined we would convert to a whole-food, plant-based diet. For the next several months we kind of butted heads.”
After attending a meeting of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr. Cooper began to think his wife was onto something. “I was flabbergasted by the scientific data that demonstrates all of the improved health outcomes that one gets from a better diet, better nutrition,” he said. “I couldn’t believe this was never in my medical literature, that I’d never heard this before.” The Coopers made the switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet in 2012 and never looked back. “My biometrics all normalized. I have more energy and recover after workouts better. Everything is just so much better today.”
Man On a Mission
The results were so dramatic for Dr. Cooper that he made it his personal mission to equip other physicians in his medical group at Kaiser Permanente with information. “I wanted to ensure they understood the health outcomes for having a better diet, less processed foods, less animal products, and more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans.” Dr. Cooper brought these concepts to Kaiser’s wellness committee. The committee hosted educational speakers and provided 21 day plant-powered challenges for staff and doctors. He’s currently helping to create a lifestyle medicine clinic that will be anchored by physicians and dieticians well versed in the whole-foods, plant-based diet. “There’s no question in my mind there’s a huge intersection between healthcare and locally sourced organic products, produce particularly.” He envisions bringing doctors and patients for tours of local farms so they can see the benefits of the soil and produce and what it does for our health.
Dr. Neil Cooper and his wife Shelley rented goats to eat the overgrown ivy in their backyard. "Other animals are vegan too," said Dr. Cooper. "Veggies for all!"
Dr. Cooper says it’s unfortunate that physicians in the United States receive very little nutritional training in medical school. “I feel like physicians are the last people to understand the benefits of better nutrition. All of the pills and procedures we prescribe are bandaids, and we’re not getting to the root cause of chronic disease. We have so much dependence on animal-based and processed foods that we are creating low grade chronic inflammation leading to an epidemic of chronic diseases including cancers, type-2 diabetes and heart disease, the number one killer in this country. We spend more than 80 cents for every healthcare dollar treating diseases caused by our poor lifestyle in the United States. Using lifestyle modification, we can actually treat and reverse the epidemic of chronic disease in our country.”
Challenges and Opportunities for Healthcare Providers
Participating in the Local Food & Healthcare Working Table increased Dr. Cooper’s hope for the future of our health as a society. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become a lobbyist, farmer or chef after the sessions. What excites me about the conversations we’re having is the generalized understanding by all of these experts - from chefs to purchasing agents to farmers - the knowledge that the intersection of healthcare and locally sourced organic foods is critical to the health of our country and reversing the epidemic of chronic disease.”
He says the biggest challenge is convincing doctors that patients will respond to better diets and lifestyle modifications. “We have to start with education in the medical schools to train new physicians to understand the importance of good nutrition in combating chronic disease. But after that, medical organizations need to be on board and help educate practicing physicians out in the community. This can happen through conferences, literature reviews, and case studies with real stories. Testimonials are so powerful.”
Interested in learning more about a whole-foods, plant-based diet? This brochure published by Kaiser Permanente provides important information, tips, resources, and recipes.