The High-Tech Doctor with Low-Tech Solutions

By ACLM Member Ted D. Barnett, MD
Interventional and Diagnostic Radiologist
Founder & CEO, Rochester Lifestyle Medicine 

October 2016

Nearly 26 years ago, like any good parents, my wife and I decided to perform an experiment on our children. In January, 1991, we decided to switch to a plant-based dietary lifestyle! At the time, two of our three children were ages one and three—our son didn’t arrive until August, 1992. I say “experiment,” because, at the time, we didn’t know anyone else locally with small children who had made the same decision. Our knowledge of others who had decided to go plant-based was purely from books and literature and a few people who had recently formed a local vegetarian society whose children were all grown. 

So why did we do it? My wife became interested when she learned about the fate of animals on factory farms and I became interested when I learned how much better it is for the planet when we live exclusively on plants. The main problem as I saw it at the time was that living without animal products sounded dangerously unhealthy. After all, our parents were very caring and intelligent. Why hadn't they raised us on a completely plant-based diet?

So we read all the books and articles we could get our hands on. In performing our literature review, we felt that all we had to do was demonstrate that a completely plant-based diet was at least as healthy as the animal-based diet that we were on. What became apparent to us back then was that a plant-based diet was actually healthier! Finally, after reading Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, we decided that, from a health standpoint, we had nothing to lose and much to gain—so we gave up all animal products and have lived entirely on plants ever since.

Of course, back in the early 90’s living on an entirely plant-based diet was viewed as extremely strange. I was constantly being challenged by my colleagues (usually in a nice way) about our dietary choices. As an Interventional and Diagnostic Radiologist, many of the doctors in the hospital would have to come through my office every morning to review studies (this was before images became digital and could be reviewed remotely). While reviewing images with me, consulting physicians would crane their necks and peer into my lunchbox to see what strange food might be in there. It was this experience that made me proficient at defending my food choices and allowed me to become adept at actually teaching nutritional concepts to others. 

In 1995, my wife and I were asked to take over the reins of the then 5-year old Rochester Area Vegetarian Society (RAVS). We have continued to run the society for the last 21 years (during which time the name changed to the Rochester Area Vegan Society) and have watched it grow to over 300 members. We have regular monthly meetings at which attendance is usually around 75 people—although this number can swell when we bring in nationally recognized experts. Speakers who have graced our monthly meetings include T. Colin Campbell, PhD; Caldwell Esselstyn, MD; Neal Barnard, MD; Michael Greger, MD; Brenda Davis, RD; and George Eisman, RD. 

Five years ago, I developed and began teaching a 6-week course called “A Plant-Based Diet: Eating for Happiness and Health.” The course is currently being given for the tenth time and has been taken by over 480 people in the Rochester (NY) area; it is accredited for 12 CME’s through the University of Rochester. I believe that the course has had a fairly profound effect on the culture of our area. When I gave the course in the spring of 2016, the Chief of Cardiology at a large local teaching hospital was one of the students. While taking the course, he became committed to a whole-food plant-based diet (in fact he proudly calls himself a vegan). He has since lost 60 pounds and recommends the diet to his patients. You can read his testimonial here and listen to him being interviewed on the radio here.

In the fall of 2014, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) was contacted by the health ministry of the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia to help with their epidemic of type 2 diabetes, possibly using plant-based nutrition. Because of my long connection with PCRM, I was asked if I would like to represent them. In October 2014, Caroline Trapp, NP (PCRM’s Director of Diabetes Education and Care) and I travelled to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia as a guest of the Macedonian government. We spent a little over a week meeting with government officials, endocrinologists, and diabetes educators as well as lecturing to various physician groups and at the medical school regarding the benefits of plant-based nutrition. For me, it was an incredible education, learning first hand how devastating the effects of the modern industrial diet are as it spreads obesity and diabetes around the world—and what a hardship that can be for a small cash-strapped country. I also saw how many exciting opportunities there are to counter it with plant-based nutrition.

In the fall of 2015, I started a new medical practice to bring plant-based nutrition to the Rochester area in the context of medical supervision with social and practical support. Along with a team of about 30 professionals (including 8 MD’s , 4 NP’s, and 3 PA’s), I formed Rochester Lifestyle Medicine (RLM). RLM’s mission is to treat and reverse chronic disease in our patients by using the video-based Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP). So far we have completed three separate CHIP programs, and we currently  have two programs underway for a total of about 90 patients. Our patients feel  empowered by the program and they have experienced dramatic and measurable improvement in health parameters. It’s our hope and intention to document our results in peer-reviewed studies which will strengthen the case for plant-based healing, both in Rochester and in the larger world of medical research. We hope that the success of RLM and the CHIP program can be a model for plant-based medicine in communities all across the US and around the world.

As part of Rochester Lifestyle Medicine, we launched the Lifestyle as Medicine CME-accredited lecture series, which brings well-known experts to speak at the Rochester Academy of Medicine on the benefits of plant-based nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine. Because these lectures are open to the general public, physicians in attendance can see the immense interest that laypeople have in simple powerful solutions to their health problems. Our spring 2016 lineup of lecturers included Drs. Michael Greger, Neal Barnard, Caldwell Esselstyn, and local doctor, Tom Campbell (co-author of the China Study). In September, our speaker was Chad Teeters, MD, the cardiologist mentioned earlier who has become personally plant-based. He was very impressive as well as entertaining. Speakers in October and November will be the nationally-recognized Drs. Michael Klaper and Dr. Joel Kahn, a well-known plant-based cardiologist from Detroit. One of the best features of our lecture series is a healthy plant-based dinner in the living room of the Academy of Medicine held prior to the lecture. This is an informal meet-and-greet affair for up to 100 people which recently has been catered by Kitchen Verde, a new oil-free vegan meal service which is finding an eager market in Rochester.

In April and May of 2016, Rochester was chosen by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) to be a Kickstart Your Health City, and Rochester was blessed with lectures, cooking classes, and media attention for this attempt to get as many Rochesterians as possible to sign on for the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart. Billboards featuring me and my fellow plant-based doctors—Kerry Graff, Tom Campbell, and Erin Campbell—encouraged people to use plants, not pills to achieve health. Rochester’s mayor, Lovely Warren, signed a proclamation in support of Kickstart Your Health Rochester. Kickstart was a great success, and it added to the momentum we had already been developing in the Rochester area in establishing a whole-food plant-based diet as the optimal way of eating.

One of the major motivations behind creating Rochester Lifestyle Medicine (RLM), is the prediction that 1 in 3 children born after the year 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes with all its misery, pain and expense (the prediction is 50% for African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics). In order to change the lives and behavior of kids, the adults around them will also need to change. We recognize that regaining the health of our community will require a major change to our culture and we have made that the ultimate goal of RLM—the goal is to change the culture of our city and surroundings—so that we can become something very close to a healthy plant-based community.

Remember that experiment my wife and I performed on our children? How did it turn out? Well our three kids (now 29, 27, and 24) are all remarkably healthy, slim, and athletic, and I have had the distinct pleasure of sending a fortune in tuition checks to some of America’s finest institutions of higher learning including Oberlin, Colgate, NYU, and Yale. All three are living in New York City and making their living teaching, performing, and composing music. And yes, all three are still thriving on a completely plant-based diet!