One Doctor, Ready to Leave Medicine, Saves His Patients — and Himself—by Teaching Them How to Cook
By Sandra Knispel
By 2008, ACLM Member Dr. John Principe had had enough. The long hours and stubborn health setbacks among his chronically ill patients had taken their toll. Struggling with elevated triglycerides and excess weight, and taking four different medications for his blood pressure, the then-50-year-old general physician from Palos Heights outside Chicago was burnt out, mortified by his failure, and ready to pack it in. “I was fed up with ‘a pill for every ill,’ ” Principe remembers. “My patients’ lives were not improving.” And neither was his.
After twenty years in general practice and over a decade making rounds at several local hospitals, including a nursing home and retirement community, he was seriously con-templating trading in his scrubs for chef's whites. He had taken cooking classes in the past, including two in Italy, and enjoyed them tremendously—enough to think about leaving medicine for cooking. “Something was grating at my soul,” he recalls. And, he reasoned, if he couldn’t reliably heal his patients, at least he could nourish them.
It wasn’t the first time Principe had faced an existential choice like this. After finishing his undergraduate degree in biology at Loyola University Chicago in 1979, he was torn between medicine and the priesthood: healing the body or feeding the soul. His childhood pediatrician convinced him to pursue a medical career. Following her advice, he enrolled at Rush Medical College in Chicago that same year.
Three decades later, in 2008, searching for meaning, Principe enrolled in a Harvard School of Public Health course titled "Healthy Kitchens/Healthy Lives" that promised to bridge the gap between nutrition science, healthcare, and culinary arts. Founded a year earlier by David M. Eisenberg, MD, an associate professor of nutrition at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Har-vard, and executive vice president for health research and education at the Samueli Institute, the program works in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health. The New York Times aptly described the annual conference as based on "the radical notion that if doctors could learn to channel their inner Julia Child (sans butter), they could serve as role models and cheerleaders for their patients."
The Napa Valley-based class proved to be Principe's Eureka moment. "It dawned on me that I didn’t need to get out of medicine; I just needed to reinvent my role within medicine," Principe says. "Had I not found that, I would not still be a doctor today."
One big change was that Principe no longer saw his own shortcomings as the cause of his disenchantment with medicine; instead, he realized the problem was systemic. The healthcare system, he says, doesn't prepare doctors adequately to teach preventive lifestyle habits to their patients, preferring prescriptions to recipes. "I knew that somehow I had to involve my patients, otherwise they wouldn’t change," he says. So in 2009 he reinvented his practice by taking a holistic approach.
Combining comprehensive internal medicine with wellness, he called his new practice WellBeingMD Ltd. The following year, he rented an additional 2,400 square feet in his office building and installed a demonstration kitchen, a movement studio, and space for education. Next came the culinary bootcamp with classes of 16 to 20 people sharing counter space in the large kitchen. The result is the WellBeingMD Center for Life, America’s first teaching kitchen within a physician’s office, an achievement Principe notes with pride. It’s a fusion of traditional medicine with classes designed to induce lasting lifestyle changes, ranging from cooking, functional fitness, yoga, and tai chi qigong, to acupuncture and massage.
In the WellBeingMD Center, Principe and a small group of trainers teach patients simple, science-based life skills that he says “have been lost in the hype and chatter of the modern, quick-fix, convenient world.” Together with his wellcoach (a trained health and wellness coach) Theresa Hershberger, he designed a six-week behavioral approach to weight loss in a group program that helps patients make lifestyle changes in eating, movement, and mindset. His four-week courses with titles like “Heal Your Heart Through Nutrition” are geared toward patients with specific chronic diseases.
The classes are covered by most health insurance policies as a group medical visit. The largest struggle, Principe says, is his belief that this model should be offered to all patients, not just the chronically ill.
To date, the Center has graduated more than 500 patients. Principe says about 45 percent of those who adopt the trinity of good nutrition, physical activity, and what he calls “mindful living” manage to lose weight and keep it off. Mindful living, as he sees it, runs the gamut from recycling to reading nutritional labels to cutting out stressful clutter from one’s life to buying local produce at farmers’ markets. “What’s not measurable is that patients feel better and are happier,” he says. “I see them less often in my clinic. They don’t come running in with a common cold. And that’s a good thing.”
Nor does he worry that success will put him out of business. About 500 patients are currently on waiting lists vying for spots in his classes. He’s gone from feeling burnt out in medicine to giving an inspirational TEDx talk in Naperville, Illinois, in 2012, chronicling the metamorphosis of his practice, and by extension his own life. He now co-hosts a monthly mindful cooking show on local cable TV, and has been profiled by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and others.
But Principe's odyssey has not been without its trials. “It’s not a way to get rich quickly,” he concedes. “Life gets messy along the way.” Some of his office staff quit, as did his former physician partner, dissatisfied with the changes. But Principe pressed on. So strong was his belief in the underlying concept of wellbeing that he mortgaged his house to finance the construction of the teaching kitchen.
“They say the first one through the wall is the bloodiest,” Principe muses of his new approach to medical practice. “I do have some of those emotional and professional scars. It’s not been a bed of roses. But the journey over the past five years has been worth every painful experience.” Seeing patients take control of their lives, reduce their dependency on prescription drugs, and lead happier, healthier lives, he says, is ample compensation.
An emotional Principe tells the story of one of his patients, an accountant, who had gained 70 pounds over the past decade. Every tax season she'd get so stressed that she'd overeat. “She became so overweight and riddled with arthritis that she had to crawl up the stairs in her own house.” She returned after the program to tell him that not only were her old jeans falling off her, but that she was now able to climb stairs again, too. And she felt better than she had in ten years. “That’s what this is all about,” Principe says.
Seven years after his epiphany, Principe is still working long hours; the difference is that now he doesn’t mind. Gone is the gnawing angst over whether he’s doing right by his patients. “I never have questions like that because I know I’ve given them my all," he says. He's done the same for his octogenarian parents, who now live with him.
What does he do to relax? “I try to espouse what I teach,” he says. He participates regularly with his patients in one of his Center’s functional fitness classes, drinks plenty of water, gets up from his desk to stretch every twenty minutes or so, and eats a healthful diet. The 5-foot-10 doc now weighs 180 pounds, compared to his unhealthy weight of 210 pounds back in 2008. He’s been able to cut his four blood pressure meds down to one, and tamed his triglycerides with diet and fish oil. He enjoys dancing, arts, and music, and when he needs to get away, he drives to Lake Michigan—or sometimes flies to Alaska or Hawaii—for fishing and a dose of nature.
One thing Principe is still searching for is a like-minded physician to join his practice. “The younger doctors are coming out of school in such debt, and I can’t offer them the compensation and benefits packages that hospitals are giving them,” he says ruefully. “Many of the older doctors are simply too burnt out to take on a large project like this.”
Still, Dr. Principe hopes this kind of holistic approach to medicine doesn’t remain the exception. “We require a revolution in thought and a renaissance in good motives to bring about true wellbeing,” he says. And he's happy to be one of the people leading the way.