Dr. Chad Teeters rarely talked nutrition with his patients until last year. He didn’t learn much about it in medical school and his lifestyle as a busy doctor didn’t lend itself to an exemplary discussion.
“I didn’t have the comfort level,” said Teeters, 41, who at 5-feet-10 weighed 310 pounds and had high blood pressure before he turned to a plant-based diet last spring.
The chief cardiologist at Highland Hospital in Rochester has lost 80 pounds since, and become a living example to his patients of the power of food as medicine.
Teeters – a married father of two young daughters – will visit Sweet Home High School in Amherst from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 25 to talk about the benefits of plant-based eating in a workshop called "But No One Will Do That – The Prevention and Reversal of Cardiac Disease."
Those who would like to attend the talk, followed by a healthy cooking demonstration, can register at gardenfreshfoodie.com. Cost is $30.
Teeters, also an associate professor of clinical medicine in the University of Rochester Department of Medicine, first became intrigued about the benefits of plant-based eating last spring, while attending a National American College of Cardiology conference in Chicago, where Dr. Kim Williams, then-president of the organization, and others shared intriguing information about the power of a plant-based diet.
"Hearing all this data was impressive but I was skeptical," he said, "so I decided to do my own literature review. Sure enough, the data seemed to stack up."
Q. What did you learn while studying research on the cardiovascular benefits of plant-based eating?
With the best, most robust medical management plan that we have right now, we can cut someone's risk of heart attack, lifelong, by about 27 percent. If you go to some of the folks who published this (nutritional) data … they're showing improvements of cardiovascular outcomes of almost 70 to 80 percent. That's something that we can't achieve with medication alone. I thought, "Let's give this a try so at least I can talk intelligently to patients about it."
Q. What was your diet like before your transformation began last spring? What is it like now?
Everything you hope a cardiologist's diet was not. I was eating fast food, a lot of processed foods, a lot of sweets. I work in an office with about 50 other folks, so without fail there's always some candy or cake that's brought in on a given day for a celebration or general consumption purposes, and I would graze all day long on anything I could find.
If I got five servings of vegetables a week, I was doing pretty good. Now, it's been a complete 180. I'm eating five, six servings a day, easily. I eat completely whole food, plant-based. I don't eat animal products of any kind. No milk, cheese, dairy, eggs, meat of any type. I eat a lot of green vegetables, vegetables of every assortment, tofu, beans, tempeh – those are where I get a lot of my protein sources – and what I've come to find is that there's more variety in the produce aisle than the meat counter just about every day.
Q. What were the biggest misconceptions you had going into this transformation?
First, that this would not be a sustainable lifestyle change. There were too many things that I would have to cut out of my diet that I would not be able to enjoy any longer. I thought maybe I'd be able to sustain this for a week and go back to many of my old habits, but that hopefully I'd increase my fruit and vegetable intake. What I came to find out was quite the opposite. I enjoyed the food, which was nice, but what really surprised and encouraged me to stick with it was that even before weight loss, I almost immediately felt more energetic. Within one to two weeks, I didn't have to take Tums anymore for my indigestion and reflux, which were really bad. I was having headaches on pretty much a regular basis and, within a week or two, the headaches were gone. I was needing 7, 8 hours of sleep every night. All of a sudden, I can get 5 hours of sleep and I feel more energetic than I did before. All those things happened within a few weeks of the transition – and then the weight started to come off.
Q. As a busy doctor, how has eating on the go changed for you?
That is the part that's taken the most accommodating and planning. Whereas before, it was just grab whatever I could get – no vending machine was far enough away to attack if I needed – now I tend to have things on my desk. I have a bag of toasted chickpeas and a bag of sunflower seeds I nosh on as needed as I go about my day. On the other side of my desk, I have an orange and a banana. I'll mix and match fruit and grab-and-go snacks. It's much healthier than what I was eating before.
Q. You've been seeing patients for about 10 years. Have you seen changes in patients who have made a similar transformation?
I was not really touting this to patients prior to my experience because I thought it was not sustainable and probably a big lift for patients to try. During the last year, I started talking to my own patients about it as they noticed my weight diminishing and asking me what I was doing. I've had a good number of patients who, if not having made the full transformation, have taken steps in that direction. Not just patients, but even colleagues. … Once the stigma falls, and once people see there are sustainable results and it's not as hard as they envisioned, they seem to buy into it fairly easily.
Q. Can someone at any age benefit from a change to a plant-based diet?
Yes. There's pretty good data even in children but my patient population tends to be more of the elderly persuasion. There's data where you can see blockages in the coronary arteries melt away within months. Blood pressure can start to normalize within weeks to months. Patients can possibly come off cholesterol medications within a couple of months. Even folks who are well into their 80s and 90s have benefits to gain from making that transformation.
Q. What recommendations do you make to your cardiac patients when you're talking about food?
I gear it to the patient in front of me. I went to a strict vegan diet, no slowly phasing into it. I don't know that works for every patient. If some patients are having trouble coming to terms with that lifestyle transition, I might say, "Let's start with meatless Mondays and we'll then go to Tuesdays and work our way down." For others, I might say, "Let's think about eliminating red meat this month, and next month we'll come back and talk about working our way down the list." It's about engaging the person, seeing where they're at mentally and how much acceptance they have. I don't think it needs to be a one size fits all, but more and more I'm finding that the people who dive in the pool and do it are oftentimes the people who have the most success.
Q. Are you recommending patients see nutritionists in a way you hadn't before?
I am. I will say my office visits have become not solely about nutrition, but certainly there's much more focus on that. … Now, through my own reading and experience, I can share with patients and give them some better guidance. It's terrific. It's been a nice change.
Q. What other recommendations do you make to your cardiac patients?
Exercise has always been a big staple. If you don't move it, you lose it. I encourage all my patients to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, at least five or six days a week. No matter what you eat – and you can eat a vegan diet and be unhealthy, because Oreo's are vegan – people need to make the right dietary selections and try to diversify what they're eating. At least in the beginning, until we start to see the effects, the biggest struggle I probably have with patients is maintaining the compliance with medications. There's still a place for both medications and lifestyle changes. As people start to see benefits of a diet and lifestyle transformation, my goal is to take them off medications as much as possible.
Q. What will you talk about in Amherst?
A large part of the discussion is going to focus on how cardiovascular disease happens, here's the data about why a whole-foods, plant-based diet works to offset that and here's how I did it. I want to tear apart some of those preconceived notions that people have and tear apart the stigma.