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Another Voice: WNY needs to accelerate the 'food as medicine' trend

By Michele Mercer

“Food as Medicine” is trending nationally with a most recent example being the Jan. 16 launch of a $400,000 pilot program by NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue to serve plant-based meals to patients.

Western New York needs to accelerate this movement locally, especially when you consider that our communities continue to lead the state in prevalence of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease (CVD), and that CVD continues to be the leading cause of death and hospitalization across all eight counties.

To transform food from “disease-promoting” to “food as medicine,” health care providers and individuals should seriously consider making changes to more of a whole food, plant-based diet consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, tubers (potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, cassava), whole grains and legumes (such as chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans).

The diet excludes or minimizes meat, dairy and eggs, but should not be confused with a vegan diet, which is really a lifestyle choice that is strictly against animal products in every form.

Why should someone consider a plant-based diet? Chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer can be traced to lifestyle choices, including what we eat and what we don’t eat.

The standard American diet adopted by many people is one that includes red meat, processed foods, high-fat foods, dairy, refined grains (such as white flour), sugary foods and sodas. That diet contains a minimal amount of fresh and healthful foods.

Even if a person doesn’t eliminate meat completely, “crowding out” many meat and processed foods by eating more plant-based foods is a step in the right direction.

A big misunderstanding about a plant-based diet is that it does not contain enough protein. In fact, many plant-based food sources contain plenty of protein. Examples are soy, beans, seeds, whole grains and vegetables.

Consider the following steps in starting a whole foods, plant-based diet:

• Make a plan. One effective strategy is to reserve time on a free day to plan meals for the week.

• Become a savvy shopper and make a weekly food budget. Even on a tight budget it is possible to reserve money for fresh produce.

• Learn to cook, beginning with the basics. Learn how to steam, blanch and sauté vegetables.

•. Explore plant-based recipes and resources. For helpful information visit

Whatever your nutrition goals are, making a commitment to participate in the trend of eating more whole foods will offer tremendous benefits to your health and well-being.

Michele Mercer, RN, MSHSA, is chief clinical integration officer at Millennium Collaborative Care.

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