This Doctor Healed Her Acne and IBS With a Plant-Based Diet. Here’s How
Dr. Melissa Mondala was a busy medical student in her 20s when she found out that not eating healthy and taking care of herself had led her to have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that affects over 30 million individuals in the United States. Moreover, she started experiencing severe acne, flare-ups, mood swings, and acid reflux. It was no surprise–for years, she had been on the Standard American Diet (SAD) full of refined and processed foods.
In an effort to save her health, she adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet full of nutritious fruits and vegetables. After making the switch to eating plant-based, her acne, pain, IBS symptoms, and low mood all went away. She lost over 15 pounds, developed long-lasting energy, and overall felt much better.
After experiencing her own health journey, Dr. Mondala is now on a mission to inspire others to adopt lifestyle changes for improved health and wellbeing. She is a family and lifestyle medicine physician at Dr. Lifestyle clinic, which she runs with her husband, Dr. Micah Yu, who is an integrative rheumatologist.
On a daily basis, she regularly counsels individuals on long-term lifestyle interventions–such as adopting a plant-based diet–to keep them healthy, out of the hospital, and less dependent on medications. In an exclusive interview with The Beet, Dr. Mondala talks about her health journey, the power of food as medicine in transforming her health, and what she did to make the switch to healthy eating. Let her words inspire you to eat more plants–to heal your body from the inside out!
The Beet: What made you decide to go plant-based?
Dr. Melissa Mondala: I made the switch to a plant-based diet during my medical training at Loma Linda University–where I saw my vegetarian patients and colleagues thrive on a Blue Zone diet. I consumed a pescatarian-heavy diet through my teens and 20s with some appreciation for vegetables, but truly I didn't make the commitment to go plant-based till I saw the science and healing work before my own eyes in 2017.
I was raised on a standard Filipino diet, where I used to eat roasted pork, fried chicken, beef, steak, and heavy seafood often. Throughout my high school years, I was an active cheerleader who loved to have eating competitions with the football and basketball players. I saw myself as strong and I took pride in being able to digest large amounts of food–no matter how fatty, spicy, or salty. Little did I know that the food would inflame my body.
During my teenage years, I struggled with acne and I often wondered why my gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) was out of control despite trying over-the-counter medications. Moreover, my eating patterns did not change. In fact, while I was in medical school, I adopted the standard American diet, where I ate meat lover pizzas, barbecued meats, and hot dogs. At that point, I noticed my mood, focus, performance, and gut began to tremendously suffer. I experienced frequent diarrhea, bloating, abdominal cramps after eating junk food. Moreover, my acne worsened and I received a new–Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). My gut distress deeply affected my mental health, as I found myself more anxious and depressed at the time.
TB: When did you decide to change your diet and lifestyle? What was the turning point?
Dr. Mondala: After a year of experiencing those symptoms, I decided to change my diet and lifestyle in an effort to feel better. I started to exercise regularly and train for five and 10K races. By implementing exercise, cutting out processed foods, and managing my stress, about 50 percent of my IBS symptoms went away. However, when I went total whole food plant-based, I gained the best long-lasting benefits. My acne, GERD, and IBS healed completely for the first time. Due to my diet, I now have amazing energy throughout the day, laser focus, and an upbeat mood.
TB: How did you change your lifestyle? What were some of the steps and strategies you took?
Dr. Mondala: I first educated myself on a whole-food, plant-based diet. I read scientific articles and How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Gregor, in addition to watching the What the Health? film. It was a mind and heart shift – because I didn't want to suffer from IBS all my life and as a physician, I believed this was a better solution compared to using medications, which is like a temporary band-aid fix.
I also began to read labels and look for the salt, sugar, and fiber content in food items at the supermarket. I swapped a lot of unhealthy items in my pantry and fridge with new spices, herbs, vegetables, condiments, beans, lentils, and whole grains. I picked up simple, beginner plant-based recipe books at the bookstore and searched for online recipes. I also attended some vegan cooking classes.
I gained more confidence with five-ingredient recipes, such as Roasted Brussel Sprouts, while I was teaching myself how to cook differently. I found myself enjoying new flavors while still keeping my traditional Filipino style of cooking.
TB: What did you find most challenging about this transition?
Dr. Mondala: I initially found it challenging to order at restaurants and eat during social occasions. However, I found it helpful when I looked at menus ahead of time and asked the waiter about plant-based options. I also found it helpful to eat ahead of time or bring my own plant-based meals when attending family parties.
TB: How do you eat now?
Dr. Mondala: I eat plant-based foods that are minimally processed. During busy mornings, I like to have berries and steel-cut oats for breakfast. On weekends when I have a bit more time to cook, I like to start the day with a tofu scramble. I still love enjoying themed meal days such as Taco Tuesdays with options like walnut tofu meat. My staples are roasted vegetables in Buddha bowls with quinoa and sweet potatoes.
TB: Did your transformative health journey inspire you to pursue training in lifestyle medicine?
Dr. Mondala: My health journey along with my husband's disease made me search for the root causes of chronic disease. It frustrated me to see people getting sicker and sicker based on dietary factors, which are highly interlinked to health. I didn't want to see my patients become like my grandfather, who I never met due to uncontrolled diabetes, which eventually led to gangrenous limb amputation and early death.
I started to embrace plant-based nutrition, routine exercise, restorative sleep, emotional wellbeing, and the avoidance of tobacco in the treatments I prescribed for patients. I ultimately pursued my board certification in lifestyle medicine through an opportunity with the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and completed Loma Linda University's Lifestyle Medicine Fellowship.
TB: Tell us a little bit about what you do on a daily basis to help patients achieve their health goals through nutrition and lifestyle.
Dr. Mondala: As a family and lifestyle medicine physician, I typically help patients minimize medications through lifestyle interventions. I often recommend an active plant-based lifestyle as it reduces the risk or symptoms of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, thyroid disease, acne, and allergies. I particularly love helping people overcome IBS, GERD, & other digestive issues!
TB: What is the biggest piece of advice you give your patients every day regarding adopting a healthy diet?
Dr. Mondala: Be consistent, be mindful, and be patient. Your future self will thank you!
For more great content like this, and ways to incorporate a healthy, plant-based diet into your life, check out The Beet's Health and Nutrition articles.