It’s Self Care Month. To Achieve Wellness, Try a Plant-Based Diet, Says This Doctor
September is National Self Care Awareness Month, traditionally a time when "back to school" has always meant personal renewal, stretching yourself, and trying new things. Here's how to take care of yourself by eating a whole-food plant-based diet, according to Dr. Sari Eitches, an LA-based integrative internist who promotes wellness through lifestyle choices and takes a holistic approach to personal health.
In an exclusive interview with The Beet, Dr. Eitches, a long-time vegan, talks about guiding her patients to a plant-based lifestyle, as well as what to look out for when transitioning to a vegan or plant-based approach to eating, and her love of vegan cuisine from around the world. She leads by example and shows that a plant-based diet can optimize our body’s self-healing properties, by lowering inflammation and adding antioxidants to every meal. Let her advice will inspire you to nourish your body and start adding plants to your meals, and take care of you.
The Beet: What made you decide to live a plant-based life?
Dr. Eitches: I was just finishing my first year as a medical student and I was the least healthy I'd ever been. I was super addicted to caffeine and getting by with convenience food. One week, I signed up for a yoga retreat to reset and relax. The retreat center had a vegetarian dining hall and my teacher was a long-time raw vegan. I intended to eat a raw diet to cleanse at the week-long retreat, but I felt so incredible that I continued to follow the raw diet for two years and remain vegan 14+ years later.
The Beet: Amazing. Did eating plant-based inspire your medical specialty of becoming an integrative internist?
Dr. Eitches: I was pretty fascinated by the vast data that the majority of chronic conditions that Americans suffer from can be controlled, prevented, or even reversed with lifestyle changes including a plant-based diet. We literally are what we eat. The food choices we make (or are made for us) can either cause inflammation and accelerate chronic disease or, if we choose whole food plant-based diet, for example, our foods can slow, reverse and prevent chronic diseases. I now see it in my office every day.
The Beet: So what does your role entail as an integrative internist?
Dr. Eitches: I think of my role as a holistic approach to primary care. I get to learn about my patient's backgrounds, families, hobbies, and values. I understand their health goals and concerns in this context. I do have conventional training as a board-certified MD and run standard tests and prescribe medications when needed. I also have a board certification in integrative holistic medicine, which I lean into, to recommend supplements and refer to complementary healing modalities. With all of my patients, I always address optimizing nutrition, activity, sleep, and mental wellness.
The Beet: What do your nutrition recommendations for your patients’ look like?
Dr. Eitches: My nutrition plans are evidence-based and customized for each patient's preferences and underlying conditions. For instance, I recommend a plant-based diet for heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but a gluten-free diet for Hashimoto's, or a dairy-free diet for acne, or a low-FODMAP diet for IBS. In all of these cases, I recommend a three-month trial of the diet to see whether we see a difference in their symptoms or labs. I try to balance these recommendations by focusing on the healthful foods to include rather than on what to avoid. We need to be aware that restrictive diets can be isolating and triggering for some people, so there is no one-size-fits-all.
I do think that everybody should eat more greens and fruits and veggies and that nobody should consume dairy. There is great evidence that a whole-food, plant-based diet decreases cholesterol and blood sugar, decreases cancer risk, decreases inflammation and improves bowel regularity. When a patient is ready to try a plant-based lifestyle I am so excited to guide and encourage them on this journey.
TB: What advice would you have for someone who is interested in going vegan?
Dr. Eitches: Start with adding plants to every meal. Think about the different types of plant foods: Fruits, veggies, greens, legumes, grains, and nuts, and explore all of them. Get excited about a recipe or a farm-share. Some non-vegan foods are simple to swap out such as dairy for plant-based milk and others can be slowly crowded off of the plate.
TB: When it comes to a plant-based diet, what are some things vegans should look out for?
Dr. Eitches: I recommend that all vegans have their B12 and homocysteine levels checked yearly. Ideally, our B12 levels should be over 400, and homocysteine should be below 8. We should take a B12 supplement, such as a methylcobalamin lozenge or spray to get to these goals. B12 is hugely important for our energy levels, mood, and neurologic function. I often will check omega 3's, vitamin D and iodine–as all of these levels tend to be lower in vegans.
The Beet: What’s something you do often as a vegan?
Dr. Eitches: There is some meal planning that has to happen around traveling and events, but it's pretty easy to plan ahead. I do make sure to always have vegan cupcakes on hand, either as a mix or in the freezer, so that my kids never feel left out at a birthday party.
TB: Where do you get your protein?
Dr. Eitches: I eat plenty of legumes, especially lentils, black beans and edamame. I sometimes add pea protein to my smoothies. I also love (sprouted, organic, non-GMO) tofu and seitan.
TB: What is your favorite vegan meal?
Dr. Eitches: I love food, so I can't pick just one. I do love to make a huge green salad and tofu scramble, which I have a few times a week. I live in LA, where it is easy to order amazing vegan food. Some of my favorites are Thai eggplant with brown rice or papaya salad, Ethiopian platters, Japanese ramen and veggie sushi, Indian bharta or bhindi, and Mexican fajitas or burritos.
TB: Do you have a favorite quote you live by?
Dr. Eiches: “I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion – and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.” -- Ram Dass