Using diet as preventive medicine

The way people think about food could save their lives. Instead of planning a diet only on how it pleases the palate, it’s important to consider how eating the right way can prevent disease and promote good health.

WVU doctors and dietitians are educating patients on eating habits to help them avoid illness and when needed, how to control and reverse the effects of an unwanted diagnosis.

“When I was officially diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I wasn’t unfamiliar with the illness because a number of my family members suffer from it,” said WVU Healthcare patient Greg Mundy. “In fact, I expected that I would eventually walk that path myself – I just didn’t expect that it would be at age 35.”

Following the diagnosis, Mundy met with Heather Dyson, registered and licensed dietitian and graduate of the WVU Hospitals Dietetic Internship Program, at WVU Cheat Lake Physicians, where they discussed a plan to modify his diet and take control of his health.

“I advise my patients to adhere to a whole foods diet, which is rich in plant foods,” Dyson said. “Studies show that diets rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, and healthy fats are associated with optimal health and disease prevention.”

Dyson also explained that having a diet work as preventive medicine is as much about what people are not eating as what they are.

“Eating a diet based on whole foods also involves limiting processed and/or prepared meals. These types of meals are often high in sugar, salt, preservatives, and unhealthy fats,” she said. “Diets high in processed foods are associated with increased risk of chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and others, as well as certain types of cancer.”

Knowing what to include in a diet is only part of the battle when it comes to preventing illness. Healthy eating habits often require a change in lifestyle for the individual. When younger patients need adjustments to their diet, their success can depend heavily on the rest of the family making healthier choices, too.

Photo of Sachin BendreSachin Bendre, MD, PhD, a pediatric endocrinologist at WVU’s Charleston Division, said the first thing he explains when talking to parents is that changing eating habits is a family affair.

“Parents are important role models, and everyone in the family has to be willing to make a lifestyle change,” Dr. Bendre said. “When you break your bad habits and start eating things that are healthier, you start to like those things.”

Bendre suggests patients start by restricting their diet to appropriate portion sizes of more nutritious foods with fewer calories, and eventually, healthy eating habits will take hold.

“Only eat whole wheat products, cut back completely on refined sugars, and add vegetables to meals any way you can,” Bendre said. “Taste is an acquired thing. Constantly expose yourself to healthier alternatives, and your brain adapts to it.”

For Mundy, forming these good eating habits has helped put him in control of his health.

“I learned to take pride in the small, daily victories, and since I began dieting and exercising, I’ve dropped my body weight from 245 to 196 lbs.,” Mundy said. “I’ve adopted a low carbohydrate lifestyle and find that I’ve graduated to knowing intuitively what I should and shouldn’t eat.”

Exercise physiology faculty and students offer specialized wellness programs at the WVU Human Performance Lab

Photo of exercise physiology students on treadmillCarole Mapstone enjoys the encouragement she receives from WVU exercise physiology students like Kayla Neely when she works out at the lab.

“I’m very impressed by the lab and the staff here. They’re helping me try to be well again,” said WVU Human Performance Lab client Jess Mapstone. After Jess had heart surgery, he and his wife Carole started working out at the lab two to three times a week under the supervision of WVU exercise physiology staff and students.

“We’ve worked with several different student helpers, and they’re all very friendly. It’s like having your own personal health coach at an affordable rate. At a gym, they usually show you the machines, and then you’re on your own. Here, you get much more. You get encouragement from the students and a personalized exercise program that meets your needs,” Carole said.

At the WVU Human Performance Lab, area residents and WVU employees can improve physical and mental well-being through specialized health programs that are designed to suit each person’s health needs and limitations. Health tests are performed at the lab to create an exercise prescription for each client.

Photo of exercise physiology patients exercisingWorking side by side with clients at the human performance lab, WVU students majoring in exercise physiology gain valuable career-building and experience. Exercise physiology majors are trained to evaluate people in the areas of cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, neuromuscular integration, and body composition. The field is one of the largest majors at WVU with more than 800 students currently enrolled.

Exercise physiology major Jingting Li said, “Exercise is an appropriate way to help prevent chronic cardiovascular, lung, and other systemic diseases. I like helping people live healthier lives through exercise.”