About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

From Meaning to Mission:  Finding Your Voice and Speaking Up for Change

Fairmont workshop room

Have you ever felt like you have no voice in your workplace, your community, or the world at large?  When have you felt you do have a voice?  What made the difference?

Two esteemed colleagues, Liz Lawrence and Eileen Barrett at the University of New Mexico, and I presented the above titled workshop at the International Conference on Physician Health on Friday.  The objective was to give participants an opportunity to recognize and rally their strengths, claim their value and agency, and practice the words to advance an idea or project for improving physician health and well-being.

The idea for the workshop came from a conversation Eileen had with a young physician who felt he had no agency to improve his work situation, due to his junior status.  This prompted her to ask, who has agency, and how do they get it?  She concluded that agency is an active skill, not a passive state of being.  Thus it can be learned/acquired, and everybody has/can have it.  Furthermore, we apply it most effectively when we combine it with our strengths, in service of projects that are personally meaningful.

We presented the reciprocal triad of finding meaning in work, feeling empowered, and inspiration and motivation, as the foundation of agency and action.

EB triad

Identifying Strengths

The first exercise had participants pair up and describe their strengths to each other.

What are your strengths?  Imagine describing them to someone, out loud, in person.  How does this feel?  Our attendees reported feeling uncomfortable, not used to it.  They also felt confident, connected, and encouraged speaking to someone they knew was listening supportively.

Defining the Project

Second, we asked participants to think for a few minutes about their own projects.  It could be something they had been working on for a while, a new idea they recently came across, or something from a sample list we provided, related to Culture of Wellness or Efficiency of Practice.  We asked:

  • Is your idea “Big Enough to Matter, Small Enough to Win?” quoting Jonathan Kozol.
  • Is it Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART)?
  • How will your strengths apply?
  • What else do you need? Who can help?

Partners met again to share and discuss each other’s ideas.

Afterward they reported elevated inspiration, excitement, and mutual support.  Positive energy in the room rose palpably at this point, with lots of gesturing, smiling, and engagement.

ICPH 2018 workshop

Communication and Relationship

We didn’t call it an elevator pitch, but that’s basically what we asked attendees to attempt.  In 90 seconds, each participant was to distill and express their idea into words that would convey its essence and enroll their partner in its goal.  Having advanced to this segment of the workshop in less than twenty minutes, and now asking them to perform a pitch on the fly, I gave a pep talk (modified here to include some words I wish I had said):

“Now it’s time to PRACTICE.  If we are to make progress in our projects, we must enroll other people.  It’s all about relationships.  Relationships kill us or save us, and they live and die by communication.  A previous presenter said, ‘Language is the vehicle through which all interactions take place—both verbal and nonverbal.’

“You never know when or where you will meet your champion, or who it will be.  The easier and better you can pull your idea out of your back pocket and present it cogently and impromptu, the higher your chances of success.  Know your ask—be as clear as possible.  Know your audience—what about your project is meaningful to them, what will they relate to?  Make them the hero:  Don’t come at them with demands.  Come alongside them with open-ended questions; help them appreciate the power they have to help.

“You will have to be persistent.  Practice will be key.  Our keynote speaker, applying complexity theory to the work of physician well-being, invoked the image of a grain of sand dropping onto a pile.  One grain may stick on impact and nothing happens to the pile.  Another may cause a small section of sand to tumble just a little.  Yet another grain can trigger the avalanche that alters the sand pile landscape entirely—and no one can predict which grain will be which.  I posit that you are not a grain of sand.  You hold an idea—a whole bag of sand—and each time you pitch it, you drop a grain (or a handful) on the pile.  If one grain makes no immediate change, drop another one, and another, and another.  This is the essence of the Growth Mindset—practice.  Practice is Creation.  Practice is Evolution.  Practice is Progress.  Your job now as speaker is to try with abandon.  There is no such thing as a bad try.  Pay attention to how it feels, where you get stuck, and where you shine.  As the listener, your job is to make it safe for your partner to let go of fear and judgment, to lay it all out.  Support, encourage, and critique with love.  What moved you, what did you observe in words and body language that drew you in or put you off?  What did you want more of?

“Make the most of this time.  Dig in the bag and pull out a few grains to drop.  Take advantage of your partner for feedback and support.”

The room was positively buzzing.  And participants’ comments made our day (paraphrased here):

“Sticking with the same partner throughout was helpful; we could really connect each other’s strengths to our respective ideas and help each other develop them.”

“It was fascinating to see the energy change between talking informally about the idea and then having to present it as a pitch.  She was so much smaller and hesitant the second time around.”  (Partner):  “The first time I was just talking to a colleague.  The second time I pictured presenting to my board.”  The experience was enlightening and curiosity-provoking.

“It’s different and easier talking to a supportive stranger, someone with whom you don’t already have relationship baggage.”  How else, then, might we approach our stakeholders—how could we practice awareness of our assumptions and relationship dynamics, and perhaps modify them positively?

“Hearing someone else’s ideas informs my own.  I like how he conveyed something, I saw how I could do the same; it gave me more insight.”  Taking turns both presenting and listening engaged both people in mutual support and encouragement—both roles were helpful.

The Takeaways

Liz, Eileen and I have collaborated on physician wellness since 2015.  We share meaning and mission around inspiring our colleagues to claim their value, recognize and stand both confidently and humbly in their power, and participate in a global movement of positive change.  Our strengths and styles complement one another and the work flows naturally, synergistically.  What a privilege and an honor it was to have this opportunity to present to and commune with our tribe members in physician health.  May the processing and integration of all of our new learnings continue to sustain and connect us for the long road of work ahead.  As Barack Obama says, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”

Onward, my friends.

EB LL CC ICPH 2018

Moving On From the Last Two Weeks

N 10 Mile Creek Trail Aug

Hello again, friends!  Is this the longest I’ve been away since I started this blog?  Can’t remember, doesn’t matter!  Good to be back!  Hope you all are well. J

I aim to get back in the swing of writing before November’s National Blog Post Month, or NaBloPoMo, as it’s known… I have my list of potential topics all laid out, can’t wait can’t wait!  So here is the first of four weekly posts I hereby commit to attempting in October.

Soooo…  Is anyone else as mentally and emotionally exhausted as I am these past few weeks?  It would take too long to write it all out, and I am really trying hard to get to bed on time these days, so suffice it to say here that it’s been ugly and damanging to many, and we had all better figure out how to move forward lest we eat each other alive.

Throughout the debates on sexual assault, teenage promiscuity, alcohol use, judicial temperament, character, and integrity, I have truly appreciated voices that speak to our higher capacities for connection and understanding.  More specifically, I have sought people on one side of an issue seeking to bridge the gap between theirs and the other.  Now that the deed is done, I look back on the most thoughtful articles, the ones that give me hope for the future of civil discourse.

First, Benjamin Wittes wrote two pieces for The Atlantic.  Initially he laid out how Brett Kavanaugh could present himself such that we Americans could sleep at night with him on the high court.  Despite the impossibility of proving or disproving the allegations against him, Wittes argued, it was his responsibility to convince us that he is truly worthy of the post.  After his rageful and disrespectful performance at the second hearing, Wittes wrote again, expounding on why the judge, despite his legal qualifications, should not be elevated due to his apparent lack of candor and the caveat that would always follow his opinions.  In both pieces, Wittes makes clear that he has no problem with conservatism and Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence.  But as a progressive myself, I felt reassured by Wittes’s words that someone on ‘the other side’ understood my concerns and validated them.

I read a lot of social media posts pointing to the devastating sequelae for men when falsely accused of rape and sexual assault.  I felt gratified to find at least one article reviewing evidence and statistics for this, basically showing that the number is vanishingly low, compared to the incidence of actual sexual assault and violence.  When I post such articles, though, my friends who support Kavanaugh’s nomination are unlikely to read, and more likely to feel I simply ignore their concerns.  So when I found this article, written by Emily Yoffe, a victim of sexual assault herself, advocating due process for the accused, I wanted to share.  I thought that by acknowledging and validating ‘the other side,’ I might open a window for my point of view to enter my “opponents’” minds and prompt consideration.

I admire Senator Murkowski from Alaska, for voting and speaking her mind, pointing us all to the larger picture of the integrity and reputation of our democratic institutions, while also pointing to and maintaining the humanity of all involved.  And then this article by Howard Zinn from 2005 came across my feed this weekend, reminding us citizens of our role in the workings of government and societal progress.

Finally, I was able to unwind with the kids today by watching some Avengers movies.  We like Black Panther in particular, with its epic vistas, futuristic technology, and rich cultural backdrop.  At the end, when King T’Challa addresses the United Nations, his words struck me as exactly what we need across our country and indeed around the world today.  I may print and post them by my bed, to remind myself of how I want to think, speak, and act:

We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

Now is the time, more than any in my life so far, when we must call loudly and desperately on the ‘better angels of our nature.’  How can we manifest them the most radiantly?

 

Hold One Another Up

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Hello Friends!

How was your week?  I wrote in my last, very brief post that it had been a hard few weeks, but whoa-Nellie, these past 10 days or so have been a bit unbelievable.  But then again, almost nothing is truly unbelievable anymore.

When the news first came out about families getting separated at the border, I felt profound empathy for the parents, and then the kids, imagining their despair, grief, and lasting trauma.  But the administration is now targeting even naturalized citizens, looking for fraud on applications to deport people.  My parents, my husband, and all of his siblings are all naturalized citizens.  My son is currently abroad and it occurred to me to wonder whether he will be held up in customs and immigration on his return.  At this point I cannot know for sure that my own child, a native-born American citizen, won’t be kept from me, and even though it is unlikely, I now feel it fully in the realm of the possible.  I know I’m not the only one.  That is simply unacceptable.

It also occurred to me that any of my Latinx friends and co-workers could be stopped on the street or approached on a bus or train, and commanded to show proof of citizenship, as so many across the country have experienced, illegal and unconstitutional as it may be.  45 actually autographed photos of people who have been killed by illegal immigrants, while denying that native-born citizens commit proportionally more crime than immigrants, legal or illegal.   Right now, June 2018 in the United States, it feels to me that only straight, white, Christian, cisgender males are safe.  It all makes me want to vomit.

In the past year or so, people who know me call me an ‘activist.’  I take immense pride in this perception, and at the same time feel a little unworthy.  What have I done?  In 2017 I wrote a lot of letters to Members of Congress–even had Healing Through Connection stationery printed to do it.  I called.  I donated.  I marched.  2018 has been slower in action.  I’m still reading, keeping up, donating, and engaging on social media.  But I feel like it’s not enough, that I should be doing more.

Today I am more aware than ever that most of my colleagues and institutional leaders are white.  I am East Asian.  We are not the targeted groups.  However empathetic and outraged we may feel, we are likely only indirectly affected by current events.  So many of our support staff, however, are people of color.  They hold positions in the organization with the least autonomy, authority, and voice.

We are all expected come to work every day and do our jobs.  We take care of patients.  We put our personal feelings, stressors, and worries aside and meet our patients where they need us, and nobody knows what we might be dealing with ourselves.  But we do this now during a mind-bending crisis of national conscience.  Now is the time when our emotional and social support networks are called forth and tested.  As a physician, a default leader of the patient care team, how can I not acknowledge this profound disturbance of our collective consciousness?  How can I expect my team to perform optimally in a false vacuum?  The realities of our world are simply inescapable, and they affect us all, like it and accept it or not.

I may not be marching in front of Congress or the DHS.  I may not be writing legislators or calling them every day.  I am not a designated leader of my professional society, publishing op-eds on the long term health and societal consequences of our government’s actions.  But I can absolutely stand up in solidarity with and for the people closest to me.

So this week I expressed to my teams in no uncertain terms that whatever anyone is feeling or going through right now, they should know that their physician leaders support them, and we will be here for them however they need us, just like we are all here for our patients.  I made no overt political commentary.  I simply acknowledged the moral morass I see in our country and tried my best to make it safe for us all to experience it together, out loud and in person, and to help one another through it.

If there were ever a time for physicians to walk the talk as leaders, as caregivers for the caregivers, it is now.  I know now that I don’t have to be the loudest or most visible ‘activist.’  I just have to act in accordance with my core values.  And it starts with holding up the people right next to me every day.

Light Over Dark

It’s been a rough few weeks—too much going on, a wave of self-loathing and imposter syndrome, and cloudy days that suck my energy completely away.

Throughout, however, I have mostly held it together and not (yet) destroyed any relationships, I think…

Today I sit filled with gratitude for my broad and dense support network and all of the FUCKING BRILLIANT AND AMAZING people who surround me with love, light, integrity, inspiration, and hope.

This too shall pass.

There is much darkness around us. And light also.

Please use your candle to light and relight others’ when they get blown out.

And seek those who will reliably relight yours.

That is the only way to save us all.

Relationship Revolution

 

“In my lifetime I want to see the culture of medicine driven more by relationship than by revenue.”

–me

 

Nice to be back, friends!

This post is a bit different from my usual format and style.  It’s maybe more raw and blunt.

Please bear with me and keep an open mind?

I know posting this may be risky.  It started out as just jotting down ideas for a longer, more detailed future post.  I had to get the ideas and thoughts out so I could focus on work.  And then the ‘jotting’ somehow evolved into what I imagine a poetry slam might look like.  So I decided to post as is.

My long term objective is to stimulate generous thought and respectful discussion between patients and physicians.  I wish to prod us out of our default complaint modes and reorient all of us to the idea that we are all on the same team, but our connections are under siege by outside forces.  The system harms and oppresses us, physicians and patients, the end users, and the ones with the real power.  Together, we are the sleeping (sedated?) giant that must rise up and reclaim the system for ourselves.  This post is an attempt to spark the flame that draws us together, by pointing directly to the spikes that drive us apart.

Disclaimer: What follows is my own expression and does not represent or reflect the opinion or position of any colleague, institution, or professional society with whom I associate or to which I belong.

ice castle spider legs

I hear my colleagues say: Get rid of the patient portal!

It’s too much!

Limiting characters does not work, they just send multiple messages

Charging for messages just makes more work

“They abuse the system”

“We give an inch, they take a mile”

Keep them away!

Us vs. Them mentality.

Antithetical to mission of medicine: To meet patients where they need us, and help them.

WHY?

Because we are too busy.

DOING WHAT?

Every. F*ing. Thing.

Rx prior authorizations

Endless documentation, infinite clicks

Rx refills with no information on follow up or patient status

Filling slots to meet RVU goals

Prescribing more meds to meet “quality” goals

Keeping up with the latest evidence for every disease, test, treatment, guideline, diet fad

Rushing to the next patient so that the patient we’re with does not have time to even think of their questions, must less ask them

Patients walk away from visits with their true needs unmet.

So they use the resources available to them to ask for what they need.

And this ‘adds’ to our work

And we feel busier and more frustrated, exhausted, frayed, irritable

We feel Overwhelmed.

 

Patients also feel it

They feel unseen, unheard, dismissed, discarded

And they don’t understand or relate to where it comes from

They get angry

So they send more messages: to us, about us; criticizing us, lashing out

Making us feel bad about ourselves

Which manifests as defensiveness first, then even more frustration, exhaustion, irritability

But we don’t disengage.

We remember our calling.

We forge on in smoldering resentment, pride, bitterness, duty, guilt, shame, and occasional fulfillment

 

And then abstractions to reconcile the cognitive dissonance

 

Patients suck

All they do is take take take

They don’t understand that I’m Doing My Best to help them

Why don’t they appreciate me

They are so entitled these days

They want everything now now now

They think I’m at their beck and call

Like I’m not working every minute of every day

Like I don’t have a family and a life also

Like I live only to serve them

Patients are the enemy

Really?

 

Oh and it happens on both sides

 

Doctors suck

All they do is type away at that blasted computer

They don’t even look up, see me, or hear me

They don’t understand what I need

They just want to see more patients

Make more money

I’m just a number to them

A cog on a conveyor belt

They’re all in the pockets of Big Pharma and Insurance

They withhold the help I need

They hoard it

They don’t care about me

They Don’t Care About Patients

All they care about is making the next buck

Doctors are the enemy

Really?

ice castle doorway

There is no substitute for the Time and Energy

Required to cultivate Healthy, mutually Respectful, mutually Fulfilling, mutually Beneficial relationships

It is always a two-way street

Our relationships kill us or save us.  Always.

snake river keystone

Doctors and patients must find ways to reconnect

Find one another through the thick morass

And Hold Tight

In Solidarity

Learn, Train and Practice Together

Our Communication, Empathy, Compassion, and Collaboration skills

Defend against the forces that drive us apart

Advocate for one another and for our Sacred Contract

So we may once again

Heal Through Connection

 

Brain-Fried Noodle

Redwood Park

It’s post-op day 8, woo hoooo!  To all my patients who have had surgery, now I know what it’s like—a little bit.  What a fascinating experience, and I’m so grateful now that I can relate!

Some of you may know that I tore my ACL in November playing volleyball.  It only took me a few weeks to decide I wanted to have it repaired (reconstructed, actually), because I don’t ever want to wonder whether my knee is stable enough to do the things I want to do.  I have now officially embarked upon that journey of rehab, and so far so good. This post is my story so far.  Just wanted to share.

Pre-Op Eval

The 10 days prior to surgery were some of the busiest in recent memory, starting with a whirlwind weekend with the kids in San Francisco ending with us on a redeye back to Chicago and cabbing it straight the office where I borrowed my colleague’s clothes for the day.  Then back to back meetings, clinic days full of patients, a team-building seminar, a Grand Rounds presentation, Chinese New Year, a teaching session with my awesome medical students, a movie playdate, a confirmation retreat, and laundry.  I barely got enough sleep, and the eating was not great.  But at least I wasn’t sick/infected.

I got all kinds of useful advice from friends and colleagues:

Use the meds!  Opioids are great for post-op pain. Expect maximum pain and swelling at 48-72 hours.  Well the block lasted at least 48 hours so no pain then.  And since then it’s actually not that bad—like a giant toothache at the knee, with radiating soreness up the thigh and down the leg.  Tylenol alternating with Advil pretty much takes care of it.

ICE ICE ICE!! Oh, how I love my electric ice machine.  It’s a pad that wraps around my knee and circulates ice water drawn through tubing from a cooler.  Brilliant!

Take time off, at least 2 weeks!  Like a silly person, I’m going back to work tomorrow.  I was even sillier initially to think I could have surgery on a Thursday and go back to work Monday!  Lesson learned, but hopefully I will never need to apply this learning?

The Jitters

The night before surgery, I wrote in my journal an “In case I die” entry.  I told my sister where I left the book, so she would know where to look for the message to my kids in case something bad happened.  It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I imagine I’m not the only mom who has ever felt this way.  It was pretty irrational, but hey, it was my first major surgery—anything could happen!  Sitting in the cart in pre-op, I got tearful (and still do now), thinking of how much I’d miss the kids, what they would have to go through, how everything would change, if I died.  But when the anesthesiologist asked, all I could articulate was, “I keep thinking about all the things I should have done for them this morning—packed their lunches…”  He had the perfect words: “It’s never enough.”  And with that I felt strangely reassured and absolved.

The MEDS!!

So here’s the most dissociating part of the experience.  In pre-op I was handed a little cup with five pills: two 500mg acetaminophen, one 75mg diclofenac, and two 300mg gabapentin.  That’s standard pre-emptive pain management, apparently.  Then for the femoral and sciatic nerve blocks, the anesthesiologists used bupivicaine and triamcinalone.  Once in the OR, they started clindamycin to prevent infection, and then midazolam, fentanyl, and propofol for the sleeping cocktail.  Of these nine medications, I had taken exactly three of them ever before.  It was a little alarming, even though I knew the indication and rationale for each drug.  I found my inner voices exclaiming at once, “Wow, this is totally routine, we have really got it all figured out,” and “HOLY SHIT ARE YOU KIDDING ME NINE MEDICATIONS SIX OF WHICH I HAVE NEVER HAD BEFORE AND YOU’RE JUST GIVING THEM ALL TO ME LIKE IT’S NO BIG DEAL I COULD TOTALLY DIE FROM THIS WHY ISN’T ANYBODY THE LEAST BIT BOTHERED!?!?”  And I did just fine, like everybody expected.  Fascinating.

new tongue out emoji

Source: http://www.iemoji.com/view/emoji/2488/smileys-people/crazy-face

And whoa, the meds…  Apparently it’s a known side effect of propofol to shiver when waking up from it.  That was uncomfortable, but even more so was the inability to pee for about 40 minutes, despite having a bladder that felt like it could burst at any minute (I know that could not happen, but literally, you could have bounced a coin off of my lower abdomen it was so full).  Thank God for the experienced nurse who offered me hot tea—what a relief!  And finally the nerve blocks—amazing.  I could flex my hip normally, so I lifted my braced left leg into the car while standing on the right; but lower than that I had neither sensation nor motor control for a full 24 hours.  It.  Was.  Dead.  The foot/ankle came back first, with that creepy, stinging, tingly sensation.  Then slowly, begrudgingly, the thigh returned.  The muscle twitches throughout came mostly at night, as if waking from anesthesia is, of course, a nocturnal activity.

I felt pretty clear-headed after about an hour in recovery, fully coherent and articulate.  But man, I could not really focus or hold attention for long at all.  I had all kinds of articles saved to read those first two days lying in the recliner, but it was just not happening.  My mood was great and I had long periods of alertness.  And then I just wanted to sleep–deeply.  My body was not only unresponsive in the left lower extremity; it felt limp and weak kind of everywhere, my mind included.  Hence the title: Brain-Fried Noodle.

The Pain

Those first two days were fantastic in terms of pain—none whatsoever (thank you, bupivicaine)!  And I was on the ice machine 24/7.  Since then two pain patterns have emerged.  First, the deep ache from having the joint capsule invaded and a tunnel drilled through bone.  That’s the giant toothache, almost like a deep itch that wants to get scratched from the inside.  The second is a hypersensitivity of the skin where all the bruising is.  It’s swollen, tender, and oh-so colorful!  And it zings every time I pull on my compression sock, from the ankle to halfway up the thigh.  That’s what makes me stop and breathe deeply for several seconds.  I figured out today that I’m probably not drinking enough water, which likely contributes to my pain.  It’s so ironic, as my primary advice to patients for almost any ailment is to hydrate first.  Well, this is me trying to walk the talk.  I’m so happy not to have needed opioids (so far), and everything should continue to improve as the tissues heal.  HYDRATE!

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The Rehab

I swear, I think I have lost 50% of my quad on the left.  My physical therapist thinks I’m progressing well, and I’m happy with where I am.  This will be a long road and I must monitor my expectations.  First, prevent further atrophy while tissues recover initially.  Then weight bearing, stability.  Then strength, coordination, and eventually back to sport.  Patience, diligence, persistence.  I’m told PT should make me cry, it’s so painful.  Well, it’s definitely making me sweat!

The LOVE

*sigh*  We really can’t do anything well alone in life, huh?  All the advice, all the well wishes, all the texts and messages right before and right after surgery—every single one held me up a little higher.  And my mom, who insisted on coming despite my denying the need—now I get it.   And thank God for her.  Thank you, Ma!  Last week would have been quite hellish for us all if not for you!  The hubs and kids have been pretty great, too, accommodating my crutches, ice machine, and constant occupation of the chaise side of the sofa.  Every day they come home and ask how I am and how they can help.  I’ve tried to do what I can—sort laundry, rinse/cut vegetables, instruct our amazing sitter on recipes, pay bills, make sure our DVD machine doesn’t die from under-use…  But there is no substitute for a wide and strong support network, and mine is as dense as they get.  Thank you, all my friends and family, for all of it.

* * *

Huh…  I thought I could accomplish so much more in 8 days off!  I fantasized about all kinds of blog posts, reading, correspondence, de-cluttering.  Hey, I said fantasy, didn’t I?  Oh well, time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.  Things don’t usually turn out the way you plan.  Maybe it will be good to slow down for a while, reorganize, reprioritize, focus… For now I gotta get that second set of exercises in tonight and get to bed on time—and hydrate—work tomorrow!

Onward, friends, hope you are all well!

The Only Diet That Works

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Hello Friends!!  Oh my gosh, it feels so good to be writing again, like sinking into my favorite squishy armchair, at the campus coffeehouse where I have met my friends since college, to sip, gab, bond, and plot to save the world.

New phase of life, woo hooooooo!  And eekgadds.  I have long thought of balance as a dynamic state, like that octopus ride at the amusement park.  I am the ride, spinning around, raising and lowering each aspect of life in controlled coordination, attending to each car so nobody flies out and gets hurt.  With the added responsibility I have taken on at work this year, it feels like I have just agreed to accept a massively overweight rider in that car, and my whole frame now strains to keep everything moving smoothly.  At first everything looks normal.  But the continuous strain of gravity, mass, and cumulative sheer forces create microfractures in my arms over time.  And suddenly one day, something (or everything) may come crashing to the ground.  People get hurt.  The ride is broken, in need of major repairs, possibly never the same again.

 

So better to slow the RPMs now, decrease the amplitude of vertical oscillations.  And, increase frequency and intensity of maintenance: inspection, lubrication, computer upgrade, parts replacement.  All of this is to say that 2018 is my year of graduate study in life-octopus ride maintenance.  Curriculum so far includes a lot of Thomas Rhett songs (“Drink a Little Beer”), communion with close friends, and a resurrection of my spiritual life.  I’ got this. [fist bump emoji]

***

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Okay so, this is a post I have thought about for weeks and I can finally sit down to write it today/tonight.

Since December, two people have told me, essentially, “Medicine has failed at nutrition.”  One person was a good friend, the other a new acquaintance.  Both were athletes, well-educated professionals, and thoughtful men.  I respect both of them and was intrigued by their assertions (and, honestly, just a little defensive).  They pointed to the myriad books, fads, products, news articles, and programs around the country in the last decade or so, all claiming to have the one method for lifelong healthy eating.

Their expressions went something like this:  “What’s the deal with gluten?  I’ve read Wheat Belly and Grain Brain and now I feel conflicted every time I want to have some bread, even though I feel fine, and I like bread.  …Is saturated fat bad or good?  On Atkins I can have as much steak and liver as I want, and my cholesterol is supposed to get better.  And Bulletproof says I should be drinking butter and coconut oil in my coffee.  But my doctors all tell me to minimize red meat and oil in general.  …The Inuit people live off of whale blubber, and they have a fraction of the heart disease we have.  I used to think I knew how to eat healthy and now I’m not so sure.  I’m so confused.”

I was taken aback somewhat by both of these conversations, as I don’t feel confused at all about nutrition and eating.  I feel personally tempted, frustrated, vacillating, under-motivated, and/or fat, depending on the day.  But professionally I feel informed, confident, and reassured that I can counsel my patients solidly toward optimal health.  So wherein lies the disconnect?

In my practice, our approach to nutrition starts with the patient interview.  What is your current eating pattern?  How does weekend or travel eating differ from regular workdays?  How does this pattern either promote or hinder your health and well-being?  What are you doing that’s already healthy and where is there room for improvement?  What needs to happen in order for you to make small, sustainable behavior changes for optimal health?  How important is it to you to do so?  The conversations focus on my patients’ own physical, mental, and emotional experiences around food.  They have a chance to relate their eating habits to personal and professional goals, and a vision for their best selves.

I have learned that my advice needs to be concrete, specific, and relevant at a granular level.  I can roll with Paleo, Atkins, Whole 30, gluten-free, vegetarian, ovo-lacto, oil-less vegan, pescatarian, Mediterranean*, or other diets.  There is some good evidence for all of them.  But is any one of them the sole antidote to all of our eating poisons?  My left brow rises every time I hear someone make this claim.  Here’s the key:  None of these diets tell us to eat pizza, burgers, chips, cheesy fries, dinner rolls, diet soda, craft beer, loaded nachos, fettucine alfredo, cookies, cake, ice cream, and candy the way most of us do.  So what are the underlying origins of my night-time corn chip-cream cheese binges?  What strategies can we brainstorm to cut back on my birthday cake consumption between birthdays?  Questions like these and the conversations that follow serve my patients far better than my recommending the blood type diet (which I do not).

Furthermore, leading proponents of each of these diets also emphasize the importance of concurrent self-care in the other realms of health: Exercise, Sleep, Stress Management, and Relationships.  Diet and nutrition are vitally important for health, but they do not occur in a vacuum.  All of our health behaviors need to be assessed in their combined context, and recommendations are best made with circumstances, preferences, logistics, and access in mind.

If you’re an elite athlete whose diet is already 99% cleaner than the rest of us, yes, maybe there is a subtle difference between medical diets that will affect your performance and sports longevity.  Then again, maybe not.  And you are also likely attending to your needs for training, rest, recovery, and stress management.  So you’re probably good either way.

For us regular people, the only diet that works is the one we can stick to, that doesn’t cost us inordinate amounts of psychic energy to maintain, and that actually makes us healthier.  How can we tell we’re healthier?  We may feel: lighter on our feet, increased energy, more regular bowel movements, clearer skin.  When we see our doctors (as we all should, ahem) they may find we have lower blood pressure, lower body fat, smaller waist circumference, lower fasting and overall glucose, lower LDL and triglycerides, and an overall brighter aura and vibe.

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So maybe keep Michael Pollan’s words in mind as a general guideline: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  I would add:  Eat foods as close to how they occur in nature as possible.  If you can tell what leaf/seed/grain it is by looking at it, it’s probably better than if you cannot.  Harvest/kill it, cook it (or not), eat it.  The fewer steps the better.  Eat often and slowly with people you love.  Help each other moderate the junk.  Enjoy your food.  Life is short.  Strive for an eating life that adds joy and delight to your whole being, both immediately and in the long term.

Onward, my friends.

 

*I have no financial, philosophical, or other interests in any of these or other diet programs, products, centers, providers, etc.