Prescription: Let Food Be Your Medicine

Despite colonoscopies, EKGs, CAT scans, stress tests, mammograms, and all the other health screenings available today, one Houston physician says we’re still missing the most critical one—screening the dinner plate. Cardiologist Baxter Montgomery, founder and director of the Houston Cardiac Association (HCA) and the HCA Heart Wellness Center, and author of The Food Prescription for Better Health is one of a growing number of physicians who has discovered the medicinal power of the fork.

A key screening needs to be the dinner, breakfast and lunch plates, he says. “If you
remove the heart disease from the meal plate; if you remove the cancer from the meal plate; if you remove the diabetes from the meal plate—that’s where you will have the most success.” Our nation’s health crisis with its burgeoning rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer isn’t so much the result of a lack of optimal nutrition, as it is an excess of suboptimal nutrition.

“People say they eat lots of fruits and vegetables, spinach and kale, but then they add a lot of bad food. Putting good on top of bad is like squirting perfume on your body if you haven’t taken a shower. It’s critical to remove the bad completely,” he says.

When patients make the dietary changes Montgomery recommends and adhere to
them 100% of the time, eating “not a bite, not a crumb, not a drop” of the foods he tells them to avoid, they get better. “It doesn’t matter how sick the person is when they come to see me,” he says. It even includes patients with advanced type 2 diabetes, who have been on insulin for over a decade. They are able to reduce or completely remove their insulin dosage. “And we’re able to get them off within a week or two in most cases.”

Many patients tell him they are doomed to diabetes or heart disease because of their family history, but Montgomery says that’s not the case. “We know that it’s the food. Families pass down illnesses more effectively through recipes than through genes,” noting instances where families with diabetes changed their diet and the disease disappeared, as well as examples of people who immigrate to the United States from the Far East with no family history of diabetes but within a generation of eating the Western diet suddenly have it. “Heart disease, diabetes, lung disease—they are all the same disease,” he says. “They are just different expressions of poor nutrition. If we undo those lethal recipes and transfer healthy recipes to our family members, then we can defeat diabetes.”

Heart physician by day, raw food chef enthusiast by night, Montgomery’s nutritional quest began as a personal journey ten years ago. At 38 he sought a remedy for his own spiraling cholesterol and a weight gain brought on by a doctor’s hectic schedule. Trial and error led him to adopt the minimally processed, whole food, plant-based diet he prescribes to his patients. But simply recommending plant-based (no animal products) wasn’t enough, he discovered. You also have to take into account how the food is prepared and how much processing it receives in addition to other factors, not the least of which is the individual patient.

“I had to classify foods according to their ability to allow the body to heal itself,” referring to the Montgomery Food Classification System that he developed. Some processing can
actually make vegetables better. He explains: a carrot pulled directly out of the ground is nutritious, yet to the patient with no teeth, or painfully sore gums and unable to chew, its
healing properties are inaccessible; however if juiced and given through a straw, the patient can reap its benefits. “So, that mechanism of processing (juicing) enhances the nutritional quality of that carrot, not because it innately makes the carrot better, but because it makes it more applicable to the diseased person.” By the same token a piece of okra picked fresh from the garden is nutritious, but when battered and deep fried (processing) its nutritional value ends up on par with sauteed chicken.

His system is built upon the science-based evidence that minimally processed, whole plant-based foods provide optimal nutrition. It is structured on a scale of 0 to 10 ranging
from the healthiest (Level 0) to the most toxic (Level 10) factoring in such things as origin (plant, animal, or synthetic), level of processing (raw, steamed, boiled, fried, etc), and other properties such as glycemic index, nutrient density, and even includes how the food is grown (wild, organic or conventionally). The food levels are then grouped into zones: Levels 0-3 comprise the Detoxification Zone; Levels 4-6 are the Maintenance Zone, and Levels 7-10 are categorized as the Disease Development or Progression Zone and “should be avoided completely,” Montgomery advises.

He uses the system to prescribe a dietary regime to his patients. “Let’s say somebody has bad coronary disease and they are not a surgical candidate, then I may have them on a raw food detox (Levels 0-3) for a much longer time, emphasizing raw juices and smoothies with some salads and the like. They may do that for three months, as opposed to someone who may do it for one month. It simplifies the approach,” he says. By telling the patient “I need you to stay on Level 0 to 3 for the time being it eliminates the need to discuss calories, carbs, et cetera.”

The doctor admits making these dietary changes can be challenging. “It’s a process because we’re dealing with the human psyche…there are many, many aspects (emotional,
psychosocial), because food is heavily integrated into our way of living, and more specifically, our way of dying,” he says.

To help, he conducts 5-week-long “nutritional boot camps” at his HCA facility. Participants
adhere to a detox program of raw juices and raw foods while attending weekly meetings providing support and information. They learn the science behind the approach, and each week’s session includes food preparation demonstrations by the doctor/ chef himself, along with samples and new recipe ideas. An onsite restaurant also lets participants purchase ready-made, raw food items. The camp concludes with a grocery tour at a nearby Whole Foods Market.

Participants invariably shed not only pounds, but medications as well as their health numbers drop. And while losing weight is a good thing, Montgomery maintains it gets too much credit for improving health. “Weight loss is the result of the person getting healthier, not the cause of the person getting healthier,” he stresses. When people lose weight they often do things that lead to favorable physiology and reversal of the adverse biochemical conditions that develop by not exercising, and more importantly, by not eating right. They begin to exercise, and eat more salads and less meat and dairy. Although they might continue to consume these foods they reduce them, he explains. So it brings them some margin of benefit. “But losing weight is not the cause of the health benefit, eating better is.”

For those patients who still struggle with the dietary changes, Montgomery offers a value proposition. “That piece of baked chicken or that piece of fish means everything in the world to you—but wait a minute,” he says. “What about your loved ones? Do you want to have another cardiac arrest? Wouldn’t you like to do everything you possibly can do to make your heart better?”

With that as food for thought, what’s on your plate?

Side Bar

“I’m a totally different person,” says 65-year old Jane Martin. One year ago she weighed 210 lbs, and was on medication for severe asthma, high blood and high cholesterol. When her kidneys were damaged, she was told she must begin dialysis.Determined to find another way, she sought out Montgomery. Today, 57 pounds lighter, she is off all medication except a small blood pressure dose. Her kidney function has returned to near normal.

Resources: The Food Prescription for Better Health: A Cardiologist’s Proven Method to Reverse Heart Disease, Diabetes, Obesity, and Other Chronic Illnesses, Naturally;

Author’s Note: This appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Life Is Good Magazine.