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Leading by example

The tide is turning as we see more doctors recommending lifestyle interventions. Learn about Dr Ethan An’s approach to the nutrition prescription.

Sydney-based GP, Dr Ethan An, personally strictly adheres to whole food plant-based nutrition. How does he translate this into action for his patients, many of whom have not even considered diet change, and is he seeing success? Read our Q&A with this inspirational healthcare professional.

Grains and vegetables

When did your interest in nutrition start?
Growing up, my father was a pharmacist with an interest in nutrition. He made his living from dispensing pharmaceutical products, but he believed that food was the best medicine.

He used to quote excerpts from books on the power of nutrition to prevent and treat heart disease and cancer. He tried to ban processed red meat and refined carbohydrates from the house, with varying degrees of success. This meant I always had the ‘food is medicine’ mantra buried somewhere deep in my consciousness, and didn’t resurface until I was in my late 30s when I started to develop early stage metabolic syndrome in the form of high cholesterol levels, raised fasting glucose, and stage 1 hypertension.

As a doctor, I knew that medications would not fix me, and I embraced a whole foods plant-based diet without hesitation, reversing my condition.

… the medical system is largely geared towards managing chronic disease, rather than addressing the root cause, which often lies in lifestyle factors.

During your medical training, was nutrition given much focus as an important part of preventative health or as a tool to treat patients?
During my studies, the medical school curriculum had an increased focus on prevention and holistic care, a shift away from strict anatomy/physiology/pathology-based courses of the past. Answers to exam questions about treatment options for a given condition always had to start with ‘lifestyle and non-pharmacological interventions’ to get full marks.

Even then, the idea of ‘nutrition as medicine’ did not get much airtime. Medical schools have always taught disease, not health, which is why the medical system is largely geared towards managing chronic disease rather than addressing the root cause, which often lies in lifestyle factors.

How do you encourage patients who are firmly against a diet change?
I find patients with chronic lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease often find a doctor focusing on lifestyle and nutrition quite refreshing. They have come to expect a quick renewal of their prescriptions and referrals during their visits.

Most people are receptive to the idea of changing their diet to improve their health. I have had some patients who flat-out reject reducing or eliminating animal products, but I believe that even seemingly unproductive discussions sow a seed in their minds, which may take years to sprout.

Talk us through a ‘success story’ you’ve had.
A patient last year was a middle-aged gentleman with obesity and high total cholesterol, high triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Like many, he wasn’t keen on statins.

Doctor with vegetables

I discussed a plant-based diet with him. He said he would be happy to reduce his meat intake but didn’t think he could go completely plant-based. I gave him a referral for a repeat blood test and advised him to go on a meat-reduced diet and to return after a few months.

He came back exactly 21 days later. He had lost 2.5 kg and dropped his total cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol by 24%, 30% and 23%, respectively. When I asked him what had happened, he told me he had implemented a completely plant-based diet. I saw him again just last month, and he has maintained his low lipid levels and has now lost 8 kg.

I find patients with chronic lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease often find a doctor focusing on lifestyle and nutrition quite refreshing.

Dr An is available for consultations. He is based in Balgowlah, New South Wales and is also available for telehealth consultations. To find out how to contact Dr An, visit his profile in our Find A Clinician Tool.

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