As Craig Rathbun, president and CEO of The Fleisher Company, approached his 64th birthday last July, he said he felt like an old man. His cholesterol was up and his energy was down.
Rathbun’s longtime family doctor, Greg Feinsinger, had been encouraging him to try a plant-based diet, a way of eating Feinsinger had adopted himself in 2011, that also had resulted in dramatic health improvements in many of his patents.
“It was about time,” said Rathbun, whose real estate company has offices throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. He has been a vegan for a year and is 30 pounds lighter, 6 1/2 inches slimmer, and has eliminated his cholesterol medication. His energy is back and he describes his transition as “a remarkable experience.”
Feinsinger is doing more than suggesting that his patients make healthy lifestyle changes. He’s started a nonprofit and is working with a chef to provide prepared meals for small groups of people a month at a time to jump start the changes.
All of his participants in a pilot program in March lost weight and experienced significant decreases in total cholesterol, LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides.
“If you make it easy for them – the ones that aren’t adventurous cooks — they’ll do it,” Feinsinger said.
INSPIRED BY ‘THE CHINA STUDY’
A family doctor at Glenwood Medical Associates for 41 years, Feinsinger has observed the development of conditions he knows are preventable. Twelve years ago, when he started the Heart Attack, Stroke and Diabetes Prevention Center at GMA, he began studying nutrition, which is still only a small part of formal medical training.
Through those years, he has recommended different diets to his patients but “nothing really worked on a permanent basis,” he said. Most improvements were temporary and patients continued to struggle with weight and associated disorders: cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.
About three years ago, Feinsinger read “The China Study” on the advice of a nurse practitioner. This comprehensive epidemiologic study found low rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes among rural Chinese residents who were too poor to include animal products — meat and dairy — in their diets. They also had very low rates of three types of cancer correlated with affluence: breast, colon and prostate.
Feinsinger found their conclusions compelling and tried a plant-based diet himself. Within a month, he was able to quit taking medications for prediabetes and hypertension and to cut his cholesterol medication in half.
“I feel good,” he said. “All my patients say they feel good. I’m kind of a masters athlete, and I’m beating people I never could beat before.”
With his own success, Feinsinger began recommending it to patients. Some were willing to do it on their own, mostly people he describes as adventurous cooks, “people who like to cook who feel like they can do it.”
Nikki Delson, age 71, is one of those patients. She was already active and ate healthfully but was motivated to go vegan by the prospect of lowering her cancer risk. Her husband was willing to try it and she had time to devote to the challenge because she is retired. She has adopted new cooking methods such as sauteing in vegetable broth or wine instead of oil.
After one month on her new plant-based diet, Delson’s total cholesterol had dropped by a third, from 148 to 99 milligrams/deciliter. She also lost a few pounds.
“And the best thing about it is you can still drink. I have a glass of wine every night. At least one.”
AN OVERWHELMING TASK
Many of Feinsinger’s patients who wanted to try the vegan lifestyle found it overwhelming, though. Lack of time to cook and grocery shopping challenges were chief pitfalls.
Feinsinger believed that if he could find a way to make the transition easier, he could help more people experience success with a plant-based diet. In March, he partnered with Rifle physician Laurie Marbas and chef Martin Oswald of Aspen’s Pyramid Bistro in a one-month pilot program to provide vegan lunches and dinners for 33 people. Participants picked up a week’s worth of prepared, frozen meals at a time. They rounded out these meals with fresh salads and also followed plan guidelines for breakfasts and snacks.
He said participants get over their addictions to salt, fat and sugar in 10-14 days and “taste buds that have been stunned by this stuff all these years come to life and they appreciate the more subtle tastes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.” He added that after a month, people are so happy with their weight loss, lipid profile and blood pressure changes that they find a way to stay with it.
In July, Feinsinger started working with chef Chris Norvell, proprietor of Epicurious Catering. The Carbondale Food Co-op provided space for a commercial freezer so participants can pick up meals there. The program costs $20 a day and has openings for August. The fee covers food costs; Feinsinger makes no money on the project.
He started the nonprofit Center for Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition, to do even more to help people adopt healthy lifestyles. He still sees patients two days per week but plans to completely retire from Glenwood Medical Associates within a year-and-a-half and open an office in Carbondale to counsel people about lifestyle modification. He hopes to eventually provide “scholarships” for the 28-day food program for people who cannot afford it and also to work with a bilingual person to reach the broader community.
Feinsinger is passionate about helping people change their health and lives through nutrition.
“The [healthcare] provider has to be committed and has to walk the walk,” he said. “It’s hard for the patients to get excited about it if the provider doesn’t really have his or her heart in it.”
Feinsinger’s patients know his heart is in it. Rathbun said, “this is a remarkably wonderful thing he’s doing to help people because there’s nothing in it for him. I feel blessed that I know him.”