5 Physician Leaders Using Food to Make a Difference in Healthcare

By Iliana Garcia, MPH

While diet has the potential to cause disease, it is also capable of building, maintaining and restoring health. Physicians generally do not receive adequate nutrition education in medical school, despite the clear role of food and nutrition in shaping health and wellness. However, there is a growing movement among physicians who are putting food and nutrition front and center in their practices. Below is a list of 5 physician leaders who are using food to make a difference.

Dr. Robert Graham
Medical Education: Stony Brook School of Medicine
Residency: Internal Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital
Leadership Role: Co-founder, FRESH MED
How he is making a difference using food: Dr. Graham is board certified in both Internal and Integrative Medicine and is also a professionally trained chef with a culinary degree from the Natural Gourmet Institute of Manhattan. He is the Co-founder of FRESH MED in New York City, an integrative health and wellness center that combines conventional medicine with evidence-based complementary therapies, clinical nutrition, functional medicine, positive psychology and health coaching. Dr. Graham also created the first educational and edible rooftop garden at Lenox Hill Hospital.. He combines his skills by advocating for a “food first” approach to healthcare and has trained more than 500 healthcare workers in how to prepare healthy and delicious plant-based meals. 
Quote: “The entire medical education system needs to be changed. We should be teaching our future doctors about how patients can create and preserve health, or salutogenesis [the factors that promote health and well being], not just pathogenesis, the study of disease. There is no pill that can do what a healthy lifestyle and mindset can!”
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Dr. Robert J. Ostfeld
Medical Education: Yale University School of Medicine
Residency: Cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital
Leadership Role: Director, Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center
How he is using food to make a difference in healthcare: Dr. Ostfeld is board certified in Cardiovascular Disease and Echocardiography (ultrasound of the heart). He is a practicing physician at Montefiore Medical Center, where he treats patients with adult cardiovascular disease by focusing on prevention and treatment through lifestyle change. Dr. Ostefled is also the Founder and Director of the Cardiac Wellness Program, which provides a nutrition-centered approach to the management of cardiovascular disease. He and his team work with patients to provide clinical support and education that help them to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet with the goal of preventing and reversing diet-related diseases.
Quote: “I started our Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore with the goal of preventing disease with a plant-based diet. And I say disease, because sure it’s good for your heart, but it’s good for dozens and dozens of other reasons.”
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Dr. Michelle McMacken
Medical Education: Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
Residency: Internal Medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical Center
Leadership Role: Executive Director, Plant-Based Lifestyle Program, NYC Health + Hospitals
How she is using food to make a difference in healthcare: Dr. McMacken is board certified in both Internal and Lifestyle Medicine and is a practicing physician in adult primary care at Bellevue Hospital, where, in 2019, she developed and launched the Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program, the first of its kind in a safety-net healthcare setting. The program helps patients living with diet-related chronic diseases to adopt healthy lifestyle changes including a healthy plant-based diet, physical activity, stress reduction, sleep health, social connectedness, and avoidance of risky substances. In 2022, Mayor Eric Adams announced that the program will be expanded to six additional NYC Health + Hospitals across all five boroughs. 
Quote: “I want to convey to my fellow physicians that food truly is medicine and that a great body of evidence supports using a whole-food plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of our leading chronic diseases. I also hope to dispel common nutrition myths and teach basic, practical nutrition-counseling skills for use in the primary care setting.”
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Dr. Saba Khan
Medical Education: King’s College London School of Medicine
Residency: Pediatrics, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Leadership Role: Director, Food Pharmacies, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
How she is using food to make a difference in healthcare: Dr. Khan is a board certified pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). In addition to being a practicing physician, she has developed and launched the first pediatric, hospital-based Food Pharmacy program to promote nutrition and address food insecurity among families in primary-care and specialty-care sites. Through this program, patients are screened for food insecurity during clinical visits and, if circumstances warrant, are referred to the program, where they receive a three-day supply of nutritious food for the household as well as support in identifying and addressing additional social needs. 
Quote: “We’re often preaching about fruits and vegetables or healthy options, and we don’t necessarily delve into what it looks like for that family to access those healthy options.” 
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Dr. Kofi Essel
Medical Education: George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Residency: Pediatrics, Children’s National Medical Center
Leadership Role: Director, George Washington University School of Medicine’s Community/Urban Health Scholarly Concentration
How he is using food to make a difference in healthcare: Dr. Essel is a board certified  pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center and also serves as the Director of the George Washing University School of Medicine’s Community/Urban Health Scholarly Concentration for medical students. His advocacy work and research focus on healthcare training, health disparities and community engagement, with a special interest in addressing obesity and food insecurity in families. He has been nationally recognized by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for helping to create a curriculum to enhance the ability of pediatric resident trainees to manage obesity and assisted in the development of a national toolkit to help pediatric providers identify and screen for food insecurity in their clinical settings. 
Quote: “The early formative years of one’s life are very malleable and critical for a healthy and stable future. I am honored to work with the forgotten influencers of the next generation, and most of all the work I do is fun and exciting.”

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