That depends, says the UTRGV School of Medicine’s Dr. Janani Krishnaswami, a medical doctor who serves as director of Student Wellness and is an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. She specializes in preventive medicine.
“I think it’s good for a jump-start,” she said. “Let’s say that your diet is full of soda, eating fast food, and you’re working a busy job and it does seem really daunting to try to make the changes that you need to make.
“You’re still getting that convenience of having prepared food, you don’t have to think about the grocery shopping … I think that could be good for some people who are just scared to make that initial step, but I definitely don’t think it is a long-term plan,” she added. “First of all, it gets expensive.”
The Rio Grande Valley is the epicenter of the highest obesity and diabetes rates found in the United States.
“Some estimates are about half of our population, about 45 percent are obese,” Krishnaswami said, adding that studies by UTRGV show that in Cameron County, “an estimated 40 to 60 percent have diabetes and pre-diabetes.”
“If you look at the whole pieces of the pie, the different pieces of the pie, the lifestyle piece of the pie is approximately 40 to 50 percent of your risk of obesity and diabetes and the genes and things like that are about 20 to 30 percent,” Krishnaswami said. “Lifestyles are definitely a bigger risk factor and diet is a huge part of that.”
The good news is a lifestyle can be changed.
“The thing is, when you’re in an area where there is a lot of obesity, it’s really easy to start accepting that as the norm. It sort of like loses its gravity. Because you know, ‘everyone’s like that in my family,’ or ‘that’s just the way things are.’ So you kind of just get numb to it.
“But I will emphasize that it doesn’t matter how old you are, when you really start to change your diet and you really start to put that stuff into place, it’s not ever too late,” Krishnaswami said. “There have been people with advanced heart disease and doctors told them you have six months to live and they go on the right diet, they change their diet around, and in eight to 12 weeks they’re walking and their life has changed.”
Keep things simple
Eating healthier is going to take effort, Krishnaswami said, but it doesn’t have to be complex.
“I prefer to empower patients with the knowledge they need,” she said. “When I work with patients I don’t give them a whole complicated meal plan. We just focus on groups of food and very simple concepts.
“It’s definitely possible to transform one’s life without going to meal plans,” she added.
One of the difficulties many of her patients have with trying to improve lifestyles by eating healthier is the confusion caused by the latest diet fads — all meat, no meat, no fat, no carbohydrates, Paleolithic and Neolithic are just some current examples.
“From that standpoint I think people really get scared about it because I’m getting information overload and I just don’t know what I should do,” she said
Krishnaswami’s recommendation is find a reputable physician who has training in nutrition and diet — “most doctors are not trained at all in nutrition,” she said.
The solution is not a diet or a meal plan, it’s really about a lifestyle change,” she said. “Nobody can be on a diet forever, just like you can’t be on a meal plan forever.”
Into the kitchen
Krishnaswami says one of the most critical components in creating a healthy lifestyle for yourself and your family is mastering basic cooking techniques.
These are skills which have been eroding in today’s culture.
“People think cooking has to take a long time and be really involved,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
At the UTRGV School of Medicine, a program was created to teach medical students how to cook healthy meals not just for themselves but so they can impart the knowledge to their patients.
“We had our first cooking class a couple of weeks ago, and it was amazing how many students wanted to learn,” she said. “We have a waiting list of students who wanted to sign up and couldn’t get in it. It’s cooking and learning how to make really healthy foods … whole foods, non-processed foods.
“Cooking is not just for yourself, you’re cooking for a friend, you share that meal and treat it in a happy way, and that’s important for your well-being, too,” she said. “I don’t think you’re really getting that from a meal plan.”