From High Cholesterol to Healthy Lifestyle Advocate: A Provider's Perspective
We recently had the opportunity to interview Kansas City's only Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner, Trey Bennett, to learn more about his health journey and his perspective on the current food and healthcare systems as a nurse practitioner who once suffered from the effects of diet-related disease himself. Read his inspiring story below.
Tell us a little bit about your health journey.
I feel like I’m nearing the summit of my health journey, but it’s been quite the hike. I grew up in the same zip code where my office is located now. Back then, there were corn fields and cattle pastures within a mile of my house. I was raised on meat, potatoes, and more meat (BBQ of course!) My family ate what is now recognized as the standard American diet (SAD). I also joke that I was on the "See Food Diet"— I would see a commercial or even think about food, and that was what I ate. My whole family suffered many health complications as a result of this diet, and I myself struggled with chronic sinus infections and severe acne.
As a family, we saw a dietician who recommended what I call the "modified American diet," which consisted of lean meats, low fat dairy, and reduced fat foods (like SnackWells). I remember a few of their recommendations specifically: a McDonald's Egg McMuffin with no cheese was a “healthy” breakfast option and Three Musketeers was the recommended candy bar because it was lower in calories. The over-arching theme was to eat everything in moderation, including the truly healthy foods. Food was my coping mechanism, and I would eat large volumes of baked chips, SnackWells cookies, low-fat microwave popcorn, cheese, meat and just about anything I could get my hands on.
My dad had high cholesterol, so he started taking a statin in his 40s. He suffered side effects and had several medication and dosage changes. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Syndrome X and prediabetes and he was recommended the Atkins diet.
As a family, we began eating "everything in moderation," with an Atkins influence.
Fast-forward to 2012, I was working as a bedside RN at Kansas City’s best hospital on a busy medical progressive care unit. I started to make the connection between the SAD and the standard American diseases that I saw every day: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer. I realized I was seeing the true cost of chronic disease in America—the degradation of quality of life and years lost were incalculable. I knew I wanted to help people earlier in the course of disease, before they landed in the hospital.
I attended a biometric screening incentivized by my health insurance. My total cholesterol was 162, my total cholesterol to HDL ratio was 5.6, and my fasting glucose was 101. The nurse circled all three as high which got my attention, and I’m so thankful she did. I was under the age of 30, cross training 3 times per week, but my objective numbers showed I wasn’t as healthy as I thought. This sent me on a journey to find a truly sustainable healthy lifestyle for myself and the patients I saw every day.
I discovered Forks Over Knives on Netflix and I was surprised to learn that brown rice, beans, potatoes, and other plant-based foods had the optimal levels of protein. I threw out a huge jug of whey protein I had used on workout days, and I stopped buying animal-based foods. I didn’t go plant based overnight, but I used the meat, dairy, and eggs I had in the kitchen to flavor plant-based dishes. As an example, I cooked up a whole package of turkey bacon and diced it up and threw it in the freezer to sprinkle on salads and plant-based dishes. I transitioned over about a month to whole food plant-based (WFPB) nutrition. I felt healthier than ever, and I was able to eat massive portions of nutrient dense, calorie light foods and still remain lean. The next year, all my biometric screening measurements were normal! I knew I had found my long-term healthy lifestyle.
Like most of us in the US, you grew up on the Standard American Diet. What made it challenging to get to better health?
Growing up in Kansas City, the SAD foods and BBQ were by far the most accessible foods. That remains true today.
I know for a fact that my exposure to ultra-processed food was at its peak during my public school years.
At home, everything was “healthy" diet food. SnackWell’s, caffeine-free Diet Coke, Diet Sprite, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. At school I had more unhealthy options than healthy ones, so I gravitated toward the Nutter Butters, Ho-Hos, chocolate chip cookies, cheese fries, chips, and regular soda instead of the diet foods I was used to at home.
Back then, I didn’t know SAD foods from healthy foods. It didn’t seem to matter, as long as everything was in moderation. I thought if the balance of moderation and excess was disturbed, my doctor would tell me. Thinking back, my body was telling me I needed a change, but I wasn’t listening.
What made you decide to work as a healthcare professional, and how has your work changed your perspective on chronic illness, nutrition, and the food and healthcare systems?
I credit my father for guiding me in the direction of healthcare. He knew I loved and excelled in science, and growing up in scouting, I developed a love for helping others.
I've recently realized that chronic diseases are traps—once you or a loved one falls in, it's difficult to find the way out. This is because the industry is focused on making you more comfortable with chronic disease through pills and procedures that treat symptoms. Currently, the causes of these chronic diseases—years or decades of suboptimal lifestyle choices—are not effectively addressed by the quick fixes offered by reactive sick care. I'm excited to be an expert on the forefront of a seismic shift from our current sick care system, to one based on prevention, healing, and longevity: Lifestyle Medicine.
As a nurse practitioner, what do you think are the biggest challenges for your patients who are experiencing diet-related disease and who want to improve their health?
Changing dietary and lifestyle habits isn’t easy for most, even if we have the right knowledge and resources in front of us. Our behaviors are nothing more than a collection of learned habits that result from decades of the food industry's influence on the choices available to us, and we’ve often practiced our habits for so long that they become subconscious. Our brain loves the efficiency of these subconscious habits. This is why we often get the same brands or types of products we have for years, and is why we often know what we get at certain restaurants without even looking at the menu.
I love this quote: “People don’t decide their futures, they decide their habits, and their habits decide their futures.” This helps patients see the significance of their habits long-term and how making small changes can lead to big results over time.
I encourage people to be thankful for the signs or symptoms that got them to this turning point. For many, sudden cardiac death, stroke, or stage 4 cancer is their first symptom. We must always remember that America's number one causes of death are silent killers. Whatever the symptoms may be, they have opened your mind and given you the opportunity to change your lifestyle and reverse them.
Do you think institutions such as schools, hospitals and workplaces can help prevent chronic disease by serving healthier foods and fewer disease-promoting options?
I know they can do a better job of this. Especially now that the nutrition science is clearly defining the differences between health-promoting foods and disease-promoting foods.
Institutions need not wait for food regulation to change from above; they have the responsibility to the citizens they serve to start protecting their health now.
Institutions should focus on providing minimally-processed, nutrient-dense plant foods to their clients. These are the foods we absolutely know promote health and longevity. If they feel they must continue to offer less-healthy options, it is important to ensure the majority of the food is health-promoting by keeping healthy food options free from disease-promoting animal products. People can always add these to the dish later if they must. It is in the interest of these institutions to have healthier, happier, and more productive students, employees, and patients.
Consumers are more informed than ever; it's time for institutions to catch up before the competition does first.
Trey Bennet is a Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner in Kansas City devoted to providing accessible, high-quality care to help his patients prevent, heal, and reverse illness. Learn more about his work at www.ihpkc.com. Want to lead the way for healthier menus in a healthcare facility or other institution in your community? Sign up here.