Food As Medicine Advocate Walks the Talk as Zipongo’s Chief Medical Officer – Part 1

food as medicine

Food can be just as effective as medication for treating certain diseases. In some cases, the right diet can treat and even reverse many conditions such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension, all without the side effects of pharmaceutical treatments.

Dexter Shurney

At Zipongo, we are strong advocates for better living through improved nutrition. Dr. Dexter Shurney, our new Chief Medical Officer at Zipongo, has seen just how powerful healthy eating can be, both in his personal life and in the lives of hundreds of employees and health plan members nationwide. Today, he is responsible for the clinical aspects of all Zipongo products, as well as overseeing clinical research and analysis.

Dr. Shurney will share his insights on how Food As Medicine shaped his career and, ultimately, led him to his new position at Zipongo. In this first part of a two-part series, Dr. Shurney shares details of his own journey and how he empowered others to live healthy lives.  

Scientific Evidence Inspires a Career in Food as Medicine

Your experience in developing and leading lifestyle programs is deep. How did you get here, and what drew you to nutrition specifically?  

“I was originally trained in general surgery but quickly understood that most of what I was treating were actually preventable. That really led me to have a greater interest in preventative medicine. My path was, “How do we try to prevent disease, versus just fixing it once it breaks?

“I ran a physician advisory group, and we invited lifestyle medicine doctors into the group, in addition to the experts we had in cardiology, endocrinology and other disciplines. The lifestyle medicine docs had really good data on how they were not only treating disease, but also preventing it.

“For example, just by changing the diet, a lifestyle change, they were able to help people with Type 2 diabetes come off their insulin and keep their blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c in a normal range. No medications whatsoever. The fact that diet can fix diabetes is common knowledge today, but back then this was really intriguing. Today, what intrigues me is that very few organizations are truly acting on this knowledge to create Food As Medicine programs.”

A Personal Connection to Better Living through Nutrition

The concept of Food As Medicine was more than just a clinical issue for you, right? You have said in previous interviews that it was a personal one as well.

“I come from a family where most of us are obese and get Type 2 diabetes in our 50s. Many of my family members die at this age, either from heart disease or diabetes. I was in my 40s at the time, and I was already hypertensive. I also had high cholesterol and prediabetes. I was a heart attack waiting to happen.

“Here I was, a preventative medicine expert, and I had a lot of the same health conditions that claim so many people in our society and certainly members in my own family. I thought this was happening to me because of bad genes.

“What I learned from the lifestyle medicine docs on our advisory caused a light bulb to turn on in my head. They were talking about how quickly you can reverse Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol just with lifestyle changes.

“I took it to heart. I said, ‘Let me try it on myself, because I have these conditions, too.’ Within a matter of weeks, I was able to come off all my medications. Over six to eight weeks, I dropped about 65 pounds, and my cholesterol dropped.”

“Within a matter of weeks, I was able to come off all my medications. Over six to eight weeks, I dropped about 65 pounds, and my cholesterol dropped.”

Turning Personal Nutrition into a Nutrition Benefits Program

How did you develop your interest in Food As Medicine into a formalized Food Benefits Management program?

“I started to apply it to patients at Healthways and at a lifestyle practice I ran at Vanderbilt University in Nashville where I was faculty. I also was in charge of the benefits for the Vanderbilt employees. We had about 25,000 employees on the university side, as well as the medical school side and the hospital side.

“We ran lifestyle programs for them, and I did research on it. They saw the same improvements that I saw.

“I told family members about it, and about half of them started to make lifestyle changes. Their health improved, and a lot of them came off medications. Unfortunately, those that didn’t decide to make major lifestyle changes have subsequently developed chronic issues and some have even passed away. I have a relative who is the same age I am. She actually went blind from her Type 2 diabetes.”

Transforming Benefits Programs

We talked about your success in employee nutrition at Cummins in a previous conversation. Can you explain how that came about, and what your results were?

“Before I came to Zipongo, I built lifestyle clinics for Cummins in Indianapolis. The largest clinic is 28,000 square feet and houses over 50 healthcare providers. We put in a lifestyle program and were able to reverse Type 2 diabetes for many of the patients there.

“Cummins is in the middle of Indiana, and Vanderbilt is in Tennessee. These are states heavily hit by diet-related chronic conditions. We were happy to see that this message of changing the diet and picking up exercise quickly resonated with the employees here.

“Most patients will say, ‘I’ve never been told these things before. I didn’t even know this was an option. I thought I was destined to take medication.’ If that’s the helplessness they feel, why would they ever want to change their lifestyle? If it doesn’t make a difference, they’ll take the meds and just eat what they want to eat.

“When folks realize that they have power in this — that what they eat, how they move, and how much they sleep makes a difference in their health — the changes happen very fast! This is really engaging for them, and it’s very engaging for me.

“That’s how I made my way to Zipongo. This whole idea of Food As Medicine was something that I was doing at Cummins, where we actually allowed our doctors to prescribe food as medicine, so we could reverse Type 2 diabetes and other chronic issues. Zipongo allows me to scale up this effort and reach many more people, hundreds of thousands, and even millions!”

Breathe Life into Your Benefits Program

Food is a simple fix for many common conditions. Dr. Shurney started making better food decisions for himself and saw life-changing results. He began helping employees and health plan members do the same. While some diseases certainly need medication to be treated, dietary changes can address the root causes of many conditions.

The right nutrition program puts healthy choices in front of employees and health plan members, making it simpler for them to eat well.

Zipongo makes it easy, affordable, and enjoyable to eat well at home, at work, and on the go. Learn more about Zipongo.

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