Q&A with RD Charmin Aschenbrener of Idaho’s St. Luke’s Health System
Registered Dietitians, wellness coaches, nurses, physicians and other healthcare professionals all have one thing in common: they’re helping patients change their health behaviors with the goal to live healthier, happier lives. In this series I will be interviewing champions in the field to share their work with you. My hope is that through these interviews you can pick up some tricks and tips that may be helpful in your practice. These interviewees have all seen first hand the success of preventing and reversing chronic disease through food as medicine. Today, I chat with Charmin Aschenbrener, a registered dietitian at St. Luke’s Center for Lifestyle Medicine in Idaho. Charmin works directly with individuals, teaches group nutrition and cooking classes, and facilitates the Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP). Charmin uses LighterPRO with her patients, which allows her to easily support them with personalized nutrition programs, delicious recipes, and accountability features all on one platform. I hope you enjoy reading more about Charmin and the results of her inspiring work.
Kayli: What’s your role at St. Luke’s?
Charmin: I help people learn how to incorporate a whole food plant-based diet. I teach people the importance of, and the science behind, a whole food plant-based diet. I also help people modify their environment to make the “eat healthy” choice easier. I teach cooking classes where I show people how to make vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds the center of their plate.
Kayli: What does food as medicine mean to you?
Charmin: I've always known that the foods we eat are medicine, meaning they can promote or reduce inflammation. But not until I adopted a whole food plant-based diet myself did I see how powerful food is for our bodies. When people eliminate those inflammatory foods -- excess sugar, excess salt, excess saturated fat -- they sleep better, feel better, lose weight, don’t ache so much, and have more energy. The food they're eating becomes your new medicine, not pills. What you see with a whole food plant based diet is just remarkable.
Kayli: Can you offer a couple examples of patient success?
Charmin: There are so many! We just had a CHIP club meet-up, and the local Boise news station came here and interviewed two of my patients (see video here). One of them, Lena, has lost 50 pounds, but said that isn't even the main benefit. She said that before making changes, her life was so exhausting, she had no energy, she wasn’t living with vitality, and was just going through the motions. She explained how much activity she's doing now and how much better she feels. Kathy's another patient who they interviewed. She lost 70 pounds in the last year just by adopting a whole food plant based diet. These are people who have learned how to eat the right foods. They just fill up on all the good vegetables, and don't feel hungry.
Kayli: What’s the biggest challenges patients face when adopting food as medicine?
Charmin: It’s around “what do I cook if I don't have meat at the center of my diet?” Coming up with recipes is so important. That's why LighterPRO has been so helpful for us. It offers people great recipes and ideas about what to cook. It's so challenging to find recipes because people aren't ready for clean food, their taste buds need time to move away from Doritos and bacon. A lot of people are coming off the standard American diet with cream and heavy ranch dressing on everything.
Kayli: What advice would you offer other RDs on bringing food as medicine to their patients?
Charmin: It’s really helpful to align yourself with like-minded people, Get a group together. The more people with you, the louder your voice. Ideally, find a leader, such as a physician, who is onboard. Talk to the department of nutrition and your health system about getting more plant-based options in your cafeteria, because it's hard to introduce a plant-based diet into a health system when the food in the cafeteria is the polar opposite.
You should also follow leaders in the food as medicine space on social media. I love Jane Esselstyn, she's so fun on her YouTube channel, and Rip with his Engine Two podcast, Plant Strong. I listen to the Exam Room with Neal Barnard, and also get handouts and materials from his website.
St. Luke’s is in Idaho, cattle and dairy country. We have more cows here than people. If this food as medicine program can happen here, it can happen anywhere. It just takes one person to keep moving that message along, and sharing the science supporting it.