Podcast Episode 35 | How Culinary Medicine Can Help You Thrive

With Dr. Colin Zhu

About the Prosperous Doc® Podcast

The Prosperous Doc® podcast by Spaugh Dameron Tenny highlights real-life stories from doctors and dentist to encourage and inspire listeners through discussions of professional successes and failures in addition to personal stories and financial wellness advice.

Shane Tenny, CFP® is our podcast host and Partner at SDT. He has lectured numerous times for hospitals and physician groups and, most importantly, helped hundreds of clients develop strategies to navigate through turbulent times toward their financial goals.

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Colin Zhu (00:00):

What I use culinary medicine for is helping others re-establish, or getting them acquainted to using the kitchen, their own kitchen to take back their health.

Intro (00:14):

From Spaugh Dameron Tenny, it's the Prosperous Doc Podcast, real stories, real inspiration, real growth. A show for doctors who are ready to improve their overall wellness in every aspect of life. Now, here's your host, Shane Tenny.

Shane Tenny (00:32):

Welcome to another episode of the Prosperous Doc Podcast. Today, we're talking about flatten the curve. In the spring it was used to inspire us to social distance in the middle of a pandemic, and somewhere in the last couple of months it's turned into a meme about the challenge with managing weight during a pandemic, living at home in a sedentary lifestyle. And that's the question for you, are you struggling with your weight? Do you struggle to talk to patients about their weight? Do you struggle to deal with diet issues when they so often can be impacting our health? If any of these sound like something that's floated through your mind in the last couple months, then hopefully, you'll really enjoy the conversation we're going to have today. I'd like to welcome Dr. Colin Zhu to the Prosperous Doc Podcast. He is also the host of the Thrive Bites Podcast. He's a traveling physician who focuses on a number of things, not the least of which is culinary medicine, lifestyle medicine, and thrive medicine. We're going to unpack the whole thing today. Colin, thanks for being with us.

Colin Zhu (01:34):

Thank you, Shane. I feel very privileged and honored to be on your show and excited.

Shane Tenny (01:41):

Yeah. I think we're going to do some good work. Now, let's just open with a softball, which is I say tomato you say... No, just kidding. All right. See, your rule number one is you just got to keep the guests on edge a little bit. We're going to be talking about culinary medicine today, a concept that isn't widely known. But before we go there, can you tell us just a little bit about your background and how you got where you are today?

Colin Zhu (02:07):

Yeah. Yeah, definitely, thanks for that question. So, I'm Colin Zhu, basically born and raised in New Jersey, born to two fabulous immigrant parents, they're both Chinese in background. I'm a board-certified physician, I practice family medicine, I'm also board-certified in lifestyle medicine, and I'm based in L.A.

Shane Tenny (02:29):

And so your training has come, I think, both from your clinical training, medical school residency and from, maybe osmosis, a little bit from your mom?

Colin Zhu (02:42):

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. My journey began where my mother, she's a Chinese medical doctor. For those of you don't know what it is, it's a system of using a lot of what the body has, that is out of balance, right? So traditional Chinese medicine dates back couple of thousands of years, and it's an ancient system that is still being practiced very, very heavily now, even in the United States, where you're using different ... Looking at the face, you're looking at someone's tongue, you're reading someone's pulses, different ways of diagnoses and different ways of treating the underlying condition. And my mom has been in practice for... And she's still in practice. She's 71, so like four decades. Having worked in our office when I was younger, she instilled in me how to look at the person, the patient, in a very holistic way. So she instilled in me prevention, wellness, compassion, listening to the person. And so those were the values and skillsets that I've brought with me and that's the direction that I took going into medicine.

Colin Zhu (03:52):

And so at first I wanted to marry both East and West, little did I know when I went into medical school, I was in medical school in West Virginia. If you take a Jersey boy and put it into West Virginia in the beautiful Appalachian mountains, it's a huge shift. But people are great there. Perfect place to study. But yeah. What I realized was a lot of similarities in terms of medical school, for those who are not familiar, and I know that I'm speaking to peers as well, is that you get hit hard a lot with, "How do drugs work?" And "How does disease come about?" Right? But what it does little or less of, is learning about how to keep the body well, how to maintain the body, prevention. And that includes nutrition and lifestyle related education. And there's a paucity of that. I think the latest statistics is only about a quarter of medical schools actually require a nutritional course.

Colin Zhu (04:51):

And so when I mentored and followed a lot of my predecessors, I've realized that a lot of the patients that they see, a lot of what they go through, there's always a lifestyle, food, or diet-related component. And I said to myself, "Well, I'm not being equipped enough to handle this. What do I got to do?" So I took it upon myself to take a lot of detours. I've taken a lot of non-traditional routes. And I went into culinary school. I got certified in health coaching, did this and did that. And I used that skill set to be able to enhance what I do today, in addition to my family medicine, public speak. I hold work shots, I demonstrate. To be able to impact as many people as possible, because I knew that with the advent of the internet, social media, and now with the pandemic, you want to be able to hit people and reach people a lot further than my own four walls of a patient room. And so that's what I've used my experiences and skill set to what I do today.

Shane Tenny (05:57):

How do you define, or how do you describe what you call culinary medicine?

Colin Zhu (06:02):

So, culinary medicine is not something that I came up with. It's been coined a few years back. I think it started with Dr. John La Puma MD, was the original chef MD. It's blending the culinary arts, the art of cooking, with the science of medicine and nutrition, essentially. So you're using evidence-based science of food and nutrition and translating that to practical skills to use in your own life. So, it's basically what I use culinary medicine for, is helping others re-establish or getting them acquainted to using the kitchen, their own kitchen to take back their health. Because I feel like in order to reset or start back again, in terms of taking back their health really starts in the kitchen. The pandemic is a good example of ... It forces you to get back into the kitchen, because you can't go out to restaurants or, you do have delivery systems now. But essentially, you know, what's going into your food, right?

Colin Zhu (07:06):

And I like to use the word, "Food outsourcing" because essentially, if you're not cooking, you're outsourcing your food to a delivery service, to a restaurant, to a takeout, to fast food. And you're subjugating your food that you put in three times a day or more to other people that don't have your health as their best interests. They only have their profits, and their business, and their bottom line as their best interests. So what do you have? You have people cutting corners, reducing costs for their ingredients to create their product, and you're putting that into your mouth. It's bridging that gap in terms of food, nutrition, and how that directly impacts your overall health and wellbeing. So that's what culinary medicine ... That's what I use that for.

Shane Tenny (07:58):

Is culinary medicine in area of focus and passion for you, that you teach others who know, they want to know more about food and how it impacts their body through your own podcasts, again, Thrive Bites Podcast, or through lectures, or things like that, or is it an area where you've served your patients for those who come to see the doctor for some other issue and you help educate them on, "Here's how what you're putting in your body could be impacting you."

Colin Zhu (08:29):

Yeah. So great question. It's all the above. I don't really-

Shane Tenny (08:34):

Okay, it's overlay and covert at the same time.

Colin Zhu (08:35):

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don't select it. I do my best to sprinkle it in however I can, because I feel like even if you don't cook, it's really the awareness and the education that I impart to someone is really going to be the game changer for them to reverse a certain disease. Like for example, I don't know, not a lot of people know, but we have evidence for three years now, since 1990, that a whole food plant-based approach reverses heart disease, diabetes, and early stages of prostate cancer. That's in the literature, but that's not headlines. So, it's really about imparting knowledge to people. I think that's more impactful than me writing a prescription or a referral to a specialist. I do where I can. I counsel to my patients, I speak about it, I do it in workshops and demonstrations. So I do my best and sprinkle it wherever I can.

Shane Tenny (09:36):

Yeah, yeah. And you talk, I think about not just culinary medicine, but you've already used the word, "Lifestyle medicine", and I think thrive medicine. So what's the difference here? How do they work together?

Colin Zhu (09:46):

Yeah. So culinary, lifestyle, and thrive are three components that I teach and impart. So I created an online platform called the Chef Doc, which in January 2021 would be four years since its inception. It's basically an online resource focusing on those three things. So we talked about culinary medicine, lifestyle medicine is using evidence-based lifestyle related approaches to prevent, treat, and reverse chronic lifestyle related diseases. So it focuses on six pillars, diet and lifestyle, physical fitness, relationships, community, avoiding risky substances, and sleep. So it's using the science behind all those six pillars to be able to impart to someone to better their health. And thrive medicine is something that I came up with based off of my personal journeys and professional journeys. I've been blessed and humbly grateful for the life that I've lived. I've been able to touch every continent on this planet, I've been able to ... I'm a triathlete, I have a great circle of family and friends. So I consider myself ... I thrive in my own life. And so I want to be able to impart that to others.

Colin Zhu (11:06):

And thrive medicine, it's a concept, it's also a book where I list out different call to actions, action steps to do this for your own life, to be able to apply this for your own life, to be able to take your life from this level to another level. Because I think as a society we've been conditioned to, when you're born, to go to school, and you get a certain degree, get a job, get married, have some babies, and then retire, and then perish. And I felt like that standard formula, I didn't relate. For some people it works, but for me, I felt like there needed to be a lot more flavor to that, there needed to be more spice to that, there needed to be more vitality from that specific pathway. And so I've lived my life very non-traditionally both personally and professionally. And so, I wanted to use my story to illustrate how someone else can do something different with their lives.

Shane Tenny (12:09):

When you talk with patients, who are coming in because there's something that feels wrong to them, what's the biggest struggle, that I guess, you hear from them when you share the lessons you've learned and try to educate them about the importance of what they're putting in their body, and how they're spending their time, and those sorts of things, is it appreciative, or I'm wondering, is it, "Look doc, this is a big, long answer. I was hoping there was a script at the end of this."

Colin Zhu (12:39):

So, as a family doc, for those of you who don't know, we see everyone, from delivering newborn baby, all the way to advancing age, and everyone in between. And so, I get a variety of stuff. But what I love to do, and I feel that I'm good at, is connecting the dots for people. And usually when someone comes to me for a certain complaint or problem, there's usually a deeper underlying source to their concern, pain, or struggle, that's not really connected with why they come in. And I do-

Shane Tenny (13:16):

Give me an example.

Colin Zhu (13:17):

So for example, let's just say you have a teenager that comes in and they say that they can't concentrate in school, where they have a hard time focusing. Right? And so, you could chalk it up to, anxiety, depression, ADHD, something like that. But when you go deeper, you realize that their household is chaotic, their parents, they have a very abusive relationship, their relationship with, maybe ... I've had patients where they've been sexually molested, I've had patients where they went through foster care and they haven't mentally been seen or evaluated properly. So, my job is being able to connect the dots and I love finding a source. I'm not a person that works at the surface level. You tell me a bunch of symptoms and then we'll be done with it. It's not as simple as that. It's really about getting to the underlying ... You love the value of people's stories. So, mine's the same. I love the value of understanding where they come from, what's important to them, and helping them navigate where their causes is, where their source is. Because once you can fix the cause, then everything else makes sense. Right?

Colin Zhu (14:30):

So the perfect analogy to this is, most of minor medicine is really mopping up what floor instead of turning off the faucet. What I love doing is helping them turn off the faucet.

Shane Tenny (14:43):

What's the biggest myth about a plant-based diet?

Colin Zhu (14:48):

I would say the biggest myth about plant-based diet is you don't get your optimum nutrition. A whole food is plant-based diet. You don't get your optimum nutrition. Where's the protein? Where's the calcium? Am I just eating a salad? And it's none of the above. You do get your optimal nutrition. If you're eating from groups like the vegetable group, the fruit group, nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans, and legumes. And you're avoiding ... You're minimally eating or avoiding animal based foods, oils, and refined and processed carbohydrates, sugars, things like that. That's what a whole foods plant-based definition is. And the only thing you would have to supplement if you were on that, is vitamin B12, because it's made by micro organisms that we've basically killed off in modern agriculture, whether you're a meat eater or a plant eater, vitamin B12 and vitamin D because we're also a society of indoor creatures. So we don't get as much sun exposure. I live in LA and I still have a lot of vitamin D deficiencies in my patients. So I tell them to supplement.

Colin Zhu (15:58):

So you get all your nutrition. It's a myth that you don't get enough protein through plants. It's a myth you don't get enough calcium. It's not as boring as a salad. There's a whole variety of what you could do. Who's really good at vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based fare is the Mexicans, the Indians, Southeast Asians, the Phillipinos, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Tie. We're really good at food preparation. Most people, they just care about flavor and what it looks like. You can create a lot of good food that's good for you and still look and tastes great.

Shane Tenny (16:32):

Tell me the story of a patient that you came across, that you've just seen a transformation or has been helped by just the education that you provide to them.

Colin Zhu (16:43):

I've had a patient when I was in training. He was a chronic patient of my professor. Very, very nice guy. He's probably in the sixties and he was overweight. I started learning about lifestyle medicine when I was a resident actually, back in 2013. I started applying the skills and education to that patient because as a trainee, as a doctor in training or a resident, you see the same patients as your professor's. And so they just advise you and tweak and certain things. And so, I was seeing that same patient. So let's just call him Mr. Smith. So Mr. Smith, he's been a patient of my professor for many, many years, and he's a diabetic and is overweight. So I was giving him lifestyle-related education, and I just told him, "You know what Mr. Smith, I know you're having a hard time with their diabetes. I want you to not only fix up what you put in your mouth, but I just want you to move."

Colin Zhu (17:40):

He had a hard time with fitness and physical activity. So I told him, "I need you to do something that you will be able to enjoy, because if you're not going to enjoy it, you're not going to continue it. I just want you to start walking, find a sidewalk, find a trail, find a beach, whatever, just find something that's cost-effective and that you're going to do." So he started walking and I kid you not, he took that and went beyond with that. And his diabetes number score, his A1C dropped, over the span of maybe like three months or six months, his diabetes score dropped three points. And he was doing a couple of thousands of steps a day. Now he does it on his own.

Colin Zhu (18:22):

I didn't even tell him to do this, but he started walking five miles a day. And this is before COVID. And so he shed a lot of weight. He dropped a lot of pants size. And this is in conjunction with his diabetic meds, his other specialists, and his diet. It's part of a comprehensive wellness plan for him. I needed to start cutting down medication for him. And that's the beauty of lifestyle medicine, is that you start to de-prescribe medication for people, or else the side effects actually outweigh the benefits at that point.

Shane Tenny (18:53):

Yeah. That's tremendous. That's a great example of just the value of thinking and looking holistically, and connecting with your patients, where they are mentally and emotionally with their care. When we come back from this quick break, I want to talk to you a little bit about just overall wellness, and the pandemic, and the COVID stress that is affecting everyone in medicine these days. So we'll be right back after this break.

Intro (19:24):

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Intro (20:34):

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Shane Tenny (21:24):

So Colin, we've spent the first half of the show talking about your passion for, culinary medicine, lifestyle medicine, thrive medicine, and just the tremendous impact that that perspective can take and working with patients. I know wellness is a big part of what you talk about on your own podcast, Thrive Bites and through your work with patients. Wellness is a tough topic this year. I interview docs for the show every other week, and it's stressful. COVID is wearing people thin, whether they're telemedicine, whether it's the financial pressure of reduced visits in the ER for our emergency docs, whether it's elective surgeries being put on hold for the second quarter. It's a stressful ... All the PPE that people are having to wear. What's your thoughts on what's going on and how it's impacting your colleagues around the country?

Colin Zhu (22:16):

I looked on the news this morning or last night, and we're over 300,000 deaths. And a lot of respects, it's a lot of tragedy. It's a lot of unnecessary deaths, and people being sick, and all this other stuff, it is a huge burden on us as globally. It's a huge burden on our healthcare system and all the frontline workers, essential workers, things like that. And I definitely share my regards, and the pains, and everything with all my peers. I'm hoping with the vaccines and with the new administration that we have better leadership, better mandates, and just a new way of perspectives of how to handle this. But on the other side, I'm also a person that looks at the silver lining, is that I think it uncovered a lot of gaps in healthcare that wasn't that obvious that we need to address.

Colin Zhu (23:13):

It opened up a lot of health disparities, especially of the black and brown communities in terms of people, in terms of business owners. To me, it will test how resilient we need to be and how much, or how little we need to pivot in our own lives. And I think it also gives us pause to, "What are we doing in our lives?" "Who am I at the end of the day?" "How am I moving forward, and how am I going to contribute to society." Because what we say and what we do, as you could see, not only in the news, it impacts and influences others, and you wearing a mask, are you not wearing a mask, influences others. So, every action that we take, every word ... I've studied a lot from a lot of thought leaders, is that, even the word has a lot of power to it. So you have to be very mindful in terms of what you say and what you do, because believe it or not, it influences someone else, impacts someone else.

Colin Zhu (24:16):

So I think we all have a responsibility as a fellow human being to be able to impact, at least be more mindful in terms of what we're actually impacting others, and how do I show up as a fellow human being, as a family member, as a community member, as a friend, colleague, peer, whatever. We all have different roles. And so, it's a reminder of how do I play that role? And how do I redefine that for the next chapter of this planet? And how am I going to impact others and our environments? So ...

Shane Tenny (24:52):

Yeah. There's a lot going on this year, that's for sure. You talked about where you think COVID and just the way our whole society and medicine is having to adapt is revealing some of the gaps in medicine. Obviously, we're all aware of just the explosion, which I think most would agree with, has been good around virtual medicine, tele visits, things like that. Are there other ... I guess, what are the gaps that you were thinking of that you've seen that are being remedied, or are being addressed, or acknowledged as a result of how we're handling?

Colin Zhu (25:25):

I'm going to use an analogy. It's like walking on a trail, you see this large rock, right? And you lift up the rock and you realize that there's a whole microcosm of stuff there, or thorns, and ants, and all kinds of insects. So, what COVID did for the healthcare system was, and we knew this as healthcare professionals, was lifting up the rock and realizing there's so many gaps in terms of health disparities. Health disparities, meaning how the black and brown communities are disproportionately getting sicker and dying in proportion to everything because of it. And what I mean by that is, because everything is grounded from systemic racism. And if you look at so many different things, like the housing and urban HUD laws, the housing discriminatory laws, different pockets of the world. If you look at the map, there's a certain housing map, and you see that white communities are concentrated in certain areas versus black and brown communities or concentrate in certain areas.

Colin Zhu (26:28):

And if you look at where they are in relation to how they get access to things, like a supermarket or access to healthcare, things like that, you'd be surprised like that kind of access is completely different when you're comparing the whites and black and brown communities. And that contributes to how well or how healthier they're going to get. And that contributes to all the pre-existing conditions that contributes to all the risk factors, contributes to why they are disproportionately dying off from COVID. If it weren't for COVID, just look at heart disease, 300,000 is a lot, right? But heart disease ... Do you know how many deaths annually? Number one killer in America is heart disease. We have between 600 and 700 deaths per year from heart disease. That's more than double COVID. And if we apply that same energy in terms of how we want to address COVID to heart disease, we can save a lot more.

Colin Zhu (27:29):

But the thing is that heart disease is a slow dying condition. Cancer is a slow dying condition. So the immediate effects, you don't see it immediately, whereas COVID, you can pass away within like 48 or 72 hours, heart disease and cancer, you don't. So, it's-

Shane Tenny (27:46):

Yeah. It's important. Yeah. I know what you're talking about just red lining and the impact that it's had on our society, our culture, and the access to medicine and just wellness for disenfranchised segments of our society. I was talking with an executive of a hospital system a couple of months ago, mid COVID. And like you were saying, calling the silver lining, he said, "Well, one thing is that in the span of three weeks, the board allowed us to spend the money we've been asking for four years to implement telemedicine or virtual medicine." And their hospital system has been trying, like so many others, to be able to offer a way to connect to people who aren't geographically aligned with their offices. And so we know that everybody is comfortable with technology, now it's easier to ... Hopefully we'll see trends improve in the coming years as people have access to [inaudible 00:28:51]

Colin Zhu (28:44):

Yeah. And just an observation for those that have shed a better light with our healthcare system is that the people at top are generally not in the backgrounds of patient care, they're in the backgrounds of physicists and administrative roles. And we're the people on ground level, seeing patients on a clinical care and there's a huge dichotomy. And that's why you have things like, for example, you said, "It took us four years to get this when it could have happened sooner." So it's bridging that gap of understanding that if we had people at top had experience with seeing patients on the floor, there would be a bigger difference in understanding why doctors are asking for this, or doctors, or needing this. For those of you who may not know, doctors ... A large part of this are also treated unfairly as well. So I think COVID just kind of uncovered a lot of things that we didn't know, or we took a blind eye to. So,-

Shane Tenny (29:49):

Yeah. The word of the decade and the world of business has been disruption and how, the rental car business has been disrupted by Airbnb, and the taxi business has been disrupted by Lyft and Uber. I heard somebody say a couple of weeks ago, he said, "Yeah, I think COVID just came in, just disrupted all of life." So it just shake everything around and help everybody take a fresh look at what's important and what decisions are making. Colin has been great chatting with you today. For folks listening, kind of intrigued by your story, your vision, your passion, how can they get in touch with you? Talk a little bit about some of your points of contact.

Colin Zhu (30:22):

So my website for the chef doc is www.chefdoczho.com, so C-H-E-F-D-O-C-Z as in zebra, Z-H-u.com. And I use Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and I go by the handle of the chef doc. If you just go to that website, you'll find everything there. There's a lot of great resources for people to use. If you're interested in the topics that I put out there, and they'll listen to the podcast. The podcast focuses on, plant-based living, enhancing our emotional resilience, and creating a thriving mindset. So I release episodes every two weeks. It's in its third season. Yeah, it's doing pretty well. We're heard in 90 countries and I interview doctors, dieticians, coaches, and just really passionate people. So-

Shane Tenny (31:16):

Yeah. The podcast is Thrive Bites, B-I-T-E-S, not B-Y-T-E-S, for those of you who also have a computer head. Thanks for being with us, Colin Zhu, appreciate it.

Colin Zhu (31:26):

Thank you very much.

Shane Tenny (31:27):

Thank you for joining us today for this episode of the Prosperous Doc podcast. Appreciate your attention as always. Welcome your reviews on iTunes or Google play. Welcome your feedback. You can email me directly shane@whitecoatwell with any thoughts, suggestions, guests, ideas, or praise, and we'll take that too. As always, we got more episodes rolling out, and so we welcome to subscribe and have you be part of the family. Thanks so much for being with us today. We'll see you back here next time .

Outro (31:55):

This episode of the Prosperous Doc podcast is over, but you're not alone on your journey. Spaugh Dameron Tenny has been helping physicians and dentists prosper through financial planning for over 60 years. To connect with us, visit sdtplanning.com today and take your financial wellness to new levels. Join us on the next episode of the Prosperous Doc podcast.