As an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Saray Stancic sees troubling signs in the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet she also sees a glimmer of hope.
Her chief concern is reflected in grim statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which finds that people with chronic diseases (such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes) who contract COVID are six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times more likely to die than others who get the virus.
“We are a country that is poorly equipped to handle this pandemic,” Stancic said in a telephone interview from her practice in New Jersey, where she specializes in treating chronic diseases. Remarking on the CDC statistic that 60 percent of adults have at least one chronic illness, Stancic said, “if we continue on this path, we’re in big trouble.”
So what gives her hope? Simple: Lifestyle medicine. Or more specifically: The overwhelming power of lifestyle medicine to make all of us more resilient when diagnosed with an infectious disease and to heal, and in some cases eliminate, chronic conditions.
It’s a topic Stancic writes about in her engaging new hardback, “What’s Missing From Medicine: Six Lifestyle Changes to Overcome Chronic Illness,” published this week by Hierophant Publishing ($24.99). It’s a quick read. Among the six behaviors that confer major health benefits, the book includes eating a plant-based diet.
“Lifestyle medicine is an evidence-based, clinical discipline that supports the adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors to prevent treat and reverse chronic diseases and improve quality of life,” Stancic writes. “It is not in opposition or contrary to mainstream medicine. In my view, lifestyle medicine is what is missing in clinical medicine.”
Stancic delivered the keynote address at the 2017 Maine Nutrition Council conference and released the medical documentary “Code Blue” in 2020. She also has her own powerful story of healing by changing her lifestyle.
At 28, Stancic was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was a medical resident working a long shift when suddenly, she lost the ability to feel her legs. “That night I was on call and I hadn’t slept,” Stancic recalled. “I had been on call for days and not eating properly. I have no doubt that the lifestyle I was leading led to this diagnosis.”
Stancic began the standard MS treatment, yet her disease worsened over the next eight years. Then one day, she spotted a magazine headline linking wild blueberry consumption with better health among MS patients. This tiny nugget of information launched Stancic on a deep dive into the medical literature where she discovered “data from all over the world that animal fat intake was both a risk factor for getting MS and led to higher mortality rate for those with the disease. The reverse was true for those who consumed more vegetable protein and dietary fiber, meaning plants.”
Stancic used the information to radically change her treatment plan and ultimately her health. She began to eliminate processed food, meat and dairy, replacing them with plant-based choices. She began exercising, reducing stress, meditating and getting a good night’s sleep without relying on pills. “An amazing thing occurred,” she writes. “I began to feel better.”
By sticking to these lifestyle changes, Stancic no longer needs to take medication for her MS, nor needs a walker. Today, Stancic uses the same techniques she used – detailed in her book – to help her patients.
“Eighty percent of chronic diseases are preventable,” Stancic told me. “Maintaining health and well-being are simple topics and ought not be complicated.”
Many physicians don’t use these techniques to treat patients, she writes. And many hospitals house fast-food restaurants and even serve animal-based burgers to heart bypass patients. Change is underway, although its pace is slow; Stancic cites the medical school at the University of South Carolina, Greenville, where lifestyle medicine is now part of the curriculum.
“There are several medical schools that are introducing the topic of culinary medicine and talking about exercise in terms of disease prevention,” Stancic said. “What is most interesting is that this generation of men and women entering the field recognize lifestyle medicine as valuable, even if their mentors aren’t talking about it. The Millennial generation is interested in creating a different medical experience.”
Stancic herself eats no animals; however, the diet she recommends in the book is plant-based, rather than strictly vegan, and allows for small amounts of animal products as seasonings or side dishes.
“A lot of people pursue veganism for the environment or for animal rights, which is great, but that’s not why I speak to it,” Stancic told me. “That’s not my area of expertise. When I look at the science time and time again, the evidence speaks to improved outcomes with the more plants we include on our plates.”
A misconception Stancic encounters often among patients is the notion that chronic disease is caused by our genes, dooming those with unlucky genes. But the field of epigenetics shows genes can be turned on and off by our environment and lifestyle choices, she writes. Case in point:
“Diabetes is a terrible disease,” Stancic said, “but we know we can prevent more than 90 percent of it by modifying our behavior. Many people think it’s encoded in their genes. But it’s not destined.”
When she practiced internal medicine, Stancic often saw new patients who’d been diagnosed with diabetes decades ago and were now facing amputations from serious infections that wouldn’t heal. Had these individuals been helped toward a plant-based diet and other lifestyle changes 20 years earlier, she writes, they likely wouldn’t be facing such grim diagnosis.
Many chronic diseases get attributed to genes, Stancic added, because family members tend to have similar lifestyles and therefore similar illnesses.
“A lifestyle medicine prescription is all encompassing in its ability to reduce your risk of developing any disease,” Stancic said. And just as unhealthy lifestyle habits tend to spread among family members and within social networks, positive lifestyle changes can do the same, Stancic said. As the health of her patients improves, often their families, friends and co-workers get curious about the changes they’ve made.
“Lifestyle medicine is infectious,” Stancic said. “We all want a piece of good health.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at