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How this doctor's own plant-based journey changed how she practices medicine

Written by Caroline DiNicola Fawley
How this doctor's own plant-based journey changed how she practices medicine

As we at MamaSezz well know, changing to a plant-based diet can change your life in ways you never expected. In this series, we talk with some of the world’s most soulful, dedicated (and often funny) individuals. We get to hear their stories of suffering, transformation, and service — and we learn how food is an essential part of their journey.

This week, we're talking with Dr. Shikha Merchia, who went from a vegetarian to a healthy, happy, energetic whole food vegan. Her interest in the whole food plant-based diet started when she went to the Lifestyle Medicine Conference at Harvard in 2017. Since then, Dr. Merchia and her husband (who is also a physician) have immersed themselves in diet-related lifestyle medicine. She feels better than ever, and her kids are even on board! 

What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet?

I grew up vegetarian, my entire life, as my family is culturally vegetarian. I had dairy but no eggs as a child. In college, I started eating eggs because there were no other options available in our dining halls for breakfast then. I started to like eggs and after I got married, we made eggs a part of our regular breakfast. And I always felt this was good as I was adding protein into my diet.

I was always interested in healthy diets and managing conditions like obesity and diabetes with my patients so I attended the Lifestyle Medicine Conference hosted By Harvard Medical School's Institute of Lifestyle Medicine in 2017 where I learned about Culinary medicine and that diet is a big part of most chronic diseases. I met Dr. Dean Ornish over there and bought his book, Eat More Weight Less. but I was busy and did not really read it at the time.

The conference left me intrigued and curious. So in 2019 I registered for the same conference in 2020, which then became virtual. I actually paid close attention to the talks and I heard Dr. Esselstyn at the conference which was absolutely amazing. Now I wanted to gain as much knowledge as I possibly could, so I registered for the Lifestyle Medicine Board exams, to specialize in the subject. My husband, who is also a physician, became interested in this and wanted to take the exams as well. Together we did all the virtual conferences recommended and the eCornell Plant based Nutrition Certificate and became Board certified in Lifestyle Medicine in 2020.


What happened?

I would say going plant-based was gradual but quick, in the sense that it didn't happen in a day, but over a few months I decided to try a vegan diet for a month, and I remember telling my daughter that if I don't like my morning tea with almond milk, I cannot possibly go vegan. But I did. I did not eat eggs for a month. I still kept consuming yogurt initially as I couldn't wrap my brain around the fact that how could that be harmful to my health.
    I did not see any change in my weight in the first month. I was using a fair amount of oil in my cooking at this point.

    Then I decided to cut the amount of oil in my cooking, as wellI significantly cut down on yogurt consumption.


    How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?

    Just seeing the change in my body. I was not overweight but I was at the borderline of being overweight. I started losing weight, and people started noticing it.

    I also felt more energetic I started an Instagram account for posting recipes in April 2020 and it started to morph into this whole food plant based recipe account and I started getting followers on it — not a lot but more than I thought I could. My husband and I started talking to our girls about it and explaining the science behind the diet and how what we had thought was healthy or didn't make a difference, was not healthy. They started following the diet for the most part as well.
      Then my father-in-law had a heart attack in August and my husband brought his parents to live with us and we had them start a WFPB diet as well.

      Overall, I think this way of eating aligned with my core beliefs; I never liked milk, or cheese, but was always forced to eat it. I never liked fried food or junk food until I came to America and was surrounded by it. My favorite meal has always been a lentil, a vegetable, fresh homemade bread or rice, and a side of salad.

      What is your life like now?

      Becoming whole food plant-based has impacted my life in more ways than just health.

       

      I feel empowered, that I can control a lot of my health/destiny.

      I have been talking to and counseling my patients about it, at every chance I get, be it a patient who has obesity or diabetes or high blood pressure or heart disease or even gastrointestinal conditions. 

      I like practicing medicine more, as I feel I am giving patients the tools they need to take control of their own health. The patients who have started following this lifestyle have amazing positive changes in their health and parameters and that is what excites me the most, when a patient comes in and tells me how much better they feel, how their blood sugars have dropped and how their constipation has resolved or they have lost weight or sleep better, etc.

      I have also made friends through the Plant Pure pods who are equally as passionate about a whole food plant-based lifestyle.


      What are you most proud of?

      I am most proud of the fact that my family has not only accepted this lifestyle, but are happy about it. I am also proud of the fact that I can positively impact a lot of people with this knowledge.

       

      This is a vegan fruit platter that Shikha's daughter made.

      If you could meet and have lunch with one person (alive or dead) who would it be?

      I would love to meet Dr. Esselstyn. He is an inspiration and has dedicated his life to spreading this message of health and well-being. I would love to find out how he persisted in this journey for so long as it was not a trendy thing back then, I also would like to tell him how much he has inspired me.

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