An internist who changed her career and turned around her health after discovering the peer-reviewed power of a plant-based diet, Dr. Saray Stancic comes to Maine next month to deliver the keynote address at the annual Maine Nutrition Council conference. Her speech will focus on her personal journey and the shift she says needs to happen in health care.

“What I speak to is evidence-based,” Stancic told me by phone from her practice in Ridgewood, New Jersey. “We need to get this message out to everyone. We need to get this into the curricula of U.S. medical schools. This is going to require society to change.”

Sonja Carvalho, who manages food programs for Catholic Charities and chairs the Maine Nutrition Council’s board of directors, said the council decided to focus on plant-based nutrition in response to requests from conference attendees. The council choose Stancic as speaker, Carvalho said, because she had an interesting story and was “experienced in the field, not just professionally but personally.”

The conference is scheduled for April 10 at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta. The day’s programming also includes a talk about water quality, a panel on diet and disease prevention, a plant-based cooking demonstration (see sidebar) and an all-vegan lunch.

In addition to the keynote address, Stancic will deliver a talk on managing autoimmune disease with diet, which led to her entering the field of plant-based medicine. It happened years after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 28 while working an overnight shift at the hospital.

By 2003, Stancic had been suffering from MS for years, needed a cane or crutch to walk and was taking a dozen medications a day to manage the condition. One day, she came across a study that found a blueberry-rich diet helped reduce fatigue in MS patients. She was skeptical – “In all my training, never did any mentors or professors mention a connection between diet and disease,” Stancic said – but the idea that they might be linked persisted.

“I started to read the peer-reviewed medical literature, and I found that diet was the most important variable in preventing disease and treating chronic disease,” Stancic said.

She adopted a plant-based, vegan diet herself, and even though MS is considered an incurable, degenerative disease, her symptoms gradually faded. Soon she no longer needed a crutch to walk. She stopped talking her medications. Six years after she became a vegan, she was able to run a marathon.

Meanwhile, she was working as an infectious disease specialist and often consulted with patients who had diabetes and other chronic conditions. She began to share information with them about the impact of a plant-based diet, and she saw that their own conditions improved when they changed their own diets.

Dr. Saray Stancic left her career in infectious diseases five years ago and opened a practice devoted to plant-based, lifestyle medicine.

Five years ago, she left her career in infectious disease to open Stancic Health & Wellness, a practice focused on plant-based, lifestyle medicine. She is interested in both helping her patients and in spreading the word.

“I have a lot of patients in my practice who are doctors,” Stancic said. “If I get that doctor healthy, they can apply the information to their patients.”

She also mentors Rutgers New Jersey Medical School students who are interested in lifestyle medicine.

“We have to equip and educate not only our patients but our doctors,” Stancic said. “It’s no fault of their own that they don’t know this. They’re not being taught.”

Her latest project is a feature-length film called “Code Blue,” produced with documentarian Marcia Machado. The film’s title refers to hospital lingo for a patient who needs resuscitation. In the film, it’s a metaphor – the patient is the American health care system. The film will examine the wave of plant-based lifestyle medicine sweeping the nation, include interviews with many of the movement’s leading figures and address the hurdles that keep plant-based medicine from being more widely practiced.

When we spoke, Stancic was considering bringing the film crew to Maine for her talk.

“I wholeheartedly believe this a movement that is taking off in medicine and redefining medicine,” Stancic said, adding that such a transformation can’t come soon enough. “We’re in trouble. Our health care system can’t support much more of this chronic disease epidemic we’re in. It will implode. We need to act now.”

THAI-INSPIRED COOKING DEMO TAKES AIM AT THE ANTI-TOFU CROWD

Tom Mellette knows some people have issues with tofu. This is why at this year’s Maine Nutrition Council conference the clinical dietitian for MaineGeneral Medical Center will demonstrate how to cook a Thai dish with tofu.

“One of the biggest complaints I get about tofu is that it is flavorless,” Mellette told me by phone, “and marinating is a great way to add flavor to tofu, especially with strong Thai flavors.”

The Maine Nutrition Council conference attracts up to 125 attendees annually from across the state and a wide range of organizations and agencies. Mellette assumes the number will include tofu skeptics. “I’m hoping this quick demonstration will show how easy and how delicious tofu can really be,” Mellette said.

The noodle and vegetable dish with a choice of marinated tofu is one of the options in a new program the hospital is rolling out that offers staff and visitors pre-portioned ingredients to cook at home. The service, which is similar to mail-order meal kits, is among the many resources Mellette says the hospital and its dining services offer to people looking to move toward plant-based eating.

The Augusta Winter Farmers Market sets up in the cafeteria every Tuesday through the end of April. During the month of March, the hospital is showcasing plant-based dishes and working to reduce the amount of meat on people’s plates. For instance, the cafeteria’s featured burger for March is made from half vegetables and half meat.

“We have been getting more and more interest in vegetarian and vegan options from patients, staff and visitors alike,” Mellette said. “There is a big push for moving toward a plant-based diet.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

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