By Alexina Cather
Dr. Robert Graham is a Harvard trained physician who is Board Certified in both Internal and Integrative Medicine. He received his medical degree from the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center, Stony Brook, NY and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, where he received the Community Service Award and the prestigious “Attending of the Year” award. Additionally Dr. Graham holds a Master of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.
He is widely recognized as a national leader in the fields of Complementary and Alternative/Integrative Medicine, Nutrition, Urban Farming, Health Disparities and Cultural Competency and has spoken extensively about his research endeavors throughout the U.S.
Dr. Graham has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, NY Post, Health Day, Prevention, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, Daily News, NY Times, Newsday and Yahoo News. He has appeared on the NBC Today Show, Fox 5 News, ABC Eyewitness News, CBS News, NY1 and presented at TedXManhattan.
In 2016, he started FRESH MED, an integrative health and wellness center at PhysiologicNYC, where he currently sees patients. Dr. Graham believes that healthcare needs a FRESH approach to health– a paradigm shift, from the conventional approach of “a pill for an ill” to one that “addresses the root cause of disease.”
Food Policy Center (FPC): Do you think that it is obvious to most people that food has the power to heal – or is it critical to create more awareness and education around the concept?
Robert Graham (RG): I believe people are beginning to recognize, and appreciate the power of food as medicine. But, sadly, more people are seeing and living with the effects of poor diets on their own health and their loved ones health. “Bad food equals bad health!” Better education is needed, not more, especially in the medical communities. Patients are surprised to hear me, a doctor, asking them about the role food has in their illness, or wellness.
FPC: Do you think that the general public is confused about what to eat? There are different research studies coming out on a weekly basis that are confusing – and the media can make it even more confusing. You might hear one week that butter is a killer, a few weeks later you might hear that butter is good for you. If scientists who are experts in the field can’t agree on what is healthy, how can the general public? Just as a frame of reference there was an article not to long ago in the New York Times “Should We Be Scared of Butter.”
RG: People are so confused about food! We (healthcare, media, policy makers) are to blame as we live in a world full of opinions and “alternative facts.” My approach to food is personalized and individualized based on my patients, choices, genetics, culture and beliefs. There is no one diet for all. I believe we should stick to the fundamentals, for example, eat whole foods, more plants, less processed foods, especially processed meats and dairy.
FPC: Besides creating rooftop gardens, you’ve created cooking classes for doctors. How can medical schools be transformed so that doctors can present a better example for their patients when they complete their training, instead of having to catch up later on in their careers?
RG: The entire medical education system needs to be changed. We should be teaching our future doctors about how patients can create and preserve health, or salutogenesis, not just pathogenesis, the study of disease. There is no pill that can do what a healthy lifestyle and mindset can!
FPC: What does your wellness regimen consist of? Can you talk about your views on eating right, limiting stress, exercise, sleep, and immune system performance?
RG: In summer 2016, we developed a different healthcare model: FRESH Med is an integrative health practice that combines the best of conventional medicine, including medications, diagnostic testing, tools and technologies, with evidence-based complementary therapies, clinical nutrition, functional medicine, positive psychology and health coaching. Our mission is simple — to make you healthier by addressing the five pillars of well-being: Food, Relaxation, Exercise, Sleep and Happiness. Now, that spells FRESH!
FPC: Many would argue that consuming an organic, free-range diet is cost-prohibitive. What tips do you have for individuals on a fixed income?
RG: Today, organic is more expensive and, in some instances, may be cost-prohibitive. We need to prioritize our budget. There are few things more valuable to invest our money in than the food we eat. Like the adage goes, “Pay the farmer now, or pay the doctor later.” I often talk to my patients about choosing organic when it comes to animal protein, dairy and dirty dozen vegetables from the EWG. But, compared to other unhealthy, processed foods, any vegetable or fruit is a better, healthier option.
FPC: What do you believe is the greatest challenge NYC faces when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and community?
RG: It’s the same challenges we all face: not enough time and money to cultivate health. Working too many hours and not eating right is the opposite of what’s FRESH. We must reverse engineer our work/life balance, prioritizing our life before our work; knowing how to relax, moving our bodies, sleeping well, and pursuing happiness.
FPC: What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on health?
RG: We need a food policy. Our current food system and the SAD (Standard American Diet) are slowly killing the planet and our future.
FPC: If you could completely reboot our food system, what would you change? What would your “food utopia” look like?
RG: We need to put people over profits; instead, we have become too greedy. If we advocate for a greater allocation of government subsidies to sustainable, local and organic farms, this will promote farming practices that require less antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides; this in turn would create healthier soil, crops and livestock. If the cost of organics drops, we could go “back to our roots” and return to how things used to be, when we knew what we were eating and where it came from.
Grew up in: Jackson Heights, Queens, NY.
Where you live: Upper East Side
Background / Education: Half Latino, Half White, all NY/ Integrative Primary Care Doctor with a Masters of Public Health.
One word you would use to describe our food system: SICK
Food policy hero(es): Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and Walter Willett
Favorite food: Rice and Beans
Social media and food policy website(s) must follow/read: Civil Eats, Food Tank, EWG, MondayCampaigns
Favorite food policy book: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan