Physician hopes better health blossoms from new plant-based menu at UF Health Shands

Growing up with meat and potatoes always on his plate, Robert Capozzi never had much use for a plant-based diet.

However, his physician, Monica Aggarwal, M.D., FACC, knew it was time for him to learn about it based on his health issues. When Aggarwal started seeing Capozzi after his triple-bypass surgery in the beginning of 2018, she introduced him to the new plant-based menu at UF Health Shands.

“So much of the time we are focused on giving people medicines after they become seriously ill,” said Aggarwal, director of integrative cardiology and prevention in the UF College of Medicine. “Treatment of patients unfortunately is primarily focused on treatment with medications. We are trying to change the focus to lifestyle changes, which includes diet and exercise.”

This is why Aggarwal came to the University of Florida about a year and half ago. She wanted to build a program to teach patients, students and caregivers how to eat healthier, to help lower their risks of contracting a chronic illness.

“We began conceptualizing the menu with Dr. Aggarwal in the fall of 2017,” said Lara Zamajtuk, UF Health Shands associate vice president of operations. “Gathering a team of hospital dietitians and nutrition experts, along with our senior executive chef, we created a menu that offers healthy food options that are plant-based.”

The team experimented with meals high in lentils, fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and eventually scheduled tastings with hospital staff.

“We created entrees that looked and smelled appealing,” said Andrew Hennis, senior director of UF Health Shands Food and Nutrition Services. “We had to overcome people’s resistance to trying them. It’s a matter of taste and feeling full. If people feel satisfied after finishing a delicious, healthy meal, they may change what they eat.”

The new menu includes entrees like lentil bolognese over pasta and chickpea potato coconut curry and was first made available to patients in the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital. The goal is to expand the menus to other facilities in the future.

In addition to black bean burgers, tofu vegetable stir fry and oatmeal, patients also will find the American Heart Association’s recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Aggarwal hopes the new menu will help her cardiac and vascular patients because eating these foods puts them on a path to lowering their risk of heart disease.

“When a patient comes into the hospital and they have chest pain, for instance, they’re told that they’ve had a heart attack and they get stents put in their heart and usually they get a list of medication,” Aggarwal said.

Her goal is to broaden the conversation to: “Sir/Ma’am, you’ve had a heart attack, but don’t worry, we’ve got you. We’re going to show you some of the foods we want you to eat, so you can start incorporating some of those foods into your diet at home, and teach you how eating the right foods can make you feel better. We are going to give you tools so you can work on healing yourself.”

Capozzi, 58, of Hawthorne, Florida, said the menu was an adjustment after what he had been used to eating his whole life, but he said the change has been worth it.

“As someone who was eating steak all the time, to have to eat plant-based, I mean that is a big shift and lifestyle change,” he said. “But I’ve been holding extremely true to the diet, and most people can’t believe (my health) has changed that much.”

Capozzi said all his bloodwork has been coming back good and he is off the medication he was originally taking. He said he even thinks it is helping him better manage his diabetes.

“It is hard to argue something that is working. It’s OK to turn your nose up at it, but give it a try,” he added.

Aggarwal told him that he can have treats, but Capozzi is using this plant-based diet as a way to lose weight, so he is sticking to it completely.

“One of the neatest things (Aggarwal) said to me was, ‘If you eat my diet, I don’t care what your weight is,’ ” Capozzi said. “That is so down-to-earth because back when I was 30, I had a doctor who put me on a diet to lose weight and based off my height and my age I should weigh ‘x.’ ”

Menu items are being rolled out to hospital visitors and staff but the entire menu is available to patients in the UF Health Shands system. They’ve been using it for several months, and Aggarwal said the reaction has been good.

“People say things like, ‘Wow, I really didn’t expect that eating plants would taste so good,’ ” she said.

She said most of the people using this new menu are enjoying the food and are surprised healthy food can taste so good.

“When patients come into the clinic, they’re super excited about making changes,” Aggarwal said. “Just giving them that first step in the hospital (with the plant-based menu) gives them hope for what they can do.”

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