I’m a dissenter from way back.
Perhaps it’s my red hair and nearly 6-foot frame that made me always feel different. I never quite fit the mold as a good Southern girl. I’m too loud, too assertive, too much a leader.
I struggled with some of the belief systems around me, so I majored in religion and theology to frame my own conclusions in a foundation of education. I wrestled with my thoughts and sought diverse perspectives.
In medicine, I chose an uncommon field – med-peds – and pursed academic primary care after many had pushed me to do subspecialty training.
During residency, a perfect storm of events led me to food. That’s right, food. I discovered that my husband’s celiac disease that went undiagnosed for decades could be cured by food. I discovered that my mom’s breast cancer remission could be supported by food. I wondered why physicians learn so little about the leading preventable cause of death – a suboptimal diet.1,2 My family slowly and methodically changed everything about the way we ate.
I studied nutrition. Colleagues told me no one really wanted to change, and nutrition was a losing battle. I became a junior faculty member. I began to speak up, and I brought my own lunch. Colleagues and leaders initially teased me. It was mostly good-natured and sometimes a thin veneer covering their own concern that I was judging their choices.
I trained in culinary medicine and now, lifestyle medicine. I spoke of its value to anyone willing to listen. I was often the only voice in the room.
I defended nutrition science. I dove into its complexity, its fallibility, its merit. I changed the way I counseled my patients and trained my residents and students. Don’t forget to talk about food! I attempted to convince them it matters and to equip them to do it well. Some of them believed me.
I gave some scientifically rooted grand rounds talks. I found sympathizers. People wanted to know how they could modify disease risk, promote health, and find energy again.
I started a culinary medicine program. First, we reached medical students. Then, it grew to residents, to fellows, to continuing education, and to our community. Everyone loves food, after all, and the message began to stick that it can be delicious and nutritious all at once.
I partnered with research colleagues and began a training program to equip myself, a novice researcher. I applied the slow, steady principles of building relationships, studying my work, asking good questions, and changing course when wrong.
Nearly a decade after I began this journey to share that food is medicine, I no longer felt so vulnerable or alone. As a bridge-builder, I found institutional and community support at every turn. I saw a path forward, and my passion was rooted in inquisitiveness, in science, in open-mindedness.
Here’s what I didn’t do.
I didn’t throw out science, become a victim, or take to the media. I didn’t vilify those who disagreed. I didn’t create fear in my messaging. I didn’t disrespect those struggling to understand my message.
Today, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am both hopeful and inspired as well as disappointed. I see those angry that their ideas or opinions conflict with science. Instead of the steady path and hard work of building bridges, they create division. I see many capitalizing on fear and uncertainty, weaving a compelling story and drawing in the desperate ones who need a scapegoat, an explanation, or some form of certainty.
It’s OK to be a dissenter.
It’s OK to challenge what seems to be the status quo.
It’s OK to ask questions about why we do things the way we do them.
But if you really want to see a meaningful conversation, you must go about it in the right way. The right way is usually slow and painful but full of the promise of refinement that only comes through allowing our work and our perspectives to pass through the filters of those who see the world differently. Only then can the purest form of our questions be answered, and our message be heard.
Jaclyn Lewis Albin is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com