Duluth physician prescribes changing lifestyles for better health

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When a reporter arrived over the noon hour last Tuesday, Dr. Jason Buffington set aside his lunch to talk.

But his lunch was part of the story. Held in a shallow Tupperware container, it consisted of lettuce, beets, garbanzo beans and radishes. Supper the night before had been vegetarian chili. Breakfast consisted of a big bowl of oatmeal with berries and soy milk and flaxseed.

That hasn’t always been the case for the 50-year-old physician and his family.

“We had a salad every day, and I always liked fruit,” the family medicine doctor said in his office at the Essentia Health-West Duluth Clinic. “But … every week was frozen pizza and chicken and probably a red meat and, with busy kids, sometimes we ate at restaurants.”

About eight years ago, the Buffington family transitioned to a diet based on natural, whole foods. He considers himself neither a vegan nor a vegetarian, but meat has almost no part in his diet.

With almost evangelical zeal, he advocates for his patients to do the same.

“You get a few patients that actually change,” Buffington said. “And all of a sudden, they come back and they got rid of their diabetes or their (high) blood pressure and you take them off medications. That’s really exciting. As a physician, it’s not just writing out more and more and more prescriptions.”

Buffington is so committed to the idea of improving health through lifestyle changes that five years ago, he earned certification from the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He is among only 16 physicians in Minnesota with that certification, according to a spokeswoman for the college. Only three other health professionals in the state have been certified. Buffington’s colleague Todd Plocher, a physician assistant, has taken the college’s training curriculum.

Buffington’s interest in the subject began only about seven or eight years ago, he said. A runner, he read a book on the subject presenting information that was new to him.

“It talked about that milk might not be that healthy for us,” he said. “And I thought, that’s kind of odd. I’d better look into this.”

It led Buffington to a deep study of nutrition, to changes in his family’s lifestyle, and to discovery and the eventual lifestyle medicine certification.

It was all new to him, Buffington said. It hadn’t been taught in medical school.

“Unfortunately, embarrassingly, physicians, health care providers, are not taught much about nutrition and its effects on our diseases in medical school or even in any of our medical education courses,” he said. “It’s not in our journals, which are mostly pharmaceutical-backed journals. You don’t find studies on nutrition.”

But nutrition and other aspects of lifestyle — such as exercise, sleep and dealing with stress — now play a key part in Buffington’s consultations with his patients. That includes a new wave of patients who see him specifically for lifestyle medicine consultation at the Essentia Health Wellness Clinic in Hermantown.

But in a fast food, super size, sugary drink culture, it can be a hard sell.

“I came out thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got the golden egg here, and all I have to do is tell people, and everybody’s going to change,’” Buffington related. “Seven years in, I can tell you 5% of my patients have made any changes.”

Among the 5% is Tommy Archer.

Tommy Archer credits dietary changes with keeping his prostate cancer at bay.

Tommy Archer credits dietary changes with keeping his prostate cancer at bay.

A real estate agent and former professional race car driver, Archer was referred to Buffington by a friend five years ago when he returned from the Mayo Clinic after receiving 33 radiation treatments for prostate cancer.

He credits the diet advocated by Buffington for keeping the cancer from recurring.

“But we know it’s still there,” said Archer, 65. “And we know if I eat some of the wrong foods, it will grow.”

As evidence, he mentions having had desserts at Christmas and New Year’s a couple of years ago. His PSA doubled.

Why did he decide to listen to Buffington?

“Well, he held up two fingers,” Archer said. “And he wiggled the big one and said, ‘You can live,’ and he wiggled the little one and said, ‘Or you can die.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to choose what you’re going to do.’ And that was my ‘why.’”

Archer went on a diet consisting mostly of fruits and vegetables with some chicken and fish. The first month was the hardest, he said, and it continued to be hard for the next couple of months.

Then Buffington made it harder.

“He said, ‘OK, I want you to cut out the chicken and fish,’” Archer related. “I said, ‘Oh, you’re kidding me. What am I supposed to eat?’ And he says, ‘You’ll survive.’”

He has eliminated sugar from his diet. He went from drinking five or six cans of pop a day to drinking none at all. He seldom drank alcohol but did enjoy the taste of an occasional beer, Archer said. Now, he doesn’t have any.

A well-known figure who is outspoken about the difference lifestyle changes have made for him, Archer has become something of an unofficial counselor himself. He told of someone he encountered at the gym who asked him: “If I stop eating sugar, will I survive?” “And I’m like, ‘You’ll do way better.’”

The other man joined Weight Watchers and has lost 16 pounds, Archer said.

Getting more people to buy in may require policy changes, Buffington said. He noted that smoking dropped when taxes went up and laws were passed banning smoking in some areas.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the health care that really changes people’s behaviors,” he said. “We’re the educators. We should be part of the drivers. But it’s going to be the health (workers) helping drive policy that’s really going to hopefully change behaviors a little bit.”

Lifestyle medicine is offered at the Essentia Health Wellness Clinic-Hermantown, 4289 Ugstad Road. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Make an appointment by calling 218-786-3100.

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