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Sunday Sitdown: Dr. Stephen Devries on heart health via nutrition

Dr. Stephen Devries. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

Dr. Stephen Devries left his full-time cardiology practice at Northwestern University four years ago to head the not-for-profit Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology in Deerfield, created with startup funding from Harry Gaples, CEO of the software firm Kleinschmidt. The aim is to teach health professionals about using nutrition to prevent heart disease. Devries introduced online nutrition coursework for health-care professionals and is developing a combined counseling, cooking and nutrition science program that will be rolled out in Chicago, with plans to expand nationally. He spoke with reporter Sandra Guy of the Chicago Sun-Times. An edited transcript follows.

Question: You wrote a column, “Heart Beat,” in the Sun-Times, and you’ve said the questions you got were a sign of how much people wanted to learn about nutrition and take control over their health.

Answer: The column gave me new insight into the importance of nutrition — a topic that is not emphasized in medicine.

In my practice at Northwestern and, previous to that, running the University of Illinois at Chicago’s outpatient heart center and cardiac ultrasound lab for over 15 years, I saw very successful business people. They often came to me to prevent a recurrence after a cardiac crisis. I encouraged them to monitor their health with the same rigor they brought to their businesses.

When they did, magic happened. I saw them realize they were not invulnerable, and they began to lose weight, start exercising and start to take charge of their health.

I also saw their blood pressure and blood-sugar levels go down and saw them reduce or completely get off medication.

Four years ago, I received a letter from Harry Gaples. We discussed our common belief that nutrition and lifestyle are fundamental to health but largely missing from conventional health care. From those discussions, the educational nonprofit Gaples Institute was born.

Q: People sometimes have the idea that exercising and eating right are too much to deal with. What do you say?

A: Small changes can make a very powerful difference. Walking for 30 minutes after a meal — even at a leisurely pace of 1.2 miles per hour — can cut the amount of sugar absorbed by 50 percent. Similarly, even small dietary changes yield substantial health improvements.

But there is no one best diet. There are many ways to eat healthy. I encourage a focus on well-accepted dietary principles — including cutting out sodas, adding a veggie to every meal and replacing meat with fish or a vegetable source of protein.

It’s important to have people realize that every incremental step is incredibly important.

Q: How are Obama administration’s health policies affecting the medical profession?

A: Policy changes within Medicare and elsewhere are starting to reward value over volume.

The traditional reimbursement model rewards health-care providers for providing a service or doing a procedure.

The new changes, just unfolding, do the opposite. Health-care providers will soon receive a set amount of money for treatment of various conditions. In that scenario, procedures are a debit and a financial disincentive. As that new reimbursement model evolves, the role of nutrition and lifestyle will become even more important.

Q: The Gaples Institute runs a cooking class that’s worked with about 75 cardiologists and their trainees over the past three years about making healthy meals. What are your plans for furthering that?

A: We plan to offer our educational program to a wider range of health-care professionals, including doctors of all specialties, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Our initial focus is on the metropolitan Chicago area, with plans to expand to a regional draw within the year and a national program within two years.

Q: The institute sells no health-care products, provides no clinical service. But you have started charging for online coursework.

A: Our online nutrition course is $50 — that doesn’t cover our costs. We have not accepted commercial support to avoid even the perception of bias. Our goal is to get the course in as many hands as possible.

We designed the self-paced course to make it accessible to busy clinicians. The course has been peer-reviewed, and those who complete it qualify for continuing education credits.