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Tonya Cruikshank: It’s much more than diet alone

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Queenstown MD Dr Tonya Cruikshank advocates healthy whole food eating, but she’s equally adamant that there’s much more to being healthy than the food itself. Catherine and I caught up with her on a much-needed break to a part of New Zealand that can only be described as stunning – a place this UK-borne doctor has called home for over 20 years.

Although she still has a commercial finger in local general practice operations, Tonya has moved away from direct personal involvement. Today, she focuses more on personal consultation rather than general sick care, which medical practices worldwide are becoming overwhelmed with.

People like Tonya and several of her professional colleagues accept that the next big move in health can only happen when people assume a level of personal responsibility for their well-being. Her efforts now are about guiding them along that path.

Taking control of your health might sound straightforward, but we all have barriers, whether they be a genuine medical issue or a natural reluctance to step out confidently when all around you say, ‘There must be a pill for that.’

The crucial elements

There are three essential elements here, she says.

“I look at what the human challenge is in doing this. How do we actually do this? What gets in the way, and what other factors must we do for gut health to take away inflammation, which is around our emotional health and well-being? It’s why I talk about mind, body health a lot. Our mind and emotions have a big role in food choice in timing and sometimes this is an important piece to look at.

“This is the place that we lost out when we created medicine. We don’t really understand the psychology so we just do the body bits that we can see and someone else can do the mind bits.”

Because of its various specialist fields, health care is entrenched in the business of compartmentalising health. WFPB advocates, although accepting of it in some areas, are becoming increasingly concerned that MDs, constricted by a 15-minute appointment window, have little time to get to know their patients.

It’s a concern that people like Australia’s Darren Morten and longevity health specialist, Dr Peter Attia from the US talk of at length.

“We used to die fast of trauma and infection. Well, everyone died of trauma or infection. You didn’t hit 50 unless you were really lucky. Now we all die slowly of lifestyle related diseases. The big four Attia talks about are cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, neurodegenerative disease and cancer, and how much lifestyle can influence that?

“So, I think, well, the challenge is from a preventive point of view of how to get people to deal with that before they have a crisis or before they’ve become a doctor and they’ve read the evidence. What are the challenges that get in the way of that?”

The idea of leaning

Tonya is encouraged by England’s Dr Gemma Newman, who introduced the idea of ‘leaning’ – a thought that you don’t have to be “all or nothing” when it comes to plant-based eating.

“For one client I worked with, we reversed his type 2 diabetes by being plant-based about four days a week. I was so impressed to learn that you don’t have to be all or nothing.”

An all-or-nothing approach can be off-putting for many patients and sometimes even for the clearly convinced.

“I went to Japan recently and half the time, if I’d have been rigid about eating only whole food plant-based, I wouldn’t have eaten. Even though Japan has some amazing plant based foods, I found access difficult where I was so I needed to include animal protein to ensure nutrition. I think I was an unusual tourist though as I loved the acquired taste of Natto – sticky fermented soy beans- fermented fibre and protein – brilliant!”

Maintaining diet flexibility is essential for Tonya, but she is also concerned about how much our food has changed, as she explains in the following audio segment.

Note: Some audio segments below contain frank language.

The problem of moving people into healthier eating, she says, is a process in itself, even with her own older teenage family. Where family is concerned, she says, you just have to keep trying.

In the next sound segment from the interview, she covers:

  1. Dealing with the family.
  2. Plant-based options.
  3. Gut dysfunction.
  4. The learned lesson from smoking.
  5. The protein problem.
  6. Keto, Paleo, carnivores & cavemen.
  7. The psychology around meat.
  8. Processed foods.

Partner support

One of the biggest issues we all face when adopting a whole food plant-based diet, or almost any diet for that matter, is partner support. Males generally don’t object if a new way of eating incorporates tastes they’re familiar with. However, it can be difficult if dishes are significantly unfamiliar or don’t include their favourite food – usually meat.

Generally, women are probably more open to reviewing the impact of their diet, but often, nothing short of a serious medical event will be enough to make both parties reconsider their eating regime.

That certainly applied in my case. While I was open to change, I have to admit if my wife Catherine hadn’t become so convinced of its benefits early in the piece, I’d still be floundering today. Strong partner support is a big bonus.

For others, the changeover, which can involve episodes of feeling bloated, can make some think twice and even wonder if they’re allergic to plant-based eating altogether.

In this next sound segment, Dr Cruikshank covers matters related to the value of partner support, allergies, and changing your gut biome.

She ends up with an example of what happened when, several years ago, she resorted to downing a snarler at a good old Kiwi sausage sizzle and explains what it did to her.

In this final segment, Dr Cruikshank delves more deeply into how the microbiome handles different foods in ways that send signals that can be misread but which are not an issue in the long term.

She also covers the issue of genetics, looks into the value of consultation and how we can establish ourselves to have a better knowledge of ‘self’ when it comes to protecting our future good health.

Peter Barclay
Peter Barclay
Has a professional background in journalism, photography and design. He is a passionate Kiwi traveler and an ardent evangelist for protecting all the good things New Zealand is best known for. With his wife Catherine is also the co-owner of Wholefoodliving.

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