Highlights – and lowlights – of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine annual conference

18 September 2017

Last weekend I attended the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) annual conference to present the findings of my Bachelor of Health Science Honours research project. The project was on the effects of membership of the Facebook group ‘Wholefood Plant-Based Aussies’ on people’s ability to maintain a healthy plant-based diet.

I thought my presentation would be a good match for a conference that billed itself as being all about taking the focus of health care off waiting until people get sick and then treating them with drugs and procedures, and putting it on preventing disease (as well as stopping it from getting worse, and even reversing it in many cases) by teaching people the connection between their lifestyle habits and their health outcomes.

After all, a wholefood plant-based diet is one of the most evidence-based lifestyle medicine interventions around, with studies showing that it can reverse heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune diseases, help people lose weight and keep it off without restricting their portion size or exercising like fiends, and many other benefits.

So it was a more than a little disappointing that the words ‘plant-based diet’ were uttered by relatively few of the speakers – with some notable exceptions, which I’ll come to shortly.

The most infuriating experience of the entire conference was sitting through a 40 minute presentation by Tim Flannery on climate change, in which he made no mention whatsoever of the role of animal agriculture in driving not just climate change, but every other environmental crisis we face, from dead zones in the ocean to coral bleaching to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. Could Flannery’s muteness on the subject have anything to do with his close ties to Meat and Livestock Australia, I wondered?

Speaking of close ties, Joanna Miller’s enthusiastic spruiking of the ‘benefits’ of extra virgin olive oil left me feeling slightly nauseated, since Cobram Estate (an olive oil producer) was a Diamond Sponsor of the conference [translation – they threw a helluva lot of money at the ASLM].

I thought my eyes were going to roll back in my head so far I’d never see daylight again when she trotted out the tired old furphy that the PREDIMED study proved that a Mediterranean diet including olive oil consumption reduced the rate of heat attacks. It absolutely did not; only stroke risk showed a statistically significant reduction in the PREDIMED study. It wasn’t a particularly impressive reduction either, especially when compared to the stunning results obtained by Dr Caldwell Esselstyn’s extremely low fat plant-based diet intervention which contains NO OIL.

It was also disappointing that the majority of sponsors of the conference were nutritional supplement companies. To be clear, I’m not opposed to the use of supplements across the board; they’re useful in some cases. The problem is that, all too often, supplements are prescribed as alternatives to drugs, effectively serving as permission slips for people to continue with the bad lifestyle habits that caused their illness in the first place. Taking supplements can cause people to get complacent about their diet, exercise, sleep habits and all the other important lifestyle factors that largely determine our state of health, because they’re lulled into a false sense of security by that ‘magic pill’.

Well, that’s enough about the lowlights. What about the highlights?

Dr David Katz, who IMHO is one of the smartest doctors on the planet, gave a presentation via Skype which nailed the core issues in lifestyle medicine which such eloquence and precision, that he redeemed the entire conference in my eyes. His talk was titled “E pluribus unum”, which translates as Out of many, one. It’s the motto of the United States, but he used it to make the point that medicine (including ‘alternative medicine’) is heading down a dangerous track of ‘personalised medicine’, whose motto is “Everyone is different, so we all need different diets, different exercise programs, different brands of deodorant…” (OK, I made that last one up, but you get the point.)

(Side note: several of the conference sponsors were companies flogging genetic tests that purport to tell you which kind of diet you should follow, based on your genetic profile.) However, as Katz pointed out, we now have a slew of studies showing clearly that a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and a low intake of saturated fat and refined carbohydrate, dramatically reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and the risk of dying from any disease-related cause, regardless of genetic variation.so much for the idea that different people need different diets!

Other highlights for me were:

  • Dr Felice Jacka’s presentation on the role of the gut microbiome on mental health (take-home message: eat a diet high in fibre and other ‘microbe accessible carbohydrates’ to feed your good bugs, and they will repay you by protecting you against depression and anxiety);
  • Dr Darren Morton’s presentation on the promise of lifestyle medicine for preventing and even reversing neurodegenerative diseases including dementia;
  • Dr Terry Golombick’s abstract on the use of natural compounds including curcumin and Ribraxx for patients with ‘watch and wait’ blood cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and multiple myeloma; and
  • Dr Peta Stapleton’s presentation on using EFT for food cravings (one of my favourite subjects).

Next Saturday I’m off to the US to attend the International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference. Based on my experience of the previous 3 conference, I’m expecting a whole lot less eye-rolling :).

P.S. My presentation was well-received and sparked a lot of interest. Sowing one seed at a time…


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  • Doug Evans

    Reply Reply September 21, 2017

    Hi Robyn It was good to see at the conference on the week end. On Sunday I think In made the wrong choice by going into the lectures on ‘Public and planetary health converge’ . I was particularly interested in Dr Sujata Allan’s lecture on climate change, and although her’s and the other lectures in general were quiet good,no one mentioned the impact of producing animal products. So at the Q & A session I asked the question, “what about animal products they come at such a high environmental cost”? Sujata was sympathetic and said she was trying to be a vegetarian but sometimes faltered. But then Dr Rob Verkerk said we could all eat insects to get our protein. To which I replied with an assertive tone that “I haven’t had to eat meat for over 40 years and there was no need to eat insects”. From here things got very heated ending up with me going over to him in front of a startled audience and head butting. It was quiet funny and very bloody. Those last 2 sentences are NOT true. He just seemed a bit surprised. And although the panel of speakers were sympathetic to my comments I got the impression they do not fully appreciate the impact production of animal products has.
    I feel last years conference in Melbourne was better. Robyn have a safe trip to crazy trump land,, cheers Doug

    • Robyn Chuter

      Reply Reply September 21, 2017

      It really is amazing Doug, virtually no academics in Australia seem to understand the link between animal agriculture and climate change (or any other environmental problem, for that matter). It’s massively different in the US – all the speakers at the PBNHC who have mentioned climate change in any way, shape or form have acknowledged that animal agriculture is one of, if not THE, major driver of climate change.
      At least not everyone in the US is crazy ;-).

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