A poor-quality diet is the top risk factor for death in the United States. So why do most people – and doctors – ignore nutrition?

In the first session of a two-part mini-course at the Evanston Public Library, two renowned cardiologists explained the profound benefits of dietary and lifestyle changes and offered digestible nuggets of advice.

“Your fate is not in your genes,” said Stephen Devries, a preventive cardiologist, professor and co-founder of the educational non-profit Gaples Institute, which provides resources and advocates for making nutrition a bigger part of medical care. “It’s what you do with your genes.”

Barbara Deal, an electrophysiologist, at left, and Stephen Devries, a preventive cardiologist,, tell a library audience about obesity and healthy eating. Credit: Julie Deardorff / Evanston RoundTable

In addition to Devries, the course “Diet, Heart Health, and Living a Full Life” featured Barbara Deal, professor emerita at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Deal, an electrophysiologist who specialized in arrhythmia surgery for children, turned her attention to obesity after she learned about its skyrocketing prevalence in early childhood and its relationship to heart disease and other health issues in adulthood.

“Babies aren’t born obese,” said Deal, who earned her master’s of science in nutrition and became board certified in obesity medicine. “But obesity begins in early childhood and it’s a leading cause of many diseases we don’t tend to recognize.”

The program was sponsored by the Northwestern Emeriti Organization, which since 2019 has offered quarterly non-credit, no-charge mini-courses in partnership with the Evanston Public Library. The second session on Wednesday, Jan. 25, will also feature Devries and Deal and cover the factors that contribute to poor nutrition, the impact of poverty and food insecurity, and the environmental influence of chemicals and the environment.

Both Devries and Deal grew interested in the power of healthy eating and lifestyle strategies when they realized the dramatic impact that nutrition could have on their patients. Devries was a preventive cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine who had a nine-month waiting list when he left his practice to become executive director of the Gaples Institute in 2012. “I wanted to address the gap in nutrition education and practice in medicine,” he said.

The Gaples Institute offers an interactive online nutrition learning program for all learners in English and Spanish as a public service. In addition, the Gaples Institute has developed a nutrition course for health professionals that is now required in the curriculum of leading medical schools and residency programs. 

The course has been taken by more than 4,000 students and clinicians, with 97% reporting that it will change their practice. Devries, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also teaches a new course at Harvard, “Integrating Nutrition into Clinical Practice: The Role of Health Professionals as Change Agents.”

“Patients have much more control over their health than they realize,” he said. “Eighty percent of heart disease is preventable. And we know how to do it.”

An easy way to start is to peer into your shopping cart, Devries said. A plate can’t be healthy if the shopping cart is loaded with processed foods, so at least half of what you carry out of the store should be fruits and vegetables.

He also offered tips on de-salinating the diet or reducing salt consumption, since excess salt contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Burritos, of all things, are a surprisingly large source of sodium (just behind packaged meat and pizza). So go with the bowl whenever possible and incorporate more foods that are rich in potassium, such as bananas, beans and green leafy vegetables, Devries said.

Deal stressed that obesity was a disease, rather than a choice, something she plans to expand on in the second session. But she also gave the audience three assignments: Eat a piece of fruit, avoid sweetened drinks and walk 22 minutes.

“There’s a big misconception that nutrition is something you need to do for 20 years before you reap the benefits,” Devries said. “But in fact, nutrition works really fast. For example, adopting a fruit- and vegetable-rich DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] diet has been shown to reduce blood pressure in just two weeks.”

To register for the second session, visit the Evanston Public Library’s events page and click on Jan. 25. The program is both in person and virtual, and begins at 6 p.m. 

Pat Sullivan

Patricia Sullivan worked at the Washington Post for about 20 years, covering everything from news obituaries to politics to hurricanes. She spent a year as a liaison between IT staff and the newsroom,...

Julie Deardorff

Julie Deardorff is an Evanston resident, the mom of two teenagers, and award-winning journalist and columnist who covered everything from sports and politics to education and health during a 23-year career...

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