Time to set the record straight – what Lifestyle Medicine is, and what it is not

There’s no doubt that Lifestyle Medicine is capturing everyone’s imagination. It’s all over the media at the moment. Because it is a comprehensive, evidence-based, whole system approach to treat and prevent chronic and lifestyle-related disease. It also helps reframe ‘health’ as a product not only of behaviour, but of society and environment. A sick society produces sick people – and that is the crux of the problem.

One of the disadvantages of all this popularity is that everybody wants to be part of it – even those who are not really espousing Lifestyle Medicine. So if you are following an ‘influencer’ or reading a health blogger promoting something that doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny (and many don’t), then it’s simply not Lifestyle Medicine.

Let’s be clear about what Lifestyle Medicine is NOT:

Lifestyle Medicine is not a non-drug approach. Medical science has given us some life-saving medicines, devices and procedures and it would be foolish not to use them when they are needed. The issue is that there is an over-reliance on medication while the underlying causes of the symptoms or pathology are often not being addressed – something medications generally don’t do anyway. Ideally, as the underlying problem is addressed and resolves, medication may be able to be reduced or ceased. Practitioners need more training, tools and resources to help them assist their patients to make these changes. And society needs intelligent health policy to address the upstream socioeconomic and environmental drivers of ill health – it’s no exaggeration to say we live in a obesogenic society!

Lifestyle Medicine is not about taking supplements. Lifestyle Medicine is not something you can “take”, it’s something you do, or help others do. It’s about diet and nutrition, physical activity, smoking cessation, reducing risky alcohol consumption, addressing chronic stress, sleep debt, social isolation, lack of connectedness, loss of culture and identity, meaning and purpose, and so on. Supplementation may well be necessary given that we don’t live in an ideal world and our diets and exposures are rarely ‘balanced’, but it’s not Lifestyle Medicine.

Lifestyle Medicine is not integrative medicine, nor is it nutritional and environmental medicine or functional medicine.  It is fundamentally different in definition and scope, despite that Lifestyle Medicine will obviously share some supporters with these fields. It is certainly not complementary, alternative or what is sometimes called ‘natural’ medicine. Of course, Lifestyle Medicine considers the whole person – we are after all complex emotional and social beings – and aims to address the ’cause’ (and the cause of the cause), because the body will try to heal itself if given half a chance.

Lifestyle Medicine is not about fad diets or ‘diets’ in general for that matter. Lifestyle Medicine is about improving dietary approaches towards common sense, healthy, well-adjusted eating. Very few people meet the guidelines for diet and physical activity so that’s where we should focus our efforts. More whole foods (vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds), less added sugars and refined carbs, avoiding processed meats, water for thirst, more incidental movement and regular physical activity, and so on.  Dietary approaches may need to be modified, or be therapeutically applied to achieve an outcome, but fundamentalist positions, or positions that focus on one area of the science while ignoring other equally valid areas, are not Lifestyle Medicine.

Lifestyle Medicine is not a vegetarian or vegan movement.  What we eat, why we eat it, how we prepare and share it, is inextricably linked to culture and identity, tradition, geography, resources and probably the least of these, to individual choice, given that our ‘choices’ are usually a product of all the above.  We owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Pollan for condensing this difficult and often emotional subject into a simple recommendation we can all support, “Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants.” And probably more important these days, to avoid “edible food-like substances.”

Lifestyle Medicine is not politically partisan. We may call out a lack of leadership and political will to address the issues we are facing as a society – but we see this on both sides of politics. Our platform is simply that human health is dependent on social and environmental health, and therefore on healthy communities, social justice, health equity and environmental responsibility, just to name a few of the determinants of health.

Finally, and it’s a shame to even have to mention it because of some irresponsible media in recent times, but Lifestyle Medicine has nothing to do with religion. ASLM for example, has no religious affiliations and never has had. Lifestyle Medicine is a secular scientific discipline and a movement for change in health, healthcare, society, environment and our future.

Lifestyle Medicine, by definition, is an evidence-based, interdisciplinary, whole system application of the known science across clinical practice, community, public health and everything in between. It makes sense because it’s a comprehensive view of health. In short, it’s everything we already know but are not doing collectively enough, or creatively enough, to address the scale and trajectory of the problem we have created.

So if someone is offering you a product, service, program or philosophy that doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, ignores other good science, lacks common sense, or comes with some other ideological agenda, then it’s not Lifestyle Medicine!