Dr. Ron Weiss, 58, is a primary care and urgent care physician who helped treat the first COVID-19 patient in New Jersey in March. Since then, he’s seen hundreds of patients with the disease.
Weiss is not only a doctor but an organic farmer whose integrative medicine practice is located on a 342-acre farm in Long Valley, New Jersey. Weiss revealed how that informs the health advice he gives to COVID-19 patients in an interview with TODAY.
Dr. Ron Weiss dons protective gear as he treats COVID-19 patients in New Jersey.Courtesy Dr. Ron Weiss
This is a teachable moment to change the way we live, especially when it comes to our diet.
The majority of these patients have an underlying chronic illness, as most Americans do, whether it’s being overweight or obese, or having cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure or asthma. What strikes me is that the patient is generally unaware that their underlying diseases can pose more of a risk for the poor outcome in COVID-19.
Even more so, they’re unaware that if they were just to make simple lifestyle changes, they could rid themselves of these increased risks, so that’s where the teachable moment comes in.
It’s a fleeting opportunity that allows a clinician to provide important insight to a potentially contemplative patient, which then can trigger mindfulness and a change in their behavior.
In that moment, I bring up the subject of how changes in their diet can reverse their illnesses — often times very quickly.
Patients who have medical conditions such as hypertension are being treated with medications that do not remove their illness, just sustain them in a chronic state of illness. Whereas by changing their diet and lifestyle, they can free themselves from the illness and improve the chances they will have a good outcome from COVID-19.
A plant-based diet is not just eating some more vegetables. It’s an approach to nutrition so that you’re eating a high level of plants that can help you, and avoiding animal foods and processed foods that hurt you.
I tell these patients there are some specific foods that can upgrade our immune system’s ability to defend us. Many patients are surprised, but I think because they feel how vulnerable they are, they’re listening. That’s my opportunity to help them be more mindful of this subject. The majority of them thank me.
Dr. Weiss on his farm in Long Valley, New Jersey.Courtesy Dr. Ron Weiss
The first food I tell them about is garlic, which has a compound called allicin that’s been shown to upgrade our natural killer cells. At the same time, allicin calms molecular networks so they don’t go haywire and then cause the cytokine storm that’s said to then lead to this respiratory failure that causes patients to need ventilation.
Mushrooms — you don’t have to get fancy, so plain white button mushrooms that are cooked are fine. They’ve been shown to increase IgA, the antibodies found in our saliva. You can get increased levels of these attacking antibodies just by eating those mushrooms every day.
Cruciferous greens (my favorites are kale or raw mustard greens) are like no other plant or food in the world. They have special sulfur molecules that bind onto lymphocytes in our gut and activate them to better defend ourselves against attackers.
These are foods I fortify myself with every day. They’re most powerful when they’re included in this great symphony of nutrition, which includes all the other plants that help us, and a great diversity of them.
I’m not a vegan, but I eat a diet of whole plant foods. I don’t like the term vegan because even though it describes a person whose diet consists solely of foods that come from plants, it doesn’t necessarily tell you what form those foods are in.
A lot of vegan foods are highly processed, therefore being vegan isn’t necessarily good for one’s health. A vegan diet could cause diabetes, hypertension and obesity, whereas a diet of whole plant foods — which is what I consume — reverses these diseases and provides the best health. I don’t eat meat or fish.
Being on an organic and regenerative farm helps inspire me and my patients — they smell the fresh air, they hear the bird song. It cues them to the natural world and informs them where our health really originates from.
For most of us, COIVD-19 has put us on the defensive in that we realize how vulnerable our health is.
Infectious diseases that are much more ferocious than COVID-19 are lurking out there and if we don’t change the way we grow our food and eat our food, it’s feared these emergent diseases will devastate the planet far beyond what COVID-19 is capable of doing.
The pandemic has made us pause from our hectic lives and rediscover what is truly important, which is our health and the well being of our loved ones.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
A. Pawlowski is a TODAY contributing editor focusing on health news and features. Previously, she was a writer, producer and editor at CNN.