Diet plays a fundamental role in health: Lunch with Dr. Dale Lee

Dr. Dale Lee is a pediatric gastroenterologist and the Director of Clinical Nutrition at Seattle Children’s Hospital. In addition to caring for young patients who adore him, Dr. Lee works with various scientific teams, including nutrition epidemiologists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He has been involved with a wide variety of studies evaluating the role of diet and disease. He is dual fellowship trained in Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, and his research is focused on the role of diet in inflammatory bowel disease pathogenesis and the role of dietary intervention as therapy for active disease.

“As a specialist in Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, I care for a broad variety of conditions impacting the GI tract and the body’s ability to digest foods. Medical conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease can be intimidating, but it is my privilege to come alongside patients and their families as we develop a comprehensive treatment plan and work towards getting back to good health. My particular area of expertise and research experience is in the role of diet in disease. This includes the thoughtful use of dietary therapy and studying the role of food additives in inflammatory bowel disease. I am a strong believer that diet plays a fundamental role in health and can be utilized as part of the therapeutic plan for many GI tract conditions. My goal is to help children achieve their potential and not be limited by their medical conditions.” 

Dale Young Lee, MD, MSCE (seattlechildrens.org)

Dr. Lee has received numerous awards and honors, co- authored a long list of scientific publications, and presented his research nationally and internationally. Looking at the photos of his meals that he shared with us here, it becomes clear that his diet helps sustain his demanding schedule and successful career.

Here is our chat with Dr. Lee

When and how did you first become aware of the power of food and dietary protocols?

When I was a GI fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, I was amazed to learn that nutritional therapy for Crohn’s disease with exclusive enteral nutrition (EEN) could be effective at helping hospitalized children heal. They felt better, gained weight, and their markers of inflammation normalized.

In what ways is your own diet important to you? How does it make a difference in your own daily life?

Diet is fundamental to my daily life. I joke that I think about eating as soon as I wake up, and when I arrive at work I’m already thinking about lunch. To me, I love the taste of food, but knowing the nutritional value of food makes a food taste even better to me. Perhaps to me “taste” is not just flavor, but also encompasses how food nourishes the body. In my practice as a pediatric GI physician, I focus mostly on treating inflammatory bowel disease and also celiac disease—both conditions in which diet is central to management of the disease.

What personal dietary style or dietary restrictions do you chose to follow, based on your own body needs?

I do not have any dietary restrictions, but I try to minimize refined sugars and highly processed foods. If at all possible, I prefer fresh produce and home cooked meals, but as a busy family we enjoy eating food from restaurants about twice a week or so. I try to listen to my body. For example, I know fiber is critical to functioning of the GI tract. When I eat something more luxurious like steak, I make sure to balance it with high-fiber foods such as vegetables and fruit. Also, I love water—to me a chilled glass of water is the most delicious beverage!

Do you eat in the cafeteria, or do you take your own food to work and when you travel?

I bring my own food to work about half the time and purchase hospital cafeteria food about half the time. When I travel, my wife often times packs our family food, but we also do eat out.

Do you like to cook or bake? What food do you enjoy preparing?

My wife is a really good cook, and I’m not bad either. My son loves baked goods, so I’ve taken on baking. Two of our favorites are: lemon bundt cake with almond flour; and peanut butter cookies with almond flour.

What are your favorite vegetables? How do you like them prepared?

I really enjoy a fresh chopped salad with cucumbers, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, avocado, some citrus fruit, and perhaps an egg or grilled chicken. My preferred dressing is a good balsamic vinegar.

Do you enjoy visiting farmer markets, gardening, or any other food related activities?

We have a small garden in our front yard. It’s presently growing cherry tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, and blueberries. The romaine lettuce is abundant, but the other produce is in process.

What other helpful lifestyle choices do you choose to follow in order to ‘show up’ at peak performance in your personal and professional life?

Preparing ahead of time and enjoying a trip through the grocery store to become familiar with the foods available is important to me. Also, making sure to choose foods that your family likes is key. I’ve learned (with a younger child) that making healthy food delicious is important. For example, liberal olive oil and seasoning on roasted vegetables transforms the dish. Also, sauces and other things to make foods taste good is important for young palates.

How can we empower people, young and old, to learn about the power of good food and adhere to a diet that works best for each individual?

It has been said, “You are what you eat”—and I partially agree with this. Eating well can make you feel good, helps to fuel healthy growth and development, and also helps to minimize the risk of developing a variety of chronic illnesses. Learning to eat healthy should occur in small steps. For example, start by drinking more water instead of sweetened beverages. Or, you can start by committing to take one fruit per day to work/school. Perhaps you can take a small container of nuts as a snack instead of buying a candy bar or bag of chips. Each of these decisions is important and impactful to your health!

Food in hospital cafeteria and food served to inpatients in most hospitals is far from healthy… We know that hospitalized patients and their caregivers depend of friends and relatives to bring them healthy food from home or from Whole Foods stores… How can we improve this situation?

This is a difficult situation. Talking to cafeterias and hospitals directly is an option, but also learning to raise awareness via larger groups is also powerful. I am the Director of Clinical Nutrition at our hospital, but I am not involved in decisions about the cafeteria. In our hospital we are fortunate that many good options do exist, but for others this may require asking or some creativity.

When you find yourself in a social event and there are no healthy food options that comply with your dietary protocol, what would you do?

I think that preparing with a “plan B” is always important. For my patients on dietary therapy for IBD or with celiac disease, I always recommend bringing some food along, or at least asking ahead of time what options might be available.

Do you have advice for dieters who must defend themselves from ‘food pushers’? Even loving but clueless family members sometimes say: ‘surely you can have a few candies’, or ‘once in a while you can eat bread’… How can dieters, especially kids who maintain dietary therapies, protect themselves from the myth of “everything in moderation” ?

It is a difficult situation when someone who loves you intends to express their love by giving you food, but the food is not what is right for you. I think being polite is a good first step. Some folks may forget and need repeat reminding. I remember my closest friend from medical school had a severe peanut allergy, but I accidently have offered him food with nuts more times than I can remember! Also, being able to communicate the medical importance of a specific diet can be hard. I would recommend rehearing or writing out the key points (should be able to convey in like 30 seconds or less). In particularly difficult situations, sometimes it takes a friend or family member further substantiating the importance of a specific diet to help someone comprehend and back off of their insistence that you eat a specific food.

Given your extensive experience in researching and implementing dietary therapies, what excites you most about the future of this field?

I’m excited because of the greater appreciation of the role of diet in disease and health.
Whereas many physicians in the past may have been uncertain if diet truly did impact the course of IBD, this is now clear. I think greater insights on specific (individualized) diet recommendations will come about in the near future!

All photos by Dr. Dale Lee Dale Young Lee, MD, MSCE (seattlechildrens.org)

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One comment

  1. Great article; I shared to my Twitter. Thanks for being a continued resource for practical, encouraging, food & health guidance!

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