Instruction in plant-based dietary medicine is one part of a new residency program launching in July at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Maine Med’s two-year program, which joins a growing group of teaching hospitals offering the specialty, offers doctors board certification in preventive medicine, a master’s degree in public health and extensive nutrition education.

This branch of medicine aims to prevent disease rather than treat it, and a core part of maintaining health involves eating the right food.

Dr. Craig Schneider, who as the head of Maine Med’s integrative medicine department will oversee the nutrition education, said the program will cover the basics of human nutrition plus offer instruction in the latest medical research around diet, including the growing body of studies that link plant-based diets and health.

The program won’t advocate a specific diet, Schneider said, but the weight of the current research is clear.

“The general gist is a (journalist/food advocate) Michael Pollan type approach: mostly plant-based foods that are minimally processed,” Schneider said.

The diets used in plant-based medical studies are typically vegetarian or vegan.

The Maine Med residency is one of 72 offered nationwide, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American College of Preventive Medicine. Each year the Maine Med program will accept two new residents who have already completed a residency in another specialty (such as internal medicine or surgery) and are committed to remaining in Maine after their residency ends.

“There’s been increased interest in preventive medicine residency programs,” said Paul Bonta, associate director of the American College of Preventive Medicine. “So we are seeing new programs starting up.”

The hospital is backing this program to further its commitment to improving the overall health of Mainers, according to Dr. Christina Holt, director of the new preventive medicine residency at Maine Med. The program is bolstered by almost $1 million in grant funding over the next three years from the national Health Resources and Services Administration.

Holt said most of the preventive medicine programs around the country have a particular focus. “Our program is focused on vulnerable populations and integrative medicine,” she said.

Maine Med has been teaching integrative medicine to residents in its family practice and other specialties for more than a decade, said Holt, who practices family medicine and is also board certified in preventive medicine.

“The integrative component of this program is really looking at expanding the thinking around nutrition,” she said. “The interest is so evidently there, even from the general population. People want to be able to influence their own health and well being.”

The term integrative medicine refers to a practice style that combines mainstream treatments (such as prescriptions and surgeries) with non-mainstream treatments (such as massage and dietary changes).

Observing that “the average med student gets around 20 hours of nutritional education in their whole career,” Dr. James Loomis, medical director of the all plant-based Barnard Medical Center in Washington, D.C., sees the increased interest in preventive medicine as a sign of positive change.

“I think we are starting to see a fairly significant grassroots movement where people are realizing there is another path than taking all these medicines,” he said.

The Barnard Medical Center offers rotations to medical students and residents interested in plant-based lifestyle medicine. This practice is designed to test whether or not prescribing plant-based diets and lifestyle changes is a viable business model. The nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates for policy changes related to plant-based food and medicine, is backing the practice.

“We hope to make the economic case for lifestyle medicine and healthcare costs,” Loomis said. “We hope to go to employer groups and say, ‘Why are you paying all this money to fill people’s prescriptions when we have a program that can save you millions and your employees will be healthier and happier?’ ”

Back here in Maine, with a just few months before Maine Med’s first preventive medicine residents start, Holt and her team are putting the finishing touches on their program.

“We will help these graduates to have a bigger perspective,” Holt said. “We will help them know how to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

That’s a task that will require changes in the doctor’s office and in the policy-making halls of Augusta. It’s a task these new doctors will be well-equipped to tackle once they graduate.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila