Dr. Gary Deng on Aligning Mind and Body Through Food, Traditional Medicine, and Self-Care
For nearly twenty years, integrative medicine specialist Dr. Gary Deng has guided patients through cancer treatment and recovery using a whole-body approach to health. Deng, who serves as the medical director at New York’s distinguished Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, aims to fortify his patients, inside and out. To do so, he has developed a methodology that combines current medical and scientific knowledge with evidence-based procedures from Eastern medicine, focused on issues including nutrition, exercise, and managing one’s circadian rhythms. Deng also counsels people on beneficial ways to incorporate herbs and dietary supplements into their diets, and works closely with a team of therapists who offer his patients acupuncture, yoga, massages, music therapy, exercise plans, and qigong, a centuries-old workout regimen that plays an important role in traditional Chinese medicine. Tailored to each individual, his distinctive approach promotes lasting physical and emotional healing.
Outside of work, Deng practices what he prescribes. An experienced home cook who prepares three meals a day for his family, he just released his first cookbook, The Wellness Principles: Cooking for a Healthy Life (Phaidon), which features 100 of his efficient, accessible recipes. “I don’t have a lot of time, so I make it very quick,” Deng says. “Some of the dishes may take longer, but the hands-on time is very short: five minutes here, ten minutes there, and you’re done.” In addition to what to make and eat, the book offers plenty of food-related tips, including how to stock a pantry, how to add flavors to meals, and how to achieve a balanced lifestyle through practices beyond diet, such as stress management, getting enough sleep, and self-care.
We recently spoke with Deng about how food can contribute to wellness. He was careful to emphasize that healthy living isn’t only about diet. By focusing on specific parts of the body or individual treatments, he maintains, modern medicine often fails to consider health from a holistic perspective. He aims to do the latter.
How do you consider eating in relation to your work with cancer patients?
We see a cancer patient as a whole, rather than just a tumor. For that, we need to strengthen their body and their mind. Diet is actually one of the first questions people ask about when they’re diagnosed with cancer. My response is that this includes not only what you eat or don’t eat, but also how you eat. Take your time to eat, and pay attention to what you’re consuming and how that impacts you. There’s a mind-body connection to diet.
What you eat matters once it’s inside the body, too. A recent study found that a high-fiber diet helps the immune system fight cancer. It also cultivates a diverse, healthy gut microbiome that aids in digestion. We have hundreds of different species of microbes in our gut that interact with the body in very intimate ways. There are certain foods that we can’t digest without their help.
That kind of thinking can be useful to everyone. Are there specific foods you encourage people to make part of their daily intakes?
Some people think they need to go super healthy, like eating raw food exclusively, but that’s not very approachable. If a diet is healthy but not realistic, then it’s a moot point. Diversity in diet is more important than any single food, which can’t supply the many nutrients the body requires.
A nutritious diet doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your favorite foods, though. In my cooking, and in my cookbook, I incorporate versions of common dishes that many people think are unhealthy. You can make pizza really healthy, for instance. It depends on what you’re putting on there, and how you cook it.