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Community garden promotes Plants Over Pills

Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento physicians hope to reduce or reverse hypertension, heart disease among Black members with plant-based diet. The Plants Over Pills team, from left to right: Kristina Somile, Dr. Kristin Gates, Dr. Jon Oide, Dr. Leon Williams (top), Matthew Fuller, and Dr. Milin Ratanasen.

A new community garden at the Kaiser Permanente Elk Grove Medical Office is helping local Black members explore food-based alternatives to lowering high blood pressure and reversing heart disease.

The 4 new garden boxes are part of a newly created educational program out of the Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center called Plants Over Pills that addresses a preference among members to avoid prescription drugs when possible.  

“We were hearing time after time that our patients wanted their blood pressure under control, but they did not want to be on medication,” said Kristin Gates, MD. “We are trying to get people plant curious. We start by just introducing vegetables instead of getting them committed to a full plant-based diet right out of the starting gate.”

Lowering salt intake by eating vegetables and leafy greens in a form that is as close as possible to the way they come out of the ground — not overly cooked, processed, or salted — can help lower high blood pressure and negate the need for medicine, said Dr. Gates. Eating unprocessed fiber, like the greens grown in the garden, can also reduce or even reverse heart disease.

Dr. Gates and her colleague, Leon Williams, MD, started Plants Over Pills after polling about 3,000 Black members during their monthly, interactive House Calls program about health needs. They overwhelmingly heard the desire for getting off or staying away from medications.

“My ultimate goal is we have fewer patients who have hypertension. That’s my moonshot.” – Kristin Gates, MD

A row of Swiss chard at the Elk Grove medical office community garden.

Dr. Gates and her team care for the garden and host events where Kaiser Permanente members are invited to harvest and take home such delights as Swiss chard, mustard greens, tomatoes, carrots, collard greens, and tatsoi, which is also a green.

In September more than 200 local Kaiser Permanente members came to the Black Health Block Party and cleaned out the entire garden. In addition to vegetables and greens, they got blood pressure checks, made appointments for cancer screenings, received flu shots, and learned how to do the fecal immunochemical test to screen for colorectal cancer.

Another aspect of the Plants Over Pills program is teaching people who have limited outdoor space to grow their own plants in mason jars, said Dr. Gates.

“The whole driving purpose is how we can make it as easy as possible for patients who want to address their health, and specifically address hypertension,” said Dr. Gates. “It’s a long-term strategy. Lifestyle changes like this are not going to be seen in a couple of weeks.”

The garden is a team affair with Drs. Gates and Williams as well as Matthew Fuller, associate medical group administrator, Kristina Somile, a senior operations specialist, and fellow gardeners Jon Oide, MD, and Milin Ratanasen, MD.

Because high blood pressure can’t be felt or seen in the body, many people, and Black people in particular, are resistant to taking medications for it, said Dr. Gates.

“And that creates a barrier,” she said. “But if we can teach them that what goes into their gut can make them healthier, that’s when we can see racial health disparities get reduced.”

Dr. Gates said patients are told they should not stop taking medications without first talking to their doctors. Sometimes there is no alternative to pharmaceuticals “but the idea is to take as few pills as possible.”

“My ultimate goal is we have fewer patients who have hypertension,” said Dr. Gates. “That’s my moonshot.”


plant-based diet

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