WALNUT CREEK -- If you spot Pam McDonald bicycling or running in her Walnut Creek neighborhood or grocery shopping at Whole Foods or the Farmers Market, she may look like any other fit blonde Walnut Creek mom.
What you may not know is that she is an internationally acclaimed integrative medicine nurse practitioner who works closely with nutrition guru Dr. Andrew Weil. And she travels the world giving talks with mega-self-help author Wayne Dyer who happens to be one of her patients.
McDonald is a faculty member at Dr. Weil's Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, and recently returned from the center's Nutrition & Health Conference, now in its 10th year. Since its inception, McDonald has helped Weil with planning, the conference, one of the only of its kind she says where physicians can get scientifically vetted information about edgier health and wellness concepts.
"Before Andy and I had this conference set up there was no place where doctors could go to get good solid nutrition information based on science," she said.
McDonald herself advocates a different approach from the same old low-fat produce-rich nutritional path to achieving optimal health. She tailors a diet to fit your genes -- not just to your "jeans."
Through her local clinical practice and her teaching, she focuses on the interaction between specific genes and the diet, believing the connection has a big impact on each person's health and longevity. She maintains this approach helps prevent and treat chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and even Alzheimer's.
"A healthy diet is not a one-size-fits-all concept," explains McDonald during an interview in the Walnut Creek home she shares with her husband Richard Cassidy and their daughters, Allison and Paige.
"You need to know what your APO E (genes) genotype is so you know how to eat. Some types need higher fat; on a low-fat diet, their bodies will just make more fat. Others need very low fat to help them prevent Alzheimer's, a disease they're at high risk of developing." (Ask a doctor about this test).
According to McDonald, who's authored a book about all this called "The Perfect Gene Diet" (Hay House), there are only six types of APO E genes common to most people: APO E 2/2, APO E 2/3, APO E 3/3, APO E 4/2, APO E 4/3 and APO E 4/4. A simple swipe of a cotton swab inside your cheek reveals which kind you are when the cells are examined under the microscope. McDonald says primary care doctors can order this test from a lab, along with the other standard tests that are part of annual preventive care.
But because most doctors don't test for APO E genes or for 13 different types of cholesterol, people flock to McDonald's Danville integrative medical practice Penscott Medical Corp. from places as far flung as Australia, Texas, New York, Canada, South Africa and China.
McDonald herself used to be in the business-as-usual health care field. A native of Scotland, she trained at London's St. Bartholomew Hospital and here worked as a nurse at UCSF and Mt. Diablo Medical Center before it became part of John Muir.
Then, 10 years ago, her husband was diagnosed with heart disease. His standard cholesterol test had been fine but because of a family history of heart disease, he insisted on a heart scan. It revealed a dangerous buildup of arterial plaque which could have killed him at any moment.
"He looked at me and asked, 'Am I going to die?'" McDonald recalls. "And I replied, 'Not on my watch you're not.' And then I started researching."
McDonald soon realized that, despite her years of education and work in the medical field, there was a lot she didn't know about health and well-being.
"It dawned at me that most doctors look only at the 'top of the pot' level. They don't look at what is under that, filling up the top. My husband had turned on unhealthy genetic activity because he was eating the wrong diet for his genotype. He had inadvertently created a genetic unsupportive environment."
As someone who firmly believes in divine intervention, McDonald realized she had found her true calling as a health professional. She enrolled in a two-year program at Dr. Weil's Center for Integrative Medicine, where she learned more about mind-body medicine, developed her APO E gene diet and emerged an integrative practitioner and faculty member.
As a Walnut Creek mom, McDonald tries to practice what she preaches. She believes it is doable for everyone at any budget level.
"We don't eat expensive salmon every day. We eat a lot of salads, a lot of beans and a lot of salsa. Lentils are wonderful. So is quinoa," she said. "A problem in this country is that we have been made to think that more is better. A serving of soda used to be eight ounces; now it is 64 ounces. It is OK to occasionally have fun foods, but in reasonable quantities."
McDonald credits her own APO E gene-specific diet for her lack of the knee problems that plague many runners.
"We don't have to degenerate with age," she says. "It is our inflammatory diet, poor sleep habits, lack of exercise and excessive work stress."
McDonald however remains confident in the power to heal through her noninvasive methods.
"Using individual diet, nutritional and lifestyle therapies as a primary treatment in medicine is in my opinion and experience one of the most powerful and successful treatments a patient can use."