UTPD officer improves diabetes with the Green Wellness Program: Plants-2-Plate

Fresh vegetable salad, sport equipment and scale grouped together with black board reading New Year, New Health.

Contributing writer: Lillian Miess

For many, the beginning of the new year brings renewed interest in prioritizing health and wellness. For Tom O’Rourke, public safety officer in the UT Police Department, the resolution to eat healthier is all the more important as he works to get his diabetes under control. Luckily, he’s already off to great start thanks to the School of Nursing’s Green Wellness Program: Plants-2-Plate.

“Like most people with diabetes, there are struggles,” O’Rourke said. “First, you’re in denial, you question why this happened. But after you get past that, you have to embrace it and face it head on.”

One way O’Rourke faced his disease head on was by making the decision to join Green Wellness Program: Plants-2-Plate, with the hope of managing his diabetes more effectively through healthy food choices.

“I looked at the program as an opportunity to move forward. I said to myself, gee Tom, you’re 66 years old, here’s an opportunity to prolong your life in a positive way,” he said.

The program was formed in August 2021 as a health and wellness program focusing on transitioning patients with chronic illness to a whole food, plant-based diet.

Participants enrolled in the program are challenged to follow a whole food, plant-based nutrition plan, and learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle and eating pattern centered around foods that come primarily from plants, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and legumes. It also incorporates physical activity, stress reduction, improved social connections and sleep restoration. The program encourages a strong support system through in-person shared medical appointments that allow participants to build accountability, trade recipes and learn from each other.

The program was developed by an interdisciplinary team in the School of Nursing led by Heidi Benavides, MSN, RN, director of the Green Wellness Program and clinical assistant professor, Christiane Meireles, PhD, RD, LD, registered dietitian and clinical assistant professor, and Paula Christianson-Silva, DNP, FNP-BC, nurse practitioner and clinical assistant professor. All are members of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

“Switching to a predominantly plant-based diet can have significant benefits for people living with chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or obesity,” Benavides said. “By getting people on a plant-based diet, we’re helping to fix the underlying problem rather than putting a band-aid on the problem with invasive measures like surgery.”

Individual participant health results include decreasing medication usage, improving diabetes, achieving healthier weights, improving blood pressure and cholesterol, and normalizing liver enzymes.

“This program was ideal for me. I love that we have our intimate group where we can share our paths with each other. With our group we can swap recipes, which I thought I’d never embrace but sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone,” O’Rourke said.

The concepts and skills O’Rourke learned through the program have gleaned incredible results, lowering his A1C from 7.5 to 6.7. The A1C test is a blood test that measures average blood sugar levels — a result of 6.5 or higher indicates diabetes. He also reduced his nightly insulin intake from 50 units to just 15.

“I owe it to the program, it’s just remarkable,” O’Rourke said. “My health is now going in the right direction. I’m not perfect by any means, but I am so glad this tool was available to me. This is a life changer.”

While the upcoming cohort starting Jan. 19 is currently full, more cohorts are planned throughout the year. To learn more about the program and future cohorts, visit the program website.

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