We know from what is now an almost irrefutable body of evidence that good nutrition supports drastically improved outcomes, including improved physical and mental health, plus social and environmental well-being. The nutrition provided by consuming a diverse range of whole plant foods is not only good for our bodies—preventing and treating many of our deadliest, costliest diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and certain types of cancer—but it also supports the systems on which our survival depends. We can achieve these impressive benefits by following two relatively simple recommendations: 1) avoid animal products and 2) choose minimally processed foods.
If it’s that easy and the benefits are overwhelming, why aren’t more people eating this way? Why isn’t the whole food, plant-based (WFPB) dietary lifestyle the norm rather than the exception? There are many impediments to change: a lack of nutrition education afflicting both healthcare professionals and the public, the confusing and corrupting influence of powerful industries, regulatory systems that are highly susceptible to those very same industries, reductionism in the scientific community, the perceived convenience of eating poorly, and centuries-old cultural associations—stubborn myths we often don’t even pause to think about—linking meat consumption to values of wealth, class, strength, masculinity, etc. That’s not even to mention taste preferences or cooking experience, which go a long way toward determining what ends up on the plate.
Assuming it’s possible to address these challenges—easier said than done—the question remains: what are the most effective strategies for doing so, and where is the most effective place to begin? Are we doing enough to share the research? Is there a gap in the kitchen between knowledge and application? Are some people never going to change, no matter what?
Education is critical. Whether that means doing a better job of integrating nutrition into the training of healthcare providers or offering hands-on cooking classes, we have a long way to go. But it’s also critical, in conjunction with education, that people can experience the firsthand benefits of improved nutrition. It’s one thing to read about these benefits in a book or to hear about them from a friend or family member, but to experience improved health for ourselves is usually going to be even more impactful and motivating.
That’s where immersion programs come in.
What is an Immersion Program?
In a review of immersion treatment of childhood and adolescent obesity, researchers define the approach as one that places “people in a therapeutic and educational environment for extended periods;” by removing participants from their habitual environments—in this case, obesity-promoting environments—immersion programs can jumpstart lifestyle changes by providing a combination of nutrition and culinary education, dietary modification, physical activity, and psychological support (e.g., counseling). Though these researchers selected ten days as the minimum cut-off for their review, and though long-term intensive lifestyle interventions (ILI) lasting for many weeks or even months can also show promising results, shorter immersion programs provide many benefits at less cost and greater convenience for participants.
In the case of the WFPB dietary lifestyle, short-term immersion programs allow participants to see rapid improvements in biomarkers like blood pressure, serum cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), and blood glucose levels. This tracking, combined with the in-person support of other participants, the provision of healthy food, and numerous opportunities to learn from trained physicians, distinguishes immersion programs from other forms of intervention.
That is not to say other interventions cannot accomplish lifestyle changes or convey life-saving information about nutrition. There are varying degrees of evidence supporting the efficacy of many different approaches: workplace interventions, university cooking classes, and even brief interventions (i.e., single point of contact). In a study of a nutrition education intervention involving second-year medical students, researchers found that providing only 24 contact hours over five weeks could significantly improve “the nutrition care knowledge [. . . and] medical students’ own consumption of vegetables, dietary diversity and their engagement in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.” (They cite the importance of continued nutrition education to sustain these positive outcomes—an obvious target for improving the training of health professionals.)
Thankfully, we don’t have to commit to a one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging lifestyle change. There’s room for many different strategies, including the ones listed above. However, a more immersive program is ideal because it can integrate the best qualities of these interventions in a single intensive period.
How Much Can You Really Change in One Week?
Many participants in short-term intensive immersion programs (sometimes also called jumpstart programs) experience significant improvements in the biomarkers listed above. Cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels, in particular, often respond very quickly to the WFPB lifestyle, making programs like these a great option for patients with moderate to advanced cardiovascular disease (CVD) or type II diabetes, but the benefits extend far beyond those diseases.
A 2020 article published in the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention took eighty participants with moderate to high risk of atherosclerotic CVD and put them on a plant-based immersion program for one week, including daily education, exercise, and stress management classes. In just one week, the participants enjoyed substantial improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and BMI. What’s more, the researchers followed up three months later to measure dietary quality, functional capacity, and quality of life (QOL) post-immersion. They concluded: “Short-term intensive lifestyle intervention is feasible, can lead to immediate improvements in risk profiles, and, importantly, can have longer-lasting effects on exercise capacity, dietary compliance, and QOL.”
Further research has shown that the benefits are not merely a side effect of losing weight and that the gut microbiota shifts within as few as six days in a plant-based immersion program. Research like this, plus countless personal anecdotes, suggests our bodies are capable not only of healing—they are eager to do so! We merely need to provide the right conditions to facilitate that healing. (Learn about our week-long tropical immersion program in the Dominican Republic.)
Factors Affecting Long-Term Success
Despite the many potential benefits of programs like these, it’s important to remember that long-term sustainable lifestyle change requires long-term maintenance. In other words, although a week-long immersion is an excellent launching pad for success, particularly for individuals facing diseases who can achieve appreciable changes in their condition, it’s not a quick fix or a panacea. We should view WFPB nutrition as part of a broader lifestyle, not a short-term diet.
Still, if we adopt the correct approach, an immersion program can help set us up for long-term success by providing support, knowledge, and practical tips. Whether you’re new to the WFPB lifestyle or an old hand, programs like these provide many opportunities to connect with a larger community. Likewise, through daily interactions with medical experts, you can elevate your understanding of nutrition beyond what (what should I be eating?) to why (exploring the impressive body of research connecting nutrition to better health outcomes). Critically, a top-notch immersion program also has a pragmatic focus, highlighting the culinary richness and variety of a WFPB lifestyle and providing resources you can take home to prepare delicious meals yourself.
As always, and as I alluded to at the beginning of this article, it’s important to remember that seemingly different aspects of health are inextricably linked. It’s no coincidence that immersion programs almost universally contain elements supporting exercise, stress reduction, and emotional well-being. These factors are essential for getting the most out of a short-term program and maintaining long-term success.
- Kelly KP, Kirschenbaum DS. Immersion treatment of childhood and adolescent obesity: the first review of a promising intervention. Obes Rev. 2011;12(1):37-49. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2009.00710.x
- Danielsen KK, Svendsen M, Mæhlum S, Sundgot-Borgen J. Changes in body composition, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and eating behavior after an intensive lifestyle intervention with high volume of physical activity in severely obese subjects: a prospective clinical controlled trial. J Obes. 2013;2013:325464.
- Rachmah Q, Martiana T, Mulyono M, et al. The effectiveness of nutrition and health intervention in workplace setting: a systematic review. J Public Health Res. 2021;11(1):2312. Published 2021 Nov 15. doi:10.4081/jphr.2021.2312
- Levy J, Auld G. Cooking classes outperform cooking demonstrations for college sophomores. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2004;36(4):197-203. doi:10.1016/s1499-4046(06)60234-0
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- Amoore BY, Gaa PK, Amalba A, Mogre V. Nutrition education intervention improves medical students’ dietary habits and their competency and self-efficacy in providing nutrition care: A pre, post and follow-up quasi-experimental study. Front Nutr. 2023;10:1063316. Published 2023 Mar 2. doi:10.3389/fnut.2023.1063316
- Schwartz C, Handberg E, et al. Benefit of One Week Immersion in Lifestyle-Based Program for Sustainable Improvements in Cardiovascular Risk Factors over Time. Int. J. Dis. Reversal Prev. 2020;2:10. doi: 10.22230/ijdrp.2020v2n1a121.
- Ahrens AP, Culpepper T, Saldivar B, et al. A Six-Day, Lifestyle-Based Immersion Program Mitigates Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Induces Shifts in Gut Microbiota, Specifically Lachnospiraceae, Ruminococcaceae, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii: A Pilot Study. Nutrients. 2021;13(10):3459. Published 2021 Sep 29. doi:10.3390/nu13103459
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