Eating “healthy.” So often we talk about it as a virtue and something of a sacrifice from meal to meal. But who among us can honestly say we haven’t eaten a hamburger in 40 years?
Just ask Joel Kahn,MD: At his core (strengthened daily by exercise), Dr. Kahn believes that “food is medicine” — that plant-based nutrition is the most powerful source of preventative medicine on the planet. Tap a vein and he’ll tell you precisely how: having practiced state-of-the-art cardiology for 35 years, it was only after his own commitment to a plant-based diet that he began to explore the realm of non-traditional diagnostics, prevention tactics and nutrition-based recovery from illness.
Today, Dr. Kahn is a passionate speaker, writer, broadcast commentator and lecturer on the benefits of a plant-based, anti-aging diet, based on years of data and scientific thinking about the body’s natural ability to heal itself through proper nutrition. He is the author of The Whole Heart Solution, an Amazon top-selling book, and Dead Execs Don’t Get Bonuses, on the best seller lists as well.
A Summa cum Laude graduate from the University of Michigan, Dr. Kahn has been practicing interventional and preventive cardiology in Detroit since 1990. He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) at Wayne State University School of Medicine and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Oakland University Beaumont School of Medicine. In 2013, Dr. Kahn received a certification in Metabolic Cardiology from the University of South Florida – the first physician to complete the program in the world.
Beyond the helm at the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity, a solo concierge practice he opened in 2015, Dr. Kahn can be found most nights and on weekends schmoozing with diners and bussing tables at his restaurant, GreenSpace Café. The restaurant is a family business, hopping in Ferndale, thanks to its inventive plant-based kosher menu, its craft cocktails and urban chic vibe – under the management of Dr. Kahn’s son, Daniel. Karen, Joel’s wife, also puts long hours into the restaurant.
Joel and Karen are residents of West Bloomfield. Over the years, together, they have been involved with Federation fundraising, the King David’s Society, Federation missions to Israel and health-focused events through the Federation’s Maimonides group. Daniel is their oldest son; they are also the parents of Jessica and Jacob.
Q & A around the Table with Dr. Joel Kahn
Q: myJewishDetroit: Five words that describe you
A: Energetic, optimistic, futuristic, compassionate and punctual!” (I’d say I enjoy a very unusual, busy and wonderful medical life.)
Q: 40 years a vegan? What made you decide on a strictly no brisket, no lox, no cream cheese diet?
A: My first meal at the University of Michigan: I was an undergraduate in the first year of a 6-year medical program. I walked into the cafeteria as a conservative kosher student with my girlfriend, a conservative kosher student (now my beloved wife of 36 years), and we looked around and said we can only honor kashrut with the salad bar. And that’s what we did for four or five years until I started reading more about the benefits of a vegetarian and vegan diet. And once the books started to come out, medical science started to catch up, too. And I realized I had stumbled onto something that was a part of my cardiology training – proving to be a very critical piece of the total picture. Really, it just somehow happened by serendipity that my entire career in medicine and heart health began with kashrut.
On becoming a doctor
Q: What drew you to cardiology?
A: I had a heart murmur as a child– nothing serious. A lot of people have innocent little murmurs. For me, it was an interesting yearly visit to a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital downtown. There were no doctors in my immediate family, but I had a cousin, Dr. Mark Goldberg – almost ten years ahead of me – training to be a cardiologist. By the time I got into medical school at the age of 18, the path seemed very direct. There was no other medical specialty as compelling to me – I wanted to be a heart doctor.
Q What flipped the switch for you from conventional cardiology to your practice today?
A: I still practice cardiology as I was trained and I’ve had some amazing training, first in Dallas, Texas at Parkland Memorial Hospital, then in Kansas City. I came back to Ann Arbor in 1990 with extensive training in angioplasty and stent placement and joined the group at Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor where I was introduced to a very aggressive form of cardiology practice (eating my broccoli and sprouts, all the while everyone else was eating their burgers and fries). In 1993, I moved back to the metro Detroit area – to Beaumont and have been with the system ever since.
Q: How did the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity evolve?
A: By 1993, there was very solid data on the role of the diet that I was following and its ability to reverse heart disease. I started encouraging patients, dispensing books, advising how heart disease can be a reversible problem. I increasingly spent my time studying, attending conferences on prevention and ultimately earned my certification in preventive medicine. At that point, with solid credentials in preventive and integrative medicine, I knew it was going to be only a matter of time before I found the right opportunity to open a clinic of my own and practice a unique brand of cardiology I call “High Tech, High Touch and High Fiber.”
On hospitals, heart health and healthy habits
Q: What the best advice you could give today for young physicians or students entering the field of medicine?
A: Love your patients. The medical system has changed, will continue to change. But technology isn’t going to change the fact that we’re still going to need doctors talking to patients—and if you enjoy that and have the right spirit of health, medicine is absolutely a fascinating career.
And secondly – feel free to challenge the system. Advocate for your patients and work on the side of change for the better.
Q: What would you like to see change?
A: I love the quote (that’s quite old) that says, “A heart attack after the age of 80 is the will of God, a heart attack before the age of 80 is the failure of the medical system.”
I don’t think this a very radical thought, but hospitals and medical centers should be teaching institutions on prevention through lifestyle, nutrition, exercise and healthy habits. It shouldn’t be the place where some of the worst food in the city is found. There shouldn’t be a Wendy’s in the lobby. There shouldn’t be fried food and bacon in the doctor’s dining room. A hospital should be a place where you walk in and walk out and learn that food is medicine and come to understand how therapeutic healthy lifestyle habits can be.
Q: Okay, here’s your invitation to get on your soap box and share your thoughts on plant-based nutrition…
A: Sure, here’s my pedestal speech: You’ve got one body and it’s a miraculous body and, if you are lucky, you’ll have good health – for what’s called a lifespan. And, there’s another concept called healthspan, which I define as enjoying your health almost all lifelong.
If only you could choose not to have heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia – or a host of other chronic illnesses — you’d sign up for that program in a heartbeat. Well, there is a program, and it’s called “learn and practice a lifestyle that is consistent with prevention.”
It’s true, prevention takes work. Moderation alone in everything doesn’t work. There’s a term we use — nutrition excellence – and that’s what it takes. You have to choose wisely without compromise. So, reaching for a donut instead of a banana is always a bad decision, whether it’s in an office breakout room or a doctor’s dining room. Avoiding junk food is difficult because it’s plentiful, it’s cheap, it’s convenient and easily accessible. And it’s created by scientists who understand our taste, our busy lives, our addictions—and we don’t have that kind of backing with scientists creating garlic and broccoli that tastes like chocolate.
Food is medicine, food is information and fuels the mind. With the intelligent use of our forks and plates, food immediately can affect the health and status of our bodies. Food has a remarkable power to turn back the clock on chronic illness; it can and it’s scientifically proven to reduce the need for medications, hospitalizations and surgeries.
My advice? “Test. Don’t Guess.” Just because you feel good and play tennis doesn’t mean you’re not clogged up. And you need that knowledge to be sure. With advanced blood work, a simple test for inflammation in the arteries and a CAT scan of the heart that can take exactly one minute of your time, you’ll know. And if there’s a problem, you’ll know to take action. (End of lecture.)
On community involvement and roles at Federation
Q: Turning our attention to your roles with Federation, in what ways has Federation inspired your community engagement, enthusiasm and support?
A: I grew up with the Jewish Federation. My father, Irwin Kahn of blessed memory, was a furniture retailer, active with Federation and headed what was then called the Mercantile Division. As a kid, I vividly recall going to big fundraising events at the homes of Max Fisher and David Handleman – meeting Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, military leader Moshe Dayan, and other Israeli and Jewish community luminaries. My parents hosted fundraising meetings too. I knew my father’s level of philanthropy – and I saw his activism in the community as President of Hebrew Free Loan and Yad Ezra, and along the way I met some pretty interesting people who have all played a part in building our community. All that intensity of activity faded during my college years and medical training, but with my dad’s influence, I started making serious pledges to Federation about 20 years ago.
Eight years ago, I was called to rekindle activities with Federation’s Maimonides Society and was honored to do that with Dr. Jeff Forman. We ignited as a group, raised new interest and some large funding commitments through a Mission to Israel. I was active as the head for five years – until Jeff and I felt that we needed to turn that over to younger members.
Federation is still our family touchstone for community involvement; my wife, Karen, has been very involved in Federation’s Ruby Division and the Mission Lab program. In addition to her Federation activities, Karen also serves as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Describe your first (or more memorable) mission (or visit) to Israel.
A: I’ve been to Israel 20 times. My first family trip was a celebration of my older brother’s bar mitzvah in 1969. We returned for my bar mitzvah three years later. As a teen, I spent a summer in Israel at Camp Ramah, and Karen and I spent our honeymoon in Israel in 1981. Karen now has family in Israel, so we get back every other year or so. A medical science mission to Israel would be fabulous for us to plan – Israel is second in medical research only to the U.S. (and the vegan food scene there is exquisite!)
On GreenSpace Cafe and the Detroit food / farm-to-table restaurant scene
Q: So now you own a restaurant – hand-in-hand with your medical practice. Tell us about it.
A: Eighteen months ago, I made two major changes in my life: I opened my clinic – a concept for cardiac longevity in West Bloomfield and Grosse Pointe, and I opened the doors to a 4,000-square-foot vegan restaurant with seating for 135 people. There have been a lot of sleepless nights, but both endeavors have been a joy and the means to bring my vision of preventive medicine and plant-based nutrition to the community.
GreenSpace Café truly is a family business and labor of love which I started with my son, Daniel, and my wife. Daniel earned his MBA in accounting, but while working nights at restaurants to pay his way through school, he found the restaurant business far more exciting than accounting.
Originally, we worked with many chefs and consultants in town to develop our menu, but we walk on our own now and, honestly, we do amazing food — all certified kosher — an easy kashrut, meaning there’s no dairy, no meat. In terms of taste, quality of appearance and presentation, I can honestly say that we rival the best of vegan food found in restaurants in New York and L.A. Every week we serve several thousand meals and on Friday and Saturday nights, we have lines out the door.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: We’ve just purchased a large food truck, so now we’ve added a traveling venue for catering, bar mitzvahs, community events and festivals – like the Michigan Jewish Food Festival sponsored by Hazon and coming up August 27.
Restaurants (besides GreenSpace Café): Bacco Ristorante in Southfield– where I developed my love for the restaurant business. Phoenicia in Birmingham and The Clean Plates on Hayes Road in Shelby Township
Place to meet for(green) drinks: Drought Juice, Beyond Juice, It’s Raw
Building in the Detroit skyline. Anything Albert Kahn built (though we’re not related.)
Sports: I work out every day. I’m not much of a sports fan until play-off season.
Jewish Holiday: Passover because I like the orientation on family, food and freedom. And Yom Kippur because I’m a fan of fasting.
Jewish Food: Knishes, New York street-style with mustard; eggless noodle kugel; beet borsht with non-dairy sour cream, horseradish and charoset
Guilty pleasure: Fine Italian wine
Never leave home without: A kiss to my wife and smile
WORDS TO LIVE BY: “A person with health has a thousand dreams, a person with poor health has only one.” (I also say the Modeh Ani (the Hebrew morning prayer) and the Shma on rising and going to bed every day.)