Shawn Baker: heavyweight medicine man in praise of meat

BakerVITAL SIGNS

By Marika Sboros

US physician and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Shawn Baker once dreamt of owning a cheesecake factory. He also dreamt of being able to eat all the cheese and sweets he wanted.

He has come a long way since his birth in Hof, a small West German town on the Czech border to an American father in the US Air Force and a South African mother. Ironically, given Baker’s vigorously anti-sugar stance these days, his mother hailed from a family with links to Hullett’s. The company remains dominant in South Africa’s powerful sugar industry.

In a Q&A Vital Signs profile, Baker tells how he conquered his chronically sweet tooth on his medical journey. He also tells how fought off establishment attacks after he advised his obese, diabetic patients to change their diets – and eat more meat – to reduce the needs for drugs and invasive surgery.

As a result, Dr Shawn Baker is now a prominent medical advocate in the US for food – including meat – as medicine.

What was your earliest ambition?

As a very young child, I wanted to own a cheesecake factory and be able to eat all the cheese I wanted – and sweets. I loved sweets. By age 16, I wanted to be an athlete like Bruce Jenner (Olympic decathlete champion).

What made you become a medical doctor?

I enjoyed science subjects and was always interested in the human body and just decided that’s what I wanted to do.

But you nearly didn’t become a doctor and once dropped out of medical school. Why?

I was always a pretty good athlete and became interested in playing rugby at medical school in Texas. I made some of the select teams in the US and was asked to play in New Zealand, where I competed against several New Zealand All Blacks teams. So, I dropped out of medical school for a few years. I came back to the US when my visa ran out and joined the US Air Force.

Did you want to become a pilot?

No, the military was the best place to play rugby. The US isn’t a rugby-playing nation.

You had a stellar career in the Air Force. You a Nuclear Weapons Combat Commander Of The Year and a Nuclear Weapons Launch Officer for five years. And you were the guy pressing the button, turning the key in your day job in the Air Force, doing 24-hour shifts, playing rugby in between for about five years. You were the Luke Air Force Base Air Force Athlete Of The Year 2010. What changed?

I was lying at the bottom of a (rugby) pile one day and felt tired of it. So, I went back to medical school, qualified as an orthopaedic surgeon and the Air Force sent me to Afghanistan.

How did you cope with the stress of being in a war zone?

You get used to it. Every day, there were dozens of people coming in with horrific war injuries, we treated NATO and Afghan troops, civilians, including children – even the Taliban!

After Air Force, you joined a hospital practice. You grew it into one of the dominant orthopaedic practices in town, making lots of money for the hospital. How did you do that?

I helped streamline the operating room process, making it more efficient, increasing the number of operations we could do in a given day.

Your bosses were very happy when the money was pouring in. They weren’t very happy with you later on – and turned on you. What precipitated that change?

Basically, because I had a career-changing revelation.

Which was?

That I can make people better without surgery and having to amputate parts of my patients’ bodies.

But that’s a good thing, right? Why was the hospital unhappy?

Well, because my clinic was doing fewer operations. I was slowing my clinic down and spending more time talking to my patients about diet and lifestyle.

What made you do that?

I had started delving into the evidence, starting with my own diet.

Why? Were you overweight?

Not significantly but after rugby, I did competitive powerlifting and weighed 130kgs. I was a big strong guy but no one would ever accuse me of being obese. I got into the Highland Games, won a World Championship in the over-40 category. But in my early to mid-40s, I started noticing that I was developing metabolic syndrome even though I wasn’t obese. I just wasn’t as lean as I should have been.

What were your symptoms?

My blood pressure started creeping up. I had sleep problems, my wife said I was snoring. (Baker has since divorced.) I felt fatigued more than usual during the day even as I was still winning world championships. As a physician, I could see the signs.

What dietary changes did you try?

I went low-fat, low-calorie and exercised like a maniac. It worked for weight loss. My weight went down from 285lbs to 235lbs. I was dramatically reducing how much I ate but I didn’t feel well. I was constantly hungry and in a bad mood. The nurses around me said: “Go back to being more rotund because you were much nicer, then.”

Did you go back to your old ways?

No. It didn’t make sense to do that. I started reading about the Paleo diet. Then I read Gary Taubes‘s Good Calories, Bad Calories. I also heard about Prof Tim Noakes’s trial in South Africa. It fascinated me because what he was saying made scientific sense but he was being prosecuted for it. I changed my diet: started cutting carbs, eating more meat and increasing my intake of healthy fat.

What were the effects?

I noticed such significant improvements in my overall health that I started to apply to it some of my patients in the hospital practice. There’s a huge problem with obesity in the US and we see it in orthopaedic surgery. So many patients with joint issues and knee problems but too obese to undergo surgery safely. We told them they’d have to lose 50lbs of weight before we could operate. We told them to eat less, exercise more. But it wasn’t working, just very disheartening for them. I started implementing ketogenic (very low-carb, very high-healthy-fat, moderate-protein) diets with my patients.

Were the results positive?

Results were shocking: patients on the hospital schedule for hip- and knee-replacement surgery were reporting that they no longer had any joint pain. There was no need for surgery.

Yet you ended up losing your medical license at the end of 2015 for two years for that. How did that happen?

I didn’t actually lose my licence. I just handed in after a struggle with the authorities. That was after I told the hospital management that I wanted to spend one a day week advising patients on diet and lifestyle. My aim was to reduce the need for invasive surgical procedures.

(Editor’s note: Australian orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gary Fettke faced similar battles after advising his patients on dietary changes to reduce the risk of amputation.)

Click here to read: Fettke: Cover-up grows are case against him collapses? 

Sounds eminently sensible to me. How did the hospital react to that suggestion?

Not well. It’s a long story. The hospital administrator said: “We want you to operate. That’s what we pay you to do.”  I asked to participate in the hospital’s Employee Wellness Program and introduce low-carb dietary therapies. The hospital set me up with a dietitian who wasn’t interested in my views on diet. I asked if I could head the hospital’s non-operative part of the bariatric practice. They said no. So, I started talking to patients in my own time. Shortly after that, the hospital administrator said they had selected me for peer-review.

Were you worried?

No. It’s a legally protected process in which the authorities have the right to randomly select a dozen of your cases. I was naive. At the time, I didn’t even connect it with what I was doing to help patients reduce the need for surgery. But the hospital handed my records to my direct financial competitor who, not surprisingly, disagreed with the opinions of several of my patients that my treatment was helping them. I pointed out that it was not right to allow a competitor to review my patients and that they should let an independent reviewer do a peer review.

Did they?

Yes. But again, they claimed there were “problems” with my practice and that they would temporarily suspend my privileges and hold a hearing. I had no idea what the charge would be and asked to see the actual cases they had reviewed. They did not allow me to see them.

Did you have any allies at the hospital?

The president of the medical staff came to me as a friend and said that the evidence management had gathered made me look bad. He said they had a report from outside agencies, including from a group of physicians who were not orthopaedic surgeons and a consultant who was a member of a competitive group. They felt that I should have done more aggressive surgery or different surgery in some cases. The president felt that it was in my best interests to write a letter saying I was at fault.

Ah, so they were stitching you up because you were doing fewer surgeries. That must have shocked you?

Professionally, it was a damning report. I was, therefore, devastated, depressed. After all, I had kids to feed, mortgage payments to make. The by-laws showed that I could apply for a fair trial and looked for a lawyer I could afford to help me contest the findings. The hospital agreed on a hearing but took six months to assign a “fair hearing officer”.

What did that review hearing show?

When we finally got the records of what evidence they had, I was overjoyed. I saw how ridiculously weak their case against me was. They were claiming that I was supposedly doing “inappropriate surgeries”.  And that I giving patients “too much choice”. In one case, the reviewer gave an opinion based on an operation I didn’t even do. He had the wrong report.

In another, he looked at a case where a female patient had bone spurs on her elbow. He said that I should have replaced her elbow. But the patient was young. Elbow replacement is not indicated for younger patients, especially if they are manual labourers, as this patient was!

Patient records also showed that all were happy with treatment outcomes.

But you voluntarily handed in your medical licence after that. Why, if the evidence was all on your side?

The hospital upheld my suspension. But by now, the process had taken two years of my life, professionally, financially and emotionally. My case went to the State Medical Board. The Board said they would give me an opportunity to contest or I could surrender my licence and be independently evaluated. I chose to surrender my licence and be independently evaluated.

How long did that take?

The bureaucracy took about four months but I finally and truly independent orthopaedic surgeons assess my skills.

What was the result?

The State Medical Board said that they had received the report, there was nothing wrong with my practice and they told me to reapply for my licence. That took another six months. In January 2019, after nearly three years, I got my medical licence back.

What had you been doing in the meantime?

As I had so much free time, I became a nutrition advocate. I realised that I had been positively impacting far more patients’ lives than if I were I still operating in the hospital environment. Also, on social media, I’m contributing to saving, not just fixing, people’s lives.

Will you go back to orthopaedic surgery?

I probably will, part-time, but hospitals have different goals and incentives. They have to pay the bills. I don’t fit in there any longer. I’m passionate about nutrition, including meat, and lifestyle change as the real way to help patients. Currently, I’m living in California but licensed in New Mexico. So, I travel back and forth.  The plan is to set up a nutrition/lifestyle based practice and I will continue to promote meat as medicine.

In 2016, you moved from a low-carb, ketogenic to a fully carnivorous lifestyle. You are as close to zero carb as it’s possible to come. Why that radical change?

For me, carnivore is a notch above ketogenic diets. Eating meat only has led to better body composition and strength and improved athletic performance. My libido has improved. So too has the joint pain I was starting to suffer. The thing that shocked me most was that the chronic tendonitis I had in my right quadriceps for 10 years had disappeared.

Click here to read: Global poster girl for carnivore lifestyle 

How has your family adapted to your carnivorous lifestyle?

My girlfriend is French, also into health and fitness, and was mostly vegetarian when we first met. She’s now 95% carnivorous. I have four children: Lucas, 6, Nylah, 8, Emmie, 11, and Saxon 13. All my kids eat animal-based diets, including meat. They eat some fruit but not a lot of vegetables.

Describe Dr Shawn Baker’s typical day’s menu?

A carnivorous diet lends itself to infrequent meal patterns. It’s my natural state. So, most days I eat about twice a day. For breakfast, I have steak most of the time or I’ll have some eggs or salmon. My second meal is early in the evening. If I don’t have steak, eggs or salmon, I may have a bit of cheese or some full-fat Greek yoghurt. Dairy for me is a slight net negative. I eat foods depending on how satiating they are and how they make me feel afterwards.

You are the best advert for what you preach. You have a muscular physique and amazing athletic and weight-lifting prowess, with many titles, including Highland Games Masters World Champion 2010. And you pride yourself in being a lifetime drug-free athlete. But do you take any vitamin, mineral supplements to improve performance?

No, except for the salt I put on my food.

Do you think everyone should be carnivorous?

I think people should just pursue a diet that leads to good optimum health. I do think that for many people a meat-based diet is the way to get there. It’s a default diet for humans as they have evolved. A high-meat-based, animal-sourced diet should be a cornerstone, a fundamental part of human nutrition. From the evidence as I have seen it, it is the basis of human nutrition.

What’s the least healthy thing you do?

Spend too much time staring at my phone.

What was a defining moment in your life?

Tough question, I’ve kind of reinvented myself many times and all those have been defining moments. One was dropping out of medical school to become an athlete. Another was going back to become a surgeon. Others were becoming a father and losing my job as a surgeon. All those moments have energised me. So, have all the repeated attacks from people who don’t like the fact that we should all be eating more animal foods.

Have you had mentors?

Yes, many in different spheres of my life, starting with my parents. In sport, I’ve trained with world-champion athletes, physicians and others in the low-carb community. I’ve started a podcast and had Gary (Taubes) on the other day. I’ve learnt a lot from him. He has called into question what we’ve all been taught at medical school and results don’t match what we’ve been told.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I don’t think anyone actually told me this but I read it somewhere: Never be afraid to ask questions.

If you could edit your life, what would you change?

It’s hard to say. There are many painful things I’d rather not have gone through, like having to surrender my medical licence and going through a divorce. I would also like to have eaten healthier as a young person and become carnivorous sooner. That would have saved me from health issues. If I had known then what I know now, I would have interacted very differently with my patients. But I just did what I always thought was the right thing to do.

What are your hopes and dreams?

Until I run out of energy, I want to change the world one meal at a time. I will continue advocating for nutrition and healthy, carnivorous lifestyles. I’m working to bring together different groups, including ranchers, farmers, wholefood producers and advocates, policymakers.