Of all the GPs at Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s previous surgery, he was the only one to eschew the Tannoy system when calling his patients in. Rather charmingly, he walked to the waiting room to fetch each one.
“It’s more personal,” he says. “It’s really nice to go and shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and watch them walk to your consultation room. The dynamic starts there. It also got me out of my chair 45 times a day. It’s just a small thing that I think the patients really liked and had a lot of benefits for me.”
This “small thing” he’s recounting across the kitchen island at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, goes to the heart of Dr Chatterjee’s philosophy. As he points out, it enabled him to build extra movement into his daily routine without much trouble. But perhaps more importantly, it signalled a resetting of the doctor-patient relationship; making a connection that enabled the physician to see the bigger picture.
The handsome 40-year-old father-of-two, star of BBC One’sDoctor in the House, is at the forefront of a new generation of social-media-savvy medics who are all about making connections – sharing everything from the quick vegetable coconut curry he whipped up for his kids with his 12.5k followers on Instagram, to his Tedx talk on how he helps patients reverse type-2 diabetes without medication, which has amassed more than 850,000 views on YouTube.
And he has a very big picture in mind: overhauling the way the NHS operates. “Our whole model is about diagnosing and giving a pill,” he tells me. “That’s what we’re very good at and that model of care works very well for acute problems.”
Many chronic conditions, often viewed as inevitable evils of modern life, could be cured with a series of straightforward tweaks to our daily routines
It is clearly working less well for tackling chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression, which have reached genuine crisis levels in Britain, despite our ever increasing intake of pharmaceutical products. A record number of antidepressants were dispensed last year, according to NHS Digital, while spending on diabetes drugs reached £984.2m as the number of Britons diagnosed with the condition has more than doubled to nearly 3.5 million in the past 20 years.
What truly empassions Dr Chatterjee – so much so that he regularly springs from his chair to emphasise his point – is that most of these conditions, often viewed as inevitable evils of modern life, could be cured with a series of straightforward tweaks to our daily routines.
He is more likely to write lifestyle prescriptions – a diet high in healthy fats, some meditation and more physical activity – to tackle the root causes of a patient’s depression, than a mood-altering drug to suppress their symptoms.
“The way we are collectively living our modern lives is having a negative impact on our health,” he says, simply. “I want to strip it all back – and give people the blueprint.”
Which is exactly what he does in his first book, The 4 Pillar Plan: How to Relax, Eat, Move, Sleep your way to a Longer, Healthier Life, published this Thursday and serialised in The Daily Telegraph from tomorrow. Following a six-way auction among publishers, the simple health revolution looks set to become a 2018 bestseller.
The way we are collectively living our modern lives is having a negative impact on our health. I want to strip it all back – and give people the blueprint
A whole-life plan rather than another quick-fix gimmick, Dr Chatterjee advocates making five small and easily achievable changes in each of the four broad areas outlined by the titular ‘pillars’: rest, diet, movement and sleep.
In practical terms, that might mean prioritising at least 15 minutes of me-time a day; introducing daily micro-fasts; building more walking into your regular routine; and setting a bedtime alarm that kicks off a ‘no-tech’ 90 minutes before sleep that will give you more energy the following morning.
It is striving for balance, with a couple of changes across all four pillars rather than 20/20 perfection, that will lead to the biggest improvements and, crucially, ones that can be sustained, even when our optimistic New Year’s resolutions are a distant memory.
It’s a revelation Dr Chatterjee took several years to arrive at. Having grown up in a medical family in the North West – his father moved to Britain from Calcutta in the early 1960s to work in the NHS – he studied at Edinburgh Medical School, sat exams in immunology, and worked in the city for two years.
When his father fell ill with lupus, he returned to Cheshire to help care for him, continuing to do so -– in tandem with his busy job as a GP – for the 15 years Dr Chatterjee Snr was on dialysis, until his death almost five years ago.
“A huge part of me has been defined by being a carer for my dad,” he says. “I understand what it’s like for patients when they’re sick.”
A huge part of me has been defined by being a carer for my dad. I understand what it’s like for patients when they’re sick
But the real turning point came seven years ago, when his then six-month-old son almost died on a family holiday in the French Alps, as he and his wife relaxed in their friend’s chalet, one evening.
“She suddenly screamed out to me, ‘His arms went back and he’s not moving!’” recalls Chatterjee. “I froze. He had been very phlegmy throughout the day so I thought maybe he’d blocked his airway. I was trying to clear it and I couldn’t.”
At the nearest A&E he was given diazepam to stop his convulsions, then rushed down the mountain by ambulance to the main hospital. “I was freaking out,” says Chatterjee. “He ended up in a foreign hospital for five nights.”
The problem? A simple vitamin deficiency. “His calcium level in his blood was really low and the reason was he was low in vitamin D.”
That his son nearly died from a preventable condition which his father, a doctor, knew nothing about, had a profound effect on Chatterjee, who is only just learning to relinquish his guilt.
“It ate me up,” he says. “I became obsessed. I started to read about vitamins, nutrition, the gut microbiome and gut health, and I was coming across all this science that with all my [medical] training I hadn’t heard about.”
He spent tens of thousands of pounds of his own money travelling to conferences in the US to develop his understanding of the interconnectedness of human health. “I was going to get my son sorted, and I have: he’s thriving.”
I became obsessed. I started to read about vitamins, nutrition, the gut microbiome and gut health – all this science that with all my [medical] training I hadn’t heard about
The cornerstone of his solution was a change in his family’s diet, incorporating foods to promote gut health. “People think about calories, they think of fat and carbs. That’s too short-sighted. I think about food in terms of its impact on our gut microbes and how it impacts on our immune system. Because 80 per cent of your immune system lives in your gut.”
Central to his dietary advice is a redefinition of our five-a-day, shifting the focus to five different coloured vegetables, rather than any old combination of fruit and veg. He practises what he preaches: on his fridge is a rainbow-coloured chart and each night his wife, a former criminal barrister, seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter tick off the colours they’ve managed that day.
“The different colours help promote the growth of different gut bugs so the more colours you have, the more health benefits you’re going to get,” he explains. “We made it into a fun game at home.”
He jumps off his seat again to show me the step he keeps on the kitchen floor (“it drives my wife crazy”), on which he performs the glute exercises that have cured the chronic back pain he suffered for 10 years, in the time it takes his morning coffee to brew.
“I build it in to be part of my life. I want to inspire people and say ‘look, it’s not about joining that expensive gym. You don’t need any equipment, you can do press-ups here,” – he demonstrates against the island. “I’ve got 80-year-old patients who are doing a strength workout in their kitchen every day.”
We’re walking around feeling tired, needing coffee to get us through, an alarm clock to get us up, working from deadline to deadline. I want to help people understand how quickly they could feel well
From the patient whose panic attacks improved by 80 per cent to the menopausal woman whose symptoms dramatically reduced by following The 4 Pillar Plan, he reels off success stories with the enthusiasm and excitement of one who has seen the light. Upon reading the book, I felt I had too.
“People these days don’t know how good they could feel. We’re walking around feeling tired, needing coffee to get us through, an alarm clock to get us up, working from deadline to deadline. I want to help people understand how quickly they could feel well,” he says. “For all chronic health conditions, 10 per cent of our health outcome is down to our genes. A whole 90 per cent is down to our environment and how we live our lives.”
He wants to help us tackle the 90 per cent. I’m starting tomorrow.
- Tomorrow: the first part of Dr Chatterjee’s four pillar plan: Relax (and lose weight)
The 4 Pillar Plan: How to Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life by Dr Rangan Chatterjee is published by Penguin Life (£16.99). To order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. Dr Chatterjee will appear at the Edinburgh Wellbeing Festival