Dr. Tony Hampton brings low-carb eating to Chicago’s South Side
Dr. Tony Hampton first discovered the power of the low-carb diet in 2015 when his wife began to develop high blood sugar. His search for ways to help her led him to discover low-carb and keto diets to improve glycemic control.
What he learned changed him and changed his life.
“It opened my mind to being skeptical. I learned things I had never learned in medical school,” says Dr. Hampton, a physician for 20 years who is board certified in family medicine and obesity medicine. “I started to question everything.”
Since that time he has been a passionate promoter of low-carb eating. He wrote a popular book, Fix Your Diet, Fix Your Diabetes. He’s very active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and makes informative Youtube videos and easy-to-follow cooking demonstrations.
He’s also set up community programs to help people eat low carb and talks to his patients daily about it. And he’s recently started his own podcast and website.“I want to make sure that communities of color have a way to hear the message without the filter of lacking trust in the person they’re hearing the message from. That’s really it. That’s my goal. And I want everybody — patients, clinicians, the healthcare team — to focus on the root causes of why they are sick.”
In short, he’s a powerful and trusted advocate for the diet, reaching deep into Chicago’s underserved African American community, helping empower people facing significant health challenges.
Seeing dramatic results
Part of Dr. Hampton’s pull as a low-carb advocate and educator stems from the fact the diet improved his own health and that of his wife and two sons. He found that this way of eating gave him increased mental clarity, much more energy, and resolved some puzzling hand pain he’d been experiencing.
Now, several times a week, he sees the stunning results of low-carb eating among his 3,500 patients, of whom more than 95% are Black Americans.
“I am taking patients off medications weekly. I am seeing their blood glucose go from very high levels back into normal ranges, making them no longer diabetic. I’ve had patients lose 50 to 100 pounds (23 to 45 kilos)”, says Dr. Hampton, who in addition to his other commitments, is medical director of Advocate Aurora’s Trinity Hospital Service Area.
Advocate Aurora is the US’s 10th largest non-profit healthcare organization, with clinics and hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin. Along with his medical degree, Dr. Hampton has an MBA in health administration and is a Certified Physician Executive (CPE). In his role as a medical director, he provides guidance and leadership to about 50 other doctors working in primary care in his region.
Dr. Isaure Yates is one of his medical colleagues who has been inspired by what he’s doing, trying the diet herself, losing 20 pounds (9 kilos), and keeping it off. She now recommends it to her family, friends, and to those patients for whom she thinks it might help.
“What I really appreciate about Tony is that he always uses a lot of data and science; he shows how it all makes sense,” said Dr. Yates. “I always really trust him because he does the research and can back up everything.”“He is doing great things. And it is something very needed in the community he serves. It is such an epidemic, in terms of weight issues, health issues, and diabetes. What he is doing is huge. It can really turn health around.”
Diabetes’ toll among Black Americans
Recent statistics show that in the US, type 2 diabetes is twice as common among Black Americans compared to White and the trend is worsening over time. Other statistical research has found that residents of largely African American zip codes in Chicago had amputation rates for diabetes that are five times higher per capita than residents of primarily White zip codes.
The South Side also has life expectancy rates of just 60 years. In fact, a mere 9 miles away in Chicago’s affluent north side, residents live to an average of 90 years. That 30-year life-expectancy gap is the biggest in North America.“It is mind-boggling. We have to be honest about the inequality. We cannot demonize people or blame them for being sick. We have to understand the neighborhood they live in. The social and economic forces. We have to peel the layers of the onion,” says Dr. Hampton, who is also a regular speaker for the American Diabetes Association, addressing issues, such as diabetes care in the African American community, as well as diet and diabetes for this population.
Dr. Hampton’s empathetic approach
“I try to reach patients by telling stories — by not making them feel bad about themselves, but by making them laugh and making them feel confident that they can do it.
“I tell them we are not going to fix everything in one day, but I ask things like, ‘How confident are you on a scale of one to ten that you can stop eating cornbread at every meal and maybe just eat it once a day or maybe not at all?
“Usually they will say a number, like, ‘About five out of ten.’ And I’ll ask, ‘What would get you to a seven out of ten?’ And we’ll look at the changes, like getting the wife on board or making a substitution with a low-carb food they like that makes them more confident.
“I just give them a vision for how they can do it.”
In his standard 15-minute patient appointments — and with the help of his YouTube videos and his book — Dr. Hampton is able to coach his patients in bite-sized increments so that they can make profound changes, not only in their diet but in other aspects of their life.
He has developed a memorable acronym to help patients understand what they most need to focus on to maximize their health. He calls it “Protecting your N.E.S.T.,” which is also the name of his new podcast. Each letter stands for an essential aspect of a healthy lifestyle:
- N is for Nutrition, which consists of whole, unprocessed foods with no sugar that are low-carb. “I tell them they can have ribs, but not with barbecue sauce.”
- E is for Exercise, even just walking or easy resistance exercises like pushups and squats at home. “It can be very hard to jog in some communities that are not safe.”
- S is for less Stress and more Sleep. “Sleep is so important to health but it can be hard to get it if you work the night shift or are under a lot of stress.”
- T is for “what you are Thinking” and for how you deal with Trauma in your life. “Instead of focusing on everything that is bad, look for the good, like the fact that it is a beautiful day and the sun is shining.”
Another handy acronym of Dr. Hampton’s is ROPE, which covers other influences on health. The letters stand for Relationships, Organisms (such as unhealthy microbes that cause disease and healthy ones that are protective), Pollution, and Emotional regulation.
He tells patients: “You use your ROPE to get to your NEST.”For example, while people on the South Side may not be able to control the number of pollutants they are exposed to in their environment, they can decide to try to quit smoking to reduce their body’s exposure to tobacco’s toxic chemicals. “It is all about figuring out what they can control and how to do it,” Dr. Hampton said.
Deeper than diet alone
Examining relationships is a key to success. Dr. Hampton notes that one of the reasons a patient may not succeed on a low-carb diet is that a family member may not be supportive. “We look for ways that we can help them get their wife or family onboard, like bringing the wife in the next time to the appointment.”
Dr. Hampton is always trying to help patients find easy, practical solutions, like the patient who could not avoid the siren call of the donut shop on his way to work each day. “I asked him, ‘Well, is there another route you could take?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I guess so’ — and he took that. Sometimes it is simple and you just need someone to help you see it.”
One of the challenges of the community is that of “food deserts,” areas that have no easy access to healthy food. Dr. Hampton and his care team coworkers have created a couple of programs to try to help with this issue.
In one program, the Advocate Aurora Healthy Living Program, they went to existing stores and talked to the owners or managers, convincing them that if they stocked cauliflower or other vegetables, the clinic would send patients there to buy them.
Another creative program to increase access to healthy food is the “Food Farmacy,” which is like a food bank but it only stocks healthy unprocessed food. It operates every other week in a room in the hospital. A patient is given a prescription for vegetables they like, which they can go and receive for free from the Food Farmacy, usually along with a few recipes for how to use it in a low-carb way.“We will give them a piece of paper with the prescription to come to the Food Farmacy on a specific day and time, and there we will hand them a cauliflower, and then a really delicious recipe for cauliflower mac and cheese.”
Mentors and defining moments
Dr. Hampton’s story of how he became a doctor is inspiring. The second son of a single mother who worked in the Nestle candy factory, he grew up fatherless in a tough neighborhood on Chicago’s largely Black West Side. It wasn’t an easy life, but his mother “instilled structure” and “always made her kids her priority,” he said.
Part of that structure was their Saturday morning trip to the laundromat where Dr. Hampton’s mother expected her sons to help. One Saturday, as a pre-teen, he was running ahead when he tripped, fell, and cut his hand on the shards of broken bottles that littered the sidewalk. The gash was treated at Cook County Hospital, which he remembers as a pivotal event when the doctor stitched the wound with no pain.
“I was astonished that the needle was going in and out of my hand, but I felt nothing.” The idea of one day being a doctor “to help heal people” took seed in that moment and stayed with him — as did the scar on his palm.
Another defining experience included living by a public tennis court. Growing up, Dr. Hampton was coached to become a local teenage tennis champion by the legendary police officer Barry Baston, a one-time bodyguard to Martin Luther King.
Officer Baston is known for mentoring and coaching hundreds of young Black men in that part of Chicago. He now has a street named after him. “He truly was a father-figure to me. My childhood hero. I credit him for putting me on the right path.”
Accepted into Xavier University of Louisiana, which is known for producing more African American students who graduate from medical school each year than any other university in the US, Dr. Hampton left Chicago for New Orleans with only enough money for one semester. One financial aid clerk told him he was out of luck and could not enroll, but a second one extended a challenge: If he was able to achieve good grades in his first semester, and get an on-campus job, they would provide enough aid to support him.
Two lucky things happened: He landed a job in the library at the checkout desk, surrounded by books, where he could read and study when his work wasn’t busy. And his study partner became Dobbin Bookman, back then a bright student and now a renowned professor and program director at Harvard Business School.
“I didn’t know how to study, but Dobbin taught me. Without him showing me how to learn, and without that library job, I doubt I ever would have made it into medical school.”
Knowledge is the ticket to empowerment
Now, Dr. Hampton calls himself “a life-long chronic learner,” who currently spends his evenings working toward a degree in human nutrition and functional medicine from the University of Western States. “Like most doctors, I didn’t learn anything about nutrition in medical school. I am expanding my knowledge base.”
Dr. Hampton feels education and knowledge are the keys to empowerment, for any person in any community.“I have seen what the right knowledge can do in my own life and my own medical practice, so I know what can be possible beyond that. People just don’t know. My patients will say ‘Doc, I didn’t know that my raisin bran and my banana and my juice is 90 carbs.’ And once they realize that they start their day with that much sugar, they are like, ‘OMG, if I had only known.’”
Dr. Hampton says he is delighted to team up with Diet Doctor to further spread knowledge about low-carb diets as widely as possible. And we are thrilled to be helping him in whatever way we can.
“I am very optimistic that as people hear these messages and fight the demons that distract them, we are going to get enough movement for this low-carb train to keep pushing down the track.
“Doing so will let us be free to focus on what we need to focus on and that will be a huge victory because it will fundamentally change everything we’ve done historically. It is huge.”
Check out Dr. Hampton’s delicious and simple recipe for banana pancakes, that he has shared with us. Using unripe bananas to reduce the sugar content and a touch of cinnamon to help with blood sugar regulation, the recipe is sure to become a quick breakfast go-to.
And congratulations to Dr. Hampton for such inspiring, essential work.
Tips for helping low-income patients
Are you a physician whose patients may be disadvantaged? Do you feel low-carb diets are too expensive to help them? Dr. Hampton has some tips to help doctors help their patients who may live in food deserts, have low incomes, or who are using food banks and food stamps.
- Examine their typical meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner and suggest easy, affordable changes for each meal to reduce the carb load.
- Provide some simple recipes for inexpensive low carb foods available in their region. (For ideas, see Diet Doctor budget-friendly meals.)
- Show how swapping a breakfast of juice, cereal, bread, and toast and replacing it with two eggs can lower blood sugar, reduce costs, and reduce hunger.
- If a patient is using foods stamps or food banks, provide a list of foods to avoid from these programs (such as avoiding pastas, rice, potatoes, bread).
- Create a list of low-carb, easily available food from food banks or what to buy on food stamp programs (e.g. canned and frozen fish and meat, nut butters without sugar, frozen vegetables.)
- In food deserts, work with any available local stores to stock some low-carb foods and send patients to those stores.
- Collaborate with community partners to start healthy food programs, such as a “Food Farmacy” that provides low-carb vegetables on prescription.
- Discuss how low carb diets can reduce medication needs, and therefore costs, and work with patients to reduce medication needs through diet.
- Once patients are fat-adapted, encourage short-term intermittent fasting, such as skipping breakfast, which can reduce food costs.
- Examine other aspects of their life that can derail health progress and help problem-solve solutions. Remember acronyms NEST (nutrition, exercise, stress/sleep, trauma/thoughts) and ROPE (Relationships, organisms, pollutants, emotions.)