The internist specializing in obesity medicine on running a holistic practice, working in media, and healthy cooking.
Dr. Alexandra Sowa has always been passionate about helping others. Her interest in medicine came early on in life through having a role model in her father, also a physician. However, in college she was interested in making a difference on a bigger scale by working in public health. I met Dr. Sowa at her home in Fort Greene, where we chatted about how she found obesity medicine as a specialty, how she’s combined her love for medicine and media (she’s a frequent guest on FOX Business and CBS), and her go-to tips for healthy cooking.
“I was exposed to medicine as a little girl, since I am the daughter of a hand surgeon. I always loved how my father was able to transform people’s lives by giving them back use of their hands. Medicine became a really fascinating field for me, and through it, I transitioned into being interested in public health and global health. I worked at the World Health Organization when I was in college, and there I realized that I was interested in the prevention of disease but still also loved to work with the individual patient. This led me back to medical school, where I focused on preventive medicine.”
Specializing In Obesity Medicine
I did a residency in internal medicine, where it became clear to me that a lot of medicine today is treating the disease instead of treating the underlying cause. Obesity, weight gain, and metabolic disease are huge factors in the developments of diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and cancer. In my residency, I encountered a few patients who lost a lot of weight and seeing their journey helped me realize that I really wanted to facilitate that in my career. Once I discovered that obesity medicine was a specialty I could pursue, I never considered anything else.
Starting a Holistic Practice
I founded my own practice, SoWell Medical, this past year so I could provide the care I believe patients deserve. My patients and I have a really strong relationship. It’s not a traditional doctor’s office. When a patient first comes in I say, “once we get started, you’re going to know me for years.” Because in weight management, it’s a lifelong process. We focus first on nutrition and lifestyle, and then we look at the whole of the person to see if there’s anything else contributing to weight gain. That could include other medications — or underlying diseases like sleep disorders, insulin resistance, and depression.
In my practice, the primary goal of weight loss is to improve health, prevent future disease, and improve quality of life.
Traditionally, weight gain is seen as a failure and lack of willpower, but it’s really a lot bigger than that. It’s multifactorial disease that is genetic, social, behavioral, physiological, and metabolic. Yes, it’s is also lifestyle — there is some culpability — but it’s often a lot bigger and more complex than what a person has eaten or hasn’t eaten in their lives.
That’s why my practice addresses all aspects of weight loss. We don’t just use medication. We don’t just use nutrition and exercise. We don’t just use therapy. We use a combination of all three to achieve the most successful and sustainable weight loss for our patients. And while a lot of the one-on-one work happens with me, we also have a network of nutritionists and therapists, if needed.
On Working with Patients
When it comes to medications, I ask people to look at weight loss like any other disease. People are willing to go on medication to treat a sinus infection or high blood pressure, but when it comes to weight loss there is often a stigma around it. There’s a lot of shame that they can’t take the weight off on their own. I’m an evidence-based doctor; everything I do is rooted in evidence. When used judiciously, medication is a tool we can use to help people lose weight and maintain weight loss.
There’s nothing better than hearing from patients, “for years, my doctors have told me to lose weight, but you’re the only doctor that has helped me and showed me how to lose weight.” It’s life-changing; it’s the best.
I want to give high fives and cheer because when they come in and have lost weight, there’s nothing better for me as their doctor than to see that!
Finding a Voice through Media and Writing
There’s nothing more special than a one-on-one patient interaction, but spreading health messages through television, print, and radio to many people at once is incredibly powerful.
I received a masters degree in theater before medical school and I’m a true believer in the power of communication. After residency, I began writing on health topics and have since transitioned into television and radio. I take my role of responsibly communicating health topics very seriously — there is just so much health misinformation out there!
I recently wrote about looking at gun control as a public health issue as an op-ed, and I’m very proud of it. If I can convince just one person to look at a topic differently, I feel like I’ve done my job.
Women In Medicine
Women in medicine are amazing! They are strong, smart, and save lives. But even though females now comprise half of the medical student and residency positions, women in medicine still face many career hurdles. As in most other professional fields, there are significant gender-based gaps in salary, career advancement, and leadership.
But, thankfully, I think times are changing. As more women rise within academic leadership, my hope is that female physicians will be able to create a career and life on their own terms. I especially hope this includes the choice to have a family. Medicine needs to realize that having a child is totally natural part of life, not some unnavigable roadblock in training or career advancement.
In recent years, I have also felt an incredibly powerful camaraderie growing among female physicians — in part by the growth of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been transformative for many women in medicine by allowing us to connect outside of the hospital in a more comfortable, even anonymous setting. I have friends all over the country that I’ve never even met — it’s been amazing!
What’s Next In Health and Wellness
I’m very excited about developments in the body’s microbiome — how bacteria within our own bodies is related to the development of diseases. It’s incredibly fascinating, and touches on every disease that we see right now. We’re not ready quite to harness that when treating patients, but I think by the end of my career in medicine, we will be.
I also love the concept of food as medicine. Food is effective for both the prevention and treatment of disease, but its use as “medicine” is so underutilized. We need to overhaul the way our society eats from the very beginning — from a baby’s first bites. On the flip side, a change in food can reverse disease once it develops. Dietary changes can be the only “prescription” I write for a patient. An example would be a low-carbohydrate diet for the reversal of diabetes. It’s not a good fit for everyone, but it can be very effective.
In the age of Instagram, you see so many beautifully plated meals with gorgeous colors and garnishes, but healthy doesn’t have to mean complex. Healthy can be very, very simple. I tell my patients to plan. You plan every other aspect of your life; you should plan how you’re going to eat for the week. Also, do not be afraid of frozen food for times when you’re too busy to get fresh food. When it comes to cooking, embrace leftovers and monotony. I love food and I love diversity, but it turns out that Americans only really eat the same 15 foods on rotation anyway. So pick your favorite meals and put them on repeat!
I could talk for hours about… how to get your children to be adventurous eaters.
One thing everyone can do for their health…sleep more.
New Yorkers are unique because…we all have a story!
I feel looked after when…my children tell me they love me.
Family activity: Playing soccer in the Fort Greene park.
Thing to cook: I love a good shrimp scampi and I lighten it up with zucchini noodles.
Exercise: Pilates — it’s amazing for the core and after having children, it has restored my strength. I like Fort Pilates, but I also do it at home, too!
Podcast: Heather McDonald’s podcast, The Juicy Scoop. She’s so funny; she makes me laugh, and she brings happiness to my subway ride.
You can learn more about Dr. Alexandra Sowa here.
Know a great female doctor in NYC? We’d love to meet her, introduce us here!