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Dr. Abby Sokunbi Dr. Abby Sokunbi

Walking the Walk

“What keeps me motivated is knowing there are consequences to being unhealthy. And also knowing that no one can do this but me. So, I have to make time for me.” – Dr. Abby Sokunbi

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Abby Sokunbi, MD: Internal Medicine, Katy Clinic

February 2024

When Dr. Sokunbi discovered that weight management was key to preventing numerous medical conditions, she became certified in Obesity Medicine. Her patients helped her realize that she had to go beyond being knowledgeable and actually live it. Now, she not only guides her patients on their health journeys but also makes her own wellness a top priority.

How did being in the medical profession guide your own health journey?

I’m an outpatient physician in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics now, but I started out in hospital medicine. My biggest reason for the change to primary care was from asking, ‘Why are all of these people so sick? Why are all of these illnesses not being prevented?’ I wanted to intervene before they came to the hospital, so I moved into primary care to try to do more prevention. I found that, for many, the bottom line is weight management because a lot of illnesses stem from unhealthy weight.

I became Obesity Medicine certified in 2019 and it wasn’t long before my patients started challenging me. One patient said, ‘Dr. Sokunbi, you’ve gained weight, too. So how can you tell me to lose weight?’ That’s when I realized I needed to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I knew I had to choose health, and nutrition is the most important part.

What does your daily commitment to wellness look like?

First, what works for one person might not work for another. I’m an early riser. I wake up between 4:30 and 4:45 in the morning and get on my treadmill or Peloton bike. I exercise for 30 to 45 minutes an average of five days a week. I have to have something with protein in the morning to jumpstart my metabolism. So, breakfast is usually egg on wheat toast and coffee. I eat lunch between 1 and 1:30. When I’m really trying to focus on weight loss, I either skip dinner or dinner is my lightest meal. I go by the old saying that you should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. When I’m in maintenance phase, I’ll eat dinner, but it will still be light.

What challenges do you face in your efforts to stay healthy?

My downfall is snacks. I could go without meals and just snack. For some people, snacks are fine. But for me, no matter how much I know about nutrition, my body tells me to eat an Oreo. I would eat Oreos all day if I could. I had to tell myself, ‘You can have it, but in moderation and earlier in the day.’

How does sleep factor into good health?

From an internal perspective, the more fat mass that our bodies have, the more difficult it is for our bodies to function effectively. Diabetes is a good example. With diabetes, increased weight means my insulin doesn’t work so well, and that creates more fat storage. Fat storage can lead to more complications. Being overweight also means my heart and blood vessels have to work harder, so that can result in high blood pressure. Being overweight can mean that when I sleep, I have problems with snoring and possibly sleep apnea. Even if I don’t have any of those internal health problems from excess weight, I can’t run around and play with my kids. So, excess body mass can affect us structurally, and it can affect us from the inside metabolically.

You’re certified in Obesity Medicine. Can you explain the connection between weight and health?

You wouldn’t believe how many of us are just bad at sleeping, including me. Research has shown that sleep is just as important to health and weight control as exercise.

There are hormones that are connected to our circadian rhythms. You have to sleep between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. for those hormones to work as well and need at least seven to eight hours. For most people, the easiest factor in weight management that they can control is sleep, so I usually start with that.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to being healthy today?

It’s a combination of things. I talk to my patients about the ‘why.’ A lot of us are stressed. Stress is the most undervalued reason for excess weight. I still don’t have a cure for it other than just choosing ourselves. Stress results in an increased rate of cortisol (a form of steroid). This causes us to make unhealthy choices. We eat badly, we don’t sleep well. But more than anything, it makes us have an excess amount of cortisol, which makes us hold onto weight. Chronic stress, when you’re perpetually stressed, it’s like you’re on steroids all the time, and it’s hard to lose weight. Meditation, mindfulness, taking breaks, yoga, vacationing, and therapy may help.

Knowledge also plays a big role. You’d be surprised how many people, for example, don’t know the role fiber plays in the body. Or the people who drink sweet tea who tell me that it just goes right through them, so how can it be causing weight gain? They don’t understand that the carbs from sweet tea are the same as carbs from rice, but they get stored even quicker because the body doesn’t have to do any work. Or juice: They drink a ton of juice and don’t realize there’s sugar/carbs in juice.

With all of the health-related information out there – both accurate and inaccurate – where should people turn for the best guidance?

See someone who’s knowledgeable in the area of weight management. Obesity Medicine is a growing field. Within Kelsey-Seybold, we have about seven or eight providers who are certified. We’ve come a long way in our knowledge, and we want to know your ‘why.’ It’s there that we can find the best treatment.

You talk about the ‘why.’ What do you mean by this?

Weight loss is very personal. There’s a reason you’re experiencing weight or health problems and there’s a reason why you want to get healthy. The best thing you can do is know yourself, own that, and then look for someone who can help you get healthier. If you’re having a hard time knowing why you can’t get healthy or can’t lose weight, get a physical to figure out what’s wrong.

As a physician, I have to draw a picture of every person’s situation. If someone starts gaining weight abruptly, I look to see what life change happened that made them start gaining weight and address that. I’m not going to prescribe for you to eat better if you’re already eating healthily.

What’s your advice to people who tend to put everyone and everything else first before taking care of themselves?

There’s only one you. And you have to be at your best for everything else to follow. Choosing you is the best solution to making a lot of things work. Give yourself permission to choose you. I think everyone deserves at least one hour a day to focus on themselves. Choose yourself and make yourself a priority because you do matter. If you’re doing well 80% of the time, you’re winning.