We were saddened to learn that Cardiometabolic Health Congress (CMHC) faculty Sarah Hallberg, DO, MS, passed away this week following a courageous battle with cancer. We were looking forward to seeing Dr. Hallberg at the upcoming Spring 2022 Congress in Scottsdale, where her insights on type 2 diabetes management and the intersection between cardiometabolic health, diet, and insulin resistance are always a highlight of the conference. Dr. Hallberg will be missed by her CMHC colleagues, the entire cardiometabolic health community, and beyond. This week’s blog is dedicated to Dr. Hallberg’s life and legacy.
Getting her start in medicine
In her early 20s, Dr. Hallberg was working in a cardiac rehab program and about to start her doctorate in exercise physiology. Having received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Illinois State University in kinesiology and exercise science, it made perfect sense to continue her education in a field she loved. An argument with one of the doctors in the cardiac clinic, however, changed her mind. Regarding her decision to pursue a medical degree, she said, “I was always so frustrated because the doctors had no idea what they were talking about. I knew after a fight one day, I was never going to be listened to by them unless I was a doctor, too. So I went to medical school — because I was pissed.”
Dr. Hallberg obtained her Medical Degree from Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2002 and initially intended to become a preventive cardiologist. But, in another twist, she became pregnant shortly before she was set to begin cardiology training and changed her mind, saying, “I decided I was done with years of schooling, I just wanted to get down to work.” In 2005, she completed her internal medicine residency at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis and began what would turn out to be a boundless career in medicine.
Her work to combat diabetes through nutrition
As an expert on metabolic control and type 2 diabetes (T2D), Dr. Hallberg’s credentials as a researcher, clinician, and trailblazer are astounding. She served as executive director of The Nutrition Coalition, a nonprofit seeking to implement national nutrition policies founded on comprehensive and conclusive evidence, and to encourage research when that evidence is absent. At the time of her death, she was medical director at Virta Health, an evidence-based care delivery model designed to control diabetes through remote monitoring, health coaching, and diet.
Before joining Virta Health in 2015, Dr. Hallberg founded Indiana University Arnett’s Medically Supervised Weight Loss Program, was an adjunct clinical assistant professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, and served as an internal medicine physician at Indiana University Health. Over the course of her career, Dr. Hallberg received patients’ choice awards, compassionate doctor awards, awards for her significant contributions to research, and many others.
The groundbreaking TED Talk (that almost didn’t happen)
In May 2015, Dr. Hallberg was asked at the last minute to present a TED Talk at Purdue University to replace a speaker that had unexpectedly dropped out. A few days before she was scheduled to speak, she was at the Obesity Medicine Association national meeting when she met low-carb researcher Steve Phinney, MD, PhD, for the first time. She told him about her unexpected gig, and he replied, “You better be good because the average TED Talk has 50,000 views.” The presentation Dr. Hallberg gave a few days later, titled Reversing Type 2 diabetes starts with ignoring the guidelines, has been viewed 8.6 million times. In only 18 minutes, Dr. Hallberg delivered a message that resonated so strongly with viewers that these are some of the comments they left on the video’s YouTube page:
“As a diabetic from a family of them and now my kids are insulin-resistant and prediabetic I really needed this. I am scared to change but encouraged. Thank you I will be reading and learning more and sharing in my diabetic groups.”
“And here we have…a real doctor! You can tell how passionate she is about her work!”
“This was one of the best and most informative talks on Diabetes. I am a prediabetic and I am changing my diet in significant way due to this Ted Talk. Thank you Sarah Hallberg!!!”
“This Doc will save lives for sure! She truly is one in a million!”
When Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, founder of Diet Doctor, met Dr. Hallberg, he reflected, “once I got to meet Sarah, I realized her TED success was no coincidence; she’s simply a force of nature.” Another force in the field, the DiabeticEDGE organization, noted, “Doctor Hallberg’s talk is an eye-opener! Our high-carb and low-fat diets coupled with processed sugars have put insulin on a roller coaster of sorts. The chart of macronutrients and glucose/insulin responses was very insightful. I’m throwing my box cereals away and seeing if there are high protein versions on the market (there are). First, there were the four food groups…then the food pyramid. Now what?”
Her journey through cancer amid a pandemic
Dr. Hallberg’s death in March 2022 came after a 5-year battle with stage IV lung cancer. Although she never smoked, Dr. Hallberg was quick to point out that “anyone with lungs can get lung cancer,” and that no one should be blamed for their disease. Her friends at Virta Health write, “when she was diagnosed in 2017, she underwent emergency brain surgery. However, in those early years, most of our team had no clue, as Sarah quickly went back to her passion of helping patients without missing a beat.” In 2020, she wrote a blog titled, I’m a doctor with Stage 4 cancer during a pandemic. Her touching yet firm yet funny yet raw words weren’t meant to make people feel sorry for her but, as was her life’s mission, meant to improve the health care that all patients should be entitled to receive. In May 2021, she reflected on her lung cancer diagnosis and battle in a colleague’s podcast. She talked about dealing with her grief, deciding to continue her work while also prioritizing her family, and her plan to extend her life for as long as possible.
Dr. Hallberg’s memory will live on through Reversing T2: A Dr. Sarah Hallberg Legacy Project, an effort to continue her mission to revolutionize the way the public and the medical community think about diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic function. Proceeds will fund two educational projects: setting up a lecture course on T2D reversal based on Dr. Hallberg’s videos and teachings; and launching a podcast featuring cutting-edge research on the same topic. Her family and the project’s organizers hope these efforts will grow into a nonprofit organization that will continue the work she pursued so passionately.
The team at CMHC wishes to extend our sincere condolences to Dr. Hallberg’s family, friends, colleagues, and anyone who had the pleasure of knowing her; she will be deeply missed.