Is Food Your Enemy or Is Food Your Friend?

On September 5, 2016, Quartz, an online news service said the following in one of its articles:

Research suggests the biggest influence on a person's opinion of a particular food is how they "expect" it will taste. Giving fun, enticing names to healthy foods increases the desire to try them. Why not call broccoli "broccoli bites" or carrots "X-ray vision carrots"? Renaming foods to make them sound more appealing resulted in an increase in the sale of vegetables in the school cafeteria by 27 percent.

I can relate to that statement. While I am a very discriminate shopper in the grocery store and I read the labels of anything with a label before buying it, I can still relate to being attracted to products by how they are packaged and by what they are called. Before I went whole food, plant-based, I probably wouldn't have picked up broccoli in the grocery store, but broccoli bites, well that's a different story!

In fact, I know that because, while I was never a broccoli fan in the old days (although I eat it at practically every meal now), one day when I was shopping in the store for our groceries, I noticed something called Broccolini. I had never had Broccolini before nor had I heard of it before. So, even though I would never buy broccoli back then, I put the Broccolini in my cart and purchased it.

In other words, marketing psychology works, and the fact is, what we like and how we do something can be affected a lot by how we think about it. And that's true with whole food, plant-based eating as well.

We can take a negative approach to eating WFPB or we can take a positive approach. A negative approach focuses on the foods we don't eat. It makes food our enemy. We all know people, perhaps you are one, who when asked about what a whole food, plant-based diet is, they launch into saying that we eliminate all meat, dairy, fish, oil, processed foods. And some people even make it more restrictive and say SOS-free, that is no sugar, oil, and salt either. To a carnivore or a person on the standard American diet (SAD), that can't sound and it doesn't sound very appetizing. It can be hard to win converts when that's your message.

Even telling a person the remarkable results that you have achieved doesn't make the diet anymore appetizing. It sounds extreme. I know because I knew about Dr. Dean Ornish and Nathaniel Pritikin for decades before I ever went whole food, plant-based. And I looked at what they had to say as being very extreme and not practical. I read Dr. Joel Fuhrman's book, Eat to Live, over a decade ago and had the same reaction. I read the book and when I finished it, I said to my wife that I didn't believe there was anybody in the world who actually ate the way described in that book.

Focusing on the elimination of so many different foods is making food your enemy. I think there's a better approach. I think we can make food our friend. And when we do, not only does our diet sound more appealing and less extreme to others, but it puts us in a frame of mind that results in our eating healthier.

So, how do we make food our friend? Simply by focusing on what we do eat as opposed to what we don't eat. In a way, it's psychological because it doesn't cause us to eat what we shouldn't. We still don't eat meat, dairy, oil and processed foods. But by focusing on what we do eat, we end up making better choices as well.

For example, and I've actually heard of this happening, when we focus on eliminating foods, we can develop some strange diets, such as a mono diet that focuses solely on eating potatoes as an example. That meets the definition of not eating any animal products, oils or processed foods. But focusing solely on eating one food like that causes us to miss the nutritional benefits of some important foods like dark, leafy greens or cooked mushrooms or onion or cruciferous veggies, etc. etc. In other words, by not focusing on what we do eat, we can miss out on eating some important foods.

But when we think about what we do eat, then we start to think about getting all those foods on a daily basis that provide us the best bang for the buck. We focus on Dr. Fuhrman's G-Bombs (greens, beans, onion, mushrooms, berries and seeds) or Dr. Greger's Daily Dozen.  It makes our diet both healthier and more appetizing.

So, next time somebody asks you about eating WFPB, don't rattle off all the things we don't eat to them. Tell them what we do eat. That's what our way of eating is. It's about eating vegetables, fruit, legumes, in-tact whole grains and nuts and seeds. What could be more delicious! And when we think that way, we eat healthier too. It's a win-win all the way around.

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!

Yesterday, I was in a Facebook group devoted to whole food, plant-based eating talking to a woman who mentioned that she worked at Whole Foods. She remarked that it always amazes her to see how many unhealthy foods people come into the store to buy. During our discussion, I mentioned that a couple of the things that I buy at Whole Foods are Rip Esselstyn's Engine2 products and sea vegetables like wakame.

Now, you wouldn't think that mentioning either one of those products in a group devoted to a whole food, plant-based way of eating would be controversial, would you? I certainly didn't think so.

But surprisingly, the moderator of that group jumped in and told me that it was unacceptable to talk about Engine2 products in that group. She said Dr. Greger (the group in theory follows Dr. Greger) doesn't allow for eating products with any salt in the ingredients. She went on to lecture me about how evil salt is.

I was astounded that anybody in the whole food, plant-based movement would find fault with Engine2 products. And I was astounded to learn that Dr. Greger doesn't allow any product with salt in the ingredients list. Actually, I didn't learn that because it's not true, but she apparently thought it was true.

The discussion ended with her accusing me of promoting high salt products in her group. I found that laughable because I probably eat less salt than anybody I know. I use no table salt. I cook my own beans as opposed to using canned beans, which do have salt. And about the most extreme I get in using processed foods, which is where the real concern with sodium should be, is when I open up a container of Engine2 product, which by the way is very low in sodium (at least the products I have).

I decided to leave that group. I had only recently joined it, and since I've gotten along for over five years in the whole food, plant-based movement without that group, I decided I didn't need that kind of hassle in my retirement. I also blocked that moderator on Facebook, as I'm prone to do when I run across people with very extreme positions that they try to push on me.

But it brings up a real concern I have because I see this more often than I should. And that is the aggressiveness that I see people go to in policing what other people eat. I've been criticized for including nuts in my recipes (even though Dr. Greger and Dr. T Colin Campbell and Dr. Ornish and other wfpb doctors say you'll live longer and healthier if you include nuts in your diet), for referencing Michael Pollan (because he himself eats meat), for eating sauerkraut and miso (more apparently high salt foods) and more. And the people who criticize me don't care about the incredible results that I've had eating the way I do. All they care about is I crossed some theoretical line that they've established in their own mind for what whole food, plant-based is. As someone once remarked, "The only thing vegans hate worse than carnivores is other vegans." I see the same thing among many eating whole food, plant-based, and it concerns me because it's both cultish and it turns people off to adapting healthier lifestyles.

Because of this, I'm thinking about breaking away from calling myself whole food, plant-based and instead just being focused on healthier eating and healthier lifestyles. When we put labels on things or give things names, then they take on a life of their own. We start to define more and more confining criteria that separates us from those who aren't in the pack. But I didn't start eating this way to join a pack. I started eating this way because I wanted to get healthy and to be healthy. And I started writing this blog because I wanted to pass on what I learned to others.

But I probably went too far in labelling myself The Whole Food Plant-Based Guy. Because now I just want to talk about healthier eating and healthier living and not to somebody else's artificial guidelines. The moderator of that group said they were 100% evidence-based, but she was wrong. There is no science behind the philosophy of rejecting a product containing 35 mg of sodium in a serving (the amount in my Engine2 broth), and I have the blood pressure results (110/70 on average without meds) to prove it. It's all her opinion.

When I started eating whole food, plant-based, it wasn't this way. There were people who used olive oil, for example, and there were people who didn't. The people who didn't use olive oil identified themselves as wfpbno, with the "no" standing for no oil. The first time I went on the vegan cruise, the dining rooms were divided into oil and no oil, and there was a very small number of people who went to the no oil side.

But as time went on, no oil became the mantra of the whole food, plant-based movement. And now that that's become well established, there are some who are taking things further and creating the no-SOS faction. That may well become the standard over time as well. I don't personally put salt or sugar into any of my foods, and I don't generally eat processed foods, so I could fall into line with that faction. But I'm not going to. This is not about being absolute and saying never to certain foods, even foods containing salt, oil and sugar. It's about making choices and living for what gives you your best health.

I live by Michael Pollan's words, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I think those seven words are brilliant and that's what guides my choices at each meal. Healthy eating is about choosing the best and healthiest choices out of what we have to choose from. If we look at it that way, then I think we will be more successful than we will if we look at food as our enemy and say "Oh, I can't eat that because it has 35 mg of sodium in it."

I make choices every day in how I eat. Michael Pollan's words help me to make those choices and those words are easy ways to remember all that I've learned from reading and watching videos of the masters like Dr. T Colin Campbell, Dr. Michael Greger, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Dean Ornish and others. But I refuse to be part of a rigid cult. I've been there done that once before, and it's not a good thing. I know to watch out for the Kool Aide. I eat this way because I want to be and stay healthy (and I have all the numbers to prove that I'm achieving it). And I write about this in order to pass my knowledge and what I've learned on to others. You're free to accept or reject what I write. But you don't get to tell me I'm doing it wrong.

What's Wrong With Vegan Foods?

Last night, I made a presentation to the Sun City Hilton Head Eat Smart Live Longer Club on why many "vegan" foods are not whole food, plant-based and are best avoided (even in transition). While there was much more to the presentation than this, these four slides I think really drove home the points I was trying to make.

In the first two slides, I did two comparisons of two very popular "vegan" burgers against first our own whole food plant-based guidelines and then secondly against the actual hamburger (and the comparison here was against a not very lean hamburger at that). As can be seen on the first slide, neither vegan burger meets our requirements when it comes to fat content or to sodium content.

Furthermore, when you compare against fat, saturated fat, sodium and calories, the hamburger comes out the healthier choice. And the more lean we make the hamburger, the more dramatic the differences can be.

Of course the point of that is not to say that anyone should start eating real hamburger meat again. We already know that hamburger meat is not considered healthy and is not whole food, plant-based. The point of this slide, is that these products, from a health standpoint, are not an acceptable alternative.

Some people like to think of them as a transition food. But why would you transition into eating WFPB by choosing something less healthy than what you were eating before? My suggestion for transitioning in is to select plant-based foods that you liked before and eat those during the transition period. For example, my favorite vegetables before I went whole food, plant-based were peas, corn and artichokes. While I hardly ever eat those foods now, back when I started they helped me to transition into eating WFPB because they got me focusing on eating vegetables by eating vegetables that I already enjoyed. So, I ate a ton of those three vegetables in the beginning.

But to transition in by eating fake meat and other processed foods just never made sense to me. How does pretending to eat meat get you to finally enjoy eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts and seeds? And at what point do you decide that you had enough fake burgers and fake mayos and now you're ready to go full bore whole food, plant-based? The only way to do it, in my opinion, is to do it and not try to continue imitating how you ate before.

But it's not just the fat and sodium content of these fake products that concerns me, it's also the ingredients. This next slide makes the point as to why I consider these fake foods to be "chemical-based" as opposed to "plant-based." And as we always say, if you don't recognize the ingredients or you can't pronounce the ingredients, then it's probably not a whole food.

Then I got into one of my favorite topics (and this drew the loudest gasps last night). That topic is Natural Flavors. There's a whole book just on natural flavors, called The Dorito Effect and it's an excellent book to read. It's eye opening.

So, this next slide is intended to show how Natural Flavors shows up in an Ingredients list and how innocuous it looks on the label. It's almost inviting. It makes it sound like we're talking about the real food, being that it's natural, flavoring the particular food or drink.

But then this fifth slide destroys that myth. In this slide, I show the ingredients (chemicals) behind just one typical natural flavor. Those are ingredients that never show up on the label. All the label says is "Natural Flavors."

And I would say that about 90% of the processed foods in the store today have Natural Flavors listed in their ingredients listing. That's my guesstimate as to the prevalence of natural flavors.

In conclusion, I make the point that our WFPB way of eating, while it can exclude animal products, is really not a vegan diet. It is a diet focused on eating real food (not fake food or processed foods made in a manufacturing facility somewhere). I think that Michael Pollan described it best when he wrote:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Those seven words, to me, wrap up the entire whole food, plant-based philosophy. If we keep those seven words in mind at every meal, then we should always be able to steer ourselves right when it comes to eating healthy. But if instead, we think of the WFPB way of eating as a vegan diet, then we can get led astray and we can find ourselves easily eating a lot of less than ideal foods.

One thing that almost all successful diets for health (WFPB, Mediterranean, Paleo, etc.) have in common is the elimination of processed foods. Hopefully, these slides and my presentation to about 140 people last night help to convey why that is.

The Three Reasons I Overeat

I've heard it said that you can't overeat on a whole food, plant-based diet.  And yet, I know that I oftentimes will eat when I'm not hungry. And while I've kept my weight within a five pound range for the last three and a half years since losing 150 pounds, I still feel that there's another ten pounds or so that I would like to lose. And it seems like eating when I'm not hungry might be the culprit that is keeping me from losing that last ten pounds.

Now, the good news is that I've had both Dr. Frank Sabatino and Dr. Alan Goldhamer stay at my house in the last year, and both of them have told me that I'm fine and I shouldn't stress about losing that last ten pounds. But I still want to, and so because of that, I think that conquering my overeating habit is important.

I've figured out that there are three reasons I overeat. And some of these may be things you do too. So, I thought it important to publish this. The first step in conquering any problem is to recognize that we have a problem and then identify the reasons (what we would have called the root causes back during my professional years) for the problem.

So, along those lines, here are my three reasons:

I overeat out of habit

This may be the biggest issue that I face. Over time, there are certain habits that I've formed. For example, I've enjoyed a big bowl of air-popped popcorn spiced with nutritional yeast while watching TV on many nights. This is probably a habit that I started even before going whole food, plant-based, except at that time I would eat a bag of microwave popcorn from the store (being oblivious to all the trans and saturated fats and salt I was consuming with that popcorn).

Or sometimes I'll get into the habit of having a bowl of nice cream for dessert after dinner. It's healthy, right? It's nothing but frozen fruit and bananas or frozen peanut butter and bananas. And it tastes like the old ice cream I used to enjoy. But the problem is, I first of all take big scoops of it and secondly, I eat it even though I'm entirely full from dinner.

And that's the real issue. We can't overeat on a whole food, plant-based diet if we stop when we're full (or as some people do, stop when they're 80% full). But I don't do that. Out of habit, I will eat foods even when I'm full.

Out of habit, I eat three bananas a day (full or not full). And that might be in addition to the nice cream.

So, the first order of business I've decided is to not eat when I'm not hungry. That's a conscious decision that I've made, and it's one that we have to make. Eat only when hungry.

The other conscious decision that I've made is to not eat after dinner at night (or after 7 pm if I've eaten an early dinner). That is the hardest resolution (so to speak) to keep, but I think it's an important one. I have all my life habitually eaten at night. In fact, I would bet that there are many times when I've consumed more calories after dinner than I did the whole rest of the day. So, I think that's important.

In making these decisions, it's good to change the events too that trigger them. For example, if watching television triggers a person to eat, then doing something else might make it easier to not eat. I find reading a book can work in that regard because it's more difficult to hold the book and turn the pages while also holding food and eating it (although it's not impossible; I have done it).

I overeat in anticipation of hunger

This problem is usually most prevalent to me at the beginning of the day; whereas, the habitual eating is a problem at the end of the day.

I generally make it a point to not eat until 11 am in the morning. I do that in order to intermittently fast. I want to get in a good 12 hour fast each day before I start to eat. And now that I've decided not to eat after 7 pm on most days, that fast extends to 16 hours.

What that means is I generally eat only two meals a day instead of three. But if I have an event in the morning that isn't going to allow me to eat at 11 am, then I will eat before the event. That's because I'm anticipating being hungry but not being able to eat at 11 am. That ends up doing two things usually. First, it causes me to break my fast earlier than I wanted to and usually when I'm not hungry. Plus it throws my schedule off and I will eat a second meal after the event and still then eat dinner that night. So, a scheduled event can easily add another meal into my day.

I think perhaps the answer to that might be to take something light, like a small bag of nuts or raisins to the event and feed my hunger when it arrives. But again, be conscious of when I'm hungry and don't feed myself when I'm not hungry.

I overeat in order to avoid wasting food

One of the problems with being whole food, plant-based is food really does expire. You can buy processed foods, that may have expiration dates stamped on them, but the truth is, the food (or should I say the chemicals they call food) will be around forever.  But one trait of a whole, plant-based food is that it does go bad. And oftentimes, that happens before we can eat it.

I never like to waste or throw out food, although I have heard it said that it gets wasted either way. It either is waste or it goes to your waist where it's also not needed.

And the answer is another conscious decision. I used to do all my shopping for a week at a time. And I tended to buy more than I needed because I could play all these "what if" scenarios in my head. What if the store is out of this item next time I go to buy it? What if I can't get to the store for whatever reason? What if there's an emergency?

So, I buy the food and then I feel compelled to eat it. And sometimes that means eating more food than I should. But that's the wrong answer.

I've now put all that to rest. I now only buy certain foods that spoil easily for a few days at a time. And if I'm faced with food expiring before I eat it, I give the excess away. I no longer feel compelled to eat it just to make good use of it.

So, those are my three reasons for why I overeat. I'm sure we each have our own reasons for it. Or maybe I'm unique and nobody else overeats. But in the interest of helping those who do, I think those might be three reasons that some others can identify with too.

And the one takeaway for me is to make sure I only eat when I really am hungry and not to eat when I'm not hungry, regardless of the reason I might have for doing so.


I have a confession to make. I actually read Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman over ten years ago. And I actually tried to follow it for a couple of hours. But I quickly determined that it was impossible to follow. For the couple of hours that I tried it, I didn't feel satisfied, and I questioned whether or not I was really getting all the nutrition that I needed.

It wasn't until I moved to where I live now and discovered the Eat Smart Live Longer Club that I began to take eating whole plant-based foods seriously. I was writing for SunSations, a local community magazine, at the time and I learned about the club from a fellow writer on the magazine, Ellie Dixon who had begun following the whole food, plant-based way of eating.

I attended my first meeting of the club and there were several hundred people at the meeting. It seemed like even more than that because that meeting was held in a smaller space than where the meetings are currently held. I had to search to find a seat in the room. But it seemed like I was on to something. Or I should say, the club was on to something.

I was reminded of that this afternoon while listening to Freakanomics on NPR. They talked about an experiment that was done in one town trying to figure out what message would get people to reduce their energy consumption the most. The scientists conducting the experiment had the local utility put out four different notices to homes in the area. One notice appealed to people's altruistic nature and just asked them to "please" reduce their energy consumption in order to save the environment. The second notice asked people to reduce their energy consumption in order to reduce their monthly billing. The third noticed asked people to reduce their energy consumption in order to conserve energy so that it would be available in the future for their children and grandchildren. And the fourth notice announced that their neighbors were all trying to conserve energy by reducing their energy consumption.

Then they watched what happened with energy consumption from each household. What happened was that only one of those four groupings actually reduced energy consumption after receiving the notice. And the group that did that was the fourth group that was told their neighbors were all reducing their energy consumption.

In other words, as much as we like to believe we are independent and act on our own logic, the fact is, we tend to follow the herd. We do what those around us do. And that has major implications for both whether or not we will follow a whole food, plant-based way of eating and also whether or not we can convince others to follow this way of eating. For example, what if instead of focusing energy on "converting" a friend or family member, we focused on a group of people such as a church congregation or a softball team?

Think Rip Esselstyn and what he did with the Engine 2 firehouse for example. One firefighter might not have done it on her own. But a whole firehouse of firefighters might once the idea has been presented to them. And in fact, a whole firehouse did.

When I think about it, I realize that I needed the Eat Smart Live Longer Club in order to do this. I would not have done it on my own. I'm thankful every day for the fact that we made the decision to move here back in 2011. Had we not moved here, then I would not have found this club (or they would not have found me), and I would still be overweight with lots of problems (assuming I'd still be alive).

Now, I'm sure there are some who will read this and declare, "I'm doing it by myself." But are you really? Would you or could you do it without Facebook and the communities that it builds for example? Could you or would you do it without blogs like this and webinars and conferences and so on?

We are both social animals and animals who follow the herd. It's in our biological nature. And that's why eating whole plant-based foods can become a movement. As more and more people do it, more and more people will join in. For those who do not live in a community where there are others eating this way, it can be of value to search out those who are and to form a club or a group to do this. It will be rewarding not just to you but to those who join and those who are exposed to those who join.

J Lanning Smith
August 25, 2018