When I began exploring plant-based nutrition in 2010, Jeff Novick’s name was prominent in many of the books and research I was absorbing. His approach to healthy eating made so much common sense, and he was an important source of education for me as I went on to receive a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jeff, he is a dietitian and nutritionist. With over 24 years of experience in nutrition, health, fitness, and natural living, he offers expert health advice distilled into powerful, easy-to-understand language on a variety of current topics. His insightful and humorous approach to nutrition and health has helped thousands worldwide (myself included) make the transition to healthy living. Jeff holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Indiana State University in nutrition with minors in Exercise Science.
It’s with great honor (and excitement!) that I share this interview with Jeff. I spoke with him via phone, in between his work with Dr. John McDougall at a 10-day live-in program.
Enjoy this special interview!
How do you define plant-centered eating?
I don’t like using labels like plant-centered, plant-based, whole-foods, low fat, vegan etc., because they are never enough to fully describe the way of eating I recommend. Also, one could follow a plant-centered, plant-based, whole-foods, low fat, or vegan diet that is not healthy. So, instead, I teach principles and guidelines of healthy eating.
There are five guidelines (or principles) that I use to define a healthy dietary pattern and these guidelines are backed by an overwhelming body of scientific research:
1) Plant-Centered – Center your plate and your diet predominately with plant foods (fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, roots/tubers, intact whole grains, and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils).
2) Minimally Processed – Enjoy foods as close to “as grown in nature” with minimal processing that does not detract from the nutritional value and/or add any harmful components.
3) Calorie Dilute – Follow the principles of calorie density, choosing foods that are calorie adequate, satiating, and nutrient sufficient.
4) Low S-O-S – Avoid/minimize the use of added salts/sodium, oils/fats, and sugars/sweeteners.
5) Variety – Consume a variety of foods in each of the recommended food groups.
Now, if there were ten of us in the room, we could each implement these pillars slightly differently and still each have a healthy diet and great health results. That’s because when we look at the research evidence, there’s no one specific diet that is “best.” Instead, there are common denominators across healthy diets that combine to make up a healthy dietary pattern, and these are reflected in my five guidelines/principles of healthy eating.
What foods do you recommend that people incorporate into their diets?
The healthiest foods are minimally processed fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, roots/tubers, intact whole grains, and legumes. These should make up most—if not all—of our daily calories. I recommend that people start right where they are and just keep adding in more of these foods each day.
I’ve witnessed extreme approaches that some people have with regard to health and diet.
Yes, and, in general, I don’t think it’s good. It is important to eat healthfully and put the necessary time, energy, and attention into food, but it shouldn’t become one’s whole life. As a mentor once told me: “We do this [eat and live well] to get our lives back, not for it to become our lives. It gives us back our health and energy so we can do the things in life we really love to do.”
It seems today that the topic of nutrition and health has become a war with sides drawn and no discussion. I am disappointed in the conversation I see happening on social media because a lot of it is very judgmental, confrontational, and elitist. The message out there seems to be that if the food you eat is not fresh, organic, local, shade-grown, GMO-free, and picked yourself or picked up at a local farmer’s market or purchased from some elite health food store, then all blended together in some expensive hi-tech blender, you are not doing well enough. And, if you buy any frozen or canned foods, you might as well be eating bacon and cheeseburgers.
We need to have compassion, not only for the animals and the environment, but also for our fellow humans, particularly in the way we treat each other, especially those who may not follow the exact same dietary pattern we do.
What would you say are some of the immediate benefits of incorporating plant-based food into your life?
When you feed your body with the healthiest foods, you begin to notice a difference rather quickly. People begin to feel much better, more clear-headed; they’re less tired and have more energy throughout the day. What we see from a medical perspective is that elevated blood sugar and blood pressure normalize quickly and we often see the need to reduce people’s medications for blood sugar (diabetes) and blood pressure (heart conditions) in as little as 48-72 hours.
We see weight loss, too, about five to seven pounds on average in the first week. This may not sound like a lot, but this is in people who are eating whenever they’re hungry until they’re comfortably full. This is not a crash diet, or about dieting or food restriction, but rather a way of eating the healthiest foods for life.
People always ask me, “I’m eating so much, are you sure this is good for me?” What they don’t realize is that this plant-based food is so much lower in calorie density that they can eat a much greater volume of food while taking in the same or fewer amount of calories.
What are some of the long-term benefits of eating a healthy diet?
In the beginning, people are enthusiastic because they start seeing benefits so quickly. What we can measure is a quick reduction in biomarkers and a dramatic reduction or elimination of medication. For those who are able to stick with the lifestyle, we see the prevention and treatment of disease along with the reversal of disease even in those who are seriously ill. In many cases, a healthy diet and lifestyle can eliminate the need for medication and/or surgery.
So the body resets itself to its natural state of health when eating plant-based foods?
Yes. There are many factors that go into this besides just food, but when you give the body what it needs and take away what’s damaging it, the body has the ability to heal and restore itself to health.
For people who currently eat meat and dairy and aren’t able to do a residential program like yours, how would you recommend they began exploring a health-centered plant-based diet?
There are many problems with the American diet today that need to be addressed so just pick one and start there. From my perspective, people can start with the two most important ones.
First, we don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, intact whole grains, roots/tubers, and beans in their minimally processed state, so people can start right there. That’s easy.
The second issue is that we eat way too much added sugars, salt, refined grains, fats/oils, overly processed foods, and animal foods. We’ve got to cut way back on all of these.
Doing more of the first one helps us to cut back on the second one. That’s why I created the healthy plate graphic (above), to start to move people away from foods that aren’t supporting health and toward incorporating more healthy ones. Whether it’s starting with plant-centered dinner a few nights a week or choosing one meal each day, such as breakfast, to be plant-centered, you can start to move in a healthier direction. Add in more of the good stuff and cut way back on the unhealthy items. Make breakfast a bowl of oatmeal and fruit every day, or make a few dinners a week a healthy bean, rice, and veggies dish, or both.
So it sounds like your advice is to find simple ways to start eating more plant-based food.
Yes. The best way to do this is by simply filling your plate with more of the healthiest foods and eating them first, because as you do that, you will naturally eat less of the unhealthy foods. Your overall caloric intake will also go down naturally just by eating more of the healthiest foods first. For example, by eating a healthy salad, a bowl of soup, or an apple before your meal, your overall caloric intake goes down.
Don’t waste your time searching for the “healthiest” animal product or the “healthiest” cookie; just eat less of those unhealthy foods and eat much more of the healthiest foods.
You speak often about this idea of a common sense approach to eating. Tell us more about that.
I like to show people that there’s not only a scientific basis for plant-centered eating, but also an intuitive common sense to it. For example, when you see the numbers on how much fat, saturated fat, added sugars, and salt is in our food and how much overly processed junk food we’re eating, all laid out in charts, graphs, and a timeline of its progression over the last few decades, it’s literally eye-opening and jaw dropping. It hits you at a deep, intuitive gut level. We see what the problem really is and how we have been fooled and are fooling ourselves about our diets and health. It gives us the opportunity to step back, see the reality of where we are, what the problem is, and what a healthy diet is and can do for us.
Then once people start making the eating changes, their bodies respond in kind and they feel great. It all begins to make sense, and, at the end of the day, we now know the truth about what we’re eating and whether it’s good for us.
What are the most common obstacles that people face when starting to eat a health and plant-centered diet?
It is important for people to know how difficult this is if they are going to be successful at it and, without a doubt, there are two big challenges.
The first is the macro world we live in. We live in the most toxic food environment we’ve ever lived in as humans and it is a serious obstacle to eating healthy. We’re surrounded by an abundance of inexpensive calorie-rich, super-sized, junk food that is ubiquitous in our environment and available 24 hours, everywhere.
The example I use to explain how difficult this is going to be to the participants in the residential programs when they go home is for them to imagine that they just went through 30-day treatment for alcohol addiction. Going back home is the equivalent of sending them home to a bar. And not just any bar, but a bar during happy hour on Super Bowl Sunday. This is the equivalent to the toxic food environment we live in. I could pack you all the carrots, celery, potatoes, rice and bean burritos that I want, and I could give you all the psychological tools, but it doesn’t matter; it’s still going to be very challenging and one must know this and be prepared for it.
What makes it even harder is not just all the unhealthy food we’re surrounded by, but that there are so many products that are advertised as healthy which are not healthy at all.
The second obstacle is at the micro level of our family and friends. The good news is that there has never been more information about how to eat healthfully. The bad news is we don’t all have the skills or the time to analyze whether it’s good information or not. We’re just being overwhelmed with information. And, because of the way information on the Internet lives forever, articles that have already been debunked by the scientific community years ago get dug up and retweeted or posted as if they are new and credible. So, everybody’s become an expert based on information that may not always be very accurate.
So I tell people, just focus on eating a healthy diet for you, and to do it for six months, without telling anyone. Every day will be a new challenge and you have to figure out how to get through that. If after six months you are successful and still doing this, then perhaps you have a solid enough foundation and experience to begin sharing it when appropriate. However, most likely, your friends and family will be coming to you and say, “Wow! You look great!” They’ll now be interested in learning more because they’ve seen the impact firsthand.
What emotions should people be prepared for when transitioning to eating a plant-based diet?
You mean outside of the feeling of losing all their friends and never getting invited to dinner again? J That’s a joke, but it’s a common fear when someone starts this. Eating this way is going to be challenging; there are going to be both social and family challenges.
My advice is not to make a big deal out of what you’re doing. I wouldn’t judge people about what they’re eating or make it a topic of conversation. Keep any conversation about food casual and civil, and not a debate or argument. You do not have to even discuss your diet or defend your food choices. Don’t get involved in food battles. Redirect the conversation. My go-to response when someone comments on my food choices is “Thank you for asking. By the way, how are your kids?” (Or “How was your recent vacation?”) If they ask a simple question, I may respond, but I don’t draw people into a debate.
Also, don’t try to change everyone around you, especially right away. This is really about attraction rather than promotion. One of the most personal experiences people have is the food they eat. So be sure to have compassion for them and stay focused on your own plate. You have a long journey to go and are just getting started.
What is it that keeps you motivated and excited to do this work after all these years?
On a personal level, I really love doing what I do. I love the food, I feel great and I love staying fit and healthy. I just turned 57 years old and I often forget how old I am because I feel like I’m still in my 30s physically and mentally.
On a professional level, there’s such a need for this work, and I really love seeing the positive impact my work has on people’s health and their lives day in and day out. I feel like I have the greatest and most rewarding job in the world.
What’s the most important thing you want people to know about plant- and health-centered eating and take away from this conversation?
There are two things. First, keep it simple. This includes your food, recipes, meals, and even exercise. It’s not about extremism with your health. It’s about a simple and common sense approach to good health. Start where you are and begin to move forward.
Second, be willing to put your health needs first and foremost. This is not selfish; it’s self-nurturing. You have to take care of yourself and that’s a very good thing.