An Interview With Healthy Eating Expert Jeff Novick
When I began exploring plant-based nutrition in 2008, Jeff Novick’s name was prominent in many of the books and research I was absorbing. His approach to healthy eating made so much sense to me, 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 29 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 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 the 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 (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 each day.
I’ve witnessed this extreme attitude 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 it, 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.”
However, 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 & 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 give the body the healthiest foods, you begin to notice a difference rather quickly. People begin to feel much better, more clear-headed; 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 their 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 in people who are eating whenever they are hungry until they’re comfortably full. This is not a crash diet or about dieting or food restriction but 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 food is so much lower in calorie density that they can eat a much greater volume of food while taking in the same amount or fewer 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 &/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, we 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 dinner a few nights a week or choosing one meal each day, such as breakfast, you can start to move in a healthier direction with small steps by adding in more of the good stuff and cutting 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 use a lot of this idea of common sense. How do you apply that to eating?
I like to show people that there is not only a scientific basis for this 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 are 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 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
are 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 is 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 are surround 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 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, information that’s already been debunked by the
scientific community years ago gets dug up and retweeted or posted as if it is
new and credible. So, everybody’s become
an expert based on this information, which may not 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 of a foundation and experience to begin to share 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 have 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? ☺ 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.
What are some of your main takeaways from what Jeff shared? In the comments, tell me what made an impression on you and how you might consider integrating some of his ideas into your eating rhythm.