Eat your veggies. Aim for a rainbow of colors every day.
Chew your food. Try 20 times per bite.
But skip the milk, cheese and meat. And while you’re at it, take it easy on the salt, sugar and oil.
That’s just a sample of the advice Phil Eherenman gives students in his seven-week Food for Life cooking and nutrition classes, sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, or PCRM, a nonprofit organization started by Neal Barnard, a medical doctor, author and clinical researcher, in 1985.
Eherenman is one of 200 PCRM Food for Life instructors in the United States. He teaches two different classes — one focuses on cancer prevention and survival; the other on diabetes prevention and treatment. He just completed his first class in Homer earlier this week, but taught both classes for three years at Providence Family Medicine Center in Anchorage before moving to Homer in May with his wife, Sandy. His next class starts in January.
Eherenman will be one of about 60 exhibitors at Saturday’s Rotary Health Fair. At his booth you’ll find recipes, research on the best foods for optimal health and lots of reasons why people should consider a plant-based diet — make that lifestyle, since most people don’t stick to diets, says Eherenman.
Eherenman’s own story provides compelling reasons to at least listen to what he has to say.
About eight years ago, at the age of 49, his knees hurt so bad he thought his backpacking days were over. He chalked it up to arthritis. He was 40 pounds overweight, even though he was no couch potato and he ate what he thought were healthy foods. His diet included chicken, turkey, fish, low-fat dairy and egg whites, and he cooked in olive oil. In addition to backpacking — his passion — he biked, skied and swam.
But he couldn’t sleep through the night, and he snored. He frequently was constipated and had hemorrhoids. Those numbers used as measures of health — like blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides — were all unhealthily high.
He remembers going home one evening from his job as front-of-the-house manager of the Petroleum Club in Anchorage and telling Sandy: “If this is what it feels like to get older, I’m not looking forward to retirement.”
Around the same time, two things happened: a friend recommended a change to a plant-based diet and he heard a radio interview with Dr. Barnard espousing the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet. He downloaded the interview with Dr. Barnard, replayed it several times, did some research on the pcrm.org website and decided that for one month he wouldn’t eat any animal products or vegetable oils.
He started seeing results almost immediately. In fairly short order, he had more energy, he was losing weight, his knees were feeling better, he was sleeping through the night and had stopped snoring. The constipation and hemorrhoids disappeared. The numbers that serve as a yardstick to good health improved dramatically.
“I found out that the best way to drop your cholesterol is to stop eating it,” he says. “Our livers make all the cholesterol we need, and by not consuming dietary cholesterol, mine dropped 100 points in less than a year.”
At the end of the month, he was feeling so good, he decided to go another month and then another. By the end of the third month, he was completely committed to his new way of eating, and he’s never looked back.
“I feel like a million bucks every day,” he says.
Eherenman says three things helped him commit to the switch:
• He saw positive changes in his health quickly.
• The food tasted phenomenal. He had signed up for a “Food for Life” class in Anchorage and was learning to cook. He ended up taking the classes 11 times.
• He could eat until he was satisfied. “If I had to reduce calories, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he says.
The Food for Life class not only taught him how to cook, it also taught him the science behind “why we feel so good when we eat a whole foods, plant-based diet,” he says.
Every Food for Life class has a similar structure: Students ask questions, share their triumphs and challenges over the past week, and watch a video with Dr. Barnard presenting the latest research on why a whole foods, plant-based diet provides the best fuel for the human body. An informal lecture mostly aimed at debunking nutrition myths follows.
“We have been sold a lot of stories,” says Eherenman. “The biggest sales pitch of all time is protein. What’s so healthy about meat? People will tell you protein, but where do cows get their protein? … We want to bypass the cow’s saturated fat and cholesterol and go directly to the protein source — plants.”
The last half of the class is devoted to cooking, because eating plant-based foods doesn’t mean you’re limited to eating salads for the rest of your life. In fact, Eherenman likes to show how expansive the food choices are in the recipes he shares: cheese-like sauces with cashews as their base, low-fat salad dressings including a dairy-free ranch, hearty soups and stews, bean salads, chili, and main dishes like his Curried Cauliflower, Yams and Peas (see recipe, this page).
Students agree the food tastes delicious. At a recent class potluck, the fare included stuffed grape leaves, calzones, apple burritos, a black bean-polenta casserole, a hearty stew and a kale and beet salad.
Learning and sharing new recipes is just one advantage of the class, say Glen and Jeanne Carroll, who were in Eherenman’s first Homer class. There’s also the camaraderie of the class and more people to connect with to help provide accountability and encouragement for sticking with the lifestyle.
Not to mention, “you really do feel better,” they say.
Eherenman steers clear of words like “vegetarian” and “vegan” and encourages students to do the same. The words mean different things to people and technically a person could fill up on soda pop and fast-food fries and still be a “vegan,” he says.
That’s why the PCRM classes stick to a description like “plant-based whole foods” to identify the optimal fuel for the human body.
“You think politics and religion are tough subjects. Try talking about food,” Eherenman tells his class.
While Eherenman is passionate about his topic, he tells his students he’s no food evangelist. He’s not out to convert them, just to give them good science-based research not funded by the meat or dairy industry. Once they have the facts, they’re better equipped to make wise decisions about the food they put in their bodies.
He’s also not the food police. Should his students bump into him in the grocery store one Saturday morning with their shopping cart loaded with frozen pizza and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, they don’t have to lie and say they’re shopping for their Uncle Bob.
“It’s not about what’s right or wrong. It’s about what’s working for you,” he says.
When pressed to give someone just one thing they can do to improve their nutrition, he doesn’t hesitate: Cut out dairy. Milk is only the perfect food for baby cows, not humans. And cows get their calcium from plants anyway, he says.
Still skeptical about the benefits of a plant-based, whole-foods way of life?
The numbers don’t lie, says Eherenman. He encourages his students to get blood panels — like what’s offered at the Health Fair — before and after the class, so they can see the results themselves.
He also encourages everyone who will listen not to shortchange themselves by not giving plant-based, whole foods a test drive: “I’ve never had one person who’s taken the class, who has gained weight or whose cholesterol went up and who didn’t love the food. … Our bodies are self-healing if we give them the right fuel. Saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are not our friends. “What you eat is one of the mostimportant decisions you will ever make. For longevity and quality of life,choose vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.”
For more information or to be notified of upcoming classes, go to 2OurHealth.net.
Homer News Editor and Publisher Lori Evans was a student in Eherenman’s most recent Food for Life class.
Curried Cauliflower, Yams, and Peas
1/4 cup vegetable broth or water – add more as needed while cooking
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon pickled or fresh jalapeno pepper, minced
1 cup roasted diced tomatoes or tomato sauce
1/2 cup raisins
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 small yams or sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 head cauliflower, separated into florets
2 cups fresh or frozen green peas, thawed
1. Heat broth or water in a large skillet over medium heat. Put in the onion, garlic, ginger, and hot pepper. Sauté for 5 – 6 minutes. Stir in 3 tablespoons broth water and cook for 3 minutes.
2. Stir in tomato diced tomatoes or tomato sauce, raisins, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cilantro, soy sauce, and yams or sweet potatoes. Cook for 15 minutes.
3. Add the cauliflower, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add peas and cook for 5 additional minutes.
Note: If you use frozen cauliflower, it just needs to be heated up as it is already cooked. If the cauliflower and peas have already thawed, it just takes a few minutes to heat them after the sweet potatoes are done.