Photos by SARAH A. MILLER // March/April 2017
Leslie Harrison, of Tyler, Texas, is certified as a Food For Life nutrition and cooking instructor by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that promotes a whole food, plant-based diet as a way to improve health.
IN Magazine spent time with Leslie to learn more about the benefits of this approach to eating.
IN: What is Food for Life all about?
In a nutshell, the FFL program is a nutrition education program. The information is backed by scientific, peer reviewed research. The materials are very straight forward, easy to understand and engaging. Most classes include a cooking demonstration so participants can see and taste how easy it is to make delicious WFPB meals.
The program was developed by Dr. Neal Barnard, a physician-author and clinical researcher who realized the importance of educating the public about the impact of one’s lifestyle on health. Dr. Barnard founded the nonprofit group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine which advocates for disease prevention and reversal through nutrition.
IN: How is a whole food, plant-based diet different than a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Great question! A common misperception is that a vegetarian or vegan must be healthy. One can be a vegetarian or vegan and eat only potato chips and drink soda all day. We can all agree that’s not a diet of champions! Furthermore, what constitutes a vegetarian or vegan diet can mean different things to different people.
Some vegetarians eat fish, eggs and cheese, while others would consider that outside the definition of a vegetarian diet. A WFPB diet, on the other hand, describes what an individual actually eats — whole, plant-based food — rather than what they avoid.
A whole food is a minimally processed, unrefined food that is close to its natural state. A tomato is a whole food; ketchup is not. I tell people that when they buy packaged food to look for items with labels that list only a few ingredients, all of which they can pronounce.
IN: How can this approach to eating make us healthier? Does it really have healing properties?
It would take hours for me to even scratch the surface to discuss all of the health benefits of eating WFBP. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States and elevated cholesterol seems to be a primary cause. A plant-based diet is free of cholesterol and saturated animal fats. Evidence suggests that a plant based diet may prevent and even reverse heart disease. In fact, heart disease has been found to be almost non-existent in populations eating a diet centered around whole plant foods.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States and diet may be the leading cause of cancer. Populations eating diets centered on whole plant foods have lower rates of cancer because fruits and vegetables intercept carcinogens and increase fiber and antioxidants.
Fiber, which is nonexistent in animal products, is crucial in ridding the body of excess hormones which act as a kind of Miracle Grow for cancer cells. Research also shows that people who eat a whole plant food diet have an increased number of killer cancer cells which literally attack and kill cancer
IN: Is it difficult to design all meals using the FFL approach? What changes have you made as a home cook who has to please different appetites?
Transitioning from the standard American diet (appropriately called SAD) to a WFPB diet does involve a learning curve, but in my opinion, that’s a small price for the huge health benefits. You can’t put a price on health; ask anyone suffering from a potentially life-threatening disease or illness. There are so many resources available- many of them at no cost- which can help guide anyone who wants to change their lifestyle by eating a whole plant centered diet.
Of course, that’s where the FFL program comes in, too. The classes cover specific topics such as cancer, diabetes, weight management, nutrition for kids and employee wellness. I love the challenge of creating new meals that my family will enjoy. It’s human nature to resist change, but if your health and the health of those you love is in play, the stakes are pretty high. We need to be open to trying new things; it may be difficult at first, but who knows, like me, you may discover a whole world of fruits, vegetables and ways of preparing food that you were missing out.
IN: Can this be sustained over a long time?
A fad diet promises quick weight loss through what is usually an unhealthy and unbalanced diet. There’s absolutely nothing unhealthy or unbalanced about this diet. I prefer to use the word lifestyle, really, because it is something that you do forever.
While weight loss is certainly a positive consequence of eating whole plant foods, the emphasis is on health. All you have to do to maintain this lifestyle is eat whole plant foods. There are no supplements, powders, pills, expensive drinks or anything of the sort required. Just go to the grocery store and fill your cart with whole plant foods.
IN: Why are you so passionate about this cause?
I am so fortunate to be in good health and not a day passes that I take that for granted. I have lots of energy, I feel good, I sleep amazing and I perform at a high level — all powered by plants. I have seen firsthand what this lifestyle has done for me, as well as the people I have influenced and worked with to change to a whole plant diet.
I look at people suffering from all kinds of health conditions and I am convinced that if they just knew that their condition could be prevented, reversed or alleviated by the choices they make in the grocery store, restaurant or kitchen, they could be in a much better situation.
Leslie Harrison is available to speak to groups who are interesting in learning more. She is found on Facebook at It’s Fit to Eat or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is a regular contributor to IN Magazine.
EASY BEAN SALAD
1/2 cup cooked lima beans
1/2 cup cooked black beans
1/2 cup corn
1/3 cup garbanzo beans
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1/2 cup diced bell or sweet pepper
1/4 cup diced purple onion
a few fresh basil leaves
Splash of apple cider vinegar
Place all ingredients into a large bowl and toss together.
Use any beans you like. They can be canned, thawed frozen beans or cooked dried beans. Beans are an excellent source of protein and fiber. Fiber is essential for a healthy microbiome (gut) and to transport toxins, cholesterol and excess hormones from the body.
Whole wheat tortilla or wrap
Hummus or black bean dip
Shredded carrots, cabbage and/or broccoli slaw
Spread hummus or bean dip onto tortilla or wrap. Place shredded vegetables or slaw and spinach onto tortilla or wrap. Roll tightly and cut in half or into disks.
A healthy quick snack or meal. Use your favorite vegetables such as peppers, different types of greens, tofu and a variety of salsas.
1 frozen banana, a few slices of frozen beets,
1/3 cup blueberries,
1/4 cup strawberries and a few pieces of pineapple
1/2 an apple slices,
1/2 a small orange slices
2 handfuls of spinach,
3 kale pieces,
2 celery stalks,
1 large carrot
seed mixture of hemp, sesame and ground flax seeds
a tsp. of spirulina (an algae)
a dash of turmeric and ginger
20 oz. water
Place all ingredients into a high speed blender and blend until smooth.
This is a great and tasty way to ensure that you get a large dose of fruit and vegetables. The seeds provide extra nutrients.
SPINACH CITRUS SALAD
Small container of organic baby spinach
Flesh of 2-3 oranges of various varieties
Purple onion sliced into thin rings
1 Tbsp raw pumpkin seeds
1 Tbsp raw Brazil nuts
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Place all ingredients into a large bowl and toss together.
The pumpkin seeds contain zinc to boost immunity while the Brazil nuts provide selenium for thyroid function.