Our Interview with Plant-based Author and Podcaster, Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson has a message, backed by science, and he's broadcasting!

We're so exited to bring you our interview with an innovator and leader in plant-based wellness, Howard Jacobson. Howard shares his story in adopting a plant-based lifestyle and discusses his work with Dr. T. Colin Campbell, how he makes time for plant-based eating for his whole family, the ideal diet, the protein myth, healthcare, and more.

Photo provided by Howard jacobson

Photo provided by Howard jacobson

Howard, we're super big fans of the Plant Yourself Podcast, where you host discussions with health innovators on plant-based living. As a leader in this movement yourself, can you please tell us briefly about how you came to adopt a plant-based lifestyle and do so much work in this area?

I first adopted a plant-based lifestyle in 1990, about two weeks after my father died of a heart attack. I don’t remember why, but I was browsing in a Barnes and Nobel and came across a book called Diet for a New America by John Robbins, which I had not heard of. I was not interested in diet. I was not interested in nutrition. I was not particularly interested in environmental stuff. I was pretty much self-absorbed at the age of 24-1/2 but, for some reason, my soul was drawn to this book, which I read, and devoured, and instantly completely changed my diet. In three weeks, I had lost 20 pounds. I was feeling better than ever. I celebrated by going to The Gap and buying a bunch of jeans size 31 waist.

Everything he wrote in this book made so much sense to me. It turned me into a different person. However, like many things, I stayed with it for a while and then, honestly, I just sort of forgot. Life caught up with me. I got married. I had kids. And then, I just kind of went back to eating meat and having dairy. It took another book, The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, to shake me and remind me. It put me back on a plant-based path where I have been, pretty much, ever since. There have been variations, like the year my family spent in South Africa, there there were times when there wasn’t a lot of local produce. I ate some meat there. But then, in 2011, while I was living there, Dr. Campbell contacted me and asked if I would help him work on the book that eventually became Whole, Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. Since working on this book with Dr. Campbell, and seeing the research, and kind of having my nose rubbed in it, if you will, I have been 98% plant based.

In terms of doing work in this area, the invitation by Dr. Campbell got me started. I have always loved teaching people, and I have always loved to teach people things that I need to learn myself, because that makes it easier for me to do then. So for me to remain whole-food, plant-based, it is actually pretty easy to maintain that lifestyle when I’m teaching other people.

What are the high-level bullet points on the best diet for whole health and to prevent illness?

On page seven of Whole, there is a subhead, "The Ideal Human Diet," and the second paragraph goes like this, “The ideal human diet looks like this, consume plant-based foods consumed as close to their natural state as possible­—whole foods. Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Avoid heavily processed foods and animal products. Stay away from added salt, oil, and sugar. Aim to get 80% of your calories from carbohydrates, 10% from fat, and 10% from protein.

So that is pretty much the high-level bullet points about the best diet. Everyone will have slight tweaks that they will need to make. Some people will need a little bit more calories. They might want to increase the fat if they are athletic or living in very cold climates. If folks are gluten sensitive, or have celiac disease, they are obviously going to want to avoid the BROW foods—barley, rye, oats, and wheat. Also, folks who have autoimmune issues are going to want to avoid those foods as well but, for most people, the top level dietary advice is eat a variety of whole plant foods.

We had the great privilege of meeting you at a session where you taught us how to make many delicious plant-based chocolate deserts! How do you find the time to make plant-based meals with the demands of your work and your family? 

So basically, by employing lots and lots of hacks and trying to keep it really really simple. So I eat the same foods all the time. A few dishes I really really like are stir-fries, rice and beans, soups, stews, wraps and sandwiches. I use the same basic ingredients and just mix and match. One day the wrap will be a tortilla, one day the wrap will be a collard leaf, and the next day the wrap will be a rice paper wrap, and just mix up the ingredients, keeping to the same template. I’m also a really big believer in sauces, dips, and dressings. One of my favorite cookbooks is Del Sroufe’s The China Study Quick and Easy Cookbook that has a whole bunch of great, easy quick sauces, dips, dressings, and marinates. I just keep these in mason jars in my fridge. The same vegetables with a different sauce and you have a completely different cuisine. Freeze things, batch things, and really just keep it simple.

What are some of your favorite foods?

I’m a pasta junky, so anything with carbohydrates—pasta, potatoes, rice, any sort of grains like that. I love berries and all fruits. Basically I’ve come to love the foods that are good for me, because I just keep eating them. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that our taste buds change, that we are very neuro-adaptive; whatever you end up eating, you will like.

Your latest book, Proteinaholic, has a message that may be a conflicting view to some of our readers. This is that too much protein is actually making us sick and overweight. But what about all of those people at the gym guzzling protein shakes? Can you explain why we need to abandon our obsession with protein in America?

We have to abandon anything that is not food. And, I have news for you, protein is not food. Protein is an element of food, but we need to focus on eating foods in our dietary pattern and not just worshipping one or another macronutrient. We worship protein because protein is available in meat, and only the rich people can have meat, so we worship protein in the same way we have always worshipped what the rich were able to have.

We also worship protein in modern times because there has been a big debate about what is better low-carb or low-fat, and while those two are slugging it out, protein just stands on the sideline smiling smugly. The trouble is there is a ton of evidence, and we lay it out in almost 700 referenced articles in Proteinaholic, that excess protein is bad for us. 

There is really no such thing in this country as insufficient protein, or protein deficiency. Doctors don’t see it. Patients don’t have it.

There is a whole host of mechanisms by which excess protein and largely animal protein causes damage to our cells. It can lead to increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cancer, all cause mortality. And when we look at the cultures around the world, the ones that have the most complex carbohydrates as the basis of their diet, and small amounts of animal products used almost as condiments to the diet, or for a special occasion, they will kill an animal for a feast day, wedding, or holiday, but not on a daily basis. Those are the societies that have the least disease or at least the least chronic western diseases and the highest longevity.

It's so hard for people to hear the truth and change their minds around food. How can we help others to understand the protein myth and lead the way towards a plant-based society?

There is a lot of marketing out there. One of the first stats we point to in Proteinaholic is a survey showing about 65% of Americans are trying to get more protein into their diets, so if that is what we are trying to do then we are suckers for protein infused water, protein infused vodka, we will slap protein on anything, then all of a sudden it becomes a desirable food, that’s completely marketing-based and marketers love reductionism, because then they can brag about the crap they are selling because it has some good stuff in it.

Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org talks about if you took a pile of industrial sludge and you dumped a multivitamin into it, then you could say it is an excellent source of Vitamin C. An excellent source means it has 20% of the daily recommended allowance of that nutrient but, if we are focused on reductionism or if we are focused on individual nutrients, whether it be protein, or vitamins, or lycopene, or omega-3, or whatever, then we are missing the fact that our diet resembles a pile of industrial sludge. 

I don’t know how we can help others to understand the protein myth other than to represent an alternative lifestyle that is happier and healthier and works better.

In the athletic field, it is really interesting because athletes will do anything to increase their performance, and we are seeing a huge slew of professional athletes going plant based, some even going completely vegan and finding that their recovery times are faster, that they are building muscle just as fast, they are leaner, and they have fewer aches and pains. So that is one way things are going to change. When the people whose livelihoods depend on having a slight edge discover something that gives them a slight edge, then the rest of us start to notice. There was a recent study showing that a paleo diet can actually defeat the intense effort put in by cross-fit athletes. That it was actually slowing them down compared to a high-fiber, high-carbohydrate plant-based diet that takes all of those gains made in the gym and utilizes them completely for enhanced performance.

Where can our readers go to hear and read more from you? What is next for you professionally?

Online I have the PlantYourself podcast at PlantYourself.com, and every week I give a gift to the world of an interview with someone I think the world needs to know about and listen to and pay attention to. I have a practice site, I do consulting, coaching, teaching, and speaking, and that is at trianglebewell.com. And if you go there, I recommend downloading the Healthcare GPS Report, which is kind of tough love about the medical model of health and helping people to see that, in order to be well, we have to take what our doctors say with a grain of salt, and learn how to advocate for ourselves and make informed decisions.

We spend a lot more time evaluating our options when we are buying a blender or a toaster or a car or a house than we do with our healthcare. We sort of just listen to the doctors, assume they know best, and very often that is not the case.

If you want to know what is next professionally, pretty much that. My entree into this world was plant-based nutrition, and I quickly discovered, working with Dr. Campbell, that doctors and the medical system doesn’t value plant-based nutrition. Most doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. They are just reading the same Time magazine covers as everyone else, but we give them white-coat expertise because they are doctors. So it became quickly clear to me that the medical model was severely lacking when it came to diet.

It has become clear to me over the last few years that the medical model is also lacking when it comes to all other forms of evidence-based outcomes. The medical system has been hijacked by the pharmaceutical industry, which is probably one of the most reductionist arm of the medical industry of our society, trying to take these age-old natural cures. So if chewing on willow bark can help with headaches what they have to do is go in and grab the active substance and patent it so they can have a monopoly on sales for a decade and a half. So the pharmaceutical fingerprints on our medical model are devastating to our health.

In America, we are all arguing about healthcare, who should pay, Obamacare—is it good, is it not, and we are not even looking at the question are we getting good value for our dollar. Are we spending money on things we should not be spending money on? So professionally, that is what I am working on. 

I’m trying to get the world to wake up and say that our health is largely in our own hands.

For the first time in history, we have the means through the Internet to do our own research and, while it may seem daunting to go through all those medical articles and all that jargon, it is not as daunting as people may think, as the benefits of doing this research far outweigh the benefits of getting a slightly better blender or toaster.