Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Vegan Switches To Paleo Diet and Thrives

Reposted From The Healthy Paleo Coalition by Erin Shriver


I recently quit my job at Whole Foods Market, a decision that wasn’t taken lightly. You see, I was beyond thrilled when I was hired back in March 2012 as a Healthy Eating Specialist, and I had every intention of staying with the company for the long haul. My love for nutrition and deep interest in the promotion of sustainable food naturally landed me in the position when a new store was opening up in my area. I was finally going to have an opportunity to help people change their lives in a meaningful way through nutrition education.
My background isn’t terribly impressive from a scholarly standpoint. My experience resides largely in personal experimentation and 10 years of self-study, internalizing and testing. I also attended a health coaching program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I started there when I was still following a plant-based diet and left following a Paleo Lifestyle. One of the main lessons that they teach there is on bioindividuality, an important concept in this story and something that I learned about the hard way. This is the condensed version of my story.
I was following a vegan diet until about eight months ago. I had the “luxury” of reading the China Study by T. Colin Campbell several years ago and was floored by the implied conclusions. Soon after, I was eating a 100% plant-based diet and filling my head with a whole host of other faulty and incomplete science that agreed with the vegan mantra – that meat is bad, and veggies are good. These days, I don’t pay much attention to mainstream nutritional science in regard to how it impacts my personal health but I do still find the subject interesting and occasionally useful as a guide – not gospel. How I feel and my medical labs are all the validation that I need to decide whether or not something is working for me. I am a seeker of the truth and sought I did. I would rather be accurate than simply have my beliefs validated. Wishing something to be true doesn’t make it so, but like so many others, I wished anyway.
Not to rehash the many similar stories that came before me about how a vegan diet wrecked health, but upon embarking on the plant-based lifestyle, I felt great – better than I had in a long time. I, of course, attributed this improvement to a vegan diet rather than the foregoing of industrialized foods. I wasn’t one of those folks who did this for ethical reasons initially, but rather for health, so I started out immediately eating whole plant-based foods, I didn’t just replace my industrial diet with vegan processed junk, I went full-on, whole food plant-based.
This worked for a while, but eventually I started having health problems that weren’t previously there. I began having hot flashes at night and soon after, those hot flashes were accompanied with severe joint pain in my hands and feet. This situation left me tired throughout the day and I had little energy to get much done, especially active endeavors – and my skin was a mess! My face was breaking out in painful cystic acne. This, among the vegan community, was chalked up to a “healing event” due to cleansing from my old meat-heavy diet. The problem was that I had been “cleansing” for years at this point. I mean, how long does it take?! I went to see an integrative physician and found that my estrogen and progesterone levels were frighteningly low for a 35-year-old, my adrenals were fatigued and I was “severely deficient” in Vitamin D, Zinc, Magnesium, Iron and B12. I had put on about 25 pounds and had lost muscle, my hair was thinning at an alarming rate and my extremities were always numb and freezing – painfully so. Not fun to face when you are eating a “healthy,” whole plant-based diet. I, however, remained in my illusion and believed that I needed to take my “healthy eating” to the next level and proceeded to adopt a raw vegan diet – that surely must be better, right?
Well, I can’t say that things got better or worse and I’m not happy to report that they stayed pretty much the same. I kept searching for something that might help my situation naturally through diet. I tried adding maca, removing maca, adding more greens, more nuts, fewer nuts, on and on. I was told by vegans everywhere that “you are doing it wrong!” This left me feeling deflated and hopeless. I knew I was eating as “clean” as anyone possibly could. I was working from home at the time and had time to sprout and dehydrate, ferment and prepare elaborate raw foods like a champ. It was exhausting and I was bloated, tired and fed up with the whole thing, all the while leaving people with the impression that my diet was the best.
My doctor put me on supplements and bio-identical hormone replacement. This was tough for me to accept, but I agreed. The hormones helped somewhat but not entirely, and I still felt like there must be something I could do to naturally improve my situation.
Eventually, I began looking around for information outside my comfort zone and came across several websites with stories similar to mine, but I wasn’t done just yet. I decided that I would take my crazy diet one step further for just three months and try a 100% fruitarian approach as a last ditch effort to keep my vegan illusion alive and well. I had come around to the decision however that if my plan didn’t work, that I would revisit eating meat again.
I embarked on a fruitarian diet around the same time that I decided to start Crossfit. Crazy, I know. I was hitting the gym up to four days a week during my experiment. The WOD’s were extremely tough but I pushed through and made myself go – surely I would lose some weight, gain strength and improve my overall conditioning. Not so. On the upside, I was sleeping better but not because of my diet, it was out of sheer exhaustion from adrenal fatigue. I was, of course, tired early but I would also sleep for 10 to12 hours a night and still not feel refreshed in the morning. I have two words where me and the fruitarian diet is concerned – metabolic distress. Try drinking “datorade” (a mixture of 20 or more dates blended with water) and eating 15 bananas a day along with ridiculous amounts of other raw fruits and greens and tell me if you don’t succumb to some serious blood sugar and gut flora issues relatively quick! There are some who claim to thrive on this type of diet, however they are clearly the exception, not the rule.
When my experiment was complete and my beliefs had been defeated, I sat down to a big grass-fed filet mignon. I began eating meat, seafood and eggs again regularly and continued going to Crossfit workouts for a while. I started to feel better – fast! My Crossfit coach approached me about two weeks later and asked if I was doing something different. She said that she was starting to see some definition in my arms and that she was bothered that my body composition hadn’t changed at all until now, even though the people who started at the same time I did were all making very noticeable improvements in strength, endurance and body composition. It was hard for me to understand, too. I told her that I had started eating meat again. Replacing fruit with meat was the only change I had made in the previous two weeks. I already didn’t eat grains as a raw foodist so that part was easy for me.
Soon after, I decided that I would focus more on my eating and less on the intense Crossfit workouts I had been doing and allow myself time – time to heal and rebuild after six years of various forms of veganism. Within a month I had lost more than 4% body fat by working out less and eating copious amounts of meat, seafood and poultry. My adrenals have improved dramatically but are still prone to severe fatigue when under emotional or physical stress. My hormone levels aren’t completely reversed (and I honestly don’t know if they ever will be) but in just a few months, I have been able to cut my bio-identical hormone dose in half and sometimes don’t need to use them at all after adopting a Paleo lifestyle. T. Colin Campbell of the China Study would have you think that all cholesterol above zero mg is bad, but I came to learn the hard way that cholesterol is an essential precursor to hormone production and is vitally necessary for pretty much every other function in the human body and I wasn’t getting nearly enough of it in my diet. I am no longer deficient in any nutrients and my skin looks better than it has in years! I am sleeping better than ever and my energy levels are more stable than they have ever been. I still have a way to go, but if this isn’t a testament to the positive impact of a 100% whole foods Paleo lifestyle, then I don’t know what is. I can only imagine how impressive my health could have been had I skipped the plant-based diet altogether and went straight to a Paleo lifestyle. A girl can dream . . .
It was in March 2012 that I was hired as a Healthy Eating Specialist at Whole Foods Market. I was nervous about my newly adopted Paleo lifestyle and how it would be perceived during my interview. I was hopeful since Paleo and veganism overlap in many ways. I wanted to be forthcoming about all of my experience, including Paleo, and expressed this on my resume and during my interview.
During the opening of the new store, I brought up that I would like to incorporate some Paleo classes into the store calendar and I was given no indication from the regional team members that this would be a problem in any way. I went home feeling great about my new position as a WFM Healthy Eating Specialist and was excited to learn that they were open to other dietary perspectives, contrary to what I had heard and read.
I began learning about the Health Starts Here program on my own as there was almost no training available for my position and little support. I began to dig into which books were approved for the Health Starts Here program, the immersion programs available to team members, and what the four pillars of healthy eating meant where Whole Foods Market was concerned. I came to discover that there was little room for movement and that the focus was on a vegan-centric, low-fat diet. That’s fine if that works for you, but what about those of us (the majority) who fail to thrive on such a diet, I wondered? I proceeded to schedule an Introduction to Paleo class and soon after, the objections came to the surface as I had suspected they might after talking with some other current and former Healthy Eating Specialists.
Up until this point, I had been teaching the Health Starts Here guidelines as they are currently set up. I was facilitating healthy eating demonstrations and classes that were geared toward raw foods, which was nice for the summer months, and the popular gluten free store tours. The Paleo class was permitted to proceed but not without a lot of grumbling from the regional office according to my Skittle and pizza eating team leader. In fact, the candy and junk that she ate and passed out from our office on a daily basis earned her the nickname “Skittles” simply for potentially being the least supportive person possible to “lead” my healthy eating role in this company. But I digress.
The day before the Paleo class, I was told that I could not wear my Health Starts Here apron for the class and that I would need to tell the participants that the class was not approved or endorsed by WFM and the Health Starts Here program. I agreed but still couldn’t figure out why an alternative version of their whole food diet recommendations would be perceived as bad for those interested in learning about another way to eat a healthy diet of whole unprocessed foods. The class went on as scheduled and as it turns out, it was the most popular class we had to date. We turned people away due to a lack of space, but unfortunately I wouldn’t be permitted to teach any future Paleo classes for the store.
According to the Whole Body team leader, Paleo books were flying off the shelves and he thanked me for suggesting them. I later came to find out that I wasn’t permitted to recommend any of those books to customers or team members who might have benefitted from them. My focus was to remain solely on the roster of approved Health Starts Here (vegan) books that aren’t even allowed to sit on the same shelf as non-approved books like Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution and Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body Primal Mind. In fact, even excellent alternatives to both Paleo and HSH like Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig were not permitted to be showcased on the same shelf as Dr. Fuhrman, Dr. Neal Barnhard, T. Colin Campbell and the rest of the all vegan Health Starts Here Scientific Medical Advisory Board’s books.
A whole host of other issues began creeping up within this program and I began to search for solutions. Earlier, I had met another Healthy Eating Specialist online who had been actively looking for other Healthy Eating Specialists interested in healthy Paleo lifestyles. I contacted her and after going back and forth for several weeks, we came up with the idea for the Healthy Paleo Coalition website. A place where we could petition the WFM to expand their healthy eating program (she has since dropped out of this effort due to concern for her job). We had no desire to change the existing program, only to make it more inclusive so that we could have some freedom to better help customers and team members achieve their health goals. For the sake of transparency, I ran the idea by my store leadership who, also for transparency sake, ran the idea by regional leadership. I was instructed to contact the new Mid-Atlantic regional president and / or the Global Healthy Eating Specialist in Austin. I sent emails to both as instructed, highlighting a preliminary website outline and our concerns about the Health Starts Here program.
My resolve to expand the program was strengthened after a global team member alerted me to the stories of other Healthy Eating Specialists who claim to be vegan at work but secretly eat meat at home to avoid conflicts on the job. Even more disturbing, a source told me that some female Team Members have even stopped menstruating after following the WFM low fat, healthy eating guidelines.
Unfortunately, the insanity of this program doesn’t stop there and according to another WFM source, Dr. John McDougall yelled at a team member for not losing weight on his low fat, high carbohydrate vegan diet. In another instance, a source reported that Rip Esselstyn, from the strict vegan Engine 2 Diet, was at a store to talk about nutrition and he stated to a group of people that “any food that had egg or meat in it was not clean.” She remembers a woman standing up saying that her body really needed the protein (animal protein) and that she just felt so much better and Rip told her she was wrong, “that no human body ever needed that; it was an addiction that she needed to overcome.”
In yet another instance with McDougall, a current Healthy Eating Specialist reported that “he had the audacity to tell a parent who complained that her 15-year-old vegan child had not yet begun menstruating and is 25 pounds under weight and her doctor is threatening social service action.” McDougall’s response was, according to my source, “Oh, they wouldn’t do that to a child who ate crap and was 50 pounds overweight. Just add more food like starch.”
I was scheduled to talk to the global HES, Mary, on the phone a week or so later and I was feeling quite positive about the case we had built for why WFM should expand their program. On the day we were supposed to talk, I went to work and was met by Mary who flew in from Austin with David, the Regional Executive Human Resource person, for an unannounced in-person meeting that lasted nearly two hours. I was questioned about how the Healthy Paleo Coalition website came to fruition, how I met the other Healthy Eating Specialists that I had been in contact with about the program and what our concerns were. They admitted that there were certainly problems within the HSH program and that they were aware of them, but I got little indication that there were any plans to remedy the glaring discrepancies.
The meeting ended with the impression that they wanted to work on this internally and that I should have come to them first. The problem with that is this is far from the first time someone within the company expressed genuine concern over the narrowly focused recommendations of the HSH program, and my concerns fell on deaf ears when they were voiced previously. In fact, I was accused of having a personal bias toward a Paleo diet that was clouding my perception of the existing program. I could essentially, and more accurately, say the same about WFM since we aren’t asking them to do away with their existing “plant strong” program but rather asking them to be more inclusive rather than exclusive. We needed to get their attention and it seems that we had, through rumors of this website.
I left the meeting feeling positive but optimistically cautious. I offered to share the information that I had compiled thus far with Mary as a sign of goodwill, an authentic effort to trust and work with, rather than against WFM on something that means a great deal to me and other concerned parties. Namely, the truth.
I proceeded over the next couple of days to correspond with Mary. I sent the information I had put together over the previous weeks but there was little said about our concerns for the program and her dialogue was intensely focused on whether or not I was able to support the Health Starts Here program as it is currently prescribed, which is of course what I had been doing all along – which is the problem! I was unable to reach the majority of customers through their current guidelines and my hands were tied from straying for fear of being in violation, written up and ultimately fired.
Adding to these concerns, I was told not to make any suggestions to customers or team members regarding diet and that my job as a Healthy Eating Specialist was simply to do cooking demonstrations, that is until they want me to facilitate the heavily promoted vegan Engine 2, 28-Day Challenge or when someone asks me what a daily serving of meat consists of, which my answer would have to be a mere 3 ounces, but that it’s “recommended” that meat is only used as a condiment, if at all. Or when someone asks me to recommend a good diet book to follow? What do they expect me to say? “Sorry, can’t help you. I’m not permitted to make any recommendations to you as a Healthy Eating Specialist.”
This all sounded crazy to me, and it’s not rocket science. I’m not diagnosing, I’m not treating medical problems. I simply wanted to suggest healthy whole foods to people in the hopes that I could help someone find a sustainable lifestyle that suits their needs, not the needs of WFM and the ethical vegan agenda. In fact, I was happy to help people start a vegan diet if that’s what they wanted to do, but it would have also been beneficial to give people the whole spectrum of healthy eating information, not just a glimpse of what one small group of people feel is the healthiest for all WFM customers. A partial truth is still a lie and this program is severely limited to a certain way of eating – their way – with little consideration for stories like mine, conflicting science and the fact that the work of many of their beloved Scientific and Medical Advisory Board has successfully been successfully debunked time and time again.
Mary and others stated more than once that Health Starts Here isn’t a vegan program and my response to that was, “It’s not technically a vegan program, and they [the HPC experts] know that. However, it is very vegan-centric (a term that Melissa Hartwig used in her open letter that I have since adopted). The entire Scientific Medical Advisory Board is vegan, all of the approved core books are vegan, Rip [Esselstyn], who is heavily promoted along with the HSH program is VERY vegan, the pillars include “Plant Strong”, a term trademarked by vegan Rip, the ANDI scores are extremely biased toward plant foods as optimal, etc. It’s not that it appears to be a vegan or vegan-centric program – IT IS! If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck . . . yet the claim is that it’s not a vegan program . . . understandably, this is quite confusing for people.”
Everyone is aware of John Mackey’s perspective on vegan diets and I heard direct from the [Mid Atlantic] regional president that “people are addicted to animal products, we don’t really need them.” This is something I’ve also seen quoted many times in articles featuring Rip or John Mackey. It’s becoming a [ridiculous] mantra for the program. I can understand from a business standpoint that it’s probably difficult to sell animal products while believing that everyone would be better off on a 100% plant-based diet and stating that publicly. It’s a major contradiction, but obviously the store wouldn’t survive if we stopped selling meat. It’s like it’s a sacrifice for what the powers that be see as the greater good – at least that’s how I perceive it and there is always this feeling of an unspoken underlying (personal) agenda – namely to promote a vegan diet.
Correspondence with Mary slowed relatively quickly, in a matter of days, which brings me to the conclusion of my employment at WFM. I arrived at work on Tuesday September 11 and was again met by David, the Cheshire cat, as I like to call him, for a follow up meeting with his winning corporate smile. There was little in the way of discussion during this meeting however. He wanted to know what has been going on (as if he didn’t already know. He had a binder with him that contained all of the email correspondence between Mary and me). I told him that at the time we had no plans of launching the Healthy Paleo Coalition website and wanted to continue to work with Mary on generating the necessary changes internally. He let me know that launching the website whether we attached our employment to it or not would be a “major violation” and would result in immediate disciplinary action. That I would need to contact the experts supporting this campaign, make no mention of the conversation we were having and let them know that I would not be moving forward with the Healthy Paleo Coalition website and that they should direct their grievances to the WFM corporate contact page.
I was, in essence, being coached on what to say and how to say it when speaking to people in private conversations outside of work. He then proceeded to encourage me to continue my correspondence with Mary, but that I wasn’t to send her additional information regarding concerns for the program, that our correspondence should be related to the program as it is currently set up.
In other words, keep your mouth shut, don’t disagree publicly or in private about WFM publicly published information and don’t bother trying to improve the program by working on it internally or externally. Smile. Nod. Understand?
I quit the next day. I felt that it was best that I move on from the HES position as soon as possible. The one-sided conversation with David was too far out of the boundaries of my comfort zone and the company-imposed censorship and dictating what I can and cannot say outside of work in private conversations was beyond unacceptable to me. Delivering threats with a smile is no less threatening.
Transparency is a word that I have heard tossed around a lot at WFM, unfortunately it seems that the issues where transparency is warranted, are cherry-picked to suit the WFM corporation, not the customers and team members. I can support the Health Starts Here program, but won’t as long as it’s supported with faulty and incomplete science and it’s foundation is based on the personal beliefs of few.
To conclude, I want to be sure to give credit where credit is due. Whole Foods does some amazing work where others fail miserably. The meat and seafood departments are unsurpassed in quality standards and it’s worth taking a moment to read about their 5 Step Animal Welfare Rating program and their Marine Stewardship Council Seafood Certification System. I would have loved to have had more opportunities to promote these efforts in conjunction with the Health Starts Here initiative. Incorporating Paleo lifestyle principles into the healthy eating program would place a much needed emphasis on these important sustainability projects. The store I worked at carries grass fed / finished beef from White Oak Pastures, owned by Will Harris. Will must be one of the most charming people I’ve ever met and even if you aren’t interested in the beef, his southern drawl is reason enough to watch this video about his sustainable farming practices and partnership with WFM.
The produce department, too, is unmatched in comparison to other large grocery retailers (my former store recently turned down a local farm who wanted to sell produce to the store because they were using Round Up), and the quality standards are tough to beat.
Lastly, I want to mention the team members that I got to know and love. It’s true when they say that Whole Foods is (generally) a great company to work for and the people are truly a pleasure to work with. I will miss them all.
Whole Foods, as far as I can tell, on all of these other efforts, appears to exude integrity and transparency and for that I am grateful for their existence.
I am not asking anyone to stop shopping at Whole Foods and what I’d rather that you do is make your voices heard by purchasing sustainably raised grass-fed and pastured animal products, sustainably rated seafood, and maybe just as important, sign our petition to request that WFM expand their healthy eating program to include Paleo and traditional lifestyle principles in addition to their existing program.
In the words of John Mackey, “I have my own views, and they’re not necessarily the same as Whole Foods’… People want me to suppress who I am. I guess that’s why so many politicians and C.E.O.s get to be sort of boring, because they end up suppressing any individuality to conform to some phony, inauthentic way of being. I’d rather be myself.”
. . . and if Whole Foods Market is interested in launching a pilot Paleo Lifestyle program in it’s stores, I’m currently available for employment and I have a lot of ideas.
~Erin Shriver
Founder of the Healthy Paleo Coalition
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