Whole food, plant-based plan im­proves South­west Florid­i­ans health

Gulf & Main - - Contents - BY CATHY CH­EST­NUT

The Com­plete Health Im­prove­ment Pro­gram (CHIP) em­pha­sizes whole foods, plant-based eat­ing, reg­u­lar ex­er­cise and pos­i­tive think­ing. Find out if this reg­i­men is right for you.

Mary Ann Par­sons thought she was con­sci­en­tious about her food choices. She had been a veg­e­tar­ian for decades—es­chew­ing meat ex­cept for seafood. Yet she got a real wake-up call dur­ing an an­nual phys­i­cal seven years ago, when she was turn­ing 60.

The doc­tor in­formed her she was pre-di­a­betic. He rec­om­mended three med­i­ca­tions for her high blood pres­sure, blood sugar and choles­terol lev­els. “Can I do it any other way?” she im­plored. He told her, “You need to take these pills.”

Par­sons didn’t want to be a “slave to monthly pre­scrip­tions.” So Par­sons—a mas­ter gar­dener who runs pro­grams through­out Lee County for the Univer­sity of Florida In­sti­tute of Food and Agri­cul­tural Sciences Ex­ten­sion Of­fice—be­gan to con­duct se­ri­ous re­search and learned “our chronic dis­eases can be re­versed.”


She and her hus­band, Phil, dis­cov­ered the sci­ence-based Com­plete Health Im­prove­ment Pro­gram, known as CHIP. It pro­motes life­style changes, em­pha­siz­ing whole food, plant­based eat­ing and reg­u­lar ex­er­cise, along with pos­i­tive think­ing and so­cial con­nec­tions.

CHIP par­tic­i­pants’ weight, blood pres­sure and blood­work were taken at the be­gin­ning of the course, and at the end. Par­sons had lost 25 pounds and her blood sugar and pres­sure were nor­mal. Her bad choles­terol had dropped from 225 to 149.

Her big­gest fear was di­a­betes, which she calls “all over my fam­ily.” But to Par­sons, born and raised in Wis­con­sin, the land of dairy, “what’s hered­i­tary is the life­style” and fam­ily eat­ing habits.

The 18-ses­sion course in­cludes a cook­book, work­book and text­book, pe­dome­ter, and cook­ing demon­stra­tions with a meal. “It’s def­i­nitely a huge time com­mit­ment but what would you rather have, di­a­betes for the rest of your life?” she asks.

Ul­ti­mately, Par­sons re­al­ized that it was the dairy and pro­cessed foods that had led to her poor health. And, she notes, there are

plenty of junk foods that fit un­der a “veg­e­tar­ian um­brella.”

Seven years on, she is still prac­tic­ing a whole foods, plant­based life­style and is an ac­tive mem­ber of the Facebook group Ve­ganSWFL.org, help­ing to or­ga­nize its an­nual Veg Fest the past two years. “I feel 20 years younger than I should. I have more en­ergy; I feel bet­ter.

“It’s hard to ex­plain how you feel when your body is get­ting the nu­tri­tion it needs,” she con­tin­ues. “You feel good from the inside out .”

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, heart dis­ease has been the na­tion’s leading cause of death for 80 years, leading to al­most 634,000 deaths in 2016 alone. Di­a­betes landed sev­enth on the 2016 list, with 79,535 at­trib­ut­able deaths. Other than a con­gen­i­tal heart de­fect that some­one is born with, it’s uni­ver­sally un­der­stood that “many forms of heart dis­ease can be pre­vented or treated with healthy life­style choices,” the Mayo Clinic re­ports.

CHIP teaches “life­style medicine to re­verse chronic dis­ease. The po­ten­tial is there not to man­age but pre­vent or re­verse dis­ease process you might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing,” says CHIP area man­ager Kathy Rey­naert-Ran­dall, who trains other pro­gram teachers statewide and na­tion­ally.

Rey­naert-Ran­dall makes it very clear they don’t tell peo­ple what they can or can­not eat. The facts pre­sented by ex­perts—and CHIP has been backed by 30 peer-re­viewed schol­arly re­views—speak for them­selves, and they all point to­ward kick­ing meat, dairy and pro­cessed foods off of our daily plates.

“Once you say, ‘You can’t have it,’ it’s a road­block for peo­ple,” she ex­plains. Whole and plant-based food is food that’s grown—foods with lit­tle to no hu­man ma­nip­u­la­tion or pro­cess­ing. This in­cludes fruits, berries, nuts, beans and legumes, and grains.

“Food that’s grown, high fiber and low fat—those are the three things I drive home,” adds Rey­naert-Ran­dall. This au­to­mat­i­cally pre­cludes dairy and meat but “we never say you can’t have any­thing. It’s a good, bet­ter, best sit­u­a­tion.”

Be­cause healthy work­ers ex­pe­ri­ence less ab­sen­teeism and help con­tain in­sur­ance costs, CHIP is pro­vided to em­ploy­ees of Lee and Col­lier coun­ties’ school sys­tems, as well as Lee Health and Naples Com­mu­nity Hospi­tal. It is also of­fered through area churches and about three times a year to the com­mu­nity, cost­ing an av­er­age of $600.


Mar­cus Watts might seem like an un­likely plant-based eater. He is a for­mer Florida Gulf Coast Univer­sity and pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball player who co-owns CrossFit Es­tero and can squat 435 pounds. He was os­ten­si­bly as fit as a fid­dle in 2013 when he suf­fered two blood clots, caus­ing a life-threat­en­ing pul­monary em­bolism (the block­age of one of the pul­monary ar­ter­ies in the lungs). “I was in the best shape of my life,” he re­calls. “I ran faster and re­cov­ered [from stren­u­ous work­outs] faster. Vis­ually, I looked bet­ter than when I was in pro sports or col­lege.” Grow­ing up in an Army fam­ily, Watts had lived around the world and been ex­posed to the culi­nary habits of other cul­tures, and was struck by the lo­cal­ness and fresh­ness of foods in some of the lo­ca­tions. “The qual­ity of food was dras­tic,” he says. A month and a half af­ter the health cri­sis, he decided to stop go­ing to med­i­cal check­ups be­cause his med­i­cal providers weren’t giv­ing him the info he was

seek­ing. He was load­ing up on ba­con and eggs as part of his ath­lete’s diet but his choles­terol checked out per­fectly.

They couldn’t ex­plain why the clots oc­curred, and he’s not the type of per­son to take so much as ibupro­fen. “I didn’t feel in­formed. I came to grips about go­ing against doc­tors’ or­ders and decided to take my life into my own hands, and that’s what I did.”

Watts, a fit­ness and nu­tri­tion coach, slowly re­moved meat from his diet. When he was able to re­turn to phys­i­cal train­ing, “I was stronger than I’d ever been. My per­for­mance went through the roof. I had no in­flam­ma­tion, and quickly re­cov­ered from work­outs,” says Watts, 34. “It was an eye-open­ing ex­per­i­ment at that.”

He even­tually gave up fish and eggs, too. He eats a lot of nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed and pump­kin seeds, veg­eta­bles, al­mond-cashew “milk,” oat­meal, soy, tofu, beans, fruit and smoothies. (Watts loves to throw wa­ter­melon in the blender with ice; it’s high in iron.) “I am kind of break­ing a lot of the myths be­cause I’m a big and strong guy,” he ad­mits.

How­ever, Watts hasn’t to­tally kicked pro­cessed food. For in­stance, he eats whole-grain bagels, but he can also com­pre­hend the in­gre­di­ents. He calls it “the five-in­gre­di­ent rule.” If some­thing has more than five in­gre­di­ents or he can’t pro­nounce and iden­tify in­gre­di­ents, it stays on the shelf.

Watts has coached peo­ple in the pa­leo diet, which in­cludes an­i­mal pro­tein and sat­u­rated fats such as but­ter. And he works with ath­letes on what­ever type of diet they want or need. He doesn’t care if some­one iden­ti­fies as a ve­gan, who ab­stains from the use of all an­i­mal prod­ucts, or a veg­e­tar­ian, who may in­clude dairy and eggs in their diet.

“I don’t like to put la­bels on any­thing—it causes dis­sen­sion in the ranks. Ev­ery­one has their own jour­ney, and that’s what mat­ters,” he says. How­ever, he does tell clients to open their minds and try to adopt pos­i­tive changes into their life­styles.

The short­hand for the Stan­dard Amer­ica Diet is “SAD.” Watts echoes Par­sons when he says he un­der­stands why we are prone to de­fault to fa­mil­iar eat­ing pat­terns. “It’s what you’re used to,” he says.

Par­sons sums it up this way: “It’s not so much what you give up, it’s what you gain, which is your health. Noth­ing is worth more than your health. It’s the choices you make and what you put on your plate that makes all the dif­fer­ence.” Cathy Ch­est­nut is a free­lance writer and fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia who ex­plores the peo­ple and places that make South­west Florida, her home­town stomp­ing grounds, unique.

Mary Ann Par­sons and Mike Young, co-founders of SWFL Veg Fest, which show­cases the ben­e­fits of a plant-based life­style

Ada’s Nat­u­ral Mar­ket in Fort My­ers is one of Mar­cus Watts’s go-to places for foods, such as fresh greens, fruit and plant-based burger pat­ties, that com­ple­ment his CHIP life­style.

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