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Using Plant-Based Foods for Optimum Health

Jun 25, 2016 ● By Sheila Julson

Dr. Terry Mason

Dr. Terry Mason, chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, believes that people have power to greatly improve health through whole, plant-based eating—obtaining most calories through fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes. When he discovered 10 years ago that many ailments plaguing Americans, such as cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol, are the result of animal-based and processed foods damaging the lining of the body’s blood vessels, he became a passionate advocate for plant-based diets.

       In 2007, while serving as Chicago’s public health commissioner, he started the successful program Restart4Health, challenging Chicagoans to try plant-based eating during the month of January after holiday indulgences. Mason shares his knowledge through lectures and radio shows, and will speak at the 11th annual Veggie Fest on July 23 and 24 at Science of Spirituality, in Lisle.

In addition to health benefits, such as lower cholesterol, what are some other advantages of switching to a plant-based way of eating?

There has been a lot of discussion about the microbiomes, or the environment in the gut, particularly the large intestine, that are responsible for creation of many bacteria. The things we eat alter the environment and the growth of those bacteria, so if we don’t eat the right kinds of foods, we don’t help proliferate growth of the kinds of bacteria we need to make the vitamins necessary to protect us. We’re learning now that gut flora is absolutely critical to good health, and flora of the gut can be altered in a positive way by eating whole, plant-based foods.

       As far as environmental advantages, thanks to people like [author and sustainable foods advocate] Dr. Richard Oppenlander and movies like Cowspiracy, word is getting out. The World Health Organization and major global nations are talking about how animal agriculture waste is the major cause of rain forest deforestation, dead zones in our oceans and greenhouse gasses.

What are some common misconceptions about plant-based eating?

People tell me that it costs too much to eat that way, so I ask them, “Well, how much is a box of oatmeal?” or, “How much is a pound of dried beans?” Name any bean and compare that price per pound to a pound of sirloin steak or ground chuck. Also, a lot of people think about where they are going to get protein. About 8 to 10 percent of the total dietary intake needs to be protein. That’s about the same amount you get from a good plant-based way of eating. People have this misconception that you don’t get complete protein in a plant-based diet, but that’s not true. Look at some of the largest animals in the world—they’re all herbivores.

With meat and processed food temptations everywhere, how can people shift to
plant-based eating?

Don’t worry about trying to do it all. Just start with vegetables and fruits you like and keep adding. It’s not an all-or-none approach. If you’re eating meat, just add broccoli. Then next time you add the broccoli, maybe also add string beans or asparagus. If you like apples, oranges or berries, add those things. If you can’t add something every day, commit to adding something every week. Keep adding, and don’t forget to drink water and far less caffeinated and sugar-sweetened beverages, like coffee, soda and juice-flavored drinks.

Are you optimistic that more people will embrace plant-based eating?

Absolutely, because I’ve already seen it with people I’ve worked with. More young people are into it, and movies like Forks Over Knives and Food, Inc. are showing people what food means and how food is produced.

       I would certainly like for people to come out and support Veggie Fest. There’s lots of information being shared through lectures and resources and food that people can sample. Spiritual leaders will also talk about the state of mind that we need to have; it’s not only about eating the right food physically, but also about making sure that we have better diets spiritually and mentally. We have to take time to let our brains and our spirits calm, so additional therapies, like yoga and meditation, allow us to receive mental and spiritual connections to food. It’s not just a few hippie people; there are all types trying to learn, and that’s how you start. Read it, research it and try to live it for yourself.

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.


Dr. Terry Mason to speak at this year’s Veggie Fest


The 11th annual Veggie Fest will take place from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., July 23 and 24, on the grounds of Science of Spirituality, in Lisle. Each year, thousands of people, from beginners and flexitarians to long-time vegans, experience the vegetarian lifestyle through cooking demonstrations and food samples, as well as educational lectures by health professionals, spiritual leaders, authors and other experts in healthy food and environmental sustainability. The event also provides more than 100 vendors and kids’ art and music activities.

Admission is free. Location: 4045 N. Naperville Rd., Lisle. For more information, visit See ad on page 9.