Dr. Pam Popper is a naturopath and a vegan of nearly 20 years. She is also the Executive Director of the Wellness Forum, an organization that helps individuals improve their health through plant-based diet and lifestyle changes. The organization also assists employers in lowering the cost of medical insurance for employees and educates healthcare professionals about the prevention and reversal of disease through diet and lifestyle changes. Vegan Mainstream was delighted to have the opportunity recently to talk to Pam about the new book she has co-authored with Glen Merzer, Food Over Medicine.
Pam Popper: Well, I think what I wanted to do with Food Over Medicine was of course bring the diet message to a wider audience. My version of the plant-based diet is perhaps a little bit different than some other people’s [version] and this is an opportunity for me to explain that. But I wanted to go beyond just diet because the reality is that if you eat a perfect diet – you watch every morsel you put in your mouth and you’re very careful about what you eat - but your interactions with the medical community aren’t carefully controlled, you’re not an informed medical consumer. You can end up suffering from poor health just as much as the person who had a cheeseburger and french fries for lunch today. So I wanted to get into some of the other issues about diagnostic testing, drugs you shouldn’t take and treatments and surgeries that are useless; to really arm people to be fully informed consumers, not just with diet, but with other issues associated with healthcare.
Vegan Mainstream: You co-authored the book with Glen Merzer. How did that come about?
Pam Popper: Actually, it was Glen’s idea. He approached me to do this and it was his idea to make it a conversation. He felt that we would be able to hold people’s attention better and for a lot longer if we did it in the form of a conversation. So I give Glen a lot of credit for this book because the concept was his idea and the format was his idea too.
Vegan Mainstream: That was my next question. The format is very different from typical nutrition books. I feel like people will have an easier time reading and understanding a dialogue.
Pam Popper: Yeah, let’s face it: Some of this stuff can tend to be a little dry – just a recitation of facts. The other thing is the conversational style helped a lot, but I also give Glen a lot of credit. He is a marvelous writer. I’ve always said I’m a good communicator and I think I’m a good researcher and I have the right ideas about health, but I am not a skilled writer the way he is. So to the extent that people seem to – at least in the early feedback – find the book entertaining, I’ll give Glen all the credit for that too.
Vegan Mainstream: You stress in the book that just because a person is vegan doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy. In terms of diet, what do you think is the biggest mistake a lot of vegans make?
Pam Popper: I think the biggest mistake is not understanding – well, two areas actually. Just giving up animal foods is not enough, so there are a lot of what I call junk food vegans out there. They gave up animal foods, but they didn’t really change much else. There’s a lot of vegan junk food out there. You can eat vegan cookies, vegan potato chips, beer that’s vegan – we can go through the list. So I think that’s part of it. The other thing is that there are a lot of misunderstandings about diet that vegans are susceptible to, just like meat eaters, and those are ideas about things like protein, oils and fats. So, there are junk food vegans who are just eating a health-food store version of the bad diet they were eating previously. Then there are misinformed plant-based dieters who range from vegans right on down to people who just eat a reasonably decent diet, but they’re still very confused about issues like supplements, protein and that sort of thing.
Vegain Mainstream: What do your meals look like on a typical day?
Pam Popper: Well, I’ve made the choice to be vegan. I’m clear in the book that that’s a personal choice and not one that I think is necessary for everybody in order to achieve and maintain optimal health. But I eat 5 or 6 times a day – this is an eating pattern we encourage people [at the Wellness Forum] to adopt because it keeps their blood sugar and energy levels even – keeps them from getting ravenously hungry. So I eat 5 or 6 times a day. I start my morning with a smoothie that has all kinds of superfoods in it like green tea, flax seeds, brewer’s yeast, bananas, frozen fruit and that sort of thing. And then some Ezekiel toast with some fat-free hummus. And then mid-morning I’m hungry again, so I might have some multi-grain cereal or leftover dinner. You know, one thing I tell people is we have some strange ideas about when you’re supposed to eat which foods. You can actually have soup in the morning – it’s OK! And then for lunch – pasta and vegetables, rice and vegetables, stews and chilis and soups, baked potatoes and big salads. Mid-afternoon is usually leftovers, and for dinner – like tonight for dinner – I’m having rice and vegetables and a great big green salad with lots of good fresh, seasonal vegetables. I have a sweet tooth that’s just never stopped, so in the evenings that’s when I dig into pineapple, strawberries and the wonderful sweet treats from nature – that nature intended us to eat – and that keeps me from eating other things I’m not supposed to. That’s a typical eating day for me.
Vegan Mainstream: You devote an entire chapter of your book to success stories you’ve seen first hand at the Wellness Forum. Do you have any stories that you’re particularly proud of, or that you were surprised by?
Pam Popper: I love all of them and I guess the wonderful part of the business that we’re in is that these types of success stories come to us almost daily, and we never get tired of hearing them. I have to say some things touch my heart more than others [for example], babies that are born to moms who never expect to be moms…because of miscarriages…we call them Wellness Forum Babies. Those have a special place in my heart. So obviously Cat Timmons’ story: She was a cancer patient who went into menopause as a result of treatment and then miraculously gave birth to this beautiful baby boy. After the whole thing was over [chemotherapy], she converted to a health-promoting diet. That one is special – the ones involving babies will always be particularly special to me.
Vegan Mainstream: What is the message you hope people take away after reading this book?
Pam Popper: Well, I think there may be a couple of them and I think the first one is that health is important, and what you don’t know about it can hurt you. That can range from incorrect ideas about diet to just following directions when you go into a doctor’s office. So my main message is I want to be America’s consumer health advocate and I want to organize an army of people to help others understand how to be informed consumers because I think the most awful thing I’ve listened to in my office, on a somewhat regular basis, is the person who says, “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have done things entirely differently. I mean, gosh, if I knew dairy products were cancer-promoting, I wouldn’t have eaten them. And if I knew that carrying the extra 100 lbs. would’ve caused this mess I’m in, I would’ve lost it.” So I guess I want people to be informed consumers. I want them to actually take control of their health because they have the knowledge to do it. I don’t want people to just do what I say – that’s not taking control of your health. Taking control of your health is really looking at the information [and making the choice] that’s the best choice for you. And I think to the extent that I present in this book a set of alternative explanations for a lot of things, hopefully people can make the right decisions for themselves.
Vegan Mainstream: What’s next for you? Another book, something new at the Wellness Forum?
Pam Popper: Yeah, there’s always next. And there will probably be a next book, but not right now. I just want to enjoy this one for a while! Once you finish with a project like this, you’re not anxious to start again. But one thing that we’re focusing on at the Wellness Forum now is our employer-sponsored plans, where we actually do this type of intervention work at the worksite. And the reason I’m so excited about this is that I don’t think many people question the fact that employers have got to address healthcare costs. I don’t care how profitable you are, there is a threshold that you reach where you just can’t afford to pay for it anymore, no matter how good your intentions may be. So employers need to address costs and they’ve run out of ways to manipulate the current system in order to do it. And we bring to the table a very exciting concept because normally when you’re talking about cutting costs, there are winners and losers. You know, somebody’s gotta pay more and that sort of thing. But in our scheme, everybody’s a winner. The employer saves money and the employees regain their health and everybody’s happy. And so we’re excited about this work. We had a paper published earlier this year describing our results with a local municipality that adopted our plan and we’re working with many employers throughout the country who have decided that the best way to reduce costs is to help their employees get healthy – make it a group and company effort. And they’re seeing spectacular results.
Vegan Mainstream: That sounds great. It’s very encouraging.
Pam Popper: I’m very encouraged overall…I have to say, I have my days where you just want to throw your hands up and think, “Oh my god, is this ever going to get better?” But, actually, I think the signs are that everything is moving in the right direction. It’s easy to get good food. You know, I used to spend a lot of time defending my ideas about diet and health and now people are anxious to listen to them. So I think we have every reason to be incredibly optimistic that we’re on our way to solving our health crisis in very constructive ways…I consider myself young at 57, and I think I’m going to live to see that all happen and that’s an exciting thing to look forward to.