John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, has radically transformed the way Americans think about what we eat. But Mackey didn't come into world hooked on healthy, whole foods. He was born and raised in Texas on the Standard American Diet with plenty of burgers and fries and as few vegetables as possible. Sound familiar?
All of that began to change in the 1970s when he moved into a vegetarian co-op and was inspired to adopt a healthier lifestyle. This lead him down a path toward a successful career and the series of "a-ha" moments that changed his life and health for the better. Mackey sat down with NBC News BETTER to talk about what he has learned at the helm of Whole Foods and his new book, "The Whole Foods Diet: The Lifesaving Plan for Health and Longevity."
You were a kid who never ate vegetables. How did you become more conscious about food?
Mackey: In my 20s, I moved into a vegetarian co-op and that was the beginning of my own food consciousness journey. I was a very picky eater. I never ate vegetables, but within a pretty short period of time I became a vegetarian. I had a whole new group of friends, I learned how to cook and I began to read books about healthy eating and natural and organic food.
It has been a steady, gradual journey but it has certain leaps that occurred from time to time. The first leap was when I moved into the co-op. I'd say the second big leap didn't occur for many years later. I stayed kind of a vegetarian but I got involved with a woman who wasn't a vegetarian, and I began to add a little fish back to my diet.
And gradually, over time, I was starting to gain weight. My biometric measurements were not as good as they used to be. I was getting older. I just thought, "Oh, this is coming with age."
What reversed the trend?
My health began to improve almost immediately when I stopped eating all animal foods. I started losing weight and I felt better. That went on for a year or so and then my health sort of plateaued. I was still eating a lot of processed foods — a lot of oil, sugar and refined foods. And my cholesterol wasn't as low as it should be. It was then I encountered Colin Campbell's book, "The China Study." It had a revolutionary impact on me because he makes a very strong case, not only against animal foods, but against eating a lot of processed foods.
When I stopped eating all those processed foods and combined that with a plant based diet, my health was just amazing. I now weigh the same as I weighed when I was 18 years old. My cholesterol is under 140. My LDL is under 70. My blood pressure is 110 over 65. I'm an extremely healthy person now.
What should we know about making the shift to a plant-based diet?
There are two types of people that try dieting. There are those that want to go cold turkey. They get excited. They get the knowledge. They try to just do it all at once. If they have a very strong will, often, they can persevere. But more commonly, when people try to do it all at once, they fail. And then they feel bad about themselves. It hurts their self-esteem.
A better strategy is to move through the transition on a relatively slow basis. Mostly because we need to re-educate our taste buds.You have to expose yourself to a food about ten times before you really come to like it.
I've taught myself (the kid who ate no vegetables!) that there are no vegetables I don't like. In fact, I've taught myself to love every single vegetable out there. And so the moral of the story is you can teach yourself to enjoy any type of food. Whatever you familiarize yourself with, you will come to enjoy. So why not teach yourself to love the healthiest foods in the world? That's going to pay such great dividends for your health. There's going to be no loss in pleasure. You're going to have just as much eating pleasure as you have right now. In fact, I would argue, you'll have a lot more.
You say in the book that we have chances every day to make better choices for our health. Explain that.
We do a lot of our eating in a very unconscious way. Every day and every meal we get to make choices about what we eat. The choices we make affect our health and so much more. They affect the environment, the welfare of animals and the larger world.
What's the key to weight loss success?
When you combine the things our body naturally craves — whole starch foods (sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, etc.) with fruits and vegetables — you can eat all you want and you'll lose weight.
I'm still on a health journey too. I do not put myself out as a perfect human being in terms of healthy eating. However, it's the overall diet pattern that matters. If you occasionally make a mistake, or you occasionally indulge yourself, it doesn't matter. It's about the overall pattern: when you have the next meal, or the next snack, just do better.