Drawing by Robert Krulwich
"In 2007, two scientists, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler poured through 32 years of data collected during a multigenerational heart study in Framingham Massachusetts.
The data included sketches of who was friends with whom and changes in peoples' body weight.
What the scientists discovered says Jonah Lehrer, [in a Frontal Cortext blogpost "Contagious Habits: How Obesity Spreads) is that "obesity spreads from person to person, much like a contagious virus." To read the classic Christakis/Fowler article in the N Engl J Med, click here
All this sounds like social scientists are blaming fat people for making other people fat.
But when Alison Aubrey, [NPR's health writer,] asked Dr. Christakis if that was his finding, he wouldn't go there. True, this hasn't happened in America thus far...but logically, he said:
'The same kind of phenomenon that contributes to an obesity epidemic could potentially — potentially — be harnessed to contribute to a reversal of the epidemic, because it's equally the case that one person losing weight contributes to the other people around them losing weight.'
But whether we get fatter or skinnier as a nation, the deeper lesson here is that we are not masters of our destiny, not really.
"It turns out," Jonah Lehrer says, "that the habits and hungers of others shape our own, that we unconsciously regress to the dietary norms around us."
-"Do Our Friends Make Us Fatter? by Robert Krulwich, NPR April 28, 2011-
If you received this via email, click here to get to the web version with the links & video.
After I heard Krulwich's "my-friends-make-me-fat-big-excuse" piece on NPR I wanted to call him up. And Dr. Christakis, too! Here's what I wanted to say:
"Hey, Bob & Nick, come on over & check out my world--from where I sit, that "Christakis/Fowler's contagious habits" theory really can work in reverse--helping people to lose weight & get healthier, not just fatter.
One person's weight loss (& change to a more plant-strong diet) can be just as contagious--once your friends & neighbors realize it's not just a fad--and when they start seeing the concrete results.
Bit by bit, many of the people in my social network are now making changes--some large--some small--but changes, nonetheless!"
Follow My Social Network Dots.
1. Threee years ago I was motivated to change my diet when I heard Dr. T. Colin Campbell speak at my hospital--followed up by hearing Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn's clear explanation on how to prevent & reverse heart disease (& dementia, diabetes, & hypertension along the way) by simply ditching the typical American diet for one that's plant-based. My light bulb moment.
2. Then I met Esselstyn's wife, Ann, at my gym. Just running into her a couple times a month reinforced the changes I had started to make on my own. "Why add 2 TBS of oil to your black bean soup when you can saute your vegetables without any!" she challenged me.
3. And my early changes quickly spread to my husband. Thankfully, he's a good sport and he bought into my eating adventure big time!
4. The longer I stuck with this, the more it became a lifestyle change--not a fad--and then it began to spread to my kids & to some of their friends, and then on to my closest friends, my sister-in-law (a little bit to my sister), both of my brother-in-laws, one of my nieces, a couple of gym friends, some of my co-workers, the folks who read my blog, and then on to perfect strangers from around the world.
5. And the same thing has happened to everyone I know who's been eating this way for awhile. Their diet changes end up influencing some of their friends, families, & colleaugues! Even some 80-something parents!
Support from Stangers in a Virtual World?
Here's the strange thing. I'm a live and-let-live kind of person. Not into judging other people's food choices nor do I try to convince anyone of anything. [Unless I'm challenged.] I've eaten too many baby back ribs, Big Macs, mac-n-cheese, corned beef sandwiches & chocolate chip cookies over the years to judge anyone. I try to do my own thing--quietly.
In my day-to-day life, I don't talk about how I eat, nor do I mention that I write a blog, unless I'm asked. My name, and where I work isn't on my blog. I'm not even on Facebook.
So what's my point? Healthy habits are as viral as bad ones! Here I am, under the radar, and I start getting emails from friends & aquaintances I know--who have somehow discovered my blog on their own--and then from friends of friends, even doctors & nurses at my hospital, folks from all over the U.S., and as far away as Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Japan, and France--and even seeing my posts translated into languages I can't even recognize.
That's when I realized how contagious good habits (& a plant-based diet) really can be. How much we all need support from each other--if we want to eat plant-strong in a world filled with Big Macs, 16 ounce steaks, bloomin' fried onions, and double-cheese pizzas....
And now when my friends & blog readers tell me about the major health changes they've seen in themselves when they go plant-strong--like weight loss, lower blood pressure, normal blood sugar, improved lipid numbers, stamina, and getting off their prescription meds--it's like having a continuous feedback loop that motivates, inspires, and supports me.
And I reap all sorts of benefits. Many generously share their successes, new recipes, tips, the new products they discover, websites & blogs, articles, the latest medical research, recommendations for cookbooks, veg friendly restaurants, and of course their support.
Karen & Judy - East Coast & West Coast Plant-Strong Blog Readers I Recently Met at Starbucks When They Attended Dr. Esselstyn's Class
My Biggest Surprise - How Easy It's Become to Share Meals with Friends & Family - It Doesn't Have to Be a Big Deal
Sharing meals with friends and family is a huge part of my social life. At first, putting limits on what I was willing to eat when I ate out felt uncomfortable and awkward, and it made me feel self-conscious & apologetic--like I had to explain or defend myself--and I didn't want to have to do that. I don't like feeling like a party pooper or a goody-goody. I'm neither.
Here's my big shocking surprise: I no longer feel "out-of-place" or like a weirdo about eating plant-strong. My friends, family, and co-workers all seem to "get it"--some are now eating this way themselves--others are almost there, some are slowly moving in that direction--and the rest are more than willing to figure out a way that we can break bread together.
Turns out--people are quite accomodating--as long as you're not on a soapbox.
- When my meat-loving friend Marty comes to town next week we're having dinner at a hip organic locally-sourced restaurant where he can have hand-ground steak tartare topped with a barely cooked egg & pomme frites fried in duck fat if he wants-and I can have curried spaghetti squash topped with toasted chickpeas, heirloom garlic & lemon if I want. A win-win for all of us.
- Who'd have ever thought this would happen? Our last Friday night dinner group was plant-strong. Same for our Passover seder. My mahj group's snacks & the book club's casual dinner & snacks are veg-friendly, and even our special work lunches had a plant-strong option--because a bunch of us are now eating this way.
- Holy Toledo! I'm not a proselytzer, nor out to convince anyone. We all want to live our own lives--and make our own decisions. And it certainly took me a long time to change my own eating habits.
"I know my friends thought this would be a phase that I'd quickly tire of, but my commitment has surprised them all. Now when I entertain guests, like I did last night, we dine plant-strong and they enjoy it." from G., a reader
Meet the Healthy Librarians Where I Work. It's the Sisterhood of the "Too Big" Pants
1. First I was the token "plant-stronger" of the library.
2. Then came Mary, the skeptic--who believed in olive oil & Greek yoghurt--until she read Dr. Esselstyn's Prevent & Reverse Heart Disease in one weekend. It made good medical sense to her--she was a nurse before she became a librarian.
She decided to ditch the *dairy, the oil, and cut down on the chicken and fish. Then she ditched the chicken--and has fish every once in a while. *She still splits her yoghurt between soy & dairy because of soy's high price. Anyone know how to make your own inexpensive soy yoghurt with a yoghurt maker? She'd love to know!
Two months after starting to eat plant-strong, she was taken by surprise when her pants started to fall down as she jogged from the parking lot to the library. She knew she was losing weight, but hadn't bothered getting on a scale. It was time to buy new pants.
Now she's down two sizes--back to what she weighed in her twenties. Honestly, I think she's ready to go down another size. Oh, and this lady is a lifetime exerciser who has avoided sugar for over 20 years! Olive oil & yogurt didn't work--plant-strong-no-oil eating did!
- 17 pounds lost in 4 1/2 months--effortlessly--no calorie counting, measuring, or portion control. Just huge quantities of delicious food.
- Her new cholesterol numbers: Total: 140 (from 176)--LDL: 80--Triglycerides: 41--HDL: 52
- BMI is now in the healthy range--which means she now qualifies for the health insurance rebate at work!
- She's become a plant-strong cook extraordinaire--and is a constant source of new recipes for me. She's making green smoothies, eating PB2, oatmeal with spinach, chipotle lentil loaf, cheeseless pizzas, no-oil pestos with Field Roast Italian sausage, lentil cutlets with balsamic reduction sauce, makes her own salad dressings and more. Everyday she's bringing in one amazing creation after another for us to taste.
3. Then came Snez. Another skeptic, at first. Cooking without oil? Using almond milk? Huh? But she's European and grew up on real whole food--lots of fruits & vegetables--she "gets" it.
- She's ditched the olive & cooking oil. "This is so easy to do."
- She's also making cheezy spinach steel-cut oats--alternating with the fruited kind.
- She's ditched the dairy--loving the non-dairy versions.
- Occasionally she eats meat, chicken, cheese, & fish--but it's getting to be less & less.
- She's also enjoying green smoothies--and using chia
- She's making simple hearty meals of vegetables, grains, & beans--converting many of her stand-by favorites to plant-based.
- She's also ready to move down a size! Another member of the "sisterhood of the "too big" pants".
4. Then came Marlene. Another skeptic. But after she was hit with a surprise cancer diagnosis, a plant-based diet started making sense. Did her recent weight gain, sugar cravings, or too many restaurant meals have anything to do with the cancer? No way to know. She figures she can't control the chemicals & pollutants she's exposed to, her genes, or her past--but she can control what she eats now.
- She's the non-cook of the group, but thanks to Amy Cramer of Dinners Done Now, she can pick up a week's worth of plant-based no-oil soups, entrees, & snacks--so, she's able to eat mostly plant-based without too much cooking. And it costs her far less than eating out ever did.
- She's now into steel-cut oats for breakfast, and brings her lunch to work much more often than before. She's appalled at the lack of vegan offerings in our hospital cafeteria--and by how much fat & salt are in the options offered.
- She's noticed how much her tastes have changed. She now prefers plant-based. Restaurant options now taste too oily & too salty, and her stomach notices.
- She's become a vocal advocate for better meal options at our hospital--and prominent signs with the calorie, nutrient, & ingredient information. She now notices how much fat-laden salad dressing the hospital servers ladle onto the cafeteria salads. She's also pushing our local Whole Foods to offer classes on how to make fast & easy plant-based meals.
- Yes, she still eat out--but she's disenchanted with the options--and trying to limit it to once a week.
- She's feeling better & better & has recently received some excellent health reports from her physicians--and is hoping to continue to see improvements in the future.
5. Then came Jodith She's been trim & healthy all her life, but lately the pounds are creeping up---and plant-based is looking like a good solution. She's inching closer to making a switch, or at least a partial switch. She knows that if she doesn't bring the cheese, the oil, the chicken, or the goodies into her house--she won't eat them.
- She's thrifty, so first she's using up the non-veg food that's stored in her freezer and not buying any more.
- She's now sauteeing without oil.
- She loves cheese. She grew up on cheese. But now she's eating less of it--and getting closer to cutting it out! She's stopped buying it & only has some Parmesan left in the refrigerator.
- She's experimenting with plant-based dishes, like an amazing wheatberry waldorf salad made without oil, and a hearty vegetable soups.
- RIght now she's deciding on the best plant-based cookbook to buy.
So, there you have it! The Healthy Librarians. All doing their own versions of "Plant Strong(er)". Moving at their own pace and their own comfort level.
Everyday we're supporting & encouraging each other.
Most of us bring our lunches to work instead of buying, so we get to sample each others fare, hear about the dinners-that-rocked, and try out new oil-free plant-based recipes on each other. I'd call it good health gone viral! A case of contagious good habits.
We're no longer sharing our homemade cookies & cakes--we're sharing our soups, stews & curries.
Contagious Habits--In My "Real" & "Virtual" Neighborhoods--Support & Inspiration
Almost daily I get emails with stories of improved health--from people who switched to a plant-based diet. Some with serious health issues--some just wanting to improve their health--or get off of prescription medications.
Here are few I've shared in the past, in case you missed them:
- Sharing Success Stories - People Who Wanted More Than a Prescription to Increase Their Odds of a Healthy Future - They've Made Lifestyle Changes "For Life!"
- Follow One of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn's Patients - Q & A on the First Three Months of a Diet to Prevent & Reverse Heart Disease
And just a few from the past two weeks:
My Neighbors, K & J
I'll be honest--these two really surprised me!
Two weeks after seeing Forks Over Knives, armed only with a copy of The Engine 2 Diet, borrowed from me, K & J decided to go plant-based, oil-free--just like that! It took me years--they just dive right into it!
After three months they're still going strong. When we joined them for a movie 2 weeks ago, K couldn't have been more pleased.
He'd lost 10 pounds in 10 weeks, without even trying. Easiest way he's ever found to lose weight--he just eats whatever & whenever he wants to--just whole foods--no animal products or oil. No portion control, no calorie counting. He hasn't been this low in years--and he's feeling fantastic.
But even better than the weight loss, he had just seen his doctor for a physical and the results surprised both of them. His total cholesterol had dropped from 156 (on Lipitor) to 132 with the switch to a plant-based diet.
His doctor admitted that he was skeptical that a plant-based diet would have had such an effect, but he wanted K to stop the Lipitor and see him August.
Other benefits: Migraines have decreased considerably--and his doc thinks it may be because he's cut out processed food & additives. Prilosec is now also history.
As for J, she already needed to have her favorite designer jeans taken in.
Biggest benefit for her? The cooking & shopping have now become a joint-venture & an adventure! A huge plus, in her book.
"As a lacto-ovo vegetarian whose only "lacto-ovo" component of the diet was skim milk and who eschewed added fats, I was dismayed to discover a few months ago that my overall cholesterol number was 241.
I was assured that it was heredity, and there was nothing else I could do since clearly my diet and exercise should have prevented my cholesterol from climbing so high.
I was put on Crestor, although only 5 mg. I have watched my husband be put on one medication after another through the decades and I didn't want to go down that path.
Two month later, my overall cholesterol was 140 and the rest of the lipid panel was similarly improved, and my internist agreed to let me come back off the Crestor. I've long been acquainted with Campbell and Esselstyn, but thanks for the extra push your column provided to drop the skim milk and the sugar, too."
"I just had my annual blood panel and I am thrilled with the results.
My cholesterol goal was 150, although I really wanted to get to 130. But it was 155--close to my goal! I only came down 22 points from my last test--but I was almost vegan last year.
My triglyceride goal was 70 and I made it, down from 93.
Glucose down only a little, from 93 to 85.I wanted LDL under 100 and got to 97, down from 114 last year.
And my Vitamin D was 50.1
B12 was greater than 1500. I can now take it just 2-3 times a week."
"August will be 2 years [eating plant-based]. I feel better, have more energy, look better with 23 less pounds of FAT, and I'm not dealing with digestive issues.
I know my friends thought this would be a phase that I'd quickly tire of, but my commitment has surprised them all. Now when I entertain guests, like I did last night, we dine plant-strong and they enjoy it.
Last night, we had: veggie sushi, curried apple-butternut squash soup, garden salad with fresh mesclun mix-beet greens-spinach, garbanzos, brown rice, fresh cilantro, tomatoes, cucs, scallions, etc...with Isa's dressing, served with oven roasted fingerling potatoes, and for dessert...flourless chocolate cookies. OMG.
As far as I know, everyone was very happy and comfy as we sat down to play Blokus...ever played that one?????"
OK, Robert Krulwich, Jim Fowler & Nick Christakis! Yes, the "Contagious Habits Theory" Really Can Work in Reverse!
"The same kind of phenomenon that contributes to an obesity epidemic could potentially — potentially — be harnessed to contribute to a reversal of the epidemic, because it's equally the case that one person losing weight contributes to the other people around them losing weight." Dr. Nicholas Christakis