With Borscht-Belt humor, nutrition guru promotes a healthy, unsweetened New Year
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'I think that white flour should be equated with snorting cocaine and smoking cigarettes'

With Borscht-Belt humor, nutrition guru promotes a healthy, unsweetened New Year

In his serious one-man crusade against the diet industry, Dr. Joel Fuhrman uses humor to gain steam, even as his followers lose weight

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the 'Eat to Live' series and founder of the 'nutritarian' lifestyle (Courtesy)
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the 'Eat to Live' series and founder of the 'nutritarian' lifestyle (Courtesy)

When he’s excited about what’s he’s saying — and that happens a lot — Dr. Joel Fuhrman speaks a mile a minute. Wise-cracking jokes pepper his comments and with his heavy New York accent, he could easily be taken for a Borscht Belt comedian of yore. But this good doctor’s gig is about getting you to eat the borscht (sans sour cream) and tighten your belt.

Fuhrman first came to international notice in 2003 as the author of The New York Times bestselling nutrition series “Eat to Live.” Since then, he has sold over three million books, including “Eat to Live Cookbook” and “The End of Dieting.” Among his hundreds of television and radio appearances, his energetic hour-long specials are a staple of PBS fundraising drives.

However, before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1988 and beginning his one-man crusade against the diet industry, Fuhrman was a world-class figure skater. His run as a professional athlete was cut short after an injury in 1973 gave him two choices: conventional medicine and an experimental surgery, or the advice of alternative naturopath Herbert Shelton, who suggested an intensive fast.

Fuhrman chose the path never traveled.

After 46 days of imbibing only water, it worked. However, while curing his heel, at only 88 pounds, he was left with insufficient muscle mass to compete. But when one door shut, a window opened, and a life-long obsession with nutrition began.

It's all about the fresh vegetables (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
It’s all about the fresh vegetables (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Today, slim and fit at 62, Fuhrman is, without a doubt, one of the most hard-core and disciplined of today’s popular diet gurus (a title he would eschew). His “nutritarian” health plan is restrictive and requires intense at-home preplanning and food prep. But it is likewise a powerfully effective way to lose weight and beat back chronic illness, according to Fuhrman’s thousands of satisfied (at least emotionally) patients.

For Furhman and his leagues of like-minded individuals, the nutritarian lifestyle is much more than a svelte figure: it could prevent everything from cancer to heart disease.

His detractors, however, claim Fuhrman “cherry picks” his supportive research studies, making every Fuhrman book and presentation a scientifically sourced buffet of the evils of SAD (the Standard American Diet), and other “fad” diets, including high-protein, Mediterranean and Paleo.

Argues Fuhrman, the only way to sustainable health is to “get off the diet merry-go-round” and eat an overwhelmingly plant-based menu.

The Fuhrman nutritarian system calls for virtually unlimited amounts of foods that are dense in micro-nutrients. He calls these foods “G-BOMBS” (greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and pomegranate, and seeds and nuts). While not fully espousing a vegan lifestyle, Fuhrman prefers his patients keep animal-derived products to under 10% of their daily consumption. (Think of exchanging the more typical meat entree for a bucket of salad with a cup of beans, the potatoes for whole grains, and the archetypical sprig of parsley for a garnish of meat.)

And it’s gaining traction: his ANDI system (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) was adopted by Whole Foods chain and is a contributing factor in the extreme popularity of kale, which gets a perfect score.

“There are three basic criteria we are trying to teach people to eat healthy:
One is to not eat white flour and sugar and high-glycemic carbohydrates, that’s the main thing,” says Fuhrman.

“The second this is to eat less animal products. To cut back and use them as a condiment, to flavor. And the third thing is obviously to eat more fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. More natural plant foods. So it doesn’t change whether you’re having a holiday meal or a non-holiday meal, we’re trying to use these three principles,” he says.

Apple in honey (Illustrative: Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of apples and honey (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Fuhrman and his wife Lisa have raised their four children as nutritarians. He believes, with much medical research to back him up, that white flour and sugar are “dangerous” and equivalent to smoking cigarettes or snorting cocaine. Unsurprisingly, the typical Rosh Hashanah holiday meal in the Fuhrman home is not exactly brisket and potatoes.

“The holidays are an opportunity to share with our relatives and our loved ones, so if we can share things that taste good but are also healthy, then even if they’re not in our immediate family they can sometimes learn and bring back to their homes and understand that healthy eating can taste delicious,” says Furhman.

In an early morning conversation from his New Jersey home with The Times of Israel, Fuhrman gamely discusses the pitfalls and pluses of a typical Rosh Hashanah dinner.

Israeli grapes (Flash90)
Israeli grapes (Flash90)

The first step in most Rosh Hashanah meals is the kiddush, a traditional blessing over wine or grape juice. You’re not a big fan of juice or alcohol.
I don’t like people to drink alcohol on a regular daily basis because it increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. But I don’t think that’s something that you’d have to remove from the tradition because people are taking a sip of wine or grape juice. They’re not drinking gallons of wine to get drunk, so it’s more of a ceremonial thing.

The next step in the meal is eating honey and challah, a bread that is usually very sweet, with lots of eggs and white flour. Would you suggest, perhaps, preparing it with a different type of flour?
I think that white flour should be equated with snorting cocaine and smoking cigarettes. White flour and sugar products are linked to depression and they’re addictive and they’re a major cause of death world wide. They increase risk of cancer.

‘We’re not recalling any tradition from the past by putting white flour in products’

So I think sharing white flour and white sugar baked goods is dangerous. And it’s something that our ancestors never did. There’s no white flour products in ancient times; we’re not recalling any tradition from the past by putting white flour in products. These are modern junk foods that are treated with bromides and other cancer-causing ingredients and bleaching agents and it’s just something that shouldn’t be allowed in the home.

So I think yes, you could make all types of breads that are healthy with mixed whole grains, with sprouted grains, with wheat berries, and you could sweeten things with dates and with raisins, and with things that are more wholesome rather than putting in honey also. I want people to get accustomed to things being less sweet anyway.

Baking your own breads is a fun thing to do with a family. We don’t eat much bread in our house, but when we were younger we’d make bread and some special baked goods on occasion.

Let’s talk about honey for a second. That’s a big feature for the holiday. What are your thoughts on honey?
These sweeteners are dangerous for regular use. We’re talking about the fact that sugar, honey and maple syrup are foods that are pure glycemic and these high glycemic foods don’t just increase overweightness, diabetes, they also cause heart disease, strokes and increase the risks of cancer.

‘It’s not dangerous to smoke a cigarette on a holiday a couple of times a year either, but I wouldn’t really choose to do it myself’

It’s not dangerous to smoke a cigarette on a holiday a couple of times a year either, but I wouldn’t really choose to do it myself.

But I don’t want people to say, “This is crazy: Why do you have to not eat it? What’s it going to hurt you to eat it a few times a year?!” No, I’m not saying that doing it a few times of year is hurtful, but there’s so many more delicious ways to add sweeteners that you could get into a habit of doing, like using apricots or raisins or dates.

I don’t see why you have to use the honey to begin with. And the problem is you don’t just eat them [the sweeteners] on the holidays. You purchase them and you bring them into your house and you eat them after the holidays are over for a few weeks. You know what I mean?

So this next one you’re probably going to like quite a lot: pomegranate. It’s a big staple of Rosh Hashanah.
Now that’s a super food that has powerful effects: It has anti-cancer effects and beneficial effects on your heart. So yes, I use pomegranate and I even sprinkle pomegranate in my salad. Mix it with tomatoes and red onions, scallions, and put it with green leaves. So you get the chewy pomegranate arials in your mouth with a burst of wetness when you’re chewing the greens. Yeah, I think pomegranates are great.

In biblical times, pomegranates were used to add tart flavors to ancient dishes before lemons and tomatoes were discovered. (JTA)
In biblical times, pomegranates were used to add tart flavors to ancient dishes before lemons and tomatoes were discovered. (JTA)

We have two pomegranate trees at home and we eat it quite a lot when it’s in season and so I wonder, is there such a thing as too much pomegranate a day?
I don’t think so. But you know what you should do is take the seeds out and store them in your freezer so you can extend the season. You know, believe it or not, I have a pomegranate tree too, in New Jersey. I keep it indoors in the winter, I keep it in the pot. It’s outside now and in the winter time I bring it indoors. And it bears edible fruit.

In addition, we have several olive trees in our yard. And I know you’ve talked about olive oil in your books, about how it’s not actually the healthy food many have touted for so long. What are your thoughts on olive oil and olives in general?
Well, you know that I’m trying to teach people to make sauces and add fats to food by using the whole food, like walnuts and avocado and sesame seeds, not sesame oil. Walnuts, not walnut oil, because there’s a very different biological effect in the body when you take the whole food — the fat’s absorbed over three-to-four hours. And when you take the oil from the food, it’s absorbed over three-to-four minutes, and the rapid absorption of calories turns on the fat-storage hormones and store them to your fat. So it has to do with whether you’re overweight.

Ripening fruit on an Israeli olive tree. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Ripening fruit on an Israeli olive tree. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Most people in America are overweight and they eat 400-500 calories of oil a day and they’re not going to lose weight if they’re consuming all those oil calories. No way will they get the weight off eating all those calories. So the answer is that we have to try to minimize the use of oil and use the whole food because the body digests it and utilizes the calories very differently. So even when you eat whole nuts and seeds, all the calories are not biologically available, because of the fat sterols and stanols, the fibers that bind fat and put more fat out in your stool.

Oil is just a heavily concentrated food that didn’t exist thousands of years ago and the consumption of oil has increased by about tenfold in the last 100 years. It’s been one of the reasons why people are gaining weight and becoming diabetic and facing the risk of heart attack because it’s putting more fat on the body. So any kind of oil that you eat is a contributor to being overweight in modern societies. You can’t look at a fattening food as being healthy. And so when people learn to cook with less or little oil it helps people lose weight more easily.

You say that oil wasn’t available thousands of years ago, but here in Israel, for instance, you see thousands-of-years-old oil presses. Do you put two different categories of oil, perhaps, the clarified processed oil versus the more natural pressed oil?
No, it’s like a more natural honey, it’s the same. It’s still going to be very calorically dense.

Is chicken soup, Jewish penicillin, a healthy food to you?
I do think soup’s an important part of a meal because it fills you up, so a healthy soup is definitely an important part of a meal. I don’t think that putting a chicken in water with a little vegetables is going to supply us with all the healthy phytochemicals and antioxidants and flavors that are possible. I think that we can make so much more interesting, flavorful, delicious soups that are also much more nutritious.

For example, were we to make a chicken soup, I might use a little chicken to flavor the soup, but I’ll put carrot juice and celery juice in, I’ll add shitake mushrooms, we’ll put in split peas, we’ll add a little beans. We’ll cook the split peas in a separate pot even and I’ll blend them in with the sauce, blend them into the water and make it creamy and add them in the soup. I’ll put a little raw cashews blended in.

But I find the holiday as a great time to make one of my favorite soups: the sweet and sour cabbage soup. It has the chopped carrots and the onions with a little bit of prunes mixed in with Granny Smith apples.

I can show people that you can make these soups with delicious flavors, but again, if you’re using animal products, I can show that you can make a delicious, nutritious soups with less animal product than you normally would use.

So going back to the traditional meal, there’s also the head of the fish, or the gefilte fish. I’ve read in your books that you don’t necessarily recommend eating fish because of the toxicity of the water in which it’s raised. What would you say to ameliorate the situation with the traditional fish portion of the meal?

If a person wants to eat fish on occasion, I don’t think it’s something I need to take away from them. I don’t think it’s good to eat fish on a regular basis, and certainly you should limit it to once a week or less, and when you choose, choose the fishes that are lower toxicity fishes, that don’t have as much toxins. The bigger fishes have more concentration of mercury, so I think smaller fish, wilder fish are safe and okay for occasional use.

A plate of gefilte fish (CC-BY-SA Ovedc/Wikimedia Commons)
A plate of gefilte fish (CC BY-SA Ovedc/Wikimedia Commons)

There’s often a sweet vegetable dish called tsimmes on the Rosh Hashanah table. Are you familiar with tsimmes?
Yeah, of course, we make it all the time! That’s healthy! We make a healthy version with walnuts, carrots and raisins. You could make a healthy type of tsimmes.

So that would be something that you’d say go for it.

Yeah, definitely. And eating it with salad or greens.

So after Rosh Hashanah, as you know, is Yom Kippur, which is a 25-hour fast. Do you have any thoughts you’d want to share on fasting? How to make it easier? The benefits of fasting?
Definitely. Definitely, because it’s good for your health. But the key here is you have to eat healthy meals, eat lightly, and mostly fruits and vegetables before the fast. You don’t want to make yourself constipated after the fast, because it [fasting] makes your stool more dehydrated. You want to start the day before the fast.

‘You can’t binge on both sides of the fast, that’s the main thing’

You don’t go into the fast with a heavy meat meal, eat a lot of food and then go into the fast… And then the same thing when you break the fast. Fasts can be safe if done properly and dangerous if done wrong. You can’t binge on both sides of the fast, that’s the main thing.

The other thing with fasting is we want to make sure it is perfectly safe, so nobody gets hurt. And the main risk of fasting is that it drops people’s blood pressure and they can get light-headed and faint and they can fall down and hurt themselves. If you feel lightheaded, you have to quickly get down because you have a second or so before you’re going to faint. And in that second — one Mississippi — you could get down on the ground, preventing yourself from getting hurt badly.

This is a question about yo-yo dieting and pregnancies. I personally have six children and in the course of them, I went up and down and up and down quite a lot. What can you do to counteract the affects of yo-yo dieting, or prolonged yo-yo dieting?
Don’t forget I’m not classifying gaining weight with pregnancy and having children as part of yo-yo dieting, that’s a different issue. You’re supposed to gain weight when you’re pregnant.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman's prescription for health: incredibly nutritious food. (courtesy)
Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s prescription for health: incredibly nutritious food (Courtesy)

But on the other hand, my point with the yo-yo dieting is that people should not adopt a temporary method to lose weight, with the expectation they’re going to go off that and go back to their eating old diet again. That’s not good for them. They should make changes in their diet with the every intention of making it for the rest of their life. I’m eating a salad every day, I’m eating vegetable soup, so I’m making changes to improve my health, to live longer and the changes that I make and to keep myself thin, and fit, I’m going to do forever, for the rest of my life.

So what I’m saying is that temporarily cutting back on calories or changing your diet to reach some goal of losing weight is only good if you stay doing that for the rest of your life, because going off that is going to derail the changes. But not only that, it makes things worse than had you never changed your diet, because the back and forth extreme between a good diet and a bad diet — or weight loss and a weight gain diet — is not good for your health. It has negative affects.

So you’re making these positive changes to live a healthy life style and that’s why my work motivates people — with so much information, so many positive benefits, including making food taste delicious — that they want to stay with a healthy life style for the rest of their lives and get off the dieting merry-go-round.

As I mentioned I have six children, they’re 12.5 to almost 4, and getting them to eat a healthy diet is a struggle because really their preferred meal would be plain pasta on pretty much any night. I know you have a whole book on this. Do you have any quick suggestions to get kids into the nutritarian state of mind?
Yes, don’t bring any foods into your home that are not wholesome and white flour products and white pasta are not wholesome and so they should not be permitted in the house. You’re not prohibiting a child from ever eating them, they would be a food that they would eat when they’re out in a restaurant or at a special occasion.

‘You want to make your home that island, that protective island’

I have a book called “Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right” and the joke in that book is, the family is shipwrecked on a desert island and with the boat sinking in the distance and they say, “Well, look on the bright side, at least we can stick to Dr. Fuhrman’s diet.”

But the point is that you want to make your home that island, that protective island. And you want to take the junk food out, get everything out of the home, and when the kids are looking for something to eat, it doesn’t matter that much because there’s all healthy food to choose from.

I think that the whole key here is that eating healthy is not just “eating healthy.” It’s preventing tremendous human tragedy, it affects children’s intelligence, it affects your concentration, your success in life, it affects your happiness and your outlook in life. And it of course affects the grievous deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer, that don’t have to happen because food is powerful medicine.

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