“Families are like fudge: mostly sweet with a few nuts.”
“Language is a means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery.”
- Mark Amidon
Losing fat yourself is one thing. Readers of this blog have lost 100-200 pounds without too much trouble.
Getting your mom or dad to take you seriously? To stop eating white bread or drinking 64-ounce sodas? That can seem impossible.
Loved ones — whether family, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, or otherwise — can be sensitive. The people who need help most often won’t accept it, especially from those closest to them.
So what to do?
This post gives a real-world example from Darya Pino Rose, PhD. I’ve known and followed Darya for years. Her PhD is in neuroscience from USCF, and she champions a whole-food-based approach to nutrition that avoids pills and powders. This combination produces fascinating results.
The below story, from her new book Foodist, shows exactly how she transformed her dad’s health without butting heads with him… and how you can do the same for your loved ones.
Do you have any tricks that have worked with your family or friends? Please share in the comments!
Note: For the purposes of this post, a “foodist” is someone who uses real food and real science to lose weight permanently.
Eating like a “foodist” does not doom you to being ostracized from your friends and family. This post will teach you how to lightheartedly deflect your critics and gently nudge (but not annoy) those loved ones you hope will adopt better eating habits.
This is tricky business, but it can be done.
How To Win Over Friends and Influence Family
It’s hard to see loved ones suffer as a result of their eating habits. Traditional whole foods have been out of fashion for so long that many of our parents and sometimes even our grandparents are completely unaware of the negative health effects caused by the foods they grew up loving. As they age, however, these habits start to take their toll, and we must watch as their health deteriorates. A medical emergency that brings them face-to-face with reality is sometimes what it takes for them to make changes. Other times even that isn’t enough.
Unfortunately, changing the habits of another person is even more difficult than changing your own. Stubbornness, pride, and ignorance can prevent people from even listening to advice that could save their lives, and for whatever reason age tends to compound these particular traits. Pushing a message that people don’t want to hear can cause them to dig in and fight even harder to preserve their way of life, straining and potentially destroying your relationship with them. When dealing with someone like this, it’s first essential to accept the fact that there may be nothing you can do for him or her. No matter how badly you may desire to help, a person has to want to change and cannot be forced.
But still, change can happen. Despite my close relationship with my father and his enthusiasm about my career path, I didn’t expect him to ever alter the way he ate. My dad had suffered from depression since I was in high school, and his outlook got even worse after my mother passed away in a car accident in 2003. Like most people, he had developed the habit of eating processed and fast foods starting in the early 1990s, and as his depression grew deeper, the effort he put into feeding and taking care of himself waned.
“In general, I did not want to continue living and didn’t think I would. With all the health problems I was having, and especially after your mom died—that was a really hard thing for me to deal with—and I thought it would be better if I was gone too,” he told me.
After a series of serious medical emergencies that nearly took his life on three occasions, I had nearly given up hoping for a turnaround, even though he was only in his fifties. But I continued to love him and share my passion for seasonal food whenever possible.
“You were so understanding, you never put any pressure on me or tried to convince me to change, but you always gave me hope that things would get better, things would be better,” he recalled.
From my perspective he had gone through enough and didn’t need me or anyone else telling him how to live out his life. If he didn’t want to live, I didn’t want to bug him about his blood pressure or eating habits. I just wanted to have as many happy and positive times with him as possible until whatever happened happened, and the last thing I wanted was to strain our relationship unnecessarily. I know my dad, and he is not one to do anything just because someone else, even me, thinks he should. Still my excitement about food and health was genuine, and I knew he had always been a fan of a good meal, so I continued to share what I was learning.
My cooking was the first thing that caught his attention. I made a point whenever visiting home in southern California to stop by the San Francisco farmers market before getting on the plane and bringing back something delicious. On one summer trip I brought home a small bag of padrón peppers, some good olive oil, and a crusty baguette. Padróns are small green peppers that are a common tapas dish in Spain and a seasonal delicacy for foodists in San Francisco. They are incredibly simple to prepare. All you have to do is heat some olive oil in a cast-iron pan and cook the peppers over medium heat until they blister and just start to brown. When they’re done, sprinkle them with some coarse sea salt and eat them with your fingers. Padróns have a deep pepper flavor, but are not usually spicy—except when they are. One out of every ten peppers is incredibly hot, so eating a bowl is a bit like playing Russian roulette with your tongue.
My dad has always been a fan of spicy foods, and I knew that padróns would be right up his alley. At his house I cooked them with a little more olive oil than usual, because it becomes infused with the oil from the peppers and tastes delicious. We used the bread to sop up the extra pepper oil and cool our mouths when we got burned on the spicy ones. My dad loved every bit of it and quietly started paying more attention whenever I mentioned food.
His next great epiphany was beets [ubersimple recipe at the end of this post]. All his life he had hated beets, and consequently I had never eaten them as a child. The first couple of times I tried them, even at nice restaurants, beets tasted a little off to me. Something about their flavor reminded me of dirt, and I could never get past that to enjoy their earthy sweetness. But I continued to sample them when they were available, hoping one day something would click. That day came one sunny afternoon at the house of a friend who was hosting a dinner party. We were having Dungeness crab for dinner, which I was totally excited about, but the main course was a long way off, so she put out a huge pile of roasted beets sprinkled with chèvre cheese and fresh mint as an appetizer.
I was starving, so I started reluctantly picking at the giant pile with my fingers, since I didn’t want to scoop myself a serving of food I didn’t expect to like. I popped the first bite in my mouth and, yeah, it still tasted like beets. But I was hungry, so I tried another, this time with a good portion of mint and cheese on it. After a few chews, it hit me. “Whoa, this is good,” I said to myself. Something about the fresh-tasting mint and the creamy cheese balanced the earthy flavor of the beets and transformed them into something I could appreciate. I proceeded to put a hefty dent in the beet mountain, leaving bright pink stains all over my fingers. Beets had finally made it onto my beloved vegetables list, and I started making my own version of the recipe at home.
Proud of my recent conversion, I told my dad about my beet discovery during our next phone conversation. He replied skeptically, saying that he hated beets and always had. But I knew I was onto something and decided to include the recipe in our next Thanksgiving dinner, just so he could try it for himself. I made plenty of other dishes as well, just in case he really didn’t like the beets, but I followed my friend’s lead and set them out earlier than the rest of the food as an appetizer, knowing that someone with a hungry tummy couldn’t resist trying a bite. It worked.
“When you made those beets I was like, ‘Wow, this is so unbelievable! So different from what I remember,’ ” he recalled.
I was stoked, and my dad became a believer. At almost sixty years old, he developed a new appreciation for vegetables and real food (turns out the beets he grew up eating were always from a can), even the ones he thought he didn’t like.
“It made eating and preparing healthy food much more fascinating,” he explained. “It became exciting to me to see what the possibilities are.”
The beets weren’t enough to change my dad’s habits, but he was starting to make the connection between good food and good health. More important, he was now convinced that vegetables and other healthy foods could taste amazing and that eating them would not be a sacrifice. He also began paying more attention to me and the things I would say and share on Facebook about the connections between food and wellness.
Though he still didn’t care much about his own life or health, he was growing weary of feeling sick and drained all the time, and it was becoming obvious to him that his health (and possibly his diet) was the reason. After living for decades on processed foods, my dad had developed prediabetes and his blood sugar swings were having a terrible impact on his mood and energy levels. He also had dangerously high blood pressure, and in 2006 a mild stroke left him with a speech impediment that deeply troubled and embarrassed him. Worse, the stroke made it nearly impossible for him to play his guitar, the only passion he had left in his life. Though he was able to recover his speech and dexterity after a couple of months, this experience scared him enough to at least start taking medication for his condition and paying more attention to his diet. He may not have cared then if he lived or died, but he knew he didn’t want to live without his music.
Because he’s a good father, my dad had always done his best to keep up with my work ever since I started writing in 2007. He’s seen almost all my rants against processed food and praise for seasonal vegetables, pastured eggs, and wild fish, and nothing had ever convinced him to change the way he eats. Then one day in late July 2011, I got a phone call with the words I never expected to hear.
A few weeks earlier I had released a video on Summer Tomato about salt, explaining how it affects your health and what you need to understand to make smart food decisions. My basic argument was that salt itself is not bad for you. In fact, it is necessary to have some sodium in your diet. Moreover, salt makes food taste better, and I encourage everyone to sprinkle some on their vegetables if it helps them eat more of them. There are three reasons salt is a problem for most Western societies. The first is that we eat way too much of it, which can lead to hypertension. However, a whopping 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods.11 Relatively speaking, the salt you add to your own home-cooked food is insignificant.
The second issue is that sodium intake must be balanced by sufficient potassium intake, which comes mainly from vegetables. [Note from Tim: avocados, white beans, and spinach are great options.] That is, the more vegetables you eat, the less dietary sodium matters. Most people don’t eat enough vegetables, so eating a lot of sodium poses a bigger risk for developing high blood pressure than it would in the context of a healthier diet. Third, a high intake of fructose, a common ingredient in processed foods, exacerbates the effects of sodium in the diet. This means that the same amount of salt in your food is more dangerous if there is a lot of fructose around as well. All three of these points lead to the simple conclusion that too many processed foods and too few vegetables are the real causes of hypertension, not the little white shaker sitting on your kitchen table.
On that random day in July, my dad called to tell me that he watched this video, and something about it struck a chord. I remember his words so vividly I can still hear him saying them in my head.
“I watched that video you made about salt, and it was really great,” he began.
“Thanks, Dad,” I replied.
“Yeah, I was watching it, and you made me realize that salt is already inside the processed foods,” he explained.
“That’s right,” I answered, almost chuckling at his excitement about this simple revelation. My brain instantly cued the scene from the movie Zoolander in which Hansel realizes that files are kept in the computer and then throws the machine off a balcony, so he could open it up and find them.
“Well, since the salt is already in there, I stopped eating them,” he continued.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“I stopped eating the processed foods a couple weeks ago. But I needed something else to eat, and I remembered you always saying I’m supposed to eat vegetables, so I went to the store and bought all of them,” he went on.
“What? What did you buy?” I asked, starting to realize the meaning of his words. Maybe he did throw his processed foods off the balcony.
“I bought all the vegetables. They weren’t very well labeled, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting. But I think I got some kale and some chard. And I got some peppers, onions, mushrooms, and all sorts of other weird shit. I took it home and cut it all up—it took an hour there was so much of it—and I made three huge batches of stir-fry. It was beautiful, and so colorful, so I call it my Rainbow Stir-Fry. And it was delicious! I take it to work and eat it every day for breakfast and lunch. I also sauté some fish or turkey meat and eat that. After eating that all day, I’m not usually hungry for dinner.”
Laughing again, this time in disbelief, I asked, “So you’ve been eating nothing but vegetables, fish, and turkey for two weeks?”
“Yeah, and I love it! And I’ve had to poke two new holes in my belt. I think I’ll need to get new pants soon.”
To say this was hard to believe is beyond an understatement. Seemingly overnight, my dad, who had nearly given up on his own life, had completely overhauled his eating habits and loved everything about it. At the time I didn’t let myself dwell too long on what this could mean. It was still too new, and too unbelievable. But deep down I knew what was at stake if he was serious: it meant he might make it. It meant he might be around to meet his future grandkids, my future children.
As I hoped, my dad’s change was real and permanent. In just two months he was down twenty-five pounds. I know this because he was so impressed by his own transformation that he went and bought himself a scale to track his progress. It wasn’t out of vanity—the man doesn’t have a full-length mirror in his entire house—but out of curiosity. He wanted to have something tangible to look at and know that what he was doing was making a difference.
“In the beginning I didn’t know I was losing weight because I didn’t weigh myself, but I kept having to put new holes in my belt, and one day there were so many folds in my pants. I wore a size 36, so I tried a 34, and goddamn those were too big! I couldn’t believe I was a size 32—I was so proud of myself.”
Shortly after that he developed an uncontrollable urge to start exercising.
“It only took about two to three weeks of me eating like that every day to feel a complete difference in my body, in the way I felt. It all starts adding together, it has an effect on your whole life,” he explained. “The exercise came along when the weight started melting off. It was just dropping off me. And I felt like I wanted to stretch and move again. I didn’t want to feel weak anymore,” he said.
For over five years he had been using a cane to walk. His knee had been severely weakened from a staph infection, which required surgery that left a massive amount of scar tissue. But when he started losing weight, it was easier for him to move around, and he started using the cane less and less. He started taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work, spent more time walking with his dogs, and bought some used exercise equipment for his house—some dumbbells and an ab roller wheel. Over a year later he is down fifty pounds and doesn’t use a cane at all.
“Now I do a hundred ab rolls every day,” he told me. (If you’ve ever tried these you know how hard they are. I can only do about thirty, and then I’m sore for days). “I remember when I hit eighty the first time I couldn’t believe it. It’s really good because when things don’t go well at work one day, or I have problems with the dogs, I know I did my hundred rolls. I have at least that one thing I’m proud of. It’s a lifestyle that I find very delightful,” he gushed.
As his eating habits and body transformed, so did his outlook on life. “I thought, ‘Well shit, if I’m going to live and see my kids grow up, I don’t want to be in a wheelchair. I better be fit enough to do stuff on this planet,’ ” he explained.
When I asked him what he thought led to his change, he had a hard time putting his finger on it.
He said, “For me it took having the wake-up call of the health issue. Then somewhere in me I decided I really didn’t want to die. I don’t know exactly when it was, but it was definitely associated with you. I always felt better after speaking to you. It wasn’t for me or because of me, but your belief that things could be better.”
My dad’s healthstyle has evolved since he first started on his journey. Eventually he became tired of eating his Rainbow Stir-Fry day in and day out.
“At first,” he explained, “it was a bit like cooking dinner and making a piece of art you could eat. Then after about six months it started being too much of a hassle and started getting old. But that didn’t mean I went back to my old habits.”
He now shops and cooks more frequently, making smaller batches of vegetables and fish that he can whip up quickly in the morning before work. “I mix it up with different sauces, Chinese or Turkish, and I rotate and shop at different places for my vegetables. I found a little produce place by my house now that has better vegetables than my grocery store. I never get tired of this stuff.”
Though he knows his dishes and strategies will continue to change as he gets better at cooking and learns to use new vegetables, he isn’t worried about slipping back into his former habits.
“I’ve gone long enough now that I know in my heart that I’ll never go back to my old way of eating, because I don’t find any joy in it. I still go get sushi or Mexican food occasionally, but I don’t want to do it every day. I’m happy and comfortable with how I’m doing it now.”
My video on salt was clearly a catalyst for my dad’s turnaround, but it would have been impossible for it to have had the impact it did without the years of education and encouragement from me that came before it. Just as important is that he was able to make the adjustments at his own pace, without pressure from anyone to do it a certain way.
“I was able to read on Summer Tomato without interacting with you all the time, and see the reasons for doing all this stuff. Then I had the opportunity and knowledge, which I got because of you, and I stumbled my way through it until I got my own style. Once I made up my mind, I’m pretty hard to keep down. I went whole hog,” he explained.
I asked him if he had any advice for people in the same situation that I was in, wanting to help a loved one make healthier choices.
“As long as they can be patient and present things in a way that’s easy to understand. Let your family see how you eat, read a little, and get some inspiration. Everyone has to find their own path, what works for them,” he advised.
As for my dad, he’s just happy it clicked for him when it did.
“I’m feeling better now than I have in a really, really long time. I’m very confident about the future,” he said.
“So am I.” I smiled.
Beating Beet Aversions
If my dad can learn to like beets at the age of fifty-five, anyone can. This is the recipe that convinced him (and me a year earlier) that the humble beet can be as delicious and elegant as any exotic vegetable.
This is the perfect dish for the beet skeptic and beet lover alike, and it hardly requires any cooking skills. If you are still worried you will not like the flavor of beets, look for the milder and less messy golden or pink-and-white-striped cioggia beets. Whenever possible I like to use a few different colors to mix it up, but if all you have are the common red garden beets they work beautifully on their own.
To begin you must eliminate all thoughts of substituting canned beets for fresh. Fresh roasted beets have a rich, sweet, earthy flavor that is completely unlike that of the flaccid purple slivers that come in a can. You will also need fresh mint leaves. Most grocery stores carry them; ask if you can’t find them. Chèvre is a soft goat cheese that a close friend of mine describes as “like cream cheese only better.” A little bit goes a very long way, so I always buy the smallest amount possible (it usually costs around $3).
Be careful not to add the cheese directly to hot beets or it will melt and form an unattractive pink slime. It still tastes good, but it’s better to avoid this problem by cooling the beets beforehand. An hour in the refrigerator works well, but if you are in a hurry you can get away with ten to fifteen minutes in the freezer. This dish is very easy to scale for large batches, making it ideal for parties and potlucks.
Roasted Beets with Fresh Mint and Chèvre
Serves 2 to 3
1 bunch of beets (3 large), any variety
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
¼ ounce chèvre
Sea salt or kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 375?F. If the leaves are still on the beets, twist them off, leaving enough stem to use as a handle for peeling. (If the beet greens are still fresh and springy, I recommend cleaning them and cooking them up with some onions and garlic—sauté them like spinach. Beet greens are so full of potassium that they taste naturally salty, so be careful with your seasoning, because they are easy to oversalt.)
Peel the beets using a vegetable peeler and chop them evenly into ¾-to-1-inch cubes. Keep in mind that the larger the
pieces, the longer they will take to cook. Discard stems.
Add the olive oil to the beets and toss to coat. Sprinkle the beets with salt and place in a single layer in a large Pyrex baking pan. Place the pan in the oven on the middle rack and roast until the beets are tender and have a glazed-like appearance, stirring every 8 to 10 minutes. Roasting takes approximately 35 minutes.
When the beets are finished roasting, transfer them to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator. Chill for at least 30 minutes, but 45 to 60 minutes is preferable.
Five minutes before the beets are done chilling, stack the mint leaves on top of each other and chiffonade them by rolling them lengthwise like a cigarette and slicing them into thin ribbons. For very large leaves I like to cut the ribbons in half once by making a single cut through the middle of the pile along the vein of the leaves. Discard the stems.
Using a fork, crumble a small amount of the chèvre into a small bowl or plate and set it aside. When the beets are ready, sprinkle the mint onto the beets and stir, reserving a few ribbons for garnish. Adjust salt to taste. Transfer the minted beets to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the chèvre and remaining mint. Serve immediately.
Click here to learn more about Darya’s book Foodist.
Have you been able to help loved ones quit bad behaviors or adopt healthy ones? Please share your stories and recommendations in the comments!