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Mad Cowboy Interview 02: Dr. Pam Popper
(Part 01 of 02)


[Part 01] [Part 02]


MS: "How long have you been a vegetarian, near-vegan?"

PP: "I started moving in this direction about 10 years ago. I stopped eating beef, chicken and dairy products, eggs... all that kind of stuff, about 8 years ago."

MS: "Was there a particular event that prompted this change for you?

PP: "I was very lucky in that my terrible eating habits, and they were terrible until 10 years ago, had not resulted in either weight gain or a bad illness. Now I know now that had I continued doing what I was doing, I was on my way to having cancer or heart disease.

What basically happened was that I was motivated by articles I was reading that indicated my diet was 'deadly.' And I kind of knew that anyway. I knew I wasn't doing very well. I was really motivated because I had two kids, and I knew they were eating like I was eating, and that wasn't very good. So this started as kind of informal personal research. Let's clean up my own diet, fix my kid's diet.

I got so interested in this, once I saw the difference in me, my energy levels, my appearance, and everything changed. I just couldn't understand why everyone didn't know about this.

I can't say that I had some awful illness that prompted me to do all this... it became common sense to me that I should change my ways."[go to top]


CHILDREN & DIET

MS: "How have your children taken to your ideas?"

PP: "Well, it's been interesting. My oldest, who's twenty-five, really like the vegetarian food from the get-go. I put tofu in front of her, she'd eat it. Sunflower seeds on a salad, great. No problems from her.

The youngest one was far more resistant, she was much more of a garbage-eater than her sister. When Jenny, my oldest, left home, she went back to eating terrible foods. She gained a lot of weight. One day (you have to wait and be quiet) she came to me and she said "the best she ever felt in her life was when she was at home eating good vegetarian food, and I want to get back on track," which I helped her do. Now she's just become a vegan. In fact, she's getting married, and one of the wedding requests is for a vegan cake. She's really latched onto this now, and it's a very important part of her life.

Now my youngest one we're still working on. She's in college and having trouble adapting her lifestyle. I think the same thing will happen to her that happened to her sister. One day she'll kind of come to her senses and know she needs this. She has the foundation."

MS: "So, you're more of the type of person who encourages, rather than proselytise?"

PP: "Well, with my kids, when they lived in my house, they ate what's in front of them!"

MS: [laughs] "So there's no menu checklist?"

PP: "I talk to parents all the time about this, that when your kids complain or 'moan and groan' that they can't order in a pizza, you look at them and say "I'm sorry, but we don't do that here any more."

The other side of it that when dealing with it from a business perspective, or when I'm dealing with friends that have terrible habits, I have to wait for opportunities. I have to make sure that I don't wear out my welcome, or people won't want me around, because that's really counter-productive to trying to be useful."

MS: "Howard's notorious for saying that you have a 30-second window of opportunity in getting your message through to people."

PP: "The other thing that you can do, and I do this all the time, I practice what I call "Healthside Deception." I'll have friends over that are not on the same page with me on "health," and serve them a fruitcake I made with tofu. They scarf it down: "oh, it's delicious... you were always a great cook." Then you don't tell them until they're done that it has tofu in it. Their jaws drop.

I like to entice people into getting interested in healthy foods, because it really is tasty."[go to top]


ACADEMIC BACKGROUND

MS: "What's you academic background?"

PP: "I have Bachleor's, Master, and Phd in Nutrition, and a Phd in Naturopathy."

MS: "Did the degrees come from your dietary change, or did they influence your change?"

PP: "It was both. I went back to school. I didn't know I would end up in this profession.

Did you ever just sort of follow your gut? It was just the right thing to do. I was about three years into how to change my diet, I was feeling great, and just couldn't get enough information. I was buying six books week and reading them over the weekend. So I finally decided to well, you might as well go to school and get some real formal education, the anatomy, the physiology, the biology, and all the other stuff that goes along withit. I just stopped everything and went to school, not thinking about what I was going to do, but knowing that I wanted to know this information.

Once I got a couple of initials after my name, an interesting thing started happening, and that was people started asking me questions. They knew I was at school and they could see the change in me. It was dramatic. My skin color changed. I went from never leaving the house without makeup on, to I wear no makeup on my face. People were astounded."

MS: "I don't either, by the way." [laughs]

PP: "I'm glad to hear that. [laughs] So, I mean, people would look at me and go "omigosh, what happened to you?" Between getting some information and the changes in me, people were surprised. The more I learned, the more convicted I became about my own personal choices in terms of my habits, the more results I got, the more I wanted to pursue the education."[go to top]

DIETETICS VS. NUTRITION

MS: "Is a personal with a Phd in Nutrition considered more or less qualified than a Registered Dietician?"

PP: "Depends upon where you live. Depends on who you're talking to.

I think one of the problems that we have, in terms of education pertaining to nutrition, is that we don't stop to realize that "dietetics" is one form of the study of nutrition. A lot of people don't agree with it, and I'm one of them. So, there are all kinds of educational pathways that utlize different philosophies.

In some states, for example Michigan, dieticians practice "dietetics" and people like me practice nutrition with a totally different philosophy. They don't get too involved in it, and there doesn't seem to be as much of this kind of acrimony 'back and forth' about who's right and wrong.

Where I live in Ohio, we have some terrible laws here that enable this to go on. The practice of 'dietetics' is supposed to be the only true form of nutrition."

MS: "That's fascinating, as I've always thought that 'dietetics' and 'nutritionist' to be somewhat synonymous."

PP: "They should be. The problem with the practice and study of Dietetics, in my opinnion, is that it's based on very old information. They do not recognize a lot of the science we now have. The agency or organization that certifies dieticians and controls the curriculum and the schools that they attend is the American Dietetic Association, a very industry-friendly group. They take between $750 and $1000 million dollars a year from agricultural organizations and corporations that manufacture food and food additives, in return for the opinons about subjects. You can't take $50,000 a year from the sugar association and say bad things about sugar."[go to top]


THE WELLNESS FORUM/FOUNDATION

MS: "When/how/why the Wellness Forum?"

PP: "I'd love to be able to tell you that I got together with my closest advisors and hatched this amazing plan.

But that's not how it happened! As I mentioned, I started learning all this stuff in school, changed my habits, and my appearance and demeanor changed. I noticed one day, hey.... I was always hanging over the kitchen counter with someone telling them how to make something with meat substitutes, or teaching them how to bake without oil, or talking to them about how to relieve arthritis pain by getting rid of so many animal protein in their diet, etc. Maybe what I ought to do, since like everyone has the same bad habits and the changes they need to make are the same, so we need to have classes!

So I organized a little class. On Monday night everybody's going to come over, and I going to make it organized. I had some notes and everything. This goes on, and soon I'm teaching a group of people, and those people start bring their friends, and they start bringing their friends, and soon my house has been taken over by this. So I said, "Okay, I've need to get a center. I've got to get this out of the house."

I went a rented a center. And I'll tell you how much I didn't really think of this as a business in the beginning. I was there for three months, doing my thing, and one day I was driving home and I though, "y'know, you're paying rent... you're going to have to start charging people." It wasn't hard, it's just indicate of how I kind of backdoored my way into this thing."

MS: "So there was no business plan?"

PP: "I started charging people money. At that point in time, it was self-sufficient financially, and I thinking "boy, I've found out what I want to do when I grow up."

MS: "How long ago was this?"

PP: "This was in '97 when I opened the Center."

MS: "So you had your Phd then?"

PP: "I was in school then, still doing my school thing. So, I could do this in Columbus and be a happy girl for the rest of my life. A couple of my friends of mine in other cities, who knew what I was doing, and suggested that maybe they'd like to open one of these things, too. I remember having conversations with them saying "I don't know what I'm doing here, let alone teaching someone how to do it someplace else." But I felt like we were good enough friends, that we could try this, and if it worked out, fine. We opened a couple of centers. "Okay," I thought, "chain sounds good. Alright, now we'll have a chain."

MS: "Would you actually call it a chain or franchise?"

PP: "It's a license. We license people to use our materials. They go through a very specific and lengthly training program. It takes an average of about nine months (and can be done faster), and they can open a Wellness Forum Center, and offer our program and classes. We teach them how to market themselves and how to be profitable, because if you're not profitable, you can't stay in business.

So that's where the business came from, it just kind of grew."[go to top]


THE FOUNDATION & SCHOOLS


MS: "You have a licensing program and a Foundation... I'm not quite clear on the distinctions."

PP: "The Wellness Forum is a for-profit business. And that's where we teach this classes in Columbus, and we do programs and corporations, have licensees, and programs in other cities. We started the Foundation about four years ago, because I became convinced that one of the significant issues that we're facing in this country is our children and their eating habits, and the health problems that are associated with their eating habits. We have to get to those kids at an early age and turn around their thinking around about this. I think the way to to this is through the school.

So, we started the Foundation, because if we go in and we sell our services to the schools (the schools have no money for this), so we need to give our services to the school. So we got our programming qualified for "teacher's CE" (continuing education), so that teachers can come and learn this information and get continuing education units for doing it. And then we make grants to them, so that they have samples and starting kits... the things you that you need to get children interested in healthy eating.

It's self-perpetuating. Once we teach a teacher, they teach this year's class, and next year's class, and next year's class. So we can get to a lot of children this way.

MS: "That's extraordinary! School nutrition has become high on the national radar recently."

PP: "It's incredible what we're doing. And we send such a wrong message to these kids, in terms of what nutrition is all about, when they see the high-fat garbage in the cafeteria, and the soda machines in the hall.

I tell people all the time, you know, the biggest threat to our national security, is not Osama Bin Laden or the Iraqis, it's the fact we are rearing a generation of children that are so unhealthy."

MS: "I think it was Dr. Neal Barnard and PCRM that recently labelled current school lunches "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

PP: "He was here a few days ago. We had over 550 people in attendence for him! I think it's a very accurate description, though. I'm moving closer to them all the time. I don't care who I make angry when I say things like that any more. I think we need to make more people angry."[go to top]


THE WELLNESS DIET

MS: "Tell me about the diet you're teaching. I've read some of your materials and was really impressed."

PP: "Essentially the diet that we're teaching people to adopt in general, is plant-based. We don't suggest that everyone needs to be a vegetarian. But a 90% plant-based diet reduced down to about 10%.

To put that in perspective, we're talking about 21 major meals in a week, a couple of them involving animal foods. The rest of the time you're eating rice, beans, potatoes, and vegetarian foods. Paying attention to the quality of that animal food. Getting away from the stuff full of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones. Getting off the dairy. I think dairy is the worst thing you can put into your mouth every day. So we do stress that everybody eliminate that. Getting away from this dependence upon packaged food, and learning how to be a savvy label reader, and if you are going to eat packaged food, know what's inside."

MS: "I was stunned about your information about reading labels, shopping lists, goals... you even wrote about chlorinated water and cancer."

PP: "...and getting people hydrated. Getting them to drink enough water. Eating enough raw foods. I mean, most people live on dead food. It's been cooked to death. Even if they're eating the right food, they're eating it all cooked."

MS: "There are a lot of vegans and vegetarians who eat, in my opinion, eat too much processed food."

PP: "Oh yes, there's a lot of vegan cookies out there. But you can't live on the, well... you can, but you won't be healthy! It's very important that whatever adaptation of this program, whether they become vegetarian or vegan, is that they learn how to practice 'qualitative versus quantitative' nutrition, in other words, pay attention to what you're putting into your mouth. Stop practicing 'diet by exclusion,' which a lot of vegetarians do. I've given up meat, I still eat junk all day, but I've given up meat."

MS: "I've been reading material by Jameth Sheridan on the web recently, and he made the observation that a lot of vegans and vegetarians define their diets by what they don't eat, rather than what they eat."

PP: "Exactly. That's the way a lot of people define themselves and the way they chose food. I'm eating this because it's fat-free, I'm eating this because it's reduced salt... it doesn't have anything that will benefit me, but it doesn't have those things in it. That's what I mean by 'qualitative nutrition,' let's take a look at what you're putting in your mouth that doesn't have any nutritive value."

MS: "Do you advocate a particular percentage of raw foods?"

PP: "I think about 70% of the plant food you eat. So many people go "oh my god," but it's so easy to do. You do two things and you've got it licked. Your snacks become raw food, and your salads become the biggest part of the meal for lunch and dinner. If you do that, you're at 70% easily."

MS: "One of the things that intrigued me about your program, is that you cover all aspects of lifestyle in your materials."

PP: "And we're doing it in a very user-friendly way. Somebody was asked, in a newspaper article about us, why do you think the Wellness Forum has become so successful? Her answer was great. She said, "because they know how to meet the public where they are, and help them start moving in the direction of better health." And that's very important. This all has to be very user-friendly. People have to come to class and say: "I can do that."

MS: "The program materials are upbeat, great illustration, very optimistic presentation of information without lectures.. I was impressed... Who are you trying to reach? I mean, obviously children, but who else?"

PP: "Here's the message I want to get out to everybody. It is YOUR responsibility to take care of yourself. Not the insurance company's responsibility, the medical doctor's responsibility, federal government... it's your's. That message needs to go everybody for two reasons: economics is one. We can't afford to keep doing what we're doing.

The other thing is: quality of life. We had a dinner at our Center last night, with 27 or 28 people and almost all of them had serious health issues that compromised the quality of their life. We want to get to everybody, and what I particularly love is when we can get somebody who isn't sick yet, and keep them from becoming sick because we change their lifestyle first.

Everybody needs to hear this message. We're at a point in time where, for health and financial reasons, everybody needs to do something about it."[go to top]


WELLNESS IN CHINA

MS: "The Wellness Forum in China, now there's a concept...how'd it happen? (Dr. T. Colin Campbell not withstanding!)"

PP: "How that happened was interesting. The first person to open a Wellness Forum outside of Columbus, was a Chinese-American friend of mine. When she opened her Center, she went home to visit her family, and they were so excited about what she was doing (and of course, in the major cities in Asia, health is starting in decline because people are adopting these terrible Western habits of ours), and so it was suggested to her that she maybe she should think about opening one in Bejiing.

I was pretty astounded about that, I mean, I didn't know what I was doing in Columbus and now I'm going to Bejiing.

MS: "So you hadn't heard of the "China Study" before that point?"

PP: "By that time I'd read the 'China Study.' She facilitated that, and the Chinese, in addition to dealing with health issues where we could be very helpful, are very interested in education, so that's been a successful venture for us.

The question I've been asked a lot is "do we intend to go into lots of other countries?" Yes, we do, but we have to be careful that we don't spread ourselves too thin. Anyplace there are people who are sick and overweight, is someplace we'll eventually visit."[go to top]


DR. POPPER VS OHIO BOARD OF DIETETICS

MS: "I'm looking a document that's called the "Testimony of Pamela A. Popper, to the Ohio State Commerce and Labor Committee" entitled, "The Ohio Board of Dietetics HAS Used Heavy-Handed Tactics In its Investigations." HOW did you get involved in this one?"

PP: "Well, this is a long story. The short version is that essentially when I started teaching people how to eat healthier in Columbus, Ohio, it never ocurred to me that it might be against the law. So I'm happily doing my thing, and one day I got a call from an investigator from the Board [Ohio Board of Dietetics] who wanted to know what we are up to. I got checked out a little bit, and left alone. I didn't think much of it at the time.

About a year later, the State Investigator called again. She came out to see me and informed me that, unless you are a registered and licensed dietician, in the State of Ohio, you can't talk about food. Some of the things she said to me almost had me laughing out loud. One of them was that if I showed the movie "Diet for a New America" [John Robbins], that could be construed as the practice of Dietetics because somebody might change their lifestyle habits as a result of seeing that movie."

MS: [laughs] "...and you're still showing that movie, aren't you?"

PP: "Oh, we still are. We're terrible lawbreakers. So I'll try to summarize what happened.

I'm a person who, number one, understands my rights, and number two, I have a big mouth. So I was told that I wasn't allowed to do these things any more, teach workshops and these sort of things. So I said, "well, I'm going to continue to do it, and we're going to have to agree to disagree." And this started a battle that went a long time and cost a fortune to keep us in business.

As a result of this, at one time, they were going to put me in jail for failing to comply with a supeona.

My parents were great. They were going to take over the company, and make sure that my kids stayed in school. We were preparing."

MS: "Mom's a jailbird..."

PP: "The only thing we were worried about was how I was going to get fed behind bars... I don't eat jail food. Balony sandwhiches are not on my diet.
The good thing that came out of it, and there's always something good that comes out everything, is that some state legislators saw what happened and were appalled by it and they introduced legislation....."

MS: "... basically you were harassed... I mean the testimony is such a clear record of harassment...."

PP: "...but here's what really interesting. I wasn't the only one. Once these legislators started working on getting this whole situation changed here. We found out that the Ohio Board of Dietetics had taken action against more people than all other states combined."

MS: "An average of 142 per year from 1996 to 2001, with Florida being second at 19 per year."

PP: "So they went after 795 people in one six-year period of time with 287 disciplinary actions, one of which was the sent me a "cease and desist" order that I couldn't put "Phd" after my name even though I have two of them. You want to know what I found out yesterday? The Ohio Board of Dietetics does not have the statutory authority to issue a 'cease and desist' order."

MS: "But they did?"

PP: "But they did..."

MS: "Are you counter-sueing? You spent some $50k in defending your rights?"

PP: "We're going to win this battle by getting the law changed."

MS: "That's your primary motivation. To change the law to do what?"

PP: "So that people in the State of Ohio have access to more than one philosophy about Nutrition. As I mentioned during this interview, the problem with dietitians, in my opinion, is that they have one philosophy that many people don't agree with, this is one philosophy of Nutrition.

The American Dietetic Association, which supervises and has some say in the certification of dieticians, takes enormous amounts of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, from industry and agricultural organnizations, so that many of their opinions are essentially paid for by industry.

Now I don't resent the fact that they have a trade group, and fund themselves this way, but what I do resent, and what I do think is inappropriate, is that they have a monopoly on the dispensing of nutrition advice in Ohio. It's a disservice. Forget about the issues that affect me, it's a terrible disservice to the close to 12 million people who live in this State."

MS: "What if some of your licensed people in other States had some problems. Would you step in to help?"

PP: "We're the worst in the country. The closest we every came to having this issue in another state, was the Texas Legislature passed a law back when George W. was governor, that would have essentially made the law in Texas like it is in Ohio, and we were involved in a massive campaign to educate the then Gov. Bush, and he vetoed it.

This doesn't go on anyplace else, this amount of harassement. I should say it doesn't go on anymore in Ohio. I've been going to their meetings and I've heard them say that their investigory activity has been reduced 75%."

MS: "Oh, I'm sure they love to see you in those meetings."

PP: "Yes, and I bring friends."

MS: "Maybe you should bring some vegan cookies."

PP: "Well, they could use them. I do bring things because what they bring are diet sodas and chocolate kisses!"

MS: "One of things that struck me is the similiarity to what the AMA did to Gerson back in the '30s, where his research was basically locked up and he was kicked out of the country because he dare suggest that diet has an influence on lung cancer."

PP: "God forbid."
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