Mad Cowboy Interview 04: Dr. Suzanna Havala Hobbs
(Part 02 of 02)

MS:  "Back to your new book... your tenth one!  Why?"

SH:  "I like the print media, because for a single effort, you can reach so many people.  For years, I did "one on one" nutritional counseling, and for the same energy, to reach so many people... it just feels more efficient to me.  And I also like putting the words down on paper because you can work the words, and craft them in such a way that you say exactly what you mean to say before you put it out there.  I like that level of control."

MS:  "You new book is quite extensive and intrigued me.  It seems you constructed it deliberately to allow for different ways of using the information."

SH:  "Right... because so many people don't like to read a book cover to cover.  There's a little bit of information at the beginning for people who want the background, but the bulk of the book focuses on the "how to" piece of the challenge.  From my experience that's what people are the most interested in and need the most help with."

MS:  "One of the things that surprised me in your book was that even though I've been cooking vegetarian/vegan and researching diet issues for a couple of decades, you have an impressive number of  "tips'n'tricks" therein for shopping, cooking, and eating, and I was surprised at how many of them I hadn't thought of before.  You break it all out really efficiently, starting with breakfast and taking people through the main meals, and even to restaurants.  A great approach, and not only just for getting the trans fat out of your diet, but it's really a guide and a primer to eating healthier all the way around."

SH:  "...and that was my intention as well, because I think so often, people get fixated on one aspect of diet and they lose sight of the bigger picture, so I always try to put information in perspective and in the context of the total diet.  I also think that it makes people see that it's easier to pull this off if they see that all this advice is interrelated, and that the net result is that you can eat one way and address all of the various recommendations that people are hit with all the time.  Get more fiber, eat less saturated fat, avoid trans fat, moderate your protein intake, lower your sodium intake --- ALL of that advice can be achieved by eating the same way."

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MS:  "The book is very integrated and holistic.  I also like the way you start out by throwing out everything in the kitchen that you haven't used, don't need, and has been in there for decades.  I mean, you start right from the ground, basically, and build a whole new edifice for people in terms of how they should look at their diet and lifestyle."

SH:  "That's what works for me.  That's why I approach it this way.  I feel that just getting organized is a really important first step."

MS:  "You also do a marvelous job of providing resource,  websites, detailed tables of nutritional information, recipes... it is truly comprehensive, and that surprised me.  I expected more on trans fats in one sense, but once you establish that trans fats are not good, then, then the bulk of the book is about how to eat right."

SH:  "Thanks... appreciate you noticed that.  Again, I think that it's so important that dietary advice be put into perspective, otherwise, you leave people feeling like they have to remember a hundred different things, and you leave the impression that there's nothing left to eat, when in fact, I'm hoping it's liberating to people to realize that they can eat one way, and if they eat this one way and focus on some over-arching rules, then all of these details fall into place."

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 "But you also seem to believe in an incremental approach, calling for a gradual transition rather than going "cold turkey" so-to-speak."

SH:  "From my own experience, and let's face it, I spent years doing individual counseling, and from what I've seen of what works for most people, is a gradual approach is the most effective approach for most people.  There are certainly people who do well by just changing their diet over night, and more power to them, but most people, I think, master skills over time... and if they do it gradually (the key is that they have to keep moving and not get stuck in a rut), they have to keep moving forward, if they can master skills as they go and build on previous skills, then they're more likely to be able to maintain lifestyle changes."

MS:  "It's a very friendly approach, you are not lecturing, being dogmatic... you're allowing for those people that are still ovo-lacto... again, it's mainstream --- you do an excellent job of setting it up so that one can a little more in either direction and not feel bad."

SH:  "Well, I feel that diet is a very personal thing.  What motivates one person to change and what prevents another person from changing, I don't know.  You and I can't motivate individual people.  All we can do is support and encourage, so I feel like that's my role... it's to support and encourage positive changes.  But ultimately, everybody has to figure out what's right for them, and what rate of change is right for them.  It's a very personal decision."

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MS:  "In your book, you reminded me of Howard in two aspects.  Howard advocates educating one's self.  Fundamentally, you can't force people to learn anything, you can help them educate themselves, and your book just does this in so many ways, and I was just delighted to see this.  The other thing that reminded me of Howard was Jack LaLanne. There's two wonderful quotes in your book from LaLanne.  One was how Jack LaLanne would go to a restaurant and order, what, a salad made of at least 10 raw vegetables chopped up fine with oil and vinegar, and always more than he could eat..."

SH:  "Right."

MS:  "I remember the first time I saw Howard speak in front of a group of people he was telling a the story of how he once took a bunch of friends to a nearby pizza restaurant after a lecture, and order extra-large pizzas for the group with no cheese, but with all the vegetables they had and salsa.  Well, they didn't have salsa, and Howard gave the waiter money and told him where he could buy some down the street.  Later, they actually created a pizza there called the "Howard Lyman" or something like that, that of course, has salsa on it.  Reminds me of Jack LaLanne as mentioned in your book."

SH: (laughing)

MS:  "The other quote in your book that I liked, was "find out what's good for you, then create a liking for it."  Just a wonderful way of phrasing an approach... it's kind of off-topic, but can you talk a bit about your meeting Jack LaLanne?"

SH:  "Oh my god, he's so energetic and so positive.  I think he must be 91 now, maybe even 92.  I interviewed him when he turned 89.  More than anything, though, the impression he left me with is that he is so highly disciplined.  Disciplined and energetic. You know, I thought about the discipline, the statements he made about deciding what's healthy for you and developing a liking for it... that's in some ways a kind of a harsh, disciplinarian approach, but it resonated with me, because in my life I've done pretty much the same thing.  I found that rather than deluding myself into liking things that were good for me, no... in fact, I found that I really did like those foods, that you really can develop a preference for the taste of whole wheat pasta.  Or a preference for the taste of fresh vegetables that are not masked by the flavor of salt.  You just have to give yourself some time and focus --- think about what you're eating --- focus on the flavors --- and you're not convincing yourself it tastes good, you really think it tastes good.  But he was right. It's a very disciplined approach, but what I have found is that what he said is very true in my own life."

MS:  "I found out the same thing when giving up cheese.  I don't miss gooey cheese, but it did take me a little while to adapt.  Now I look for something different, there's a subtlety to the taste and texture I now appreciate.  It's... it's a whole different way of looking at what I'm eating, rather than just the "slam" of the gooey fat.  It's hard to explain that to people that you really can get along fine, and in fact, expand your horizons by learning to adapt."

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SH:  "Right.  Very recently, I've had a spate of people asking me if I miss meat, you know, that sort of incredulous "don't you miss meat?"  I haven't had people ask me that question in years, and they've asked it again recently.  I guess it must be one of those things you have to experience to really understand, but I don't even dream about eating meat.  I have absolutely not one iota of interest in eating meat.  I don't know how I would fit it into my diet; because there are so many other things that I'd rather eat.  I can't eat an unlimited number of calories and I have to pick and choose.  Meat would surely not be not one of the things I'd add to my diet, if I wanted to.  I just wouldn't do it, because I like the other foods so much.  My diet has so much variety in it, so much more variety than the meat-eaters I know,  it just doesn't even cross my mind.  I certainly don't feel deprived the way many people imagine vegetarians must feel.

MS:  "I felt the same way recently.  I went to a Thanksgiving Buffet with my family, which is very unusual in itself.  It was very interesting to notice how bland the colors were on everyone else's plate, I mean, yeah, they had the cranberry sauce, but my plate was so colorful because of what I chose to eat versus the beiges and the grays and the browns of what they were eating.  It was very apparent to me the whole cornucopia available to you if you're not taking up half the plate with a chunk of meat."

SH:  "Well, no wonder that when vegetarians go to a potluck, or you're in a social situation where you order the vegetarian meal, and yours looks so much better than anyone else's."

MS:  "Even twenty years ago, on plane flights, I used to get those "how did you order that?" comments from other passengers."

SH:  (laughing)..."I went to Australia by myself several years ago, and it was a "dive trip."  I was out on the Barrier Reef for four or five days, and I said that I was a vegetarian.  We're on this small boat out on the reef for days at a stretch, and all they've got is a limited amount of food, this wasn't like I was at a restaurant.  So the chef would make these meals each day, and I would invariably be in the back of the line, and by the time I'd get up to front of the line, the vegetarian food that had been put out would be gone.  After the first couple of times that this happened, I finally spoke up and said something, and from then on, they had me going through the line first before everyone else did.  But that's just an example of what always happens.  So it's intriguing to me, that when given the choice, people really do find the vegetarian options to be appealing."

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MS:  "Ten books... 200 grad students... how do handle balance... how do you relax?"

SH:  (laughs) "I'm not very good at balance.  Year after year after year, that is my New Year's Resolution.  I think I must have some kind of compulsive need to work."

MS:  "It's your dedication.  How does your husband handle it?"

SH:  "He's a "Type B" laid-back Southern guy.  We're a good balance for each other."

MS:  "Is he also a vegetarian?"

SH:  "Yes."

MS:  "Was he a vegetarian when you met him?"

SH:  "No no no.... he's from North Carolina, and he was big into biscuits and barbecue.  I had an influence, but I definitely put no pressure on him.  We were dating when he went vegetarian."

MS:  "Do you have any favorite food indulgences?"

SH:  "Like vices?"

MS:  "Sure."

SH:  "Coffee!  Coffee is one vice.  I've tried to decaffeinate a few times unsuccessfully, and frankly, I'm not worried about it.  I figure coffee is a plant extract and can't be all bad.  I love the aroma, I love the flavor.  Just like the commercial used to say, coffee is the calm moment in the day.  It's one of my crutches."

MS:  "What do you like for breakfast?"

SH:  "I like dry cereal for breakfast.  I like a big bowl of some kind of whole-grain dry cereal with soy milk.  I've got these big pottery chili bowls, with handles, and so it's probably equivalent to three or four ordinary bowls of cereal, so I eat a gigantic bowl of cereal in the morning with at least two cups of soy milk.  It's either that, or a couple of pieces of whole wheat toast with trans fat-free margarine spread and jelly."

MS:  "Tofu, tempeh, or seitan?"

SH:  "I love seitan."

MS:  "I do, too."

SH:  "It's like candy to me.  We have a local Chinese restaurant in Carrboro, it's called "Jade Palace," and they make the most awesome sesame tofu.  It's cubes of tofu with a delicious sauce, and that's another one of my vices.  They serve it with steamed broccoli and steamed rice, and it's just delicious.  Like candy.  It reminds me of seitan, it has the same texture."

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 "Who are some of the people that have inspired you most in your work?"

SH:  "Oh, I hate it when people ask me that question, because I'm always so afraid I'm going to leave out someone important."

MS:  "Well, your mother, obviously..."

SH:  "Yeah, my mother was a very early influence... my mother and my father."

MS:  "How about in academia?"

SH:  "There again, there've been numerous people who've been mentors to me.  Some in vegetarian circles, others not.  I think I'd rather not name people as I don't want to leave anyone out."

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MS:  "Okay, that's fine... can we talk about books that have influenced you?"

SH:  "Sure... let me think here.  Y'know, these are the questions that three hours later you start remembering:  "I should have said..."

MS:  (laughing): "...it's what you're thinking now..."

SH:  "Okay... thanks... that takes the pressure off!  Some of the books that were early influences for me included:  "Diet for a Small Planet" and "Laurel's Kitchen."  "Moosewood Cookbook," and "Faith, Love, and Seaweed," was the very first...  I mentioned that earlier.  It's funny... I have very minimal memories of the book, actually.  I can remember the cover looked like, and I can remember how much it affected me...  motivated me...  I don't remember all that much about the content of the book.  The early, 1970s vegetarian cookbooks actually inspired me.  They were homey, friendly, and the foods all seemed like comfort foods.  They were... a lot of those recipes were really high in saturated fat.  There was no shortage of sour cream, and eggs, and milk, and butter, and cheese in those recipes."

MS:  "Well, some of the authors have cut back in the dairy in their recipes.  I think Nava Atlas and Mollie Katzen both use less high saturated fat ingredients in subsequent versions or books."

SH:  "Some of the Adventist cookbooks, too, I had very on early in my life."

MS:  "They were very simple and straightforward, too, but they were very very good."

SH:  "Very unpretentious, uncomplicated sort of home cooking.  All of those books were very very friendly to me.  There were some Adventists cookbooks, I'm not an Adventist, that I somehow came across in the 70s that were really homey with that attitude.  I can't remember the titles of all of them, but I still have them on my bookshelf, with yellow and dog-eared pages.  I have fond memories of those books.  It was often cookbooks that influenced me earlier on."

MS:  "It's amazing the range from simplicity to the complex, but incredible recipes in some of the newer vegetarian or vegan cookbooks... the Pickarski's, or Tucker at Millennium..."

SH:  "I juxtapose that sort of interest in food with the Helen Nearings of the world.  I remember Helen Nearing, in one of her books, stated that she doesn't aspire to being a great cook, in fact she's not all that much that interested in recipes either, she just wants to use simple ingredients to make flavorful foods and she doesn't want to spend all day cooking.  Her very practical, no nonsense approach is also very appealing to me.  I appreciate gourmet cooking... I love nothing more than to go out to a wonderful restaurant and have a beautiful meal, because I can appreciate the aesthetics of fine cuisine.  But it's not how most people live."

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 "If you could have some dinner guests from history, who would you have?"

SH:  "One guy that I always had a crush on was Frank Lloyd Wright.  There was an interview with Mike Wallace that I've seen that gave me more insights into his opinions about things even beyond architecture, and oh... was he ever appealing!  So Frank Lloyd Wright would be high on the list, as would Benjamin Franklin."

MS:  "If you were the Food Czar of the United States, and had complete authority over all aspects of diet, nutrition, the food supply, what we eat, how we eat, and so on... what would you do, Madam?"

SH:  (laughing)..."I've got a lot of energy and I've all kinds of ideas on the things that I'd do.  First of all, I would be very political.  I would be very careful to engage all of the people that ought to be involved, that would have a stake in the changes.  But if I could just unilaterally make some decisions, with the assumption being that everyone would go along with the changes, then I would push really hard to create a "culture of wellness" in this country.  And in particular, with focus on diet and fitness.  It would be a multi-pronged approach, and it would have to address social and economic and behavioral determinants of health.

So, for instance, and this is in no particular order,  but here are some of the things come to mind, I would increase people's access to accurate nutritional information, so that they could make educated decisions for themselves about how to live their lives, what to eat, for example.  I would be in favor of some of the proposals that are on the table right now, including the labeling of nutritional content of restaurant foods at the point of purchase.  In public cafeterias and school lunchrooms, I would make nutritional information easy to access and very clearly stated.  I would make changes to the nutrition fact labels on food packages, so that only the most relevant was there, and it was very clearly stated so that people understood what it meant.  I would pay particular attention to reducing the barriers to change that make it so difficult for people to put into practice recommendations for good health.

For example, some of this pertains to reducing poverty, in reducing the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots."  I would increase people's access to safe parks and to recreational facilities.  I would make sure that people in all neighborhoods had access to fresh seasonal locally grown produce, and to meal programs.  I would have universal free meals for kids in schools, and I would put greater restrictions on advertising that targets children with junk food, and I would integrate nutrition education into the public school curricula, from the very earliest age, from kindergarten on up.  I think nutrition and health, just like personal finance should be integrated into the curriculum.  We should be giving kids practical life skills

I would put universal health care into place, let's go for it, it's about time.  We spend more on health services than any other developed country in the world, with the worst health outcomes.  So I think we need to put universal health care into place right now.  I would take a hard look at other food and nutrition policies on the Federal level. I would remove some of the subsidies that are now in place for animal agriculture.  I also think that the USDA needs to be removed from the process of producing dietary guidelines for Americans.  Right now, the dietary guidelines is a giant effort between HHS [Health and Human Services] and the USDA.  They are ineffective and need to removed from that process.  In fact, I think that we need to create one National Health Office, or we should have one unified national health policy.  Right now, our system is too fragmented.  And that's just for starters."

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MS:  "What would you consider to be the biggest threats to proper diet and nutrition in this country right now?"

SH:  "Economic disparity.  I think the convergence of industry and government, and poverty... economic disparity."

MS:  "When reading your new book, I was struck by a similarity to trans fat in our food products, and high fructose syrpu (HFCS) in our food products.  It's unbelievable how many products in the average grocery store have HFCS in them, and for the same original reasons as trans fat:  it's cheap."

SH:  "One thing I wonder about, is that it's so sweet, and I've heard some comments around the theory that HFCS is so sweet that its predisposing us to want foods that are even sweeter than they used to be.  It's surely contributing to the obesity epidemic, and HFCS is typically added to junkie foods anyway... foods that have low nutritional value.  I think you were right, you may have said this earlier off-line, that HFCS will be the next trans fat in terms of policy movement."

MS:  "You've done some fantastic work, Suzanne, your dedication is amazing, and all the books you've written...  "Vegetarianism for Dummies," just love the title.  It had to be fun to write that."

SH:  "Oh, it was so much fun.  It was a lot of fun.  I did the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegetarianism" before that."

MS:  (laughing)..."Now c'mon... were those two books really that different?"

SH:  (laughing)..."Well... I really wanted to call them "Vegetarianism for Smarties!"

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