DEPARTMENT OF WELLNESS: The Patron of Plants

patron_of_plants

In East Hampton, a recovering dieter helps others eat right.

In the late ’90s, Doug Mercer abruptly learned of the downside of one of the country’s most popular diets. “I’d been on the Atkins diet two or three years, when my urologist phoned and said, ‘Doug, you have an Atkins stone!” using Columbia Presbyterian’s pet name for the decidedly unfriendly kidney stone.

“It was a bit scary that eating what one would assume were healthy foods could have such a direct negative effect on your body,” says the retired international shipping company CEO and dedicated jogger. Clearly some foods perceived as healthy weren’t.  And a country on yo-yo diets reflected mass bewilderment about nutrition. “People were confused about what to eat,” Mercer says.  So a few years later in 2005 Mercer laid his retirement money on the line to fund “a vision of making a role model of (informed) wellness here in East Hampton.” He drew East Enders together in “wellness circles,” offered support, scientific information and education, brought in nationally recognized speakers.

Thousands of pounds have been shed, but the point behind Mercer’s nonprofit Wellness Foundation is not simply dramatic weight losses or plummeting cholesterol scores. “It’s the quality of everyday life. Lifestyle changes can have unbelievable effect,” he says.

Recently the foundation launched its third Engine 2 Challenge, 28 days on a vegan diet, inspired by Rip Esselstyn, a professional triathlete turned fireman who designed a plant-based diet for his beefy Team C colleagues at Austin Fire Station 2. Hints of Engine 2′s future as a best seller came three years before the book’s publication last year, when the New York Times ran a story on Austin restaurants listing “Engine 2″ dishes on their menus. Rip, son of a cardiologist and grandson and great-grandson of the founders of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, factored his father’s extensive research in reversing heart disease into the diet.

One soft-voiced, light-brown-haired participant in last fall’s challenge is overjoyed, her face glowing as she talks of doing Pilates last weekend and walking 35 miles on a two-day Long Island breast cancer walk on June 5. “A year ago, some nights I slept downstairs, because I couldn’t climb the stairs to bed because of arthritis pain,” she says. She lost 13 pounds during the challenge, a total of 40 over two years. The 150 men and women participating in the three challenges, from a bubbling 23-year-old newspaper reporter to an octogenarian, learned of bottom-line payoffs in vitality and well-being from a plant-focused, nutrient-dense diet.

Mercer launched his dream drawing on national experts. His first speaker in the fall of 2005 was Dr. Joel Furhman, author of several best sellers on nutrition. Furhman has since developed a food nutrient-density scale and recently became national advisor to the 289-unit Whole Foods Market chain. Says Whole Food’s Web site, “Joel Fuhrman, MD, has discovered through years of research on thousands of patients that a body rich in micronutrients will quickly seek its ideal weight and stay there, while reversing most diet-related chronic conditions.”

Other high-powered speakers followed: Cardiologist Dr.  Caldwell B. Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic, author of Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease, T. Colin Campbell, author of the widely acclaimed The China Study, and Chris Crowley, who wrote the best-selling Younger Next Year. These four serve on Mercer’s foundation’s advisory council along with children’s nutritionist Antonia Demas, founder of the Food Studies Institute, Trumansburg, NY, and Rip Esseltyn, author of The Engine 2 Diet and Caldwell’s son. “The approach in Rip’s book really encompasses all of the input from his dad and Campbell and Furhman, but it’s in a really laymanlike style,” says Mercer.

Mercer dipped into his own pocket to insure these authors wide readership, buying their books at $15 each wholesale, reselling 2,000 of them below cost at $10.

It was probably inevitable that one day-it turned out to be last February 25-I wind up in one of Mercer’s challenges. Off and on I’d already attended his circles that had drawn some 300 people-from health-minded twentysomethings to parents of young children to seniors, as many men as women-in the past in East Hampton, Montauk and Sag Harbor. Now as we sat in a casual circle I told my fellow challengers “On Day 29 I’m off this vegan experiment.” They nodded similar intentions.

That this didn’t happen has less to do with my weight dropping 10 pounds and my cholesterol falling 38 points, than the effect of what I called “the damned green smoothie.” I’d recoiled at the flavor and texture of the version demonstrated at our challenge meeting-fruit, including blueberries, and spinach and kale puréed in a blender with almond milk. Several mornings later, with some beautiful mangos and organic kale on my counter, I relented, tried it. It was neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

Several hours later, I was rolling along the Sunrise Highway at 70 mph, when suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch, I was suffused with a sense of well-being and energy that lasted several hours.

“What explains what happened to me?” I asked Joel Furhman later.

“When most people eat a salad they don’t chew it well enough to absorb most of the nutrients and the majority of nutrients are lost. You eat a blended salad and you’re getting over 90 percent of the nutrients in the green leaves into your bloodstream,” the physician explained.

“And this was the impact of absorbing more nutrients than I’m used to?” I said.

“Yes. Natural foods contain these phyto-nutrients, thousands of beneficial nutrients for our immune system that make us live longer and protect against cancer.”

Of course, I drink my green smoothie every morning now though I’ve never experienced that extreme energy rush again.  I love it. Five friends-including the baker at the Amagansett Farmers Market-have asked for and follow my recipe, and I’m vegan for half my meals.

“To affect, to save, one person’s life is a tremendous victory, but to have an effect on thousands of people, as Doug has done, that’s just phenomenal. It’s a model that could spread to other parts of the country,” says Furhman.

In our wrap-up challenge meeting, one by one we told what the 28-days had brought us. Pounds dropped. Cholesterol skidded.  We’d gotten hooked on some exceptional and satisfying recipes and were seldom hungry. Diabetes medication was ditched, aching joints calmed, migraines lessened, cancer markers fell. Almost everyone spoke of increased energy, over and over that “this has changed my life forever.”

One diner at a recent monthly Wellness Foundation potluck at East Hampton Middle School, digging into a freshly frozen peach sorbet, enthused, “I’ve lost 20 pounds and 100 points in cholesterol,” she smiled as much to herself as to the table, “I’ve gone from chubby to I love my body.”

Montauker Gloria Rousell, a nurse for a Southampton plastic surgeon, found the group support so powerful, she is currently taking the Engine 2 Challenge for the second time in a row. She ticks off other points made by many challengees: plant-strong eating as a way of life, increased energy, mental clarity, improved sleep. “Mercer has a wealth of knowledge. We’ve learned how we’ve been duped and lied to by the food industry on what is healthy,” she says.

Parents swimming upstream against food-industry marketing find Wellness resources and the talking and sharing with others invaluable. “Out there in the world of children, everyone thinks you’re crazy if you don’t give your children cupcakes,” says Michelle Musnicki, East Hampton mother of three who participated in Mercer’s earliest Wellness Circles. She turned to Mercer because her son was on a gluten/dairy-free diet. This was when she realized that children naturally can love vegetables. “He ate tons of vegetables.  He ate everything because he was hungry.” Ever since, the Musnicki kitchen has revolved around vegetables. “I never could have done it without Doug Mercer. I would have caved,” she says.

Some stories are becoming legends. Meg turned to Mercer’s Montauk Wellness Circle five years ago when her nephrologist told her she faced dialysis within months unless she went on a vegetarian diet because her kidney could not process animal protein.  Her kidney function numbers plummeted and have stayed down.  “Doug is wonderful and generous. It’s amazing that one person can be so thoughtful of other people,” she says.

One executive, call her Jill, was forced to retire after losing her sight in one eye, and partial sight in the other, and was dealing with the removal of precancerous skin growths every six months at Sloan Kettering. Coinciding with the diet, her sight returned, and growths disappeared a year ago. Her doctors note only on her chart that the patient “believes that her diet of greens was responsible for the change,” though one has mused on the possibility of writing a paper about it.

For Mercer, the Foundation’s great challenge lies in educating children before their health is undermined by industrial food.  Since 2005, 1,000 sixth-graders have been exposed to Wellness teaching, 300 since the program became “Food for Life.” On a recent spring day at the East Hampton Middle School, sixthgraders began to grow angry when they heard Wellness Program director Jennifer Taylor disclose food industry marketing tricks: Aspartame, the sweetening ingredient used in most diet beverages and under fire as a possible neurotoxin was being rebranded by Ajinomoto, a Japanese manufacturer, as “Amino” Sweet. “People know amino acids are good, and now they’ll will think aspartame is, too!” one boy exploded. “That’s cheating!” announced a girl.

The lessons are expanding upward to parents. A half-dozen families reported the whole family has stopped drinking soda, responding to pressure from their sixth graders. Parents are invited to sit in on the Food for Life classes with their children. One mother revealed at a Challenge 2 session that she had signed up because her daughter in the middle-school class demanded she do so. One single father, an East Hampton policeman, sitting next to his daughter at the Food for Life class told how his daughter totally refused to join him in an order of Chicken McNuggets the night before. When Jennifer demonstrated how to make frozen banana pops coated with chocolate mousse (aka mashed avocados, dates and cocoa) a steady stream of children from other classes marched in for a taste of the leftovers.

Mercer hopes to extend Food for Life to East Hampton thirdgrade classes. Ongoing cycles of the Engine 2 Challenge are scheduled for next fall, winter and spring, and an ongoing support program for all Wellness participants is planned. In a business first, this spring the Amaden Gay Insurance Company underwrote the cost of putting 13 employees on the challenge. The foundation is planning a series of summer cooking workshops and talks, and a July potluck on Main Beach. For reservations to the potluck or programs phone: 631.329.2590.

Mercer has pushed plant-focused wellness into all sorts of unlikely kitchens. Upon request, Sag Harbor’s Vincenzo’s Pizza and East Hamptons Fierro’s now fulfill requests for whole-wheat, no-cheese pies, and Gurney’s is offering special vegan menus. When Restaurant Week fell during my 28 days, Bill Mammes, chef of Rugosa, prepared me an amazing vegetable plate with lavender jus and basil sorbet.

In East Hampton, the year-old “Eat Healthy Your Way” program of Laura Stein, author of the best-selling Bloomingdale’s Diet Cookbook, has drawn 100 participants. In Montauk, Mercer graduates are meeting for weekly sessions with nutritionist Karen Panish for advance nutrition information. Ken Walles, owner of the Oceanside Motel who put his prostate cancer into remission six years ago by following a macrobiotic diet, is holding three potlucks monthly for Mercer graduates. On a fourth Sunday, Walles and fellow graduate Phyllis Lomitola of Gurney’s are holding a free program at Gurney’s of talks by macrobiotics cancer survivors and cutting-edge films for people dealing with cancer-an evening of information, networking and a $10 vegan meal prepared by resort chefs.

Word of Mercer’s work is spreading. Recently a Southerner phoned to tell Mercer of his vision of transforming the health of his major U.S. city, using the Wellness Foundation as a model.

Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk, where she is completing a book about flavor.

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Geraldine Pluenneke

Geraldine Pluenneke has written for Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and other publications, and is writing a book on recovering America’s lost flavors and nutrients. She is hooked on Eli’s Health Loaf, toasted and thickly spread with chèvre.