Jill Eckart, C.H.H.C., is nutrition program manager at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine, especially better nutrition, and higher standards in research. As part of the nutrition team, Ms. Eckart manages a variety of programs, including the launch of PCRM’s online 21-Day Vegan Kickstart program that more than 200,000 people have participated in since 2009. Ms. Eckart received her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and service leadership from Loyola University in Maryland. She received her certification in holistic health counseling from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City.
Hello there, I’m back. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. Here we are, it’s January 29th, 2013. When I was walking up to the studio today, this one young man came up to me and he started talking and saying, “Do you like children?” He was obviously trying to fundraise for some children’s organization and my first question back to him was, “Are you a vegan?” I usually do this to people who are trying to solicit for different organizations. Most of them are really doing great work but my point asking back, “Are you a vegan?” is I personally think that when we’re eating a plant-based diet, we’re doing probably the best thing that we can do for health, environment, and treating all living things on earth with kindness and compassion. I think it’s like a giant step to improving so many different things whereas all these other causes out there, they’re really important but when they make a difference they’re taking little steps. Going vegan, eating vegan, living a vegan lifestyle is a giant step towards making this world a better place. Right? Right. And you know what? It’s fun and it’s delicious. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about right now with Jill Eckart from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She’s the nutrition program manager there. If you don’t know about the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, you should. They are a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventative medicine, especially better nutrition and higher standards in research. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Jill!
Jill Eckart: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi. OK, let’s see. What are we going to get started talking about today? Do you want to tell us about the next 21-Day Kickstart that’s happening?
Jill Eckart: Sure, I would love to. Our 21-Day Kickstart, for those of you who are just hearing about this program for the first time, is a three-week test drive of a vegan diet. We have everything you’d ever need: all the support you’d ever need, all the videos, recipes. You name it, we have it in this free, three-week program. The next one launches on February 1st. What’s new and different is that we’re running these programs monthly. So on the first of every month you can now find a Kickstart. So if you talk to people who want to try out a vegan diet or who just want to dabble a little bit until they’re ready to take it on 100%, this is the place to go. It’s 21daykickstart.org.
Caryn Hartglass: The numbers “21” daykickstart.org.
Jill Eckart: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: And you just register and you’re in?
Jill Eckart: Yeah, you register. We’re accepting registrations now for February 1st. You register, you get a confirmation, and then we get you started before February 1st. So we give you a shopping list, some ideas for how to clear out your pantry and get yourself ready for three weeks of eating vegan and getting healthy. So you’ll have everything you need to really give it 100% starting on February 1.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds pretty good.
Jill Eckart: Yeah. And you get an e-mail each day and then you can play around on the site. I mentioned that we have a three-week menu; we have video recipes; we have nutrition videos; we have a community forum where people can come on and kind of talk to one another and find out where people are coming from, put their questions out there, put their challenges out there. It’s a really dynamic site and a lot of fun.
Caryn Hartglass: What have been some of the challenges that people talk about during this time?
Jill Eckart: Some people who are doing this maybe on their own maybe don’t have the family support at the moment. Some people want to learn how to manage that. Do they cook for themselves only and cook meat and dairy products for the rest of the family during this process? Just trying to navigate that. That seems to be a big one. Some other people just have trouble with certain types of foods that they’re so used to that many of us, myself included, grew up eating: lots of meat and dairy. When you’re just starting out, you may miss some of the tastes and textures, so some people try to navigate that. So, “What should I use instead of cheese?” or “How to build flavor.” Things like that.
Caryn Hartglass: The nice thing is that a lot of us have been doing this for a really, really, really long time―longer than probably some of us want to mention, but decades. Fortunately, the commercial world has responded and has made it a lot easier. So for people that are really getting into this now, the recipes are out there: they’re delicious, they’re easy, they can be sophisticated if you want them to be, or not. There are lots of transition foods and things to get you to where you want to be. There’s really no reason not to do it.
Jill Eckart: Yeah. It really can be fun. When I made this transition almost eight years ago now I just had so much fun trying new things. I hadn’t even had half the vegetables that I eat now. I had never been exposed to them before. So this is really an eye-opening experience for me. That can be overwhelming to some people but it was a really exciting challenge to me that, like you said, is so much easier now―easier than it’s ever been.
Caryn Hartglass: You know, we say variety is the spice of life and I really believe that. It’s really nice to have a variety with our food and yet most people are eating the same things all the time. Some of that is somewhat forced upon us because the industries that provide our food have really limited the choices because they want to mono-crop, they want to make things easier for themselves so they make a lot of the same things. We’ve lost a lot of the diversity in our fruits and vegetables. But most people are eating a very simple “just meat and potatoes” kind of diet. Even though there’s less diversity when you go to eating plant foods, there is so much more variety than if you’re focusing on animal foods.
Jill Eckart: Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: It really is incredible. I was just talking to someone in the first segment about fruits and if you go all around the world, there are just hundreds of thousands of fruits that you’ve never experienced. But even just in the supermarket today, I like to tell people just every week or so pick up something you’ve never bought before and find out about it and try it.
Jill Eckart: Yeah. And tucked in the produce section―the fruit and produce section―of every grocery store is a hidden little book. It’s usually on a stand and you flip through it and you can look at the dozens and dozens of varieties of apples and the dozens of varieties of all the fruits and vegetables. And if you have a recipe that is new to you and you don’t know what ginger looks like for instance or if you don’t know what jicama looks like, you can look through this book and get familiar with it. It really is hidden in every produce section but it is fun to experiment and try new things.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I’m always buying greens in the produce section. I’m big with kale and chard and collards. I’ll be happily putting my greens in the bag and somebody will come up and say, “What do you do with that?” I love that.
Jill Eckart: Yeah. There are always teaching moments in the grocery store for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: Now what was it for you? You said you became vegan eight years ago. Why did you do that?
Jill Eckart: Well, I met a vegan and I did not know what that meant.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, an alien from the Planet Vegan. “I am vegan.”
Jill Eckart: I knew it meant that this person only ate x, y, and z but I didn’t really know more than that. And I read Diet for a New America. I was in the profession of helping people. I was in the profession of helping people get their life back together―from being on the street, things like that, people who were homeless. So I had a heart for helping people going into this and then learning about a vegan diet and what it can do for your health and by reading Diet for a New America you learn about what it can do for everything: the environment, animals, what the meat and dairy industry is up to. So for all of those things that I read in the book I just was totally sold. I had the support at home and I just did it. I haven’t looked back; it’s been an exciting journey.
Caryn Hartglass: What’s amazing is that book, Diet for a New America, is 25 years old. It was written in 1987.
Jill Eckart: It’s fascinating.
Caryn Hartglass: And a lot of it is still true, if not more so.
Jill Eckart: Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: So we have the Superbowl coming up in a few days. I have to confess that I’m not a sports fan but I am a food fan. Any kind of food, any kind of holiday or opportunity to celebrate food, sounds good to me.
Jill Eckart: Absolutely. This is a great opportunity to introduce people who aren’t eating a plant-based diet or a vegan diet to some healthy, delicious foods.
Caryn Hartglass: You sent me a bunch of recipes and I thought we might talk about some of them because they look pretty good and fun. OK, so when people are sitting around watching sports, they’re typically consuming what, a lot of chips and dips and beer and ribs on the couch?
Jill Eckart: Finger foods. Some people are really into the games and they’re stressed out and they’re really attached to who’s going to win. So you want things people can nibble on quickly―nothing that’s going to take them away from the TV too long to assemble―so really easy things. We have a wonderful recipe for guacamole. We call it Mockamole because it’s a low-fat guacamole. It’s really delicious. We’re pulling out some of the avocado, which makes guacamole traditionally quite high in fat, and we’re subbing in some peas, green peas. So we’re bringing down the fat, bringing up the fiber, and it’s a really, really delicious dish.
Caryn Hartglass: So you can eat a lot more of it.
Jill Eckart: Indeed.
Caryn Hartglass: But then the fiber will fill you up so you don’t want to eat anymore.
Jill Eckart: That’s the best thing about eating a plant-based diet is you get full faster because you’re eating lots and lots of fiber, which is so crucial for your health.
Caryn Hartglass: Now another recipe I notice, and I was amused because we just posted the same recipe on our website yesterday―responsibleeatingandliving.com, that’s my nonprofit website―and we do this all the time and that is make our own corn chips. Did you know that today is National Corn Chip Day?
Jill Eckart: I had no idea.
Caryn Hartglass: So yesterday we posted this corn chip recipe and it’s the exact same recipe that you have where you take corn tortillas and you cut them up and you basically toast them in the oven. This is a genius recipe. I’m so glad that you have it too. What’s great about it is number 1, your tortilla chips taste fresh and warm and they’re not full of oil. The kind of tortillas I get are salt-free. They are the best kind that you can get.
Jill Eckart: These are really good. I love to throw a little bit of chili powder on there just to do something a little bit different. One thing that I love about this recipe is that it’s much cheaper than buying a bag of corn chips. So I like that too, that this is a very economical choice.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. I didn’t think about that. But you have to be careful because you have to read the ingredients on the tortillas that you’re buying. Not all tortillas are the same. Some are better than others. In some corn tortillas they use all kinds of crazy ingredients like cellulose from wood pulp, and although that’s nice fiber, I really prefer my tortillas just to have corn in them and not much else.
Jill Eckart: I think that’s a really good point you’re making. Actually one time I was taking a group of people on a grocery store tour and we were going through the tortillas. They aren’t all created equal. In fact, we found a bag of tortillas that had fish oil added in them.
Caryn Hartglass: Woah!
Jill Eckart: And while it’s very easy to find some that don’t, someone in the group had an allergy to fish and she wouldn’t even have thought to try to be aware of that. It’s really important to get used to reading labels.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I was surprised once―and I haven’t bought a bag of chips in a very, very, very, very, underlined very long time―I did buy some blue corn chips that were out there that actually had I think whey protein or some kind of dairy product in them, which was very disturbing because when you’re a vegan and you don’t want to eat dairy or some people have issues with dairy, to have that secretly buried in a harmless-looking corn chip was very disturbing. So you have to really read the ingredients.
Jill Eckart: Yeah, definitely. And this low-fat guacamole and the oven-baked tortilla chips we’ve served this time and time again to so many different groups here at PCRM when we’re doing cooking demonstrations and going downtown to employers and doing lunch-and-learns, people just love this recipe. They love the low-fat guacamole. So it’s a good one.
Caryn Hartglass: And Black Bean dip, your recipe, how much easier can that get?
Jill Eckart: This is really Cooking for Dummies 101.
Caryn Hartglass: Or, you know what? It’s Cooking for Smarties.
Jill Eckart: Exactly.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s easy but you have to be smart to figure out that this is good for you and delicious.
Jill Eckart: Yes. Indeed. It’s literally a can of black beans. I like to get the best black beans I can, so it depends what store you’re shopping at. If you can get a low-sodium version, give it a good rinse, and add that to a cup of salsa and a half teaspoon of cumin and blend it up either in your food processor or your blender and that’s it. It’s so good.
Caryn Hartglass: And very inexpensive.
Jill Eckart: Definitely. You’re talking about less than $2 to serve five or seven people finger foods.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Let’s see. Anything else good in that list of recipes you sent me?
Jill Eckart: Well, one other finger food―fun thing―is air-popped popcorn. So easy to make and people think it’s kind of plain but there are some ways you can really spice it up. Some of my favorites are smoked paprika which is really delicious, curry powder, or nutritional yeast which tastes a little cheesy and adds a nice flavor to it. I love having air-popped popcorn.
Caryn Hartglass: You know, people are really into convenience. I have a different view on convenience and what’s easy and what isn’t. But I really don’t understand buying popcorn in a big plastic bag. There’s nothing fun about that. I could understand going to the movies and buying a bag of popcorn because at least at the movie theaters they pop it fresh. The thing about popcorn is you want it popped―fresh. An air-popper is just a great thing to have. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy, it’s fun. And your popcorn is fresh and lovely and warm, and a great mouth feel, and you just mix it up with different flavorings. It’s fabulous.
Jill Eckart: Yeah, definitely. And something fun if you’re anticipating a big group of people is you can bag it up in advance and have different flavors and just let people pick. It’s a great thing for people, like a party favor too. So there are a lot of fun things you can do with popcorn. It’s so cheap to make.
Caryn Hartglass: I was at an event recently with a lot of presentations by the staff of PCRM. It was such an impressive event. There are really so many wonderful things going on at PCRM. One of the things I was really impressed with was the 21-Day Kickstart now is in several different languages.
Jill Eckart: Yeah, it’s really exciting. We’ve expanded now to have a totally Mandarin program and we take it even a step further so it’s not just in Mandarin but it’s in Traditional and Simplified characters. That’s been really exciting. We’ve garnered about almost 10,000 people participating in the few of the launches we’ve done. We also have a program in Spanish, which launches again February 1st, so if anyone knows anyone who would like to participate in a totally Spanish-language program with culturally specific menus, that runs on February 1st.
Caryn Hartglass: Now is that also a 21-Day Kickstart? The same website you can choose the language that you want?
Jill Eckart: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, that’s really spectacular because I’ve been preaching the plant-based food thing for a very long time and the Spanish-language support for plant-based foods is really pretty limited. It’s great that you have that.
Jill Eckart: Yeah, it’s a really exciting program to offer. We’ve gotten a lot of people very interested in it.
Caryn Hartglass: Can you talk about…I don’t know if you’re very familiar with it…but you have this Food for Life program and I was just curious if you could talk a little bit about that?
Jill Eckart: Sure. The Food for Life program is set up in a way that we have people who are interested in teaching about a plant-based diet come and train with us and they learn our curriculum. They learn how to market themselves and how to teach people to follow a vegan diet. So people come and train with us and then they go back and train in their community. We have trainings at least twice a year. We have one coming up in June. I’m glad you asked because we are actually accepting applications right now for people who are interested in becoming instructors. We have five different curriculum so you can teach cancer prevention and survival, you can teach a curriculum on diabetes, a curriculum for kids, a general weight-loss curriculum. So we have a lot of options for people. We also have an Employee Wellness Program that launched with the Food for Life program as well. It’s a really fun way to make a little bit of money and really have your passion line up with what you’re doing every day.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds good. We’re going to talk about that program in February when we have another PCRM person, Joseph Gonzales, is going to give us more information on that whole Food for Life thing so I just wanted to give a little preview to that. So we just have four or five minutes left. I wanted to get maybe a little bit more into detail on the 21-Day Kickstart. So people can go to the website you have. What are some of the specific things in the videos that people might learn? I’m always saying, “Get back into your kitchens; find your kitchen.” Because people are afraid to prepare their own food.
Jill Eckart: Yeah. So some of the videos…we try to take people from really the very beginning: how do you substitute in for eggs, what are we going to use instead of dairy, so very basic things like that. Then we build upon that. We help people learn…maybe they’ve noticed after a few days that “Geez, why isn’t there any olive oil in any of these recipes?” or “Why is this such a low-fat program? I didn’t know that, that this program was going to be low-fat.” So we tell them about the benefits of eating a low-fat diet and what that can do to prevent cancer risk, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Then we take them to complete nutrition. How are you going to be getting your calcium? What about B12? Things like that. What about iron? We had a video on that. We talk a little bit about the glycemic index, which might be new to a lot of people, especially people who aren’t concerned about blood sugar or maybe don’t have diabetes. Then we have some cooking demonstrations that I do and some of our other Food for Life instructors are doing to help people get a little bit more familiar with putting together some of these recipes. I always find that if I see someone doing it, it makes it so much easier for me to do it in my own kitchen.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, the thing is that most media―mainstream media―today is very confusing and little soundbites come out on the news and people get all excited about it. That’s how we can get “educated” about nutrition. Then there are these buzzwords: protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids. People have no idea what they are. I don’t think people do need to know what they are if they’re eating whole plant foods and they’re buying and using most of the food from the produce sections―a vast array of colors―they’re probably going to be doing pretty well. But in this world of lots of information, I think people will feel more comfortable if they have basic information to support moving and changing the diet to let them know that they’re doing the right thing.
Jill Eckart: Absolutely. I think that’s perfectly stated. We recommend our Power Plate but really it’s just eating from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans and legumes. We do tell people, “Don’t worry about the specifics of how much protein you’re getting or how much this and that. Just eat as much as you want of these groups. Get plenty of color and get plenty of variety. And if you’re eating enough calories, you’ll be getting what you need.” So I think that’s perfectly said. I think people do over think it. But it is helpful to have the supporting information so we have all that they want and more. So if people really want to get into it and learn the nitty gritty, they can do that too.
Caryn Hartglass: I just wanted to repeat one thing you said: “Eat as much as you want from certain food groups.” I mean how liberating is that to eat as much as you want? But you can with plant foods. Jill, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food and I look forward to having you back in March when we’re going to talk about some processed meats and how wonderful―or not―they are. I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Join me at responsibleeatingandliving.com. That’s my website. And have a delicious week.
Transcribed by Jennie Steinhagen, 02/10/13