Planting Yourself

Planting Yourself with Howard Jacobsen

Howard Jacobson, PhD, is a health coach and an executive coach to clients ranging from startup founders to established and rising Fortune 100 leaders. He is the Director of Coaching at Bregman Partners and Head Coach at the Healthy Minds Initiative. He hosts the Plant Yourself Podcast and has written a number of books. His mission includes helping kind and generous people grow their capacity and scale their influence.

How did you eat growing up?

I ate a very healthy standard American diet, so there was very little fast food; almost all my meals were home-cooked. That said, there was chicken and beef. Not so much pig products, because we were semi-kosher. Not a lot of fast foods; we never had the packets of macaroni and cheese. I always got peanut butter and jelly on caraway rye – I thought I was the most oppressed child in Jefferson Elementary School because I did not get Wonder Bread. My mother did the cooking; she was not a great cook, but she put a lot of effort into it. It was important for her that we ate what she understood to be a healthy diet. I did grow up eating vegetables, but I also had a prodigious appetite; I had the metabolism of an Amtrak train. I could pack away a dozen chicken legs at a picnic. When I went away to college, the food appeared to be endless and free. I was untethered by any sort of filial desire to conform and I devolved into just eating junk.

Why Did You Go Plant-Based?

I was browsing in Barnes & Noble and there was a book whose spine suddenly jumped out at me. It was called Diet for a New America by John Robbins. It seemed very random, I’m sure. I pulled it down, started reading it as you could do in Barnes & Noble in those days, probably with a piece of a brownie. As I started reading it, it changed my life instantly. I put the book down and I was a sugar-free vegan. Three weeks later I had dropped all the college weight. I was back to size 31 waist which I’ve never seen again. Five years later I had forgotten, and I was back to eating pizza and other stuff. My wife points out that I will get on a kick and become totally obsessed with it.

What Challenges Have You Had on Your Dietary Journey?

If it’s not on fire, I will get on fire. I can slide back, and completely forget that I’ve ever been on this kick until somebody rubs my nose in it. My wife was kind enough to remind me of my insanity. In 2004, I stumbled upon The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. I met him at a conference, and it totally changed everything. That’s when I became the tyrannical food fascist who’s going to tell my kids everything they’ve been eating up to this point is bad and evil. I just saw everything they were eating had a skull and crossbones over it.

How Was Transitioning Your Children To Plant-Based?

I transitioned them around 2004, and I caused a lot of pain; I did it in a very heavy-handed way. I think my kids – they’re in their 20s now – still have a complicated relationship with food which is largely my fault. I made it very binary: there’s the food you eat and stuff that’s not food that you don’t eat. When it’s veganism as well, it also has this ethical component, so good people do this, and bad people do that. That was one of the messages and when you’re telling kids who are five and eight, there’s only so much nuance you can bring to it. I remember getting a call from a neighbor asking me to please tell my daughter to stop telling his daughter, “why is your mother trying to kill you? Does she not love you? Does she want you to get cancer?” Honestly, my thought at that moment was, “oh, good for you.” We have no friends, but we’re self-righteous. According to my kids, I can still do that. My daughter is vegan, my son is not. He’ll have to come to whatever he comes to on his own. In fact, nobody else in the family eats the way I think they should eat. Part of my challenge of being a human being in a family is to let go of the desire to control that outcome.

What Is Your Advice For Someone Wanting to Go Plant-Based?

I’ll be a little cryptic and say change one little thing. I have no idea what that is. I don’t know how I would possibly be prescriptive for everybody. But I’ll bet everybody knows one thing you’re doing that you could do differently. You can pick the worst thing you’re eating, and however, you define that – in terms of the thing that makes you feel the worst, or the thing that is keeping you medicated in a way you don’t want to be, or the thing that you feel you have the least control over – pick that thing and make a slightly less bad choice next time. Next time, it could be half a sleeve of Oreos instead of a full sleeve. Instead of having 21 sodas a week, have 20 sodas and one sparkling water. Just pick something and create a system to make it slightly better. At that point, you’ve done a whole bunch of things. You have taken action intelligently and strategically, which means it can be a defensible action. You need to take positive action and prepare for a long change as opposed to episodic and oscillating change. The goal is to have these healthy systems in our lives supporting us as opposed to us constantly having to support them. There are ways that I can be social. If I had thought about it with my kids, we would have done it more with their friends. We would have had a cooking party where we invite everyone over and made plant-based pizza.

What Final Words Do You Have For Our Readers?

All the stuff that comes with being a kid, and perceiving what your parents are telling you – their perception is a huge part of it. It shapes their world for a long time if not their entire life. So, at a certain point, they’ll either be in therapy or they’ll become parents and they will be able to understand where I was coming from with more compassion. There’s a sensitivity, not just to them, but to their friends. I was talking to my daughter this morning, and she was saying there’s this trend that she is really about – when there’s a villain in a series, and they really spend some time on their backstory to create compassion. You understand what they did is inexcusable, but you can kind of see their pain, and can kind of see how what they’re doing is an attempt to mitigate it in some way. It’s beautiful for me to learn, and I can’t undo the past, but I can be much more humble.

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