Baby-steps to an optimal diet? Not recommended by the experts

Baby Steps -- a great way to learn how to walk; not such a great way to make huge changes in the way you eat

Many people learn a little bit about the health-promoting, disease-reversing diet-style and then decide that they would like to try it out. So they begin by adding a little fruit to their granola in the morning and ordering a few vegetarian options at their favorite restaurants. In terms of our 4-Leaf scale, they probably move from maybe 5% of their calories per day from whole plants to 15%.

The good news is that they’re now getting three times as many calories from whole plants. The bad news is that they’re still in what we call the “No Leaf” range of our 4-Leaf scale (under 20% of their calories from whole plants).

While they made some improvements in their diet, they didn’t make enough to make much of a difference in the way they feel, enough to lose weight, and not nearly enough to reverse chronic disease. And since they probably won’t see many noticeable results, they’ll likely just drift back to all of their old habits.

Dr. John McDougall, one of the five MD's featured in our book, the five who provided the "common ground" foundation for our 4-Leaf Program

What do the experts say? In Chapter 9 of our book (Making A Commitment), we reported what several of the experts had to say. And while they all said it a bit differently, they all pretty much agreed that “baby-steps” is not the way to go.

Dr. John McDougall puts it this way: If you are sincere about making the change, do so with 100% of your effort.  Many people feel that it would be easier for them to slide into this diet plan gradually.  Unfortunately, we seldom manage to discard old ways and old established tastes unless 100% of our effort is devoted to the change and unless, from the beginning, we make a clear break from our old behavior.” He adds that a smoker who cuts down to four cigarettes a day only goes through slow torture and rarely quits completely.

Dr. Dean Ornish, also featured in our book, he is one of the three experts who influenced Bill Clinton to give up meat and dairy and adopt a health promoting diet.

Dr. Dean Ornish said something similar, In our research, we learned that it is often easier for people to make comprehensive changes in diet and lifestyle than to make only moderate ones.  At first, this may seem like a paradox, but it makes sense when you understand why.  If you only make moderate changes in lifestyle—for example, reducing fat intake from the typical American diet of about 40% of calories as fat to the conventional dietary guidelines of 30% fat—then you have the worst of both worlds.  You feel deprived and hungry because you are not eating everything you want and are used to, but you’re not making changes big enough to feel that much better or to significantly affect your weight or how you feel—or for that matter, your cholesterol, blood pressure, or heart disease.

Dr. T. Colin Campbell of Cornell, author of The China Study

As Dr. Campbell concludes, Following this diet requires a radical shift in your thinking about food; it’s more work to just do it halfway.  If you plan for animal-based products, you’ll eat them—and you’ll almost certainly eat more than you should.  You’ll feel deprived.  Instead of viewing your new food habit as being able to eat all the plant-based food you want, you’ll be seeing it in terms of having to limit yourself, which is not conducive to staying on the diet long-term.

William James, the father of American Psychology

Finally, consider this advice from William James, the father of American psychology:  In the acquisition of a new habit or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.” To this first step, he added a second: “Never suffer an exception to occur until the new habit is securely rooted in your life.

You may be wondering how long it will take to get results.  You will be delighted to know that some benefits will be noticeable right away, within a week or two.  The experts quoted above recommend a serious commitment to this improved diet-style of anywhere from six weeks to four months, but again, they all recommend a complete 100% plant-based diet during that period — and that means lots whole plants in nature’s package — beans and greens, fresh fruits and vegetables.

No time for baby-steps; now is the time to jump in the deep end of the pool and swim like crazy -- your life may very well depend on it.

The longer your trial period, the less likely you will return to your old unhealthy way of eating.  For best results, my recommendation is that you give it 100% of your effort for four months. Start out at the 4-Leaf level and stay there…tantamount to jumping into the “deep end” of the pool.

The really great thing is that after a few months of eating this way, you will feel so much better that you’ll never even want to return to your old habits. Read all about our 4-Leaf Program and get started. In a few months, you will lose excess weight effortlessly and you are very likely to find that you will enjoy eating more than you ever have in your life.

While not mentioned in this article, I might add the Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Neal Barnard and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn all give similar advice as the doctors quoted here. Dr. Esselstyn gives the most concise advice, “Moderation kills.”

If you like what you see here, you may wish to join our periodic mailing list. Also, for help in your own quest to take charge of your health, you might find some useful information at our 4-Leaf page. From the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.

If you’d like to order our book on Amazon,  visit our BookStore now.

—J. Morris Hicks…blogging daily at

PS: Occasionally an unauthorized ad may appear beneath a blog post. It is controlled by WordPress (a totally free hosting service). I do not approve or personally benefit whatsoever from any ad that might ever appear on this site. I apologize and urge you to please disregard. 

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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1 Response to Baby-steps to an optimal diet? Not recommended by the experts

  1. Mitzi says:

    I took “baby steps” from college to now, over the course of 20 years, and it seemed to work. I had chronic digestive issues from infancy, so in college I switched ALL grains to whole grains and experienced improvement. The SAD diet made me look anorexic instead of overweight, due to the digestive problems. Step 1. In my 20s I added more vegetables and fruit to my diet (getting to maybe the 2-leaf level), and my vision improved to the point that I had to get weaker glasses three times, and I could go out at night much more safely. Step 2. In my 30s I married a man with familial hypertension, dramatically reducing the amount of processed food in our diet. Step 3. Then he had a stunning medical diagnosis, and we went mostly vegan with occasional seafood (3-4 leaf level now). Each of these steps required a lot of education and effort, with the first two undertaken before the Internet made access to information easy. It would have been overwhelming to try all the steps at once in college, when dependent on the cafeteria for sustenance. Now the availability of books and websites makes the shift a lot easier, but allowing for it to happen in stages, especially as the cook of the house has to re-learn everything (and get a cutting board and knife skills), might help if s/he can’t afford the immersion workshops offered by the doctors you cite. Home cooking is the best way to do this on a tight budget, and learning takes time.

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