Shopping or cooking. Which is most important for health?

For optimal health, I think you need both.

Mark Bittman in the kitchen

Mark Bittman in the kitchen

Last week, Mark Bittman published an article about the importance of cooking in the home. The New York Times article featured Michael Pollan, who has written many fine books about healthy eating over the past decade. Bittman quotes his famous lines on the cover of  In Defense of Food, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Of course, I agree with that advice—but I like to take it a step further and be abundantly clear about what we should be eating. For our health. For our planet. For our future. We don’t “need” to eat ANY animal protein as Bittman and Pollan seem to imply. They both know that the raising of animals for our dinner tables is an environmental nightmare, yet they never make it clear that we can get along just fine (much better, in fact) without the routine consumption of animal products.

Leveraging the simple, yet powerful concept of maximizing the percent of your calories from whole plant foods -- still in nature's package

Leveraging the simple, yet powerful concept of maximizing the percent of your calories from whole plant foods

Clarity with wiggle room. In our 4Leaf for Life model, we make it clear that the healthiest diet for humans would be one consisting of nothing but whole, plant-based foods. But we also provide a little wiggle room. Why?

Because we know that 95% of Americans still eat animal products on a regular basis—and it can be very difficult for most people to COMPLETELY avoid them.

For example; I was at a lovely party of about thirty people this past Saturday night. There was an abundance of good food and I had no trouble finding plenty of plant-based choices. But when the lady passing the tiny crab cakes came by, I ate one of them. I also had a little cracker that had some cheese on it. But I am confident that for the entire day, I maintained a 4Leaf score with over 80% of my calories coming from whole, plant-based foods.

People often ask me if I am vegan or vegetarian. I explain it this way. I never buy any animal products for my home and I never order any in a restaurant. Although I never “plan” to have any animal products, occasionally I do; therefore, I am not a vegan.

Michael Pollan's new book

Michael Pollan’s new book

Back to the importance of cooking in the article. Bittman quotes Pollan from a conversation in his living room:

“Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.”

I would agree with most of that but would add that you can’t do a very good job of healthy cooking if it is not preceded by healthy shopping. For if it goes in your shopping cart, it is almost certain to end up in your stomach. See my earlier blog on that topic: “4-Leaf” eating, Part 4 — shopping for groceries

Good advice from Michael Pollan

Good advice from Michael Pollan

Want to find out the aggregate 4Leaf score for your family for a week? Just analyze all of your shopping carts for seven days. Add the calories of food from whole plants and divide that number by the total calories purchased.

Of course, if you eat out a lot, this computation will only tell you part of the story. In my case, about 90% of my grocery cart is whole plants. The non whole plants include things like corn chips, wine and soy milk.

The Bottom Line. Cooking at home is a good thing. Since I began learning the truth about nutrition in 2002, I have learned to cook for myself. Coincidentally, my marriage ended about that same time, so if I hadn’t learned all about food back then, I would probably be a very unhealthy bachelor today.

My new car is also a 4Leaf-er. A "green" Fiat 500 that gets over 40 mpg.

My new car is also a 4Leaf-er. A “green” Fiat 500 that gets over 40 mpg. And I selected cloth seats this time.

Lucky for me, I now prepare most of my “calories” in my own home. And although I eat out frequently, I probably prepare 75% of my total calories in my home.

And I have no doubt that those meals are healthier than almost ANY meal that I can order in a restaurant. That’s because of all the things Mark Bittman points out in the article. I encourage you to read the whole piece. It’s a good one.

One more thing. With advance planning and a little “batch cooking” once a week, I can prepare any of my healthy and delicious home-cooked meals in less than five minutes.

Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from

Want to find out how healthy your family is eating? Take our free 4Leaf Survey. It takes less than five minutes and you can score it yourself. After taking the survey, please give me your feedback as it will be helpful in the development of our future 4Leaf app for smartphones. Send feedback to

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To order more of my favorite books—visit our online BookStore now

J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

For help in your own quest to take charge of your health, you might find some useful information at our 4Leaf page or some great recipes at Lisa’s 4Leaf Kitchen.

Got a question? Let me hear from you at Or give me a call on my cell at 917-399-9700.

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—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

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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6 Responses to Shopping or cooking. Which is most important for health?

  1. Kathy Roach says:

    Wow, food is an emotional subject! I hear all of you who say “it’s all or nothing”, but I respect Jim’s realistic approach. Coming out of my online course in Plant Based nutrition from Cornell I drew that “no animal products” line in the sand for myself. After five months of no animal products my cholesterol actually went up. I was like a deranged mad woman! I did the good shopping, I did the hours of chopping and dicing and cooking and explaining to grand kids why there was no turkey for Thanksgiving. I alienated friends. I was a fire hydrant of information to every poor person within earshot. I realized nutrition is a complex science. Sugar can actually cause the liver to produce more cholesterol. All those vegan treats I was making to keep some weight on and make up for other things I’d given up helped increase the cholesterol levels in my blood. Most people would love to have my cholesterol numbers, but it was a shock to see an increase and my credibility was in serious jeopardy.

    Changing one’s diet is a very personal decision. I have lots of people ask me if I’m vegan and my reply is, “I can eat anything I want, I just prefer to eat whole foods and no animal products.” I want people to know I am not denying myself anything. It doesn’t work when we make nice people uncomfortable about what they are eating. The best way to convince people about a plant based whole food diet is to make them some tasty food, as often as your schedule allows.

    Jim’s approach brought to mind a lecture that I attended in college many years ago. The professor explained the spread of Islam (I believe it was 600 AD). The reason the religion took off was because when the Muslims moved into an area they allowed for a slow conversion. They did not force everyone to convert. There was a tax if you didn’t convert, but other than that people could choose. In many ways that is what we are doing as we spread our information about nutrition. We are examples of good health, while our animal eating friends tax their systems to the point of needing medications.

    I am more and more excited about the changes I see around me. More newspaper articles, radio and television programs devoted to plant based nutrition, bloggers from all walks of life. That said, I am much more low key in my approach. When I start to feel heated in a discussion about food, I ask myself, is it the message or my ego that I am upset about. Like Jim said in an earlier blog, the planet will eventually be fine, it’s the people that may not survive their food choices. I want my family, friends and strangers to be as healthy and happy as possible. If that means I can only get them to start out with meatless Monday, well, it’s a start.

    • John Jennings says:

      Well Stated Kathy,
      If my memory is correct, we were in the same co-hort at E-Cornell.
      John Jennings

  2. John Jennings says:

    Morning Jim,
    Another interesting blog. Miss these daily, but understand your other commitments. I am glad to see that you also still consume “corn chips and wine.” These are my two items that I wont give up, though I did switch to organic blue corn chips that almost meet Jeff Novick’s label guidelines!
    As to how much is too much, I just finished the book “Blue Zones, second edition, by Dan Buettner (excellent read, I recommend it). He noted that the oldest living humans in these zones (all centenarians) consume some animal product on occasions, but not as part of their routine diet. They eat mostly plants and typically drink wine.
    Keep up the good work, it is appreciated.
    John Jennings

  3. Linda says:

    Congratulations! Cloth seats! Good for you, and good for the animals. I’ll never understand, however, why you allow yourself any animal products and I don’t understand why you would WANT any! I eat 100% plant foods and I never have any desire to even take a little taste of anything that comes from an animal. The smell alone is such a turnoff. But even if I were tempted, and could rationalize that such a little bit would have no impact on my health, how could I forget that even an occasional lapse means more animals will be brought into this world just to be killed? I try to live my life as if every day is Earth Day, too, so I can’t and won’t overlook the impact on the environment of eating animal products. It’s helpful to have a many reasons to eat plant-based whole foods.

  4. Sal Liggieri says:

    Joanne Irwin,

    “So a little bite of cheese here and there leads to more. A meal including meat every now and then leads to more.”

    Isn’t that the same as moderation? Where does Jim Hicks draw the line with what he calls “wiggle room” ? One bite, two bites . . . and there goes moderation. Hicks allows an 80% cheat factor. And how does one measure for 80%?

    In my preachings to a world that won’t listen: IT”S ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL!

    Eat the plants, not the cow.

  5. Joanne Irwin says:

    Good to see another post, Jim. I agree with much of your thinking; however, the majority of the populace is not as educated or disciplined as you are. They’re hard pressed to understand the addictive pull of fat, sweet, and salty foods. So a little bite of cheese here and there leads to more. A meal including meat every now and then leads to more. If people understood how they could hold health and vitality in their own hands, along with safeguarding the sustainability of our beloved planet, they would forever bid a fond farewell to animal protein and dairy.

    Still, I agree with you that the majority of people will probably be unable to give up animal protein and dairy totally. Only when the scalpel’s on the horizon, along with a host of medications at the pharmacy counter, ‘might’ they be willing to bid adieu to the standard American diet (SAD), and embrace a way of nutrition that will restore health.

    In Dr. Esselstyn’s masterpiece, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”, based on his research with the most severe cardiac patients at the Cleveland Clinic, Evelyn, then in her 50’s, was told to go home, sit in her rocker, and wait for the Grimm Reaper to knock on her door. That’s exactly what her doctor recommended. Instead, she participated in Dr. Esselstyn’s research, gave up the killing foods, and, today in her late 70’s, is alive, well, and thriving. That said, there are those who, unlike Evelyn, would rather remain in the rocking chair and wait for an early, untimely death than give up their meat and dairy. We have friends who were very direct in telling me that they didn’t want to hear anything about nutrition when we’re together. They stated, “We take our pills so we can eat and drink what we want.” Their choice, not mine.

    Pollan’s statement about the lack of home cooking leading to the obesity epidemic is absurd. Why have folks stopped cooking at home? How about corporate marketing campaigns over the years that have made fast food the new gourmet? They know full well how to addict the populace. Numerous factors have resulted in a decline in home cooking and family meal times………….poverty, stressed family situations, Big Pharma, Big Agra business, marketing and advertising, not to mention the ignorance among the medical population.
    I can’t tell you how many people in my classes report that when they ask their doctors what changes they could make nutritionally to promote health and cure disease, they’re told to keep on eating the way they’re eating. With the available peer reviewed research on the relationship between disease and nutrition, it boggles the mind to hear that response from a physician.

    In closing, a recent class participant shared her story……very serious, rare heart condition, was waiting to be included in clinical trial. She connected with Dr. Esselstyn and embraced a plant based lifestyle. Her numbers are now normal and so good that she does not quality for the trial. She reports never feeling better. She also told me that her cardiologist is obese and always finds something to contradict when she shares the latest research. She gave him a copy of Esselstyn’s book and, reportedly, her doctor hasn’t read it; he misplaced it!
    With physicians like that, do we wonder why folks won’t begin to explore how a whole foods, plant based lifestyle could positively affect their health?

    Those of us who live, teach, embrace, and celebrate this lifestyle can only offer choices. More often it’s not what we say, but who we are and what we model that make more of an impact. People tell me they want my energy and vitality. It’s there for the taking. All they have to do is try a whole foods, plant based way of eating for a few weeks, and feel the difference. They’ll be amazed and delighted.

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