What Whole Foods Market CEO Has in His Grocery Cart | 9 Questions for John Mackey

John Mackey, my friend and the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, has already changed the way America eats for the better. Whole Foods was a leader in the organic movement and has never sold food with artificial preservatives, colors, or sweeteners. All the stores in its empire use local growers and suppliers along with major distributors, and it was the first supermarket chain to adopt humane animal treatment standards. Despite these achievements, Mackey hasn’t stopped wanting people to eat healthier. — Dan Buettner, Founder


His newest book, The Whole Foods Diet: The Lifesaving Plan for Health and Longevity, which he co-authored with the doctors of Forks Over Knives, focuses on the optimum diet for health and wellness (It also includes a chapter on blue zones). He recently spoke to us about what he eats every day and how we can retrain our taste buds to love and crave the healthiest foods in the world.

  1. What is The Whole Foods Diet?

The Whole Foods Diet is based on eating only real foods that are 90+ percent plants instead of highly processed foods.  It is the optimum diet for health, vitality, and longevity. Along with my co-authors, doctors Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, we suggest that you get 90 percent or more of your daily calories from whole plant foods, which means keeping animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy) to 10 percent or less of your calories. The Whole Foods Diet is not about deprivation, limitation, or loss of pleasure. It’s an approach that is inclusive and can be customized for individual needs and preferences.

“There is no single food that will bring you everlasting health, no matter how much you wish it to. It’s about teaching yourself to love a variety of the healthiest foods in the world.”

There are lots of tips and tricks in the book that will help people become more skillful eaters. Here’s one of those tips — we came up with a list of health-promoting foods to try to eat every day, called the Essential Eight:

  1. Whole grains and starchy vegetables
  2. Beans and other legumes
  3. Berries
  4. Other fruits
  5. Cruciferous vegetables
  6. Leafy greens
  7. Non-starchy vegetables
  8. Nuts and seeds
  1. What will the book teach us that we don’t learn from other health and wellness literature?

There is growing interest in real foods, plant-based diets, but so much of the literature available right now focuses too much on minor disagreements. One doctor says more starches, another recommends more vegetables, and another one argues for a 100 percent vegan diet — but, they all promote the same broad pattern. It’s the overall dietary pattern that makes all the difference. If you get the big picture right, then there’s room for variation on the particulars and that’s what makes The Whole Foods Diet different. Diet change doesn’t have to be about deprivation. Within the parameters of a whole foods, 90+ percent plant-food diet and avoiding processed foods, you have the flexibility to create a diet that satisfies your taste buds and excites you with endless meal possibilities.

  1. You talk about cravings in The Whole Foods Diet. How do you avoid them or manage them?

Ignoring cravings doesn’t seem to work very well. Be mindful and learn to satisfy your cravings in a healthier way. Next time you feel a craving for something sweet, try eating a delicious fresh fruit instead. Eating fresh fruit is a more healthful way to satisfy a sweet tooth without the negative consequences that come from eating processed, refined sugars. When you find yourself craving more calorie-dense foods, try eating more whole food starches instead, such as sweet potatoes, winter squashes, brown rice, or a large serving of beans. These foods are not only nutrient dense, but provide the healthy carbs we need to healthfully fuel our bodies.

Our taste buds turn over very rapidly, and we can reeducate our taste buds fairly quickly. If you don’t like a healthy food such as kale the first time or two that you try, don’t give up on it. After you have eaten any food 10 to 15 times you will begin to enjoy eating it. Life can be this wonderful adventure of wellness and vitality if we will reeducate our palates to love the healthiest foods in the world. Once you do, you will find that real food tastes a lot better than any processed food you used to eat — and you’ll be craving those healthy, real foods instead.

  1. So many diets are about restricting. What is different about the Whole Foods Diet?

One of our favorite terms from the world of nutrition is “crowd out.” It simply means: fill up your plate and your stomach with the good stuff, and there won’t be much space left for anything else. The focus is shifted from what you shouldn’t eat to what you should eat. The best part of The Whole Foods Diet is that you don’t have to worry as much about portion control when you are eating a diet of real whole foods, mostly plants. We believe it is important that you feel satisfied after every meal and eating liberally every day from our Essential Eight foods will ensure this outcome, while not gaining weight.

  1. As important as it is to downshift and stress less, Americans are all “busy.” What are some strategies we can use to prepare and set ourselves up for success?

Ease is something we could all use more of in the midst of our busy lives. I recommend that you don’t make your diet overly complicated, especially when it’s new. Get the basics right, learn to cook a few meals you love, and eat them as often as you would like to. Don’t worry about the minutiae of how this or that food should be eaten. Our advice to you is: just eat real foods, mostly plants. When you’re just starting out, keep it simple.

  1. Recent studies have reported that whole grains can help you live longer. What do you recommend?

There are so many misconceptions about grains and carbohydrates in general. Whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes are part of our Essential Eight foods, which we recommend eating daily. Whole grains provide fiber, protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and numerous phytochemicals, as well as healthy starches, in the perfect package to give us the energy we need. Whole grains have been linked to a variety of health benefits and leave you feeling full. Whether it’s steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast, quinoa-and-vegetable salad for lunch, or brown rice and vegetable curry for dinner. In the book, you’ll find recipes that teach you how to make these delicious meals.

  1. What are changes we can make to prevent or reverse common chronic diseases?

One of the most profound examples of reversing disease that we highlight in the book comes from research studies by Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr. They showed that heart disease can be reversible through dietary interventions with no negative side effects. By simply trading artery-clogging foods for real foods, plant-based fare, their patients began to heal — at any age. Participants in Dr. Ornish’s program also included relaxation techniques, exercising and participating in a support group, in addition to dietary changes.

  1. Why do you believe diets don’t work?

Changing your diet can be difficult — you can truly be addicted to calorie dense and unhealthy foods. In the book we say, “if hunger is not the problem, eating is not the solution.” There are many motivations, emotions, and conditions that lead us to crave calorie-dense foods. Learn to identify your needs constructively, take a compassionate approach to yourself and create strategies that meet your needs without compromising your health.

Overall, there’s no “one size fits all” approach to dieting. Change your diet at a pace that works well for you. Some people like to change things gradually, others like to go all in at once.

  1. What are the essentials on your weekly grocery list?

Well, both my wife and myself are 100 percent plant-based and eat The Whole Foods Diet. I do most of the shopping and cooking for our family and I first fill my cart with fresh fruits and vegetables. More than 70 percent of dollars we spend on food goes to these especially nutrient-dense foods, which represent five of the Essential Eight food groups we should be eating from everyday. I also stock up on a variety of beans, which are my personal favorite foods to eat, as well as a variety of whole grains, nuts, and seeds. My wife and I prefer simple whole foods as the foundation of our diet, so a typical dinner for us will generally include a bowl of beans or lentils, a starchy vegetable or whole grain, and a large plate full of steamed veggies with a homemade nut or seed sauce.


Learn more about The Whole Foods Diet in the video below.

You can purchase The Whole Foods Diet on AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound and iBooks.

The Whole Foods Diet features a Tex-Mex bowl that includes many of the Essential Eight (and all of them are Blue Zones Superfoods!). Try the recipe here.

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