Visit with John Mackey for a few minutes and you first get a tutorial about backpacking, not nutrition. You’ll learn about hiking trails, ultra-light backpacking gear, and you, too, will begin referring to the Appalachian Trail (the trail that runs from Georgia to Maine), as “the AT.” The avid backpacker and Founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market was just back from a hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—a trek he “figured [he] might as well do” during the week he had between a meeting in Boston and a speech at Dartmouth.“They describe New Hampshire as one big rock with patches of dirt,” he said. “I think that’s pretty accurate. Still, it’s got the most spectacular views of any place on the AT.” He’s hiked the AT twice and in the past nine years has hiked a total of more than 10,000 miles.
“Generally on the AT, I average about two miles an hour and that includes breaks,” he said, describing the more difficult conditions in the White Mountains. “There, we were averaging about 1.2 miles per hour; it’s so rugged.” He hikes with ultra-light gear totaling 15 pounds, including food and water. “You’d be surprised how much more enjoyable it is when you’re packed really light. Not only can you do more miles, but they’re more pleasurable miles because you’re not always thinking ‘when’s the next break so I can get this pack off my back?’”
His favorite trails are in the United States. “The most beautiful trail I’ve done is the Pacific Crest Trail that goes from Mexico to Canada up through the Sierras and the Cascades,” he said. “There’s a trail they call the John Muir Trail; the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail share 192 miles, and that is so beautiful. You do three national parks—Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite. You’re up over 10,000 feet for most of the hike. It’s just spectacular. I’d also say the Colorado Trail is beautiful. There are unmatched backpacking opportunities in the United States.”
While he can talk trails and gear, technical hikes and elevation like an expert, it’s not long before he moves the conversation to his passion: whole food nutrition and how diseases can be prevented and reversed with a healthy diet.
“What surprised me, and I just think it’s the most exciting news in the world, [is] the human body really wants to be healthy and it’s far more resilient than I realized,” he said. “That people are able so quickly to get off all these medications, to lose weight so quickly, to have their cholesterol drop. We have so many stories.” Mackey is sharing the fruits of his “intellectual binge” (reading voraciously about nutrient values of foods and how the human body is impacted by everything one eats).
“I want to create a culture of wellness at Whole Foods,” he said, explaining the incentive-based programs for Whole Foods employees to monitor their biomarkers for improvement with vigilance. “We’re going to make these programs available to the public,” he said.
“Here are the gruesome facts,” he said. “Two thirds of Americans are overweight. Over half of those are obese, and the trend lines are horrible. The obesity rate’s doubled in the last 30 years. If I showed you on a state-by-state basis over the last 40 years, it’s just horrible. And our children are now obese. Americans are killing themselves. We spend 80 percent of our healthcare dollars on diseases nobody should ever have. No one should ever get (type 2) diabetes. We’re doing it to ourselves out of ignorance and, mostly, out of food addictions. We get addicted to sugar. We get addicted to fat. We get addicted to salt. I might make the case we get addicted to high inputs of protein as well.
“There’s not going to be a vaccination for cancer. There’s not going to be a pill you can take to prevent heart disease. We do all these high-tech interventions on people,” he said, pointing out that 10 percent of Medicare expenses go to putting heart stints into people with heart disease. “These are radical interventions we’re doing for people that don’t fundamentally work. You’ve got to protect yourself.”
He’s putting his money where his mouth is, providing generous incentives for employees who take the responsibility to monitor their bodies and their biomarkers and work toward improvement. He says getting discipline in one aspect of your life (diet or exercise, for example) leads to improvement in other areas and to a continuum of improvement that he calls “the virtuous circle.”
While he’s careful to point out that with 62,000 employees at Whole Foods, it will take a while to fully realize the “culture of wellness,” he identifies three key initiatives that are significant steps in that direction.
“One [step] is the discount card program. I’ll explain how it works: if you work for the company, you automatically get a 20 percent discount by just being on the team. Then we’ve got four levels of additional discounts you can get: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. [The levels] are based on four objective biomarkers that you can measure. One is whether you use tobacco in any form; we test that. If you do, that disqualifies you; you can’t have nicotine in your blood or you’re not eligible. The second is we do your best score between your BMI, and because some body builders complain about that, we also do a height to waist ratio (although most of the people that were complaining about the BMI failed the height to weight ratio, too. It helped a few people but, in general, it took away the excuse). And then [we test] cholesterol and blood pressure. We bring the labs to the stores, and I think it costs us $71 a person to go through that test.
“The best thing about it is, we had a big improvement in 2011 over 2010; a lot more people qualified for some kind of discount. I think we had 7,500 the first year, and I believe over 10,000 in 2011. Of course not everybody takes the test, but we had more participation and more people that qualified for additional discounts.
“The team members that do it are proud of it. It’s a badge of honor. I’m boasting, I am platinum, so I’m pretty proud of that, and the team members notice that when I travel around and get into one of our stores and buy something, they see it. A lot of them will tell me, ‘I’m platinum too’ or, if they qualify for their card, they talk about it.” He estimates that after the program has been in place five years there will be as many as 25,000 employees qualifying.
The second initiative, which Mackey says has had even more important results than the discount cards, is a program called Total Health Immersions. For that he’s created an Advisory Council, made up of physicians who use dietary changes to prevent and reverse heart disease, diabetes, and other life-threatening diseases brought on by obesity, high cholesterol, and other conditions resulting from foods patients eat. (See also the box on “The Nutrition Prophets”)
Whole Foods works with four different immersion programs: Rip Esselstyn’s Engine 2 diet, Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat To Live program, Dr. John McDougall’s program, and Eat Right America’s program. Both Engine 2 and McDougall’s programs are vegan; the others allow two or three moderate serving a week of animal foods.
Mackey is clearly proud of the results: “We’ve had over 1,200 team members go through [immersion] programs. It costs us over $3,000 per employee; we’ve invested close to $4 million in that program.
“But the results… I mean, every time I travel to the stores, I have team members come up, a lot of them with tears in their eyes, and tell me it’s completely changed their lives. We’ve had dozens of team members lose over 100 pounds in 8 or 9 months from being on the program. We’ve seen people completely not only lose weight but reverse diabetes. And they say type 2 diabetes is a disease that you can’t cure. It’s nonsense. You can cure that disease. Most of it can be cured in 30 – 90 days. People get off all their medication and normalize their blood sugar.”
The results are dramatic, but so are the dietary changes required by these immersion programs. And the changes must be permanent to keep the biomarkers normalized.
“Joel [Fuhrman] said it best,” Mackey counters. “He said, ‘people call this diet radical, but don’t you think having your chest cracked open is radical? Isn’t taking 17 prescription medications a day radical?’ This diet is not radical. It’s just eating whole foods that are mostly plants. A lot of these [doctors] have been saying this for a long time but nobody would listen to them. It’s not a message people want to hear.”
While he’s seen amazing results from employees who have had transformational experiences, he says there is still a reluctance to try it.
“At first, we had a lot of skeptical team members,” he said. “They’d say ‘well, I guess if they’re paying for it, I’ll do it.’ Or it’s easy to dismiss Rip—‘sure that guy’s a world class athlete, he’s Superman.’ But [it’s different] when you have some guy you work with who has lost 120 pounds and his cholesterol and blood pressure have plummeted and he’s gotten off all medications in less than a year and that guy is in there telling you what a difference it can make.”
According to Mackey, team members now are enrolling in the immersion programs with a better attitude and more determination.
“We’re going to open that up in 2012 to the public. Rip’s doing a public immersion right now and we’re going to open all these up to our customers because it’s such a revolutionary thing.”
The third initiative, Wellness Clubs, are completely for Whole Foods customers.
The third initiative, Wellness Clubs, are completely for Whole Foods customers. The concept is putting the ideas from immersion into a club. The price ($45 a month), is not insignificant, and Mackey immediately lists the benefits of membership. “First of all, you have unlimited classes not only on healthy eating but on exercise, on stress management, yoga, how to sleep better, and lots of cooking classes. We also give you a 10 percent discount on all of our healthiest foods, which ends up being about 5,000 items in a typical store: all of our fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, 100% grass-fed beef, some seafood, some chicken, and then all the healthy bulk foods that we sell, lots of the our Health Starts Here selection of items, and prepared foods.” The Health Starts Here foods are selected based on Fuhrman’s nutrient density scoring system, or ANDI.
The Wellness Clubs also include membership in a supper club modeled on one of Mackey’s favorite Austin restaurants, Casa de Luz. Anyone can participate, but Wellness Club members get a $5 discount on the meal.
Interestingly, Austin did not volunteer to be one of the initial pilots for the Wellness Clubs. However, the regional president of the southwest, Mark Dickson, is one of the success stories of the immersions.
“Mark is an amazing guy,” Mackey said. “But his weight had crept up to where he was pretty seriously obese. He didn’t want to go to the immersion program because he just thought he was going to fail at it. But finally, partly because I kept nagging him about it, he did the McDougall one. This was last April. I visited that immersion. In only seven days, he’d dropped 10 pounds, his blood pressure dropped 30 points, and his cholesterol dropped 40 points. He was excited because of those results, but the most important thing was he said, ‘John, I’ve stuffed myself every meal. I’ve never been hungry. I’ve loved the food. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.’ And now, six months later, he’s lost 75 pounds. And he’s dropped all his medications. You’ll not recognize the guy. I’m thinking about calling him Slim. It’s amazing.
“So when the regional president has such amazing results, obviously that filters through the rest of the region. The Wellness Clubs with all those benefits, combined with these public health immersions, [are] the two major pillars for our educational initiatives.”
Mackey personally became a vegan eight years ago and thought he was healthy. “I just assumed that [being vegan] made me healthy. I was addicted to olive oil. As long as it was vegan, I ate a lot of junk food.” His wakeup call was a cholesterol test. “My cholesterol was 199 and I said, ‘How can it be 199? I’m a vegan.’” His blood pressure also had begun to creep up. He turned to books: first, “The China Study,” Dr. Esselstyn’s book, then Joel Fuhrman’s books, and McDougall’s. “Suddenly it all fit together. And then I watched my blood pressure plunge and my cholesterol dropped really low. So I had my personal experience with it.” He acknowledges that it takes time to improve. “I’m still on a journey. I think everyone is. I don’t think my diet’s perfect. I don’t hold it up as perfect. I’m doing a lot better now than I was a year ago, and I was better a year ago than I was two years ago.
“I don’t do any oil at home,” he said. “My wife’s on the same program so that makes it easier. But I travel more than half the time. Every time you go to a restaurant, even if you can avoid the oil, you’re still going to get a lot of salt. The chefs don’t know how to cook without oil. I say, ‘Just sauté it with water,’ and they say ‘I can’t do that.’
“This is why the obesity crisis has become what it is,” he said. “People eat more and more meals out and restaurants don’t have to list their ingredients. They use oil or butter or cream because they know that’s what sells. It’s not like it’s a plot; they’re partly meeting a big part of what the market wants. [People] want rich food because that’s what their palate has gotten used to.
“We eat an amazing amount of fried foods, potato chips, and soda. When I was a kid, Cokes were in those little six-ounce bottles. My parents didn’t let me have a Coke every day; it was a special treat, if I was good, and that did limit it right there to a certain extent. Now people buy Cokes in two-liter bottles and I’ve seen people drink one of those every single day. People are into cheese; they tend to eat cheese every day. A hundred years ago, per capita, we ate three pounds of cheese per year. Now we eat 36 pounds of cheese per person per year. And cheese is 70 to 80 percent fat, most of it saturated fat.”
Even in the face of these daunting trends, Mackey is optimistic about the prospects for turnaround both within the individual and in the American culture.
“The good news is, and that’s the hope, is that the human body can heal itself fairly quickly. I wouldn’t have predicted that, but I’ve seen it happen over and over again and I’ve experienced it myself.
As for the culture, he’s optimistic there as well. “There’s an old saying, an economist said it, and that is ‘if something doesn’t work, it will stop.’ I think people are really waking up to this issue. Don’t underestimate America’s ability to respond. We’re not dead yet. Americans are sick of being sick. People are very interested in food and we’ve reached a dead end. There are not going to be any high tech solutions.
“People fear, and rightly so, being decrepit. People are focused on their lifespan; but we want to increase our healthspan. I don’t think you ever have to be decrepit–maybe if you live to 110 or 120. We should have a long life and a long healthspan. But right now, we seem to be programmed to self-destruct; we like to put it off as long as possible.
“Here’s the good news: people could be so much healthier,” he says, buoyant in his optimism. “People think that if you’re fit, you’re healthy. Fitness is important but equally important, or more important, is what we’re putting into our bodies every single day. If people could better inform themselves and start to take their biomarkers on a regular basis, they will be able to make better choices; you’ve got to know your numbers.
A former runner, he compares biomarkers to race times. “I learned that lesson early, when Jim Fixx dropped over dead with a heart attack….They did the autopsy on him and some of his arteries were closed up 98 percent. So I actually think diet is more important than exercise.
“[Knowing your biomarkers] is kind of like a game, like ‘I’m going to run a marathon in under three hours.’ It’s the same way with your biomarkers. You want to get your cholesterol down, your blood pressure, your weight. It’s kind of fun, and if people took those numbers as seriously as they took their times, they would see their health and their vitality and their longevity increase…and,” he adds, “they’d have a happier life.”
He’s not finished with his revolutionary initiatives. Mackey said he and Whole Foods Market are working on a solution for lower income people living in “food deserts,” like the Del Valle area near Austin where there is not a grocery store.
“I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “We’ve got a very exciting idea that can make healthy foods accessible to a lot of the poorest people [in the nation]. We’re going to be doing some experiments in that regard in the next few years, but we’re not ready to talk about it yet. It’ll be ready for prime time in a year or so.”