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Interview with Elson Haas, M.D.
Nutrition Educator, Author, and Practitioner of Integrative and Preventive Medicine for over 25 years

By Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher

Dr. Elson Haas is the author of several best-selling books including Staying Healthy with the Seasons, Staying Healthy with Nutrition, The Detox Diet and A Cookbook for All Seasons. For over 25 years he has been devoted to healing through the process of good nutrition, detoxification and cleansing, and has seen thousands of patients transform their health. He is the Medical Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California.

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The Share Guide: Would you agree that vegetarianism is ultimately the best diet?
Dr. Elson Haas: Vegetarianism, if it's done properly, can be a very healthy diet for people--in particular as a transition diet for those people who have consumed too much animal foods (both dairy fat and meat) and end up having high cholesterol, high blood pressure and the typical American degenerative diseases. But any time we limit our diet and avoid certain food groups we run the risk of having deficiencies and problems from those things we are avoiding. With dietary knowledge we can stay aware of the things we may be low in, such as protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and even calcium if we are avoiding dairy products. We need to make sure we are getting all the necessary nutrients--either through certain other foods or by taking nutritional supplements.

The Share Guide: So you think a vegetarian diet is a good detox or transition diet for people who still want to eat some meat?
Dr. Elson Haas: Yes, I think it is a balancing diet for people who have over consumed meat. But I see a fair amount of people in my practice who have been strict vegetarians for a long time, and many of them have trouble maintaining their health and vitality easily because they get underweight and find it hard to keep their bodies warm. I personally have been primarily vegetarian over the last 25 years, but I have started eating fish and occasionally some good quality poultry. This has helped keep my body warmer and I have better energy. I do minimize dairy products and eggs. Diet is very individual; people need to pay attention to their own individuality, plus the seasons and the climate. We also need to look at the diet we grew up on, which our body has gotten used to. Each of us needs to create our own diet and I believe that a high amount of vegetarianism in that diet is healthy--so that people are eating primarily fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans, some nuts and seeds, and a small amounts of eggs and dairy products, if they can handle that. Individuals can also add some level of animal protein if they choose to do that.

The Share Guide: Our assistant here at The Share Guide also does bodywork. She has mentioned to me that a lot of the people she works on in Calistoga are vegetarian, and that they are very soft. Her impression was that there were a lot of weak or wimpy looking vegetarians.
Dr. Elson Haas: I see that also. It might have to do with the level of oils in their diet. Getting the right amount and the right quality of oils is key. Good quality nuts and seeds (ideally raw and organic), and good quality oils such as olive oil and flax seed oil, really help keep the tissues lubricated. Unfortunately, there are too many junky oils and fats in foods, such as a lot of the oils in baked goods that people consume. It's important to realize that just as there are people who eat mostly meat and potatoes and drink alcohol and have a body that is very congested and toxic, there are also people who don't get enough quality protein and oils and end up with problems. This comes back to my belief that we need to find a balanced diet for ourselves. When we get out of balance nutritionally, we either get congested and toxic from too much of the junk our body doesn't process well, or we experience the opposite: deficiency. In that case we aren't getting enough of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids that our body needs to function optimally and to maintain healthy tissues. Whatever diet we choose, we need to be aware that we are getting adequate levels of all nutrients. Every one has different needs. If you are someone who is working out a lot or doing weight training, you need more protein. If you are trying to quit caffeine and sugar and going through a detoxification period, then you need less protein and more high water content foods like fruits and vegetables. The key to nutrition is looking at what it takes to maintain balance, strength and health.

The Share Guide: There are a lot of nutrition books that say it is very important to eat protein with carbohydrates--for example, The Zone Diet. That plan recommends we eat a specific percentage of carbohydrates, proteins and fat: 40-30-30. What are your thoughts on this?
Dr. Elson Haas: I don't agree. Proteins need more hydrochloric acid output and carbohydrates need a little more alkaline. When we eat bread or pasta, we don't release as much hydrochloric acid and the pH balance in the stomach and small intestine is lower. When we eat protein and charbohydrates together, we send a mixed message to our stomach and digestive tract. We may not digest either as well. People who have strong digestion can handle most combinations, but people with weaker digestion may get gas or bloating or have trouble when they eat a heavier meal. Sensitive people will do better when they watch their food combining, which means no sandwiches with protein, no pasta or rice with fish. It also means avoiding fruits (and fruit sugars) with other foods, not drinking fruit juice with meals, and not eating fruits close to other richer foods because it will sit in the digestive tract before it empties and may start to ferment. This is a little hard for people, but those who have difficulty with digestion will often notice an improvement when they food combine more properly.

The Share Guide: It sounds like what you recommend is the opposite of The Zone Diet and those types of plans.
Dr. Elson Haas: I believe that we should balance our diet on a day-to-day basis rather than a meal-to-meal basis. Most meals do have carbohydrates, protein and fat in them, but it doesn't have to be in an exact ratio. I think one of the keys in healthy nutrition is to make sure we eat on average 40 to 50% vegetables in the diet. They are the healthiest food, with lower calories, lots of nutrients, good water content, and they support good digestion and elimination. Most people don't do this. Back in the 80's one of the popular books was Fit For Life. It was based on food combining, with fruit in the morning, and the other meals were mainly vegetables with one other concentrated food, could be protein, could be a carbohydrate. If you want ideal food combining, eat a high amount of fruits and vegetables. One of the things about insulin resistance and the whole idea The Zone Diet is based on--which is carbohydrate intolerance--is that people tend to consume very high amounts of carbohydrates…for example, juice, a waffle and a piece of fruit for breakfast. All are simple sugars (with a little bit of complex) and easily absorbable, so you get a quick increase in your blood sugar--and then later a quick decrease in your blood sugar. By adding protein to that, like nuts and seeds, or a little piece of turkey sausage with your breakfast or protein with your lunch, you slow down the quick absorbability of those sugars by delaying the intake, because the protein slows down the stomach digestion. Then you don't get the glycemic rush of that carbohydrate meal. That's the real point, rather than you should always eat carbohydrate with protein. I want to clarify that. There are many different kinds of diets that have come out in the past 20 or 30 years, which I put together in A Cookbook for All Seasons. It is based on the seasons, food combining, and getting a balance of your diet over the entire day rather than the idea that every meal should have a balance of the food groups.

The Share Guide: Just to clarify, it's lower glycemic index foods that we are seeking.
Dr. Elson Haas: Yes. There is an article and clarification and a whole chart on the glycemic index on my website.

The Share Guide: What do you think of Dr. McDougall's program, which is vegan?
Dr. Elson Haas: That is very strict, and I think it's a greater limitation. You have to pay close attention to make sure you are getting a balanced diet with good quality oils, and getting enough B12, protein, zinc, iron, calcium, etc. It can certainly be done. It is a very healthy diet to help balance out people that are ill. Nutrition is one of the building blocks of good health. When we have imbalances or problems in nutrition, it affects us day-to-day but the main effects are over 10, 20, 30 years.

The Share Guide: So it's a cumulative effect?
Dr. Elson Haas: Yes, a cumulative effect from certain habits, including consuming a lot of caffeine, sugar or alcohol, and a lot of the other things I talk about in the Detox Diet. Someone who has been on the Standard American Diet (The SAD diet) and is overweight and starts to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and early onset diabetes, they will benefit from reversing that diet and getting rid of those things which cause those problems--which I believe is high protein, high fat animal foods. Whenever you get people to detoxify and support themselves with nutritious food and get away from junk food, they are going to improve their health. John McDougall has great results with people when they are in a rebalancing state from early onset degenerative disease so common in this culture. But when people that are 15 to 20 years old start on this diet and do it long term, they are left with the same problems we discussed about as a strict vegetarian earlier in our conversation--they have nutritional deficiencies, kind of pasty with soft bodies, yin bodies as you say. I don't think it's necessarily a healthy diet long-term.
I think we need to balance out all these different so called fad diets, and come up with a more basic, healthy approach like the Mediterranean diet that Andy Weil talks about in his books. The diet I recommend in my books gives people a whole array of food over the entire day. Basically, you start out with fruits and whole grains in the morning, then you have a nut or seed snack to get the oils in at midmorning. Lunch is usually protein and vegetables, and then a light snack in the afternoon of fruit or vegetable. Dinner is usually a starch and vegetable or a protein and vegetable and then a light evening snack if you need it. These are not huge meals. The focus is on creating simple plans. The foods you choose are ideally the foods that nature provides at that time and place. For example, in autumn we have lots of apples, broccoli, cauliflower, etc, then in spring and summer there are more greens. As we get into the colder climate we need more grains, nuts and seeds and the hard squashes we have to bake. In winter we eat the things that store well or keep our bodies warm. This is part of the Chinese concept, the macrobiotic concept. Before we had good food storage, shipping and refrigeration, people had to eat this way. This is the way people ate for thousands of years before modern times. We can say we have made improvements, but we have also created a lot more diseases from dietary issues. Our bodies do much better on a more natural, seasonal, peasant-type diet than on the affluent, commercial, restaurant-type diet.

The Share Guide: I agree. I do want you to know that last year for our Diet & Nutrition issue I interviewed Dr. John McDougall and John Robbins. I liked what both of them had to say. I feel that McDougall is being a little more spartan or hard core and it is a hard diet to maintain. But I think all of you are wonderful and have a lot to offer us poor lay people who are suffering at the mercy of the processed food manufacturers. Over at Whole Foods and other natural foods markets, you are going to find better food choices.
Dr. Haas: At natural food stores there still is a lot of "healthy junk food," which is not as whole and vital as you might think. For example, there are lots of chips that are a little healthier than the supermarket variety but still not a good choice. The foods at natural food stores have less sugar, less food additives, less food coloring, and that's definitely a plus. But there are also so-so choices and optimal choices when you are shopping. Ideally we should all have gardens so we have some food available in our own backyard.

The Share Guide: In other words, a natural candy bar is better than a Baby Ruth, but it's still better to just go for an apple if you want a quick snack.
Dr. Haas: Right! An apple or date and a few raisins or something. That is a quick sugar-based choice. Oftentimes I'll eat on the road; I'll carry a bag of almonds and 3 or 4 apples. I can eat a handful of almonds and an apple and that's to me a wholesome breakfast that is giving me lots of nutrients, and I'm balancing out the apple sugar with the proteins and oils in the almonds, and they actually do digest together pretty well.

The Share Guide: I often carry trail mix and fruit while I am on the road. You can't always find healthy food when you are out and you need something to tide you over.
Dr. Haas: One of the keys to putting together a healthy diet--and everyone has got excuses why it is hard to do--is you really need to make it your wish and create what you need before you leave the house. If you are on a special diet and you don't take food to work, and all of a sudden at 1:30 in the afternoon you get hungry, your choices and discrimination are going to be much less. I work a lot with the purification process. I've written an action article that will be on my website. It deals with the two levels of cleaning out and incorporates two components. One is looking at SNACC (sugar, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and chemicals.) Most of the people in this culture have a habit of at least one of those. Many people, probably 50%, have more than one. Taking a break from those substances and getting your body to detoxify to a certain level and feel what it is like to not be hooked into those common addictions, is one level of improved health.
Then the next level is what I write about in the False Fat Diet, a book about food reactions. It doesn't refer to fats in the diet but to the fat in your body. "False fat" is a result of the bloating and swelling that come from food reactions that make us look and feel fatter than we really are. It has to do with bloating, gas, and water retention. Women experience this a little bit more than men do. Most overweight people have some level of false fat. This comes from overconsuming common foods like wheat and dairy products, corn, soy, peanuts, eggs and sugar. Your body can react to these foods through the immune system, through the biochemistry and hormones. So the next level of clean up or purification is to take a break from any of the foods that you are habituated to. Oftentimes people lose weight more quickly and start to clear up a lot of the other symptoms that they just thought were conditions, like nasal allergies and sinus problems, indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome (one of the most common gastro-intestinal disorders these days). Often people have yeast overgrowth, parasites and/or food reactions, and that creates dysfunction, gas, and bloating and occasional cramps. The doctors work them up and don't find anything so they call it "irritable bowel syndrome." Usually you can find something that's causing the irritation. Oftentimes when people go through these two stages of purification, they quickly feel better, more clear headed, their skin looks better, and they feel more youthful and vital. Then they have the option to say that "I like to feel this way and am willing now to do the work." Part of the benefit is that when people get into that clear state, and then they start to bring these foods and substances back in, they can really see how they're affected by them.
In 1975, when I moved into alternative medicine more significantly, I did a 10 day juice cleanse. I write about this in a couple of my books. I felt so profoundly different: my allergies went away within 3 days, and my weight started to come down very quickly because I was 40-50 pounds overweight. I started to have an energy, vitality, mental clarity, perception, that was so much of a shift from how I felt before that I said, "This is what I want my life to be like; I want to feel like this every day!" So I knew that I couldn't go back to those old habits of burgers, fries, sodas, junk, overeating, dairy products, all those things. That is when I shifted more to a vegetarian diet and went through my cleansing and detox over a couple year period because I had 25 years of a junky diet.

The Share Guide: It's surprising we survived the baloney and white bread years of our childhood!
Dr. Haas: Our bodies are very forgiving in youth; they can handle more. Back then we were inundated with capitalistic marketing plans from the Dairy Council and the meat industry, and everybody had this pushed down their throats, the parents particularly. "Don't breast feed your kids, this formula is much better for them." Crap like that. . .it helped people sell products and helped these white American males make more money!

The Share Guide: They were doing that at our expense by giving false education.
Dr. Haas: Yes, 50-75% of all these products produced are unhealthy for human consumption. You go in your grocery stores and everything up and down those aisles are convenient, yes, and some of them are OK, but by and large, if people had to turn back to what nature provides, we would have a much healthier population.

The Share Guide: I think we have been sold a bill of goods, and that we have sacrificed health for convenience. I think it's gong to catch up with us in the long run.
Dr. Haas: Yes, it catches up to people every day.

The Share Guide: In your books you mentioned that there is a certain time of the year that is best to do a detox diet and that is springtime?
Dr. Haas: Yes. Ever since I did my 10-day Master Cleanser back in 1975, I do it every spring for 10 days with a group of 20 or 30 people at my office. It is such a profound experience. Springtime is naturally the time when the weather starts to warm up a bit, particularly in California, and the greens are out there and it is a time when your body wants to naturally lighten up and let go of some of the density from the winter time. We invigorate ourselves by letting the sludge of winter cleanse out of our bodies and ourselves.

The Share Guide: What month do you do your Master Cleansing Program?
Dr. Haas: I do it mid March usually. I cleanse into spring; I am in the middle of it by the Spring Equinox.

The Share Guide: There you have it, Readers! This is perfect, the key cleansing time. So one could read The Detox Diet and then find recipes that apply to that based on the seasons in The Cookbook for All Seasons.
Dr. Haas: In all of the books I talk about the cleansing experience. Actually, my first book was Staying Healthy With the Seasons, which is just revised and coming out as a 21st century edition this Spring. That is really where I wrote about my first experience and first groups that I did cleansing with. It gives more of a discussion of the Master Cleansing experience.

The Share Guide: Good. I have a couple of questions about other subjects such as supplements. In your book, Staying Healthy with Nutrition, on page 544 is the "General Adult Health Insurance Daily Supplement Program." It lists all the things that you think we should have in our daily supplements. So I took that list into our local natural foods store and I went up and down the aisles with the vitamin person and chose a brand. The brand that I chose was New Chapter. Not only did they cover this complete list, but they are what are called "whole food supplements." Supposedly they are more assimilable.
Dr. Haas: Yes, theoretically.

The Share Guide: But I have also read in some sources that the body digests synthetic vitamins as easily as natural ones.
Dr. Haas: No one has done what I would consider a true study, that really shows what level you get into your bloodstream after you take these supplements. I don't believe those that say "Just eat a healthy diet, you don't really need supplements," because there are two levels of nutritional medicine. One is getting the foods you need to support your body and not be deficient. Then there is the next level which is therapeutic support--getting higher levels of anti-oxidants circulating in your body. But I want people to know I don't promote good supplements over a good diet. I think people must look at their individual needs.

The Share Guide: So you shouldn't eat unhealthy foods and think vitamins are going to make up for it.
Dr. Haas: That's right. You have to take into account our exposure to pollution and chemicals in modern society, the possible lower nutrient levels in grown foods, the stress people are under, and the weakness in the digestion assimilation that happens over years of bad eating. I think people benefit from some level of insurance by taking supplements. If you are at risk for certain illnesses in your family history, or you have certain conditions, then you should add nutritional support. I look at vitamins and minerals and essential fats as diet support and I look at herbs as medicinal, therapeutic support. My approach in medicine is lifestyle first--good diet, regular exercise, managing stress, getting good sleep, are the keys to preventive medicine. The next level is nutritional and natural therapies. The last level is drugs, if you cannot correct the problem with herbs and nutrients. That is how I work in practice and that is how people should approach their conditions and illnesses. When people don't feel good and have chronic problems, they should look at their lifestyle habits that might be contributing to the problem. Always look first to natural therapies you can use--and then resort to your medical doctor, who is going to give your disease a name and give you a prescription. As my friend Bethany Argyle says, "doctors specialize in giving a pill, a bill, and a refill."

The Share Guide: I know people who have been faithfully taking cheap supplements for many years, but I have heard that cheap drug store vitamins and minerals just go right through you and don't really do any good. Is this true?
Dr. Haas: I don't think they go right through you, but I think the quality is very similar to the quality of a good diet versus a bad diet. There are hydrocarbon-based synthetic, lower quality supplements and then there are better quality nutrients that don't have a lot of additives or filler and aren't extracted from lower level foods. They will cost more. One of the good examples is vitamin E. You can get it at one of the chain drug stores: a bottle of 400IU or 1000IU vitamin E as DL-alpha tocopherol, which is not a very active component of vitamin E. It is a synthetic based, very cheap supplement. Or you can spend 5 to 10 times more and get what has been used in research, and what actually works in your body as a quality antioxidant. This is a mixed tocopherol from natural sources (that have some D-alpha tocopherol, gamma and other tocopherols) and probably has much more effect in your body. Most people who don't really understand the biochemistry will buy something because it is cheaper, but there is an aspect of looking at both quality and cost! If you want high quality with mixed tocopherols, you might be able to find a bottle of 100 capsules for $9--$10, or you might even spend $20. I have people bring their bags of supplements in all the time. I look at them, and say, "Yes, this is an okay one," or "No, this one is not good." You have to learn enough to compare one brand to another, and with similar ingredients--as we say compare "apples to apples." A lot of people don't do that.

The Share Guide: Many young children grow up on a diet of french fries, pizza and Coca-Cola. What are the long term health effects of this and how do we help our children to eat better?
Dr. Haas: That's probably the most important question because I want to affect children. The last chapter of my book Staying Healthy Shoppers Guide--Feed Your Family Safely is "Nourishing our Children." The number one guideline of ten guidelines (I have it up on my website as well) is SET A GOOD EXAMPLE. If you eat a certain way, children will do what you do. You may be able to discipline them momentarily, even though you may be doing something bad for yourself. But ultimately they will pick up the habits that they see. If you are eating chips and beer for your dinner, they are eventually going to do that too. To get the kids involved in balancing their diet, have them help you shop and prepare foods, and have the right foods available in the house--that they like. A lot of times there's cooperation and compromise that needs to happen. There have to be some treats, although I do not encourage people to use food and sugar treats as rewards and the end-all for behavior and love, because we are inundated with sugar. The amount of sugar people consume in this culture is huge, 150 pounds a year!

The Share Guide: That is the way we were raised.
Dr. Haas: That is the way a lot of people were raised. I have many patients that have weight issues, and when they are feeling sad or they need some loving, they turn to food and they turn to sugars. In Chinese medicine, one of the profound philosophies is when we are craving sugars, we are looking for mother--we are looking to be comforted and to be told that everything is OK, and we seek that out in our food.

The Share Guide: What is the best method for combating dessert cravings?
Dr. Haas: You can find healthier desserts that aren't rich in fats and sugar. We talked about apples and dates, maybe a little granola and yogurt if you like that. Also, insatiable cravings for sugar can be controlled by eating better quality proteins. Certain supplements like chromium, glutamine, and amino acids can help your brain have fewer cravings for sugars. A lot of these cravings are patterns and habits that we bring with us over many years, and that surface when we are emotionally stressed. Some people may need to seek counseling and hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy is great at getting to those places where you first started to do these things and what was going on. You need to give your brain a new message so you no longer react or respond to life in that same way. How do we get people to change, that is the key. We have learned a lot more about what is a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. But people are creatures of habit and part of the key is to motivate them enough to start something--even a week or two weeks--and if they get results, that is positive feedback. They start to feel better, their digestion is better, and they start to feel more vital. Their skin looks better and their allergies diminish. That's motivation! I was a terrible creature of habit with my diet. I had to really shift and discovered a whole different world--I didn't know humans could feel like this.

The Share Guide: How large of a percentage of the population do you think suffers from food allergies?
Dr. Haas: I prefer to say food reactions; probably fewer than 10% are truly food allergies. I would say probably 60&endash;80% of all people have some level of food reaction and a lot of that comes from the way we combine our foods--from stress to our digestive tract, poor digestion, leaky gut, yeast over growth, etc., which cause us to hyper-react or over respond to certain types of foods. As I discuss in The False Fat Diet, there are 4 or 5 ways that we can react to food: we can react through antibodies, by cell reaction, we can have drug-like reactions to food such as a headache from red wine or aged cheese.

The Share Guide: For those of us that dine out a lot, restaurant menus are challenging. What strategy do you recommend for eating healthfully while dining out?
Dr. Haas: I avoid sugar, dairy products and wheat. To go in a restaurant and find something, I will first make the waitperson aware that I have food reactions, and let them know my needs. I don't like certain kinds of sauces, and I don't want black pepper on my food. Ultimately, you want to find restaurants that you know are conscious about the way they cook their food. Part of the risk is that there are a lot of hidden ingredients, a lot of sauces, things you may not be used to eating, and cheaper quality ingredients, cooking oils particularly. I don't think it is wise for people to eat out too regularly. I would focus on the foods you know are good for you. You can go to restaurants that make healthier food where you can get a good quality salad, a piece of fish or poultry if you eat that, or get grains and beans if you go to a more vegetarian-oriented restaurant. But as Andy Weil has mentioned, we should really eat two-thirds or more of our foods as home cooked meals of good quality foods.

The Share Guide: How important do you think it is to eat organic food?
Dr. Haas: I think it important to eat as much organic food as possible. I have on my website the 10-25 key foods to buy organic. Those are the things that are usually sprayed directly like leafy greens and strawberries (which are usually heavily treated if they are not organic). If you have babies you are feeding, you want to give them as much organic food as possible because their sensitivity to chemicals is stronger. Any foods you eat regularly, you might want to buy organic as well. My overall message, to summarize here, is eat as much wholesome food as possible and avoid as much junk and chemicals as you can. That is a real basic statement. A lot of good quality eating is common sense--and not giving into your emotional needs, or the pressure to be like everybody else. And we really need to pay attention to our children. Do not support them in consuming all the sugary cereals, the candy and all the food coloring. We want to keep them away from aspartame, and MSG, which affects their nervous system.

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