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Gulf & Main Magazine

Embracing The CHIP Lifestyle - Whole Food, Plant-based Plan Improves Southwest Floridians’ Health

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” —Hippocrates

Mary Ann Parsons thought she was conscientious about her food choices. She had been a vegetarian for decades—eschewing meat except for seafood. Yet she got a real wake-up call during an annual physical seven years ago, when she was turning 60.

The doctor informed her she was pre-diabetic. He recommended three medications for her high blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. “Can I do it any other way?” she implored. He told her, “You need to take these pills.”

Parsons didn’t want to be a “slave to monthly prescriptions.” So Parsons—a master gardener who runs programs throughout Lee County for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Office—began to conduct serious research and learned “our chronic diseases can be reversed.”

 She and her husband, Phil, discovered the science-based Complete Health Improvement Program, known as CHIP. It promotes lifestyle changes, emphasizing whole food, plant-based eating and regular exercise, along with positive thinking and social connections.

CHIP participants’ weight, blood pressure and bloodwork were taken at the beginning of the course, and at the end. Parsons had lost 25 pounds and her blood sugar and pressure were normal. Her bad cholesterol had dropped from 225 to 149.

Her biggest fear was diabetes, which she calls “all over my family.” But to Parsons, born and raised in Wisconsin, the land of dairy, “what’s hereditary is the lifestyle” and family eating habits.

The 18-session course includes a cookbook, workbook and textbook, pedometer, and cooking demonstrations with a meal. “It’s definitely a huge time commitment but what would you rather have, diabetes for the rest of your life?” she asks.

Ultimately, Parsons realized that it was the dairy and processed foods that had led to her poor health. And, she notes, there are plenty of junk foods that fit under a “vegetarian umbrella.” 

 Seven years on, she is still practicing a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle and is an active member of the Facebook group, helping to organize its annual VegFest the past two years. “I feel 20 years younger than I should. I have more energy; I feel better. 

“It’s hard to explain how you feel when your body is getting the nutrition it needs,” she continues. “You feel good from the inside out.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease has been the nation’s leading cause of death for 80 years, leading to almost 634,000 deaths in 2016 alone. Diabetes landed seventh on the 2016 list, with 79,535 attributable deaths. Other than a congenital heart defect that someone is born with, it’s universally understood that “many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices,” the Mayo Clinic reports.

CHIP teaches “lifestyle medicine to reverse chronic disease. The potential is there not to manage but prevent or reverse disease process you might be experiencing,” says CHIP area manager Kathy Reynaert-Randall, who trains other program teachers statewide and nationally.

Reynaert-Randall makes it very clear they don’t tell people what they can or cannot eat. The facts presented by experts—and CHIP has been backed by 30 peer-reviewed scholarly reviews—speak for themselves, and they all point toward kicking meat, dairy and processed foods off of our daily plates.

“Once you say, ‘You can’t have it,’ it’s a roadblock for people,” she explains. Whole and plant-based food is food that’s grown—foods with little to no human manipulation or processing. This includes fruits, berries, nuts, beans and legumes, and grains.

“Food that’s grown, high fiber and low fat—those are the three things I drive home,” adds Reynaert-Randall. This automatically precludes dairy and meat but “we never say you can’t have anything. It’s a good, better, best situation.”

Because healthy workers experience less absenteeism and help contain insurance costs, CHIP is provided to employees of Lee and Collier counties’ school systems, as well as Lee Health and Naples Community Hospital. It is also offered through area churches and about three times a year to the community, costing an average of $600.

Athlete Makes a Change

Marcus Watts might seem like an unlikely plant-based eater. He is a former Florida Gulf Coast University and professional basketball player who co-owns CrossFit Estero and can squat 435 pounds. He was ostensibly as fit as a fiddle in 2013 when he suffered two blood clots, causing a life-threatening pulmonary embolism (the blockage of one of the pulmonary arteries in the lungs). 

“I was in the best shape of my life,” he recalls. “I ran faster and recovered [from strenuous workouts] faster. Visually, I looked better than when I was in pro sports or college.” 

 Growing up in an Army family, Watts had lived around the world and been exposed to the culinary habits of other cultures, and was struck by the localness and freshness of foods in some of the locations “The quality of food was drastic,” he says.

A month and a half after the health crisis, he decided to stop going to medical checkups because his medical providers weren’t giving him the info he was seeking. He was loading up on bacon and eggs as part of his athlete’s diet but his cholesterol checked out perfectly.

They couldn’t explain why the clots occurred, and he’s not the type of person to take so much as ibuprofen. “I didn’t feel informed. I came to grips about going against doctors’ orders and decided to take my life into my own hands, and that’s what I did.”

Watts, a fitness and nutrition coach, slowly removed meat from his diet. When he was able to return to physical training, “I was stronger than I’d ever been. My performance went through the roof. I had no inflammation, and quickly recovered from workouts,” says Watts, 34. “It was an eye-opening experiment at that.” 

He eventually gave up fish and eggs, too. He eats a lot of nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed and pumpkin seeds, vegetables, almond-cashew “milk,” oatmeal, soy, tofu, beans, fruit and smoothies. (Watts loves to throw watermelon in the blender with ice; it’s high in iron.) “I am kind of breaking a lot of the myths because I’m a big and strong guy,” he admits.

However, Watts hasn’t totally kicked processed food. For instance, he eats whole-grain bagels, but he can also comprehend the ingredients. He calls it “the five-ingredient rule.” If something has more than five ingredients or he can’t pronounce and identify ingredients, it stays on the shelf.

Watts has coached people in the paleo diet, which includes animal protein and saturated fats such as butter. And he works with athletes on whatever type of diet they want or need. He doesn’t care if someone identifies as a vegan, who abstains from the use of all animal products, or a vegetarian, who may include dairy and eggs in their diet.

“I don’t like to put labels on anything—it causes dissension in the ranks. Everyone has their own journey, and that’s what matters,” he says. However, he does tell clients to open their minds and try to adopt positive changes into their lifestyles.

The shorthand for the Standard America Diet is “SAD.” Watts echoes Parsons when he says he understands why we are prone to default to familiar eating patterns. “It’s what you’re used to,” he says.

Parsons sums it up this way: “It’s not so much what you give up, it’s what you gain, which is your health. Nothing is worth more than your health. It’s the choices you make and what you put on your plate that makes all the difference.”

Cathy Chestnut is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media who explores the people and places that make Southwest Florida, her hometown stomping grounds, unique.

Simple Checklist, Crucial Choices

T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., and his son, Thomas M. Campbell, M.D., researched the groundbreaking book, The China Study, in 2005 (and revised in 2016). It launched the T. Colin 

 Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, which provides recipes, sample menus, transformational stories and educational courses on living a whole food, plant-based lifestyle. The center lists the following foods to wean from your plate:

  • Meat—Fish, poultry, seafood, red meat, processed meat
  • Dairy—Yogurt, milk, cheese, half and half, cream, buttermilk
  • Added fats—Liquid oils, coconut oil, margarine, butter
  • Eggs
  • Vegan replacement foods—Vegan “cheese” and “meats” containing any oil
  • Refined flour—All wheat flours that are not 100% whole wheat
  • Predominantly “added sugar” foods—Candy bars, many types of snack and energy bars, cookies, cakes, pastries
  • Beverages—Soda, fruit juice (even 100% pure fruit juice), sports drinks, energy drinks, blended coffee and tea drinks (Frappuccinos, chai tea and similar sweetened drinks)

The Complete Health Improvement Program, known as CHIP, is provided to school district and hospital employees in Lee and Collier counties, as well as through churches and to the public. It is comprised of 18 sessions lasting 45 minutes each, typically two nights a week for nine weeks.

Get the Facts

CHIP area manager Kathy Reynaert-Randall, who says she raised her six children on a whole food, plant-based lifestyle, is an instructor and facilitator. It is a science-based program that has five areas with the following tools for participants:

  • Eat more—cookbook
  • Live more— workbook
  • Learn more—textbook
  • Move more—pedometer
  • Drink more—water bottle

For more information about CHIP, call Kathy Reynaert-Randall at 239-768-0739 or visit