MEBANE — Aubrey Meador thought he was in pretty good shape.
The president of Arca, a cash automation technology company in Mebane, has been an avid runner for four years. At 53, he had seven marathons under his belt, and his only real issue was the joint pain he attributed to running.
The documentary “Forks Over Knives,” which advocates for a plant-based lifestyle, made a big impression on him, he said. He joined the 10-day Wholevana PlantPure Jumpstart program run by Mebane-based Campbell Wellness.
A blood test that put his total cholesterol level on the high side of 200 – more than medical experts consider optimal – surprised him, he said.
Ten days later, his total cholesterol was 145.
“The thing I noticed is I just started to feel better,” Meador said. “It was an eye-opener, really, to have my numbers drop like that.”
Months later, his wife, a daughter and roughly 60 of his employees have joined him for the December Jumpstart.
Healthy employees and families benefit everyone, Meador said. The company already helps with the cost of an employee program that buys fresh produce from a local farm, and they’ve held in-house workshops, although the message wasn’t always widely accepted, he said.
Now, employees are competing to get the best results, sharing food and ideas, and getting their families involved, he said.
Campbell Wellness President Nelson Campbell said significant health benefits are common on the Jumpstart program. It has expanded to Chapel Hill, Durham and Burlington, attracting more than 125 people, he said.
The program is founded in “The China Study,” a landmark report that showed people on average had more chronic diseases if they ate animal-based foods instead of primarily plants. Campbell’s father, T. Colin Campbell, is the study’s author and the company’s senior science adviser. His work, featured in “Forks Over Knives,” was “very threatening” to some corporations, who fought him and still fight national food policy changes, Campbell said.
The 3 ‘No’s’
Jumpstart is simple. No meat, dairy or white grains, flour or rice. There are no calories or carbohydrates to count, because the body burns plant-based foods for energy; other carbohydrates and calories are stored as fat, Campbell said. The more natural your food, the more benefit you get.
Registered dietician Suzanne Havala Hobbs agreed. The only supplement someone might need on a plant-based diet is a trace amount of Vitamin B12, she said. That usually can be obtained from fortified foods, such as cereals, breads and some soy products.
Hobbs is also a News & Observer columnist and a clinical associate professor in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. In the early 1990s, she was able to use some of The China Study data for her master’s thesis, and she is very familiar with Campbell’s work, she said.
A plant-based diet reduces your risk of heart disease, cancers, diabetes and many other chronic conditions, she said. Dramatic changes aren’t unusual, but the key is sustaining the diet over the long term and avoiding the pitfalls, she said.
“What’s more of a challenge is ensuring ... junk food doesn’t displace the good things you need from your diet,” she said.
So-called “junk-food vegans” avoid meat but indulge in potato chips, fries, white bread and other processed foods, Campbell said.
Chef Karel Leemkuil, culinary vice president, is in charge of the menu.
“For me, the key is to take the stigma away. That’s why I don’t like to use the word vegan, because a lot of people think something negative. But to say I have a plant-based lifestyle sounds different,” he said.
The Dutch native was classically trained in the Netherlands at a Michelin star restaurant and eventually became the executive chef for Seattle-based Holland America Cruise Lines and the airline catering company LSG/Sky Chefs in Miami, among others.
Now an American citizen, he lives in Hillsborough and has been eating a plant-based diet for about four years. It was tough at first to work without butter, milk, eggs and meat, Leemkuil said. Now, he doesn’t use those, oil or extra fats.
Starting with a foundation of fruits and vegetables, he adds peas and beans, seeds and nuts, whole grains and non-dairy milk, such as almond and soy. He makes it pop with fresh herbs and spices. Agave nectar is a good sweetener, Campbell said.
Leemkuil said he’s having fun learning how to develop flavors in nontraditional ways.
“If you take away fat, it is very hard to build flavor,” he said. “I think our ultimate goal is to prove to you that vegan food is not boring.”
The small culinary staff makes two daily Jumpstart meals at a production kitchen in Burlington and could launch an online market next year. The meals are picked up at local businesses, including the Respite Cafe in Durham and Weaver Street Market in Hillsborough and Carrboro.
It’s about everyone adopting a lifestyle of better health, Campbell said. If enough people make the change, it could cut health care costs and build the local economy, he said.
“When people eat this way, they value locally grown produce,” he said.
The company is looking for more local produce and, in the future, could automate its kitchen for storefront sales, he said. Nutritious food should be more affordable and more accessible, he said.
“The social mission of the company is to get this message and this food out to people everywhere regardless of their socioeconomic status,” he said.