In this highly informative and educational interview, we speak with Robyn Chuter from Empower Total Health about nutritional myths, the benefits of plant-based eating, the growth of the plant-based nutrition field, and more...
In this installment of our interview series, we're talking with Robyn Chuter. Robyn is a university-qualified naturopath, holding a Bachelor of Health Science from the University of New England, and a Diploma of Naturopathy from the Australasian College of Natural Therapies. Through her practice, Empower Total Health, Robyn employs a nutrition-based approach to help clients recover from chronic illness, and improve their health for life.
Hi Robyn! Thanks so much for doing this interview with us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to plant-based eating?
At the age of 15, I decided to stop eating animals because I realised that I was being a complete hypocrite in calling myself an animal lover, but continuing to eat certain animals. I didn’t announce my decision to my family, because I was afraid they wouldn’t support me. It took them about 3 months to figure out that I was no longer eating meat, poultry or seafood (our family dog figured it out pretty quickly though, as she was the beneficiary of all my uneaten chops, steak and drumsticks!). Luckily for me, my mother’s father - whom I never met - was a Seventh Day Adventist and a lifelong vegetarian, so it turned out that my mother, at least, wasn’t as freaked out by my decision as I’d feared.
I must admit I was a terrible vegetarian for the first few years. I cut out meat and poultry but largely replaced them with dairy products, eggs and processed foods. Consequently, my health went downhill pretty rapidly – I gained weight, had terrible acne, and suffered from chronic sore throats, headache and fatigue.
By my late teens I’d become seriously interested in health and nutrition, and I decided to become a naturopath so that I could learn how to improve my own health, and help others get their own health back too.
I was extremely fortunate that my very first nutrition lecturer at naturopathic college ate a 100% wholefood plant-based diet himself, and was incredibly knowledgeable about plant-based nutrition. I began incorporating a lot more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into my diet, and cutting way back on dairy, eggs and processed foods. The results were dramatic – I lost weight, my skin cleared up and my energy level skyrocketed. That was enough to sell me on the benefits of a wholefood plant-based diet.
Over the ensuing years, I learned more and more about the link between consumption of animal products and chronic disease, including the type 2 diabetes that plagues both sides of my family. Along with my husband and 2 children, I decided to go completely vegan in 2005, motivated by ethical, environmental and health considerations.
Those are all excellent reasons to make the switch. Could you also tell us a little about your business, Empower Total Health, and what it is that you do?
I had naturopathic training, which taught me to use ‘pills and potions’ to treat illness, however from the time I began my practice 20 years ago I have used diet and lifestyle modification as my major treatment modalities. I specialise in helping people with chronic, medically incurable conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and autoimmune disease to recover their health and well-being, which allows them to get off most or all of their prescription medications.
After a couple of years in practice, I realised that merely imparting information to my clients about how they could get healthy wasn’t a guarantee that they would follow my advice! Many people who came to see me genuinely wanted to change their way of eating and living, but faced significant obstacles to change. My naturopathic training hadn’t really equipped me to help people whose family and friends weren’t supportive of them changing, or people with a pattern of chronic self-sabotage in everything they undertook (including trying to eat more healthfully). I undertook a Graduate Diploma of Counselling, and later added training in Emotional Freedom Techniques and Matrix Reimprinting in order to be more effective at helping my clients bridge the gap between knowing what to do to be healthy and happy, and actually doing it.
I work intensively with my patients - both individually and in group nutrition, cooking and behaviour change programs - to help them get past their own psychological, behavioural and social barriers to change, so they can implement what I teach them and reap the many benefits.
That's awesome Robyn! It must be a great feeling to help people make such monumental changes.
No matter how many times I see one of my clients transform their health – recover their lost vitality; regain mobility that had been impaired due to joint pain or chronic obesity; lose weight for the first time in their lives without restricting their food intake; drop their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar (and the medications they were on to manipulate these risk factors); emerge from depression or anxiety and start embracing their potential for happiness and life satisfaction – it never gets old! I’m excited for every single client who undertakes diet and lifestyle change and experiences the inevitable, and usually progressive, improvement in their health and well-being.
Yes, and I imagine your clients are ecstatic about their results as well! Based on what you've seen with your clients, what would you say are some of the dietary habits that contribute to negative health outcomes?
It goes way beyond my opinion! There’s really solid and consistent evidence from scientific research conducted all over the world that eating diets high in either animal products, refined foods, or both, is detrimental to health. Chronic diseases such as many types of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, gall bladder disease, asthma, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease and a laundry list of others, have all been linked to Western-style diets.
I work with many people who have become vegan for ethical reasons. They do a stellar job of eliminating animal products from their diets, but many of them fail to incorporate sufficient fresh produce, whole grains and legumes into their diets. Instead they rely on ‘fake’ meats and cheeses, and overly-processed carbohydrate foods. As a result, many struggle with their weight, suffer low vitality, experience skin problems, and even have ongoing high cholesterol and blood pressure, despite eating an all-plant diet. It’s very clear to me that if you want optimal health, it’s not enough just to eliminate animal products; you have to toss out the refined foods and junk carbohydrates too, and load up your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes; augmented by small amounts of nuts and seeds.
That's excellent advice- and exactly what we recommend here too! In addition to addressing health issues, what 'mis-truths' about nutrition would you like to help dispel, if possible?
The myth that humans evolved on a high-meat diet, and therefore we need to eat meat now, is one that I would dearly love to see consigned to the graveyard of notions that everyone used to subscribe to! Every aspect of human anatomy and physiology indicates that we are adapted to eating a diet composed mostly of plant foods. Starch granules that have been found in the dental plaque of ancient humans, grinding tools used to process grains and legumes, and other archaeological evidence indicates that humans have been eating a starch-based diet for hundreds of thousands of years. This is in direct contradiction to the dogma of Paleo advocates who claim that these foods only entered the human diet during the Neolithic period (around 10,000 years ago).
An article published in the Quarterly Review of Biology in September 2015 laid out the evidence that a diet high in starch – found only in plant products – was critical for human brain development and reproductive success during critical phase of our evolution. Sure, early humans ate meat when they could get it, but they weren’t good enough at getting enough of it to make a significant difference to their nutritional status, until relatively recently in our species’ history.
On a related note, I would like to see the ‘mis-truth’ that protein is the most important macronutrient, and that we need to eat animal products to get enough protein, sent to the same graveyard of ideas. I’m gob-smacked when I read articles written by dietitians and self-appointed nutrition ‘experts’ which claim that certain plant proteins are lacking in essential amino acids (they’re not, because only plants can make essential amino acids, and all plants make all of them). They also claim that people on plant-based diets need to combine various plant foods in the one meal in order to get enough essential amino acids (they don’t; all they need to do is eat enough whole plant foods to meet their energy requirements, and they’ll get more than enough protein for their needs); and that plant proteins are inferior because they don’t promote the rapid growth that animal proteins do. Since high growth rates in early life raise the risk of cancer in adulthood, it's better to take your own sweet time getting to your full adult height and weight!
False beliefs about calcium would be next on my hit-list. Despite scores of trials and dozens of meta-analyses concluding that high intakes of calcium – either through supplements or dietary intake – do not prevent bone fractures, the dairy industry continues to aggressively promote consumption of dairy to human children and adults (particularly older women) by repeating the long-discredited mantra that dairy products build strong bones. The most recent meta-analysis was published in August in the British Medical Journal, and the authors concluded that “Dietary calcium intake is not associated with risk of fracture, and there is no clinical trial evidence that increasing calcium intake from dietary sources prevents fractures.”
I would also love to see the myth that vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia dispelled. The published evidence shows that plant-eaters have no higher risk of anaemia or depleted iron stores than meat-eaters. Anecdotally, many of my female clients report that they always struggled with iron deficiency anaemia until they went plant-based, and now their haemoglobin and ferritin levels are much higher. This makes sense since the primary cause of iron deficiency anaemia in women of child-bearing age is heavy menstrual bleeding, and many women find their periods become much lighter on an all-plant diet.
Yes there's certainly plenty of nutritional mis-information out there- but it's really great to know these myths are being challenged by professionals such as yourself. In fact this brings us to our next question- in the years that you have been practicing, what growth have you witnessed in the area of plant-based nutrition? Do you think that interest in the subject will continue to increase?
When I began my practice 20 years ago, hardly anyone had heard of the word ‘vegan’, and those who had tended to associate it with a weird religious cult. I had a hard time even raising the subject of eating less meat and more plants with many of my clients, because of their entrenched prejudices about the ‘necessity’ of eating meat, eggs and dairy products. Now most restaurants have vegan options, and wait-staff are generally aware of what people on plant-based diets, do and don’t eat (with some notable exceptions!). About 30% of my clients are already on plant-based diets, and those who aren’t are much more open to the idea.
The adoption of a vegan diet by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Alicia Silverstone, Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Harrelson, Russell Brand, Ellen de Generes and Portia di Rossi has helped to bring it into mainstream consciousness. The steady flow of powerful individuals adopting plant-based diets either for health, ethical or environmental reasons (such as former US President Bill Clinton, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and former CEO of Viacom Tom Freston) has brought credibility to a way of eating that was formerly associated with long-haired, dope-smoking hippies!
The pioneering work of researchers and doctors including T. Colin Campbell, Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, Neal Barnard and John McDougall provides the scientific basis for practitioners like me to prescribe plant-based diets with confidence - both to sick people who want to get well, and to healthy people who want to prevent chronic diseases.
Recently I attended the 3rd International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference in California. Over 600 doctors, nurses, dietitians, health coaches, personal trainers and ‘lay-people’ who are interested in health promotion attended, from 15 countries. This was a 50% increase from the 400 delegates at the 2014 conference, which I also attended. I think this rapid growth in interest from health and medical practitioners is a sign of the changes that just have to be made, on a personal and societal level, if we want to avoid our countries becoming bankrupted by their current disease-care systems (emphatically NOT ‘health care systems’), and quite frankly, if we want to avoid extincting our species and rendering the Earth uninhabitable by countless other species!
You're right about that! It really is wonderful to witness this growth, and even better to be an active part of it, I am sure. So now it's time for something a little more personal- can you tell us what some of your favourite meals are? Are there any foods that you like to include on a daily basis?
I love kale!!! I eat it virtually every day, either raw in a smoothie or salad, or shredded and cooked into soup, stew, casserole… or just about anything really! I always eat a large raw salad each day – rain, hail or shine – and at least 3 pieces of fresh fruit. I make sure I include a heaped tablespoon of ground flaxseed every day too, because it’s so rich in omega 3 fats and cancer-fighting lignans.
A lot of my cooking really doesn’t follow a recipe; I just water-sauté some onion and garlic, then throw in whatever fresh vegetables I have, a can of diced tomatoes or bottle of passata, some cooked beans or lentils, and loads of herbs and spices. These throw-together meals have a special name in my household – ‘thingies’! Depending on which herbs and spices I use, the thingy might be Mediterranean-themed, Middle Eastern, North African, Indian or Mexican.
Lately I’ve been oven-roasting trays of vegetables such as sweet potato, beetroot, cauliflower and zucchini (I toss the vegetables in balsamic vinegar or vegetable stock rather than oil, before baking) and combining them with wholemeal couscous, quinoa or freekeh, and maybe some cooked chickpeas, served with a sauce made from pomegranate molasses and home-made soy yoghurt. This dish tastes great either warm or cold, so I make a big batch on the weekend and we eat the leftovers for lunch, along with a garden salad, for a couple of days.
My husband always begs me to make Tunisian Sweet Potato and Chick Pea Stew in the slow cooker, and my kids go crazy for stir-fry, which we load up with Asian greens and serve with chilli-marinated tofu and brown rice. I have lots of recipes on my website – just go to www.empowertotalhealth.com.au/recipe-directory and search the recipe categories.
Finally, what would be your number one tip for anybody looking to adopt a whole food plant-based diet?
Take a cooking class to familiarise yourself with the rich abundance of whole grains and legumes that will form the backbone of your diet. Most people who take my cooking classes have never heard of freekeh, pinto beans or black beluga lentils, and they have no idea how to prepare these nutritious and delicious foods. Learning how to batch cook whole food staples will save you time and money and massively increase your confidence in the kitchen.
Thank you Robyn for providing us with such educational and insightful responses! For more information on the health benefits of a plant based diet, be sure to visit Robyn's website, and to check out the guides and resources sections right here on PlantPlate.
The information on this website is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice or care for adults or children. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat health problems or illnesses without first consulting your doctor.