Eric C. Sharer, MPH, RD, LDN, is a Registered Dietitian (RD), as well as a culinary expert, who is dedicated to promoting and embracing the health benefits of a plant based diet for disease prevention, treatment, and optimal health. His passion for food and health began at the age of 13, while working in a restaurant/resort. He combined his passion for cooking and nutrition by earning an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts and a Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Nutrition, both from Johnson & Wales University.
He then earned a Master of Public Health, with a concentration in community nutrition, and completed The Dietetic Internship Program, both at Benedictine University. Eric has extensive culinary arts training working in a wide variety of arenas. These include food production for specific diseases and all stages of the life cycle, working at resorts, fine catering, and as a pastry chef. In addition to working at The Block Center, Eric further promotes the benefits of a plant based diet by being the Chicago Outreach Coordinator for The Vegetarian Resource Group, and also conducts cooking classes and nutrition education as a Food for Life Instructor for The Cancer Project.
We sat down to talk to Eric to ask him how his plant-based nutrition approach works.
What is a typical day at work for you like?
One huge benefit of working at The Block Medical Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment (BMC), is the variety in any given work day. A typical work day could include any of the following: an initial nutrition education, where we introduce the patient to our program, and work with adjusting a person towards a plant based diet. During this time we also review their dietary supplements and also recommend supplements/ Nutraceuticals for them based on their condition, medical history, and current treatment plan. Other daily tasks include: in-depth nutrition lab reviews with patients in person and on the phone, follow up and monitoring of the chemotherapy patients, nutrition and supplement follow up, as well as cooking classes for the patients.
It is important to note that diet is just one component of the Center’s comprehensive, individualized, integrative program. More information about the center can be found at www.blockmd.com, or in Dr. Blocks book Life Over Cancer
What kind of patients do you work with?
While BMC specialized in integrative oncology, we see many types of patients and our two internists on staff can handle many issues, including those with diabetes, heart disease, food sensitivities/intolerances, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, etc. We also see people for wellness, prevention, weight loss, etc.
What are some of the biggest obstacles you face when working with patients?
The obstacles can really vary for each person. Many patients experience strictly conventional oncology care before coming to the clinic, and unfortunately can experience side effects from the treatments. One obstacle is working with patients in our integrative setting to help them replace their fears of treatment with trust, and help to either minimize/reduce their current side effects, or completely prevent the side effects from even happening, by using diet, lifestyle, and supplements/Nutraceuticals to support the body.
Patients come into the clinic at various levels of exposure to plant based foods. For this reason, I would say a big obstacle I face with some patients, is familiarity, exposure, and access to foods from a whole-foods, plant based diet. The nutrition team, including myself, work with the patients to help them begin to adjust their diet to being more plant based, via nutrition education, cooking classes, recipes, as well as physically seeing and handling products that are new to them.
What are the origins of your interest in plant-based nutrition?
My interest in plant-based nutrition began while I was in school studying nutrition. I became fascinated with the clinicians who utilized a plant-based diet to treat and prevent chronic disease. Doctors such and Neil Barnard, Caldwell Esselstyn, JR, and T. Colin Campbell, were a major influence in my decision to become a Registered Dietitian. It has been a pleasure to be able to meet some of these doctors, whom I idolize. Also now coming full circle to work for amazing clinicians (Drs. Keith & Penny Block, Dr. Delatorre, and the entire Block Center Staff), who are doing just as amazing work utilizing plant based nutrition as part of an integrative, individualized approach.
Are there personal as well as professional motivations for advocating a plant-based diet? If so what are they?
There are many ethical motivations for me advocating a plant based diet, and the following reasons are both personal and professional in motivation.
- Nutrition: A plant-based diet is the healthiest and most therapeutic approach for preventing, treating, and possibly reversing chronic disease as well as promoting optimal health. I could not in good conscious recommend any other approach/lifestyle for friends, family, clients, and even the general public.
- Animal Cruelty: Currently the heavy consumption of meat, poultry, and dairy has created a market where food is produced in the largest quantity as possible, for as cheap as possible, with no regard for the source of the food, the animals (those without a voice). The majority of the meat, poultry and dairy consumed in the country come from Factory Farms, where animals are tortured, beaten, and live short miserable lives until they are brutally killed for food. My heart goes out to all of the animals that unfortunately fall into this cycle. Thankfully there are amazing organizations like Mercy for Animals, Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary and Free from Harm, which devote their lives to save these animals, and raise awareness to these issues. The best way to reduce the harm, suffering and brutality of factory farming, is to eat a vegan or plant-based diet.
- Environmental: A typical American diet, which includes large amounts of animal protein, poultry and dairy, is actually detrimental to the environment. Several examples of this include methane gas from the animal waste and byproducts of the factory farms have been found to be a major contributor to pollution and global warming. The waste of the animals is so great or poorly controlled, that it can pollute nearby water sources. A great amount of land is used to raise the animals as well as grow crops to feed the animals. Eating a plant-based diet is the best way to work to save our already threatened environment.
Who do you find to be the leading dietitians today advocating a plant-based diet?
There actually are quite a few dietitians doing amazing things for plant based diets, but if I had to pick a few, four people come to mind:
1. & 2. Brenda Davis, RD & Vesanto Melina, MS, RD, the co-authors of Becoming Vegan, Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Raw, and other books.
4. Jack Norris, RD– president and cofounder of Vegan Outreach, and co-author of the book: Vegan for Life
How did you go about developing the cooking demonstrations at the Block Center where you work?
The dietitians at BMC work together to develop monthly topics which our demonstrations will center around, such as antioxidant august, summer recipes, holiday recipes, etc. We do this to keep the classes fun and interesting for the patients. We then work to develop plant-based recipes that both follow the Block approach for nutrition, but also are rich in cancer fighting and disease preventing compounds. I typically produce two sets of recipes for each month, so that patients can experience a variety of recipes while they are at the center. I will develop my own recipes, utilize recipes from my favorite cookbooks/websites, or take existing recipes, and adapt them to be better suited for the class.
What other ways do you inspire people’s interest in a plant based diet either at work or in your personal life?
I stay busy outside work, by volunteering for a variety of organizations. I am the Chicago Outreach Coordinator for The Vegetarian Resource Group (www.vrg.org), where I organize and run booths at various festivals around Chicago, promoting the health aspect of a plant-based diet. I also am a Food for Life Instructor for The Cancer Project (www.cancerproject.org ), where I conduct cooking/nutrition education classes utilizing a plant-based diet to promote cancer prevention and cancer survival.
How is diet and cancer connected in your professional opinion?
Although many factors such as genetics and environmental exposures can influence cancer, research has shown the diet and lifestyle can influence cancer between 35-60%. The foods that you put in your body can directly influence your risk for getting cancer as well as overcoming cancer. One example is that many foods that we eat can raise inflammation and create an environment in the body where cancer can thrive. This includes foods rich in omega 6, saturated fat, and cholesterol, such as meat, poultry, and dairy. While the majority of foods found in a whole-food, plant-based diet acts in completely the opposite way; they decrease inflammation and create an environment, where cancer has great difficulty in thriving. That is why at BMC we encourage people to embrace a healthy lifestyle, and take control of the cancer risk we can influence.