By Stephen Ornes
Nashville's 'Clean-Eating' Crusader
Impassioned nutritionist Randy Pendergrass extols the health benefits of locally grown, minimally treated food
By Stephen Ornes
Photographs by David Bean
Nutritionist Randy Pendergrass obsesses about food the way sports fans obsess over athletes and game scores. He insists on a full biography: Where did it grow? What happened between the time of planting and the time of eating? If he’s eating animal products, what did the animals eat?
“When I buy eggs,” he says, “the first things I ask are, ‘What are these chickens eating? Are they in a pen somewhere, or are they allowed to roam around and eat bugs, their natural diet?’ ” If Pendergrass doesn’t know the answers, he finds the farmer and asks.
“Know your farmer, know your food,” he likes to say, invoking a popular mantra among people devoted to consuming locally grown food.
As a cancer survivor, Pendergrass has a personal interest in studying the connection between diet and disease. Poor nutrition is often linked to heart disease and diabetes, and recent studies suggest a strong link between diet and cancer as well. In a 2005 report published in the journal Lancet, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston, identified low fruit and vegetable intake as the third-leading risk factor for death from cancer in low- and middle-income countries. In wealthy countries, the third-leading risk factor was being obese or overweight.
With his rapid-fire delivery and high-energy yet casual manner, Pendergrass takes his message about healthful eating to a wide community in and around his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. For 15 years, Pendergrass has helped heart patients, diabetics and cancer survivors at St. Thomas Hospital with one-on-one advice about diet and nutrition. At St. Thomas, he also offers a monthly seminar called “Defensive Eating,” in which he presents new research on food and fields questions from hospital patients and curious visitors. He has worked with Camp Bluebird, a summer camp for adult cancer patients, and he routinely speaks at meetings of Life ABC (Life After Early Breast Cancer), a YMCA-based group in central Tennessee. He has been invited to talk to senior citizen groups and garden clubs, and earlier this year he gave diet advice to the employees of a local real estate agency.
His weekly speaking schedule is usually booked, and fellow dietitian Blair Blair says Pendergrass’ appeal is easy to see. “He’s very passionate about what he’s talking about,” says Blair, who runs the department of clinical nutrition therapy at St. Thomas. Pendergrass gives his audiences plenty of information, she says, but his central message is a push for “clean eating”—by eating more organic, locally grown fresh produce and avoiding processed foods.