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
Surgeons removed the tumor—and there hasn’t been a sign of it since—but cancer has continued to haunt Pendergrass. He says he suspects that years of cheeseburgers and sodas indirectly played a role in the functioning of his immune system.
The diagnosis was a call to action. His next move, as a nutritionist, was to work up an intensive dietary overhaul for his most challenging client yet: himself. “My understanding of what good nutrition was eight years ago was poor, compared with what I know now,” he says.
Pendergrass struggled to find specific information about nutrition and cancer to minimize the likelihood of a recurrence. That led him to read books and journal articles, meet farmers, get up to speed on nutritional literature and overhaul his educational seminars at St. Thomas. His research led him to become a cheerleader for the benefits of local, organic foods—a message he hopes to spread.
Although scientific evidence has not established the nutritional benefits of locally grown organic foods over others, Pendergrass asserts that most food is grown in poor soil and is therefore low in nutrient and mineral content. He also worries about the health risks of chemical pesticides used on large farms. Some pesticides, he explains, have been shown to endanger animal and plant life along the food chain. “Most of these [chemicals] are bio-accumulative,” he says. “If you eat a little bit today, it won’t kill you. Eat a little bit every day for years and years, the negative effects build up.” Consumers can avoid ingesting these chemicals, he says, by eating organic or locally grown food. Buying local foods, he points out, enables consumers to learn about the farming practices at the farms where their food originates.
Pendergrass thinks knowledge about food empowers people to be proactive about their health and gives survivors a way to exercise control over their own lives. He likes to present nutritional information in all its complexity, but he knows some people panic when he talks about compounds like “eicosanoids” (molecules that come from omega-6 or omega-3 fatty acids and control some inflammation processes in the body). He does his best to translate such technical information into practical advice.
But advice on eating can be daunting: Eat a lot of this; limit that; don’t ever touch that. So Pendergrass tries to be realistic. He reminds his audience they can still indulge in their favorite vices now and then. “It’s not what you do on Saturday night,” he tells anyone who will listen—his classes, garden clubs, survivor groups. “It’s what you do the rest of the week that matters.”