Changing lives: It’s hard but it could save your life

By Dr. Walter Vermeulen 09 December 2017, 12:00AM

Talofa Samoa! We are frequently asked how difficult it is for people to adopt the whole foods, plant based nutrition program (or W.F.P.B. diet). 

The simple answer is that it is not easy…

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the majority of Samoans are used to eating the high fat, Western diet, based on animal products, which is completely the opposite of the WFPB diet, which is based on low-fat, plant based whole foods. 

People like their food and are almost addicted to it, just like those, who ‘can’t live without’ coffee, or cigarettes or beer… It is not easy to give up –‘cold turkey’ as the Americans say- foods you have liked eating for a long time. 

If it wasn’t for the fact that the WFPB diet has been proven over and over again that it can reverse obesity and NCD and prevent or slow down cancer, it would indeed be useless to try and convince an obese diabetic to change his ‘egg and sausage’ breakfast for a green smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal with fruits and plant milk! 

And then, there is an even greater behavioural challenge that we are facing, when trying to interest our population as a whole to adopt changes in life style and eating habits. 

About 10 years ago, investigators in a Harvard obesity study summed it up as follows: “You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you.” The study also gave support to the so-called ‘emotional and social contagion theory’ that “shows the many ways we take on the moods (and behaviours) of the people around us.” As a result, if you are surrounded by obese people that eat fatty foods, it is most likely that you will become obese as well and eat the same food they do…

At first glance, in the light of this Harvard study and with national statistics indicating that 6 out of 10 adult Samoans are obese, any effort to change the minds of such a population and convince them to adhere to a low fat, vegan diet would seem to be a waste of time. However, as Dr Joel Fuhrman, one of the recent pioneers in reversing diabetes notes: “…understanding how powerful bad influences can be… leads to the inescapable conclusion that healthful behaviours can be just as contagious if you are surrounded by health-conscious people. One powerful secret to a slim body and good health is to cultivate friends who are supportive and can share a healthy eating style with you.”

Over the past 4 years METI has learned from these observations and has accordingly changed its strategy to help people to change their eating habits.

Indeed, the lack of family support is the most prevalent condition leading individuals, who started enthusiastically, to eventually discontinue their plant-based diet. METI has been aware of such phenomenon, which basically has two root causes.

The first is a tactical one: When the communal meals are prepared it is difficult to accommodate extra cooking space for plant-eaters, unless there is strong family support for such a cuisine change. The second cause is much more ingrained as it touches on social behavior. It is not uncommon in Samoa for a behaviour ‘out of the norm’ to be either frowned upon or ridiculed. When adopting the WFPB nutrition, it takes a strong personality to withstand the often heard jokes like:  ‘you’re eating like a rabbit!’ 

METI takes pains, when conducting the Health Seminar, to highlight this negative cultural habit, which can lead to tragic consequences, when it involves persons with advanced disease, who decide to abandon the WFPB diet.

But what could METI do, besides a sympathetic smile, to give support to the lonely plant-eater living in the midst of a family of avid meat-eaters?

It is then that we stumbled on a long-forgotten but local ‘success story’…In the early 80s the Samoa Health Department made plans to eradicate Leprosy in Samoa, using the latest drug therapy available, based on the newly discovered antibiotic:  Rifampicin. WHO warned that drug resistance would soon set in unless patients would take their drugs daily for 6 or 12 months depending on the type of leprosy they suffered from.

The question arose, how to ensure that the leprosy patients, many of whom were unreliable, often uncooperative and even shunned by friends and family, would stick to such a rigid regime of daily drug taking?

As the then Chief, Division Public Health, in consultation with my late wife, Matatumua Maimoaga, at that time a Member of the Samoa Leprosy Trust Board, we introduced a scheme, named the ‘Good Samaritan’ program, whereby each leprosy patient was asked to name a person –his or her ‘Good Samaritan’- whom they trusted and could rely on to make sure they took their daily dose of leprosy drugs. We conducted Seminars with the patients and their ‘Good Samaritans’ and instructed them how and when to give the drugs and to keep accurate recordings. 

The ‘Good Samaritan’ program was so successful that 98% of the then active Leprosy patient population strictly adhered to the daily drug taking routine. As a result, from then on, Leprosy ceased to be a public health concern in Samoa.

As a result, METI now routinely advises patients wanting to join the WFPB nutrition programme to look for their ‘Good Samaritan’, who will join in the journey towards their Health recovery. When attending the Health Seminar both patients and ‘Good Samaritans’ participate in the interactive adult group training that makes them knowledgeable about their medical conditions and empowers them to make the independent choice to adopt the WFPB diet that will help to reverse their medical condition(s).

In this way, the patient not only has a team mate, who joins in the life style change but also acquires an ally, who will help to shield the patient from family disapproval.

The ‘Good Samaritan’ concept has allowed a greater adoption rate by participants of our Health Seminar, from about 15% earlier to a solid 44% at present.

METI’s weekly Health Seminars are producing ‘converts’, some of whom are passionate promoters in their family and village of the new lifestyle and eating habits that they have adopted and that has led to a reversal of their obesity or medical ailments. They are the ‘opinion leaders’, who over time will help to make Samoa a healthier Nation.

THIS WEEK’S RECIPE:  The following recipe is a meal in itself. It can be eaten either as breakfast or lunch.





1/2 tsp of CINNAMON


Directions: Put everything in a bowl and mix, to be eaten fresh OR placed in refrigerated overnight. Enjoy!


Our testimony this week comes from TUIASAU UELESE PETAIA. He says:

It was mid-2014 when I had a cough that wouldn’t go away and it worried me enough to make a trip to the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital. 

As I had suspected, the doctor told me that I had pneumonia, but he also gave me news that I had not expected. During normal routine tests it was discovered that I had diabetes. And according to the doctor, my medical records showed that this had been detected in 2011. 


So then along with my antibiotics for the pneumonia, a bag-full of tablets were also prescribed to treat my diabetes.

I was also told to register with the diabetes clinic so I could get the free medicine that government is giving out to diabetics.

“And you will have to take these for the rest of your life” was the statement that got me thinking. 

I just didn’t want to be doing that for the rest of my life… But what can I do to make sure I don’t have to take these tablets forever and ever and ever…….

Then it came to me!

About a month earlier I was researching a new diet that I had heard about that had allegedly reversed a cousin’s diabetes. 

I had wanted to do a documentary on this diet for the television station I was managing for the church at the time. It was the whole plant based diet that M.E.T.I was promoting.

So instead of taking the tablets I decide to just nibble on a carrot and go to M.E.T.I in the morning. The next day, I was on this diet. No meat, no dairy products, no seafood. No eggs. No oils. Just plant based food.

And, I also started walking regularly. After just 14 days, my weight was down by nearly 20 pounds. But the best news of all was: my diabetes had been reversed and duly curbed!

It is now a little more than three years since I embarked on this journey.

Let me tell you, it was not easy. And it is still filled with challenges on a daily basis.

In our family, like the majority of Samoan families, one meal feeds all.

So if it’s chicken, everyone eats chicken, and there is no sympathy for old ‘fuddy duddies’ with fancy diets. 

So you just persevere without their support. It’s a massive problem, this lack of support. Even though they can see it works, they still think it’s a fad that will eventually go away.

I would be lying if I said I have stuck to this diet totally.

But as one learns to cook vegetables in many creative, tasty ways, you soon find yourself liking curried veggies, stir fried veggies, even taro leaves cooked with garlic, ginger, onions and baked beans! And the magical turmeric is never far away either: in every meal. 

And the cleansing power of the drink made from ginger, lemon and turmeric is the answer to sore throats and nagging coughs!

It’s getting to the stage now where the family finally recognizes what one is doing and some have even started to follow the diet. Even my friends don’t even frown at me anymore when I just pick at fruits and vegetables on the dining table at functions.

The most important thing is: no more diabetes and accompanying tablets for life. No more mention of high blood pressure either.

And other ailments too are few and far between and almost always get driven away by the whole foods plant based diet. This diet, coupled with exercise: this is increasing mental and physical stamina, in amazing ways!

By Dr. Walter Vermeulen 09 December 2017, 12:00AM

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