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  • Cornell University Plant-Based Nutrition Certification Course - A Review by a Course Graduate, Robert Cheeke


    Would having a certification in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University help you in your career? Do you think a course led by some of the world's leaders in health and wellness would help you in your own personal health journey? Could this unique educational experience answer questions you've had unanswered for years? Are you confused, wondering what the best way to optimal health really is? If so, you're a lot like me. I had all of those questions and then some floating around in my mind for a while. I decided the best way to find an answer to my questions was to enroll in Cornell's online plant-based nutrition course.

    As a result of the encouragement from many of my friends and colleagues, coupled with my own professional desire to enhance my understanding of health and nutrition, I enrolled in the T. Colin Campbell Plant-Based Nutrition Certification Course through Cornell University. The course is offered exclusively online and takes six weeks to complete. There are a variety of professional development options for professionals including for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dietitians and health education specialists seeking continuing education credits. In addition to academic credits, upon completion, one earns a certification in plant-based nutrition from Cornell. Over the course of the six week program, there are nearly a dozen guest lecturers while most of the lectures are provided by the host, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, one of the world's leading authorities on nutrition. Covering much more than I expected, the well-rounded course left me inspired. The program exceeded my expectations, and facilitated a change in my position on at least five issues, including levels of protein consumption, vitamin B-12 supplementation, the health impacts of processed foods, vitamin D deficiencies and more. It also brought my attention to subjects I have since become passionate about, including food labeling tricks and tactics the food industry uses to keep people sick and uninformed, and the incredible devastation unleashed on our oceans due to our collective addiction to fishing and consumption of marine life.

    Though I had already written a best-selling book about health and fitness, Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness — The Complete Guide to Building Your Body on a Plant-Based Diet, and have been on speaking tours about health and fitness for seven years, I was eager to expand my knowledge through this course. I did not anticipate changing my views about major issues and was not expecting to learn as much as I did. Many of the staggering statistics and much of the information taught in the course have already made their way into my speaking presentations and discussions with others. The course challenged what I (and many of us) believe to be true about health and wellness and provided alternative ways of thinking supported by cutting edge research, science and results. Every assignment, paper and project was designed with a practical purpose in mind. I completed the course in the late spring of 2012, and in the next few pages, would like to share some of my experiences with you. This is my account of what was truly an inspiring and edifying learning experience on my way to becoming certified in plant-based nutrition from one of the most prestigious schools in America.

    My Experience:

    Truth be told, I was a bit nervous about taking Cornell's plant-based nutrition certification course. I had wanted to for many months, perhaps over a year, before I finally enrolled and committed to it. I hadn't been in an academic setting for some time and was naturally anxious. I questioned my own ability to focus, my willingness to reduce my time spent frivolously using the internet, wasting time on popular social sites, and my ability to commit the required amount of time to the program to succeed and get the most from the course. To help ease this anxiety, I dramatically decreased my time spent online with the exception of course material. I paused the online video lectures frequently to take notes and rewound and re-watched to get the most out of them. I created a routine ensuring I would complete a lecture, project, assignment or quiz before indulging in the beautiful spring weather at home in Austin, TX, sitting by the pool, going for a run or playing basketball. I was prepared and ready to learn and took the course seriously, giving a concerted effort to each assignment.

    When class started, I learned that all of the class's projects and papers would be posted for the whole cohort to see, and that we were required to read others' papers and provide feedback. Writing assignments were my favorite part of the course. We were also encouraged to discuss related topics with our fellow classmates in an online discussion forum. The entire course was broken into three two-week classes, with specific themes and a new instructor for each two-week segment. My instructors were encouraging, helpful, and informative in guiding us through the course material. I enthusiastically filled my spiral-bound notebook with notes, shared what I was learning with friends and continued to re-watch lectures to get the firmest grasp on all I was learning. Like any academic setting, I had my favorite topics, favorite instructors, and favorite lectures. I even made friends with some of my virtual classmates who lived all over the world from Australia to South America. The majority of my classmates were from North America and I happened to meet two classmates in person — an added, unexpected bonus.

    Each lecture was followed by either a quiz or a writing assignment. The writing assignments took longer (and to me were far more fun and engaging, allowing us to apply our new knowledge), but the quizzes demanded more detailed note-taking to ensure one wouldn't miss a tricky question. Most lectures were about 40 minutes in length while others varied from roughly 20 to 90 minutes. With my approach to learning and note-taking, some lectures would take three to four hours to complete with frequent pausing, rewinding and replaying. There are options to not only view and listen to the lecture but to download a written transcription as well.

    The course started with the basic, foundational aspects of nutrition. Dr. Campbell posted a number of lectures on fundamental principles of nutrition so we would come to an early understanding of the essential information that would help carry us through the course. Lecture titles such as Nutrition Fundamentals, State of Health, The China Project, Diseases of Affluence, and Calories, Obesity and Diabetes set the tone early on for a very engaging and thought-provoking curriculum.

    Topics such as our current diet and lifestyle habits compared with the growing number of diseases and correlations between the two, coupled with solutions grounded in science, data and research got us off to a strong start in the course. Discussing questions about possible solutions to these crises were at the forefront of discussions. Furthermore, details about protein, fat, metabolism, absorption of nutrients, cells, sugars, macronutrients and micronutrients and basic information about DNA and genes were expressed early on to give us an understanding from a scientific perspective of why we might get sick, how we can get healthier, and in general, how the body works.

    The critical topics of diet, disease, illness and death were dealt with extensively throughout the course. Lectures about cancer and its causes, including its three stages and what we can do to best prevent it, were presented with ample research-backed evidence.

    The evolutionary psychology component of the course was perhaps the most riveting to me. Who wouldn't want to have a better understanding of why we eat the way we do, why we behave the way we do, and be able to make connections through this comprehension and apply new health strategies in our own lives? One of my favorite aspects of Dr. Doug Lisle's psychology presentation provided statistics that I now use in my presentations. Consider the following:

    Caloric Density of Food (approximate number of calories per pound from the following foods):

    "Healthy Foods"

    Salad = 100 calories per pound
    Vegetables = 200 calories per pound
    Fruits = 300 calories per pound
    Starches (potatoes, rice, beans) = 500 calories per pound
    Nuts and seeds = 2,000-2,500 calories per pound

    "Popular Foods"

    Cheese = 1,700 calories per pound
    Chocolate = 1,800 calories per pound
    Potato chips/fries = 2,500 calories per pound
    Ice Cream = 3,000 calories per pound
    Oil (pure fat) = 4,000 calories per pound

    Does this chart alone help explain where some of our excess bodyweight and body fat comes from? Simply becoming aware of information like this that was presented in the course can give us a whole new perspective of what healthy consumption truly is.

    Over the course of the term, I wrote down a list of benefits one might expect to experience on a plant-based diet. Another chart worth sharing consists of the following:

    The benefits of a plant-based diet:

    • Live longer
    • Look and feel younger
    • Have more energy
    • Lose weight
    • Lower blood cholesterol
    • Prevent and reverse heart disease
    • Lower risk of prostate, breast and other cancers
    • Preserve your eyesight in your later years
    • Prevent and treat diabetes
    • Avoid diet-related surgeries
    • Vastly decrease need for pharmaceutical drugs
    • Keep your bones strong
    • Avoid impotence
    • Avoid stroke
    • Prevent kidney stones
    • Avoid Type 1 Diabetes
    • Alleviate constipation
    • Lower blood pressure
    • Avoid Alzheimer's
    • Overcome arthritis
    • And much more....

    As you can see from a couple of examples from of my 100+ pages of notes, there is an abundance of valuable information in this course which can help you, your loved ones and those you interact with. Asking the same question I asked in the first paragraph of this review, "Could this unique educational experience answer questions you've had unanswered for years?" — What do you think now?

    What I liked most about the course

    As mentioned, my favorite aspect of the course were the writing projects we were required to complete after watching a lecture and using information we learned in our assignments. Here is a list of some of the types of projects assigned:

    • Write a letter to the editor of a publication who promotes weight-loss strategies that you do not think are health-promoting.
    • Compose a personal letter to a loved one who is suffering from obesity or heart disease, sharing the information learned in a helpful and encouraging manner, using facts, statistics and providing hope.
    • Write a press release explaining the state of health in America with some proposed solutions to fix it.
    • Research a popular supplement in-depth and write a detailed report about it.
    • Write a brief Public Service Announcement intended for radio use in order to draw attention to problems in our health habits, using facts and statistics while providing solutions.
    • Write a letter to our members of congress about a specific form of environmental destruction that is being caused by the way we eat and offer solutions using the information learned in the course.

    We not only had to write about these topics but also read papers written by other classmates and discuss them as a group. I had my personal favorites, including researching a popular supplement that many people have tried at one time or another, and writing a powerful argument against the Milk Mustache Campaign in the public school system in America. We were also assigned to write a heartfelt letter to a friend or loved one suffering from heart disease with empowering suggestions, strategies and techniques to improve health. I found this to be inspiring and rewarding (that friend is now embracing a plant-based diet and is already seeing health improvements). There were additional projects and dozens of discussions stemming from our course writing assignments that got me to think differently.

    Throughout the course, we covered subjects and materials I had not anticipated, such as nutrition in the public school system, impacts of fishing on marine life and endangered species and the environment, as well as the healthcare system. There were exceptional lectures on psychology, food labeling, supplementation, cancer, lifestyle medicine and disease prevention. My favorite lectures were by psychologist Dr. Doug Lisle, Dietitian Jeff Novick, a really informative talk on supplements by Brendan Brazier (and Dr. Campbell), and a lecture by Bruce Monger about marine life.

    What I liked least about the course:

    I think the software for the discussion forum could be enhanced, which I repeatedly gave as feedback at the end of each course review. It seemed like it could use an upgrade to be more user-friendly but for our class purposes, it worked okay. Perhaps I'm just too familiar with my own website discussion forum layout.

    The only other thing I disliked about the course was that it ended so soon. I would have liked to have spent a few more weeks in class, working on more projects with practical application. I guess that is what graduation is for; a time to take what we've learned, apply it in the real world, and keep learning. That is precisely what I've done since graduating and will continue to do in the future.

    Samples from my course work:

    When I stated my initial reasons for enrolling in the course, commenting on Dr. Campbell's initial welcome lecture, this is what I wrote in the public discussion forum as one of our initial assignments:

    Why I enrolled in the Cornell Course


    My argument against the Milk Mustache Campaign in the public school system:


    My letter to a loved one suffering from heart disease:


    Sample from letter to Congress:
    Open Letter to a Texas Senator - Energy Conservation and Sustainable Agriculture


    In Summary

    As you can see, I not only had a lot of fun, but put in a lot of effort to articulate detailed information about pressing issues that impact all of us, and our environment directly or indirectly. I continue to use information acquired from this course in my book writing, article writing for my website, and as a contributing columnist at Vegan Health & Fitness Magazine.

    Throughout the course I was in regular communication with my fellow students via our discussion forums, and with each of my three courses, I contacted the instructors directly when I didn't fully understand something or wanted to know more. I had positive, regular communication with each one of the teachers and my efforts to attain better understanding of certain concepts were acknowledged and appreciated. That type of respect, patience and understanding coming from each of my teachers left a lasting impression on me and speaks volumes to the character, professionalism and positive attitude that were displayed throughout the entire course from everyone associated with the program.

    Some say one way to judge the value of an experience is to evaluate the positive changes that resulted from partaking in the experience. When I look back on the six-week course that changed my views on nearly half a dozen topics and opened up doors for me to use not only new information, but also my new title as "Plant-Based Nutrition Certified from Cornell University," I see the value as priceless.

    For those completing this course, one can gain the knowledge and wisdom to help improve the lives of everyone around you and to give a plant-based diet a shot in order to prolong lives and prevent many of our most grave illnesses.

    Please consider joining me as an alumni member of Cornell University's Plant-Based Nutrition Certification Course. Together, we can use our collective knowledge and experiences to create positive changes around the world. As I often say, there is no better time than now to resolve to make a difference.

    For more information about the T. Colin Campbell Plant-Based Nutrition Certification Course, please visit this page Cornell created for me, as a graduate, to share with you: www.ecornell.com/robertcheeke

    -Robert Cheeke — Certified in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University - author of the best-selling book Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness — The Complete Guide to Building Your Body on a Plant-Based Diet

    Robert Cheeke

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