John Mackey, cofounder, chairman and chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market Inc. since its inception in 1978, plans to give up his chairmanship.

According to a Dec. 24 Securities and Exchange Commission filing by the Austin, Texas-based company, John Elstrott, lead director of the board of directors succeeds Mackey.

Elstrott has been a member of the board since 1995 and held the lead director position since 2001.

The lead director position has been much like the chairman of the board, the company said.

“Whole Foods Market always has strived to maintain high corporate governance standards,” according to the filing. “In keeping with this goal, the board added the lead director designation in 2000, and since that time, has shifted all of the responsibilities of the chairman of the board to the lead director.”

The filing went on to say “despite this shift in responsibilities which as rendered the chairman role to a mere title, the company repeatedly has received proposals from corporate activists to separate the chairman and chief executive officer roles.”

The move was made to “avoid unnecessary distraction and protect the company’s corporate governance profile” and that “Mr. Mackey believes giving up the chairman title to be in the best interests of the company and its stakeholders.”

Mackey has been criticized for his public comments both before the contested acquisition of rival, Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Market Inc., and most recently in a Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing President Obama’s health care plan.