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I lost 55 lbs. and gained the hope that our family’s history of heart disease will end with me.
I was only 16 when I had to face the fact that I was overweight. I remember being in our high school locker room with my best friend. She stepped on the old-fashioned, doctor’s office-style scale, set the base weight to 100 lbs., and slid the scale to the right until it leveled off at a “good” weight. I was a little taller, so we both expected that I would weigh a little more. I stepped on the scale and kept sliding, and sliding, but the scale never leveled off. I was at 149 and it still wasn’t level. With dread, I set the base weight to 150, and slid the scale a few more pounds to the right before it leveled off. We were both shocked. Already, at age 16, I weighed over 150 lbs., too much for my height of 5’6”.
Years of fad diets followed. Terrified at the prospect of being in front of the entire school in my short majorette skirt, I fasted for two weeks before my senior year in high school. The Atkins diet was popular at the time, so I went on and off of strict high-protein diets for the next few years. I always lost weight. I always felt lousy. And I always regained the weight, and a few additional pounds.
By my mid twenties, I already had an overall cholesterol level of 211. I pictured my father, frozen in preparation for his heart bypass surgery. Knowing that I was headed down the same path, I researched diets in an attempt to determine the healthiest human diet. Given what I’d been taught about the four food groups, I was surprised to find that vegan populations are the healthiest overall. But the research was clear. So I became a strict vegan.
Over the next few years, without worrying about calories, vegetable or sugar intake, or increasing my exercise, I lost over 50 lbs. My cholesterol fell to 155. I was healthy and happy for about nine years. The only problem was that, occasionally, I regretted not being able to share food with friends. I had little desire for the foods they were eating, but I felt alienated. Finally, at a Halloween party where milk chocolate was the focus of the festivities, I decided to loosen up and add dairy and eggs to my diet. I stopped at a donut shop on my way home. Over the next two years, I added more and more junk foods to my diet until I had regained all of my weight.
In the following years, I remained a lacto-ovo vegetarian (a vegetarian who also eats dairy products and eggs), and tried a range of eating plans and cleanses. I reached my goal weight on Weight Watchers–twice. Even though I knew better, I stopped attending meetings whenever I stopped losing weight. Inevitably, I regained all of the weight I had lost. My pattern was to eat well and exercise for about three months then slowly devolve into a pizza, macaroni and cheese and ice cream diet for the next six.
This on-again, off-again approach to a healthy lifestyle was taking its toll. By the time I had reached age 50, my 50+ lbs. of excess weight and an inflammatory diet had resulted in substantial joint pain, mostly in my knees. I was beginning to move like an old woman. Realizing that diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and cancer were likely developing, I found it difficult to envision a compelling future. This fueled an undercurrent of depression that leached joy from my life.
Finally, while chaperoning a class field trip to Philadelphia, I decided that I couldn’t live with the inevitable consequences that this lifestyle would have on the environment and my family. (For more information on this defining moment, see Inspiration.) By typical American standards, I was managing to feed my young daughter and husband a reasonably healthy diet. But I was all too aware that most Americans eating reasonably healthy diet develop heart disease, diabetes or cancer. I knew that, if I didn’t make a permanent change, my daughter was likely to follow in my footsteps, and my husband’s weight and blood glucose levels would continue to rise. I also had the sinking feeling that a serious health condition was developing, and I would not allow myself to become a burden to my family.
So I made a list of all the reasons my previous plans had failed. In the past, I had become discouraged due to slow results or long plateaus. I had felt alienated when I couldn’t share special foods with others. Pressing work and family concerns had arisen, leaving little time to prepare food or exercise.
Determined to find a permanent solution, I considered the handful of people I knew who had managed to make lasting healthy lifestyle changes. They had one thing in common–they had made a real decision. They had decided to commit to a support group, eliminate a category of problem foods, run five miles a day… whatever choice resonated with them. I had also been reading articles that suggested that no-choice resolutions were usually more successful. So I decided to make some real decisions of my own.
Real Decision #1
I decided that I would no longer allow my BMI to fall into an unhealthy range.
Real Decision #2
I would not allow my weekly exercise sessions to fall short of the Department of Health and Human Service’s guidelines of at least 150 minutes a week (25 minutes a day) of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity, and biweekly strength training sessions.
Real Decision #3
To ensure that we were eating a nutrient-dense diet, I would make sure that 50% (by volume) of each meal or snack would be vegetables and fruits.
Using the wide array of instant vegan food lists available online, I drafted my own instant, whole foods, plant-based menu. (See Instant Menu for my most current version.) I also continued to spend 15 minutes a day preparing delicious super food smoothies for my family–a habit that I had developed after my husband’s cancer ordeal five years earlier. This made it easier to maintain a high volume of vegetable and fruit super foods in our diets.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I rejoined Backplane, the Ornish Spectrum online social support group that I had visited on and off in the past. With their encouragement, I soon added very moderate amounts of exercise, yoga and meditation to my daily rituals. The synergistic effects of these changes enhanced my results, and kept me on an even keel emotionally. This made it easier to keep the commitments I had made to myself and my family.
Unlike all of my prior struggles, this change felt as easy as walking through a door. Since a vegetable and fruit based whole food diet works very quickly, my joint pain and minor heartburn dissipated almost immediately. Within a week, I had experienced substantial weight loss. I had many quick, satisfying food choices, so I never felt deprived or pressed for time. When eating with extended family and friends, I made a point of focusing on the people and not the food. This kept me from feeling alienated.
Over the next year, I encountered many problems, but I managed to stick with what I had dubbed “my year of healing.” I lost 55 lbs., reduced my blood pressure from 144/78 to 115/75 and my overall cholesterol from 202 to 137.
Now, when people ask me how I lost so much weight, or why I have so much energy, I say simply “a largely whole foods, plant-based diet.” If they ask “how do you get enough protein?” I remember that I would once have asked the same thing. (See The Protein Myth.) I was also surprised to learn that most unprocessed plant foods have lots of protein. I’m happy to report that, more and more people are asking for me fore information. That’s why I created my website and blog–Eating Green.
Now that I’ve restored my health, I’m still eating a vegetable and fruit based whole foods vegan diet when I’m at home. But I’m not as strict when I dine with extended family and friends. Because I’ve made a clear decision regarding what I will eat, there’s no need to re-discipline myself at every meal. I’m far from perfect, but I know I’ll always honor the real decisions I’ve made.