A diet based on real science makes good sense — and feels great

‘I now see food as tasty fuel — not as a source of fleeting comfort, as I did for so many years. I don’t go hungry, ever. In fact, I eat as much as I want, snacking between meals, and I don’t gain weight.’

WESTMINSTER WEST — If somebody had told me, just a few years back, that one day I'd be eating a plant-based diet, I'd have rolled my eyes dismissively. Not me!

I loved cheesy nachos and full-fat Greek yogurt, juicy steak, butter-dripping lobster. My idea of heaven was a bowl of rich crème brûlée. Do without these? What would life be without them?

Longer, it turns out, and healthier.

I eat the way I do now because I'm ravenous for more life. For if there's something I love more than rich food, it's life itself.

I want more time with my children, with the glorious Vermont woods and its creatures and seasons. More chances to sing, to listen to music that breaks my heart open, to explore outside and within.

I've always loved to eat, and I still do. What persuaded me to change the way I eat is scientific evidence of the benefits of a plant-based diet. I could not deny the compelling data.

My eyes were opened thanks to the dedicated efforts of Michael Greger M.D., who has made it his life's work to comb through and interpret legitimate science on nutrition and its impact on health.

His conclusions are unambiguous: many common diseases are preventable and often even reversible with a diet of fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

This applies even to illnesses considered to be an “inevitable” part of aging or inheritance. Eating this way measurably alters the incidence of disease, disability, infections, surgeries, medication dependency, and preventable premature death.

He offers the analysis to the rest of us concisely and clearly, but not dumbed-down.

The science is clear. Loving life as I do, how could I look away? I couldn't find a way to argue with facts.

* * *

The vast majority of food fads and theories are supported not by real evidence but by opinions, anecdotal accounts, and (most often) “research” that's been funded by food-industry interests (such as the dairy industry underwriting research into the benefits of milk).

If ever there were a realm crying out for the sanity of fact-based choices, it would be the stuff on which our very lives depend: the food we eat every day.

Dr. Greger, a very funny guy, says that eating the way I used to - the way most Americans eat - is like hitting yourself in the shin with a hammer every day and then wondering how come the tender bruise never goes away.

The best-kept secret of medicine, he writes, is that given the right conditions (diet and daily exercise), the body will heal itself - if only we will get out of its way.

The body is astounding in its ability to heal, to fight infection, if we will just not interfere by filling it with foods that cripple its potent natural resources. These harmful foods - meat and fish, dairy, eggs, refined grains, processed foods, unhealthy fats, salt, and sugar - are central to the modern American diet.

Whereas, a plant-based diet equips the body to do its miraculous thing of making us as well and fit as we can possibly be.

* * *

Eating in a way that's based on real science just makes good sense. Take a look at the data yourself; make up your own mind. Dr. Greger's website is NutritionFacts.org, and his first book (written with Gene Stone) is How Not to Die.

No wonder we as a people are obese, diabetic, riddled with heart disease and cancer, and dependent on so many drugs - with the costs (monetary and otherwise) completely out of control.

Dr. Greger got me to see that these conditions are not an inevitable part of life, of aging. I've come to deeply appreciate the body's ability to recover from the damage of all those years of chicken and ice cream, drive-up windows, and bakery goodies. It's like what happens when someone stops smoking cigarettes, how the lungs start to heal right away. The body wants to be healthy, if we just won't interfere via what we put into it.

All this effort (and money!) goes into the cumbersome health-care system and the complicated insurance setup, when what we ought to be doing is addressing the underlying “sickness” of it all.

It's breathtaking to imagine what would happen to our medical system, and the ongoing health insurance disaster, if even a good percentage of us started eating this way. There are encouraging signs that the plant-based approach is, in fact, on the rise.

For those concerned about climate change, subsisting on a plant-based diet is also easier on the Earth - which, like our bodies, can be observed to start recovering as soon as we stop harming it.

* * *

The focus for me is not on what I don't eat; it's on what I do.

Filling my larder these days are foods supportive of health and longevity: greens and legumes, berries and cashews, oats and quinoa, and all their varied kin.

I've found delightful cookbooks and online recipes that produce delicious, filling meals making creative use of things that are truly good for me. I've learned ways to adapt old favorite recipes.

I now see food as tasty fuel - not as a source of fleeting comfort, as I did for so many years. I don't go hungry, ever. In fact, I eat as much as I want, snacking between meals, and I don't gain weight. How 'bout them apples!

And this is after a lifetime of gaining and losing and gaining back. I weigh less now than I have since I was a teenager, and the weight is stable. I'm 65 and haven't felt this good in decades.

I never imagined these things to be possible. And all of this without the least feeling of deprivation, or need for “discipline.”

* * *

A person might say, “Well, yeah, but all things in moderation.” Asked about this approach, Dr. Greger said that sure, somebody headed toward diabetes could, say, eat a little less meat and cheese while adding in a few more vegetables and beans. That way, he quipped, maybe instead of losing a whole foot to amputation, they'd lose just a couple of toes.

That did it for me. I've stopped swinging a hammer at my shins.

What a relief! I no longer need the blood pressure and cholesterol medications I took for years. The diabetes I tiptoed dangerously close to has receded from being a threat. Chronic conditions have disappeared.

Since I changed the way I eat and started exercising daily, this enormous enthusiasm wells up in me whenever I cook, eat, and fill my grocery cart with healthy food.

I love the food itself, but the excitement is also because of the changes I've seen in my energy level and overall health.

How could I not be excited? How could I not want people I care about to similarly benefit?

* * *

I used to find people with strong food preferences ... well, often insufferable. Smug and righteous - grim, even. They were rigid, impossible to eat out with, because there was something “wrong” with everything on the menu. Such people, with their fixed ideas and intolerance, were simply tiresome.

It's why I've mostly declined to talk up this approach to eating. I don't want to be One of Those People, pushing my ideas on another (with whatever good intentions), becoming the occasion for somebody's eye-rolling.

It's not smugness that moves me to speak up, but genuine enthusiasm. And I can't set aside the knowing that if a loving friend hadn't gently steered me toward Michael Greger, I'd not have gotten to where I have.

Though Dr. Greger's message is serious, he himself isn't at all grim.

The guy is whimsical and irreverent. His enthusiasm for good food is infectious. And he's wonderfully practical in his suggestions about how the changes can be made, in a way that will work for real people not used to eating a plant-based diet. These qualities in him had a lot to do with why I was able to hear him out, to see what might be there, for me, in his message.

I used to eat out a lot. Now I seldom do, preferring the food I have at home. But occasionally, as a treat with friends or family, or at holiday time, I will sit down to a meal that includes one of those foods I've always enjoyed: nachos mounded with cheese, a tender cut of lamb, a good steak.

If I'm invited to a friend's dinner table, I don't make a production out of what I will and won't eat. If asked ahead of time about my preferences, I'm honest, but I also say I'm glad to adapt for the occasion, and I mean it.

If I'm going to deviate from my regular way of eating, I want it to be something I especially love. (I do seem to have altogether lost my taste for rich desserts. The only sweets I crave anymore are fruits.)

None of us are getting out of here alive. I know my time will come, and when it does, I'm pretty sure I'll go gracefully, full of nothing but gratitude for the life I've had.

The scientific evidence may be what got me started. But all the evidence I need to keep it up is the accumulating experiential “data”: I feel great.

I'm stuffing myself on good food, and I hope to be able to do so for decades to come.

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