Seven years ago, I weighed 340 pounds with a 52-inch waist and had been morbidly obese for over two decades. My cholesterol was 400, my blood pressure was out of control, and I was taking daily insulin injections for type 2 diabetes, plus 15 other medications. At the time, I had tried and failed just about every diet and weight loss program ever marketed in the United States, and was even scheduled for bariatric surgery. Then, as described in my new book, Walking With Peety: The Dog Who Saved My Life, I decided to consult with a new doctor.
Instead of more drugs, I was surprised when my new doctor "prescribed" a plant-based diet and a dog from my local shelter. My new doctor explained that my obesity and health problems were symptoms of my poor diet and because I had become reclusive and sedentary. Rather than treat the individual symptoms of my poor habits, she told me my health problems could be reversed by treating their root causes. I had never owned a pet before, but because I felt that I was at the end of my rope, I acquiesced to this novel advice, committed to weekly meetings with her, and adopted a dog from my local shelter. I walked my new dog for half an hour, twice each day. I learned how to cook and eat only whole plants without using processed oils. And by doing these simple things, in 10 months I dropped from 340 pounds to 185 pounds, got off all medications, eliminated my type 2 diabetes and hypertension, lowered my total cholesterol from nearly 400 to 118, and reduced my waistline from 52 to 33 inches. By maintaining this lifestyle, I’ve effortlessly maintained my ideal weight for seven years now and am still medication free.
Here are the most important things I've learned during my weight loss journey:
1. Having a plan makes a world of difference.
During my two decades of morbid obesity, I found my weight loss options limited to this universe of choices, many of which I tried or researched heavily:
- Self-deprivation/hunger/portion control
- Extreme exercise
- Unsustainable gimmicks and fad diets
- Weight loss medication
- Bariatric surgery
- Plant-based nutrition and light exercise
You may look at these choices as unpalatable or impractical, but if you want to change your life, you must choose one. The last option is what worked for me.
2. Partner with a licensed health professional.
Your odds for weight loss success will be much higher if you are under the care of a licensed health care professional whose practice is substantially based on nutrition counseling, and you have regular meetings with that person until you reach your ideal weight. Consider partnering with a registered dietitian or licensed naturopathic doctor instead of a medical doctor. Much of the training naturopathic doctors receive is focused on nutrition, while many medical doctors are undereducated regarding nutrition, except to recognize rare nutrient deficiencies such as goiter, scurvy, rickets, and beriberi. This is because only about one-quarter of medical schools even offer a dedicated course in nutrition. The majority of graduating medical students report that their nutrition instruction was inadequate.
3. Education was key.
I had no scientific or medical education, but I did have a burning desire to understand how I could achieve such dramatic health improvements with such simple, and ultimately preferred, dietary changes. So to educate myself, I spent two years taking the full curriculum of pre-med classes at a local community college, including chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, anatomy and physiology, and more, so I could learn how to do scientific research and read peer-reviewed medical journals. If you are unable or unwilling to educate yourself to that level, you should at least begin listening to the short nutrition videos published daily on sites like nutritionfacts.org.
4. A plant-based diet is what worked for me.
I lost about 150 pounds in less than one year on a plant-based diet, and my then my wife lost 80 pounds in under one year doing exactly what I did. About 70 percent of the U.S. population is now obese or overweight. The answer is simple, and one you’ve most likely heard from a doctor before: To lose weight, you must exercise and improve your diet. Most people can achieve their optimal weight and greatly reduce their risk of chronic diseases just by abstaining from meat, dairy, and eggs and transitioning to a whole food, plant-based diet, in addition to light exercise equal to walking a dog for a half an hour, twice each day. But as I’m often asked: Is it healthy to stop eating animal products and instead to only consume a plant-based diet?
According to the American Dietetic Association, the answer is yes: "Well-planned vegetarian [including total vegan] diets are healthful for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes." Of course, everybody has different needs—and this is where working with a professional comes in. It's important to make sure you eat a variety of plants, supplement accordingly, and speak to your doctor about making this change.
5. Begin cooking mindfully.
We don’t need to establish whether oils are healthy or unhealthy—which always depends on who you ask—to decide whether we should consume them to achieve and sustain our optimal weight. Instead, we only need to know that one tablespoon of oil is approximately 120 calories, and who uses just one tablespoon of oil for stovetop cooking? Most people use oil generously, which isn't always conducive to weight loss.
Instead of using oil to cook, use a technique I've embraced called "liquid sauté" or "steam frying.” To liquid sauté, begin by squirting several tablespoons of vegetable broth into a heated pan. As the broth begins to bubble, add your food and sauté exactly as you would with oil. As your broth evaporates, replenish by squirting in more. When a brown film forms on the bottom of your pan, deglaze the pan with additional broth and a flat wooden spatula to add additional color, flavor, and nutrients from the broth to your food.
6. To lose weight, you don't need to spend money on anything except education and healthy food.
The most expensive part of your weight loss program should be clothing. Work with your holistic health care provider on what supplements to take—don’t waste your money on extraneous supplements you may not need. Save your money, because you’ll need it for new clothing! Depending on how much weight you plan to lose, you may have several stages of clothing to get through. I found I had to size down every 30 pounds or so. After achieving my ideal weight, I treated myself to a complete new wardrobe, and I still own and wear many of those pieces.
7. Limit your check-ins with the scale to once per week.
Your weight will naturally fluctuate up or down a few pounds from day to day and can vary several pounds even during the same day. Weighing yourself frequently can lead to frustration and self-doubt. Instead, pick a day of the week to check your weight loss results, and weigh yourself only on the same day and at the same time each week. You should track your results weekly, and consult with your health care provider for a solution if you hit a plateau or experience weight gain over a period of two weeks or more.