The Small Food Changes That Have The Power To Make A Huge Impact
Having been a pharmaceutical marketer for the better part of 20 years, I spent most of my energy highlighting the value of traditional Western medicine to cure all that ails us. So in the spring of 2012, when I started to have really painful stomachaches on a relatively frequent basis, it was an immediate wake-up call to be particularly grateful for those days when you feel like yourself.
At my wife’s urging, I went to see my primary care physician, who thought that perhaps I had a parasite. They ran a number of tests to confirm what might be wrong. The results showed that I didn’t have a parasite—but instead my white blood cell count was off the charts, indicating that I had significant inflammation in my body. I went to see a gastroenterologist and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease characterized by inflammation of the digestive or gastrointestinal tract that can wreak havoc on your body if not treated.
My pain persisted, I didn’t have much of an appetite, and I was losing weight. I had low energy, a very pale gray complexion, and the pain was becoming excruciating by the day. It was so bad that at one point in late May, I was literally in tears, uncertain of what was wrong—or how to feel any better.
My condition became so dire that I ended up undergoing emergency surgery on June 1, 2012, to remove about a foot of very diseased tissue. There had been concern from the surgeon that this wouldn’t just be Crohn’s but could actually be a "huge bulky cancerous mass"—not exactly what you want to hear from a surgeon! Fortunately, everything was benign, the surgery was a success, and I would leave the hospital five days later with a relatively clean bill of health. I was exhausted, of course, but I’d be OK. No one told me, however, to do anything differently with how I was eating or living my life—from the foods I ate to how often I exercised (or didn’t….) or what kind of holistic approach I was taking to manage stress and take care of my own body and soul.
My breakfast was usually a bowl of cereal, some yogurt, a bagel, or a muffin; lunches were deli sandwiches like turkey or chicken salad; and dinners were plates of pasta, some type of chicken dish, or a piece of grilled fish. I would have a cup or two of coffee with cream every day but didn’t drink any soda. And I would generally end my nights with a scoop of ice cream as a pretty standard choice for dessert.
I didn't make the connection between how I was feeling and what I was eating until about a month after surgery. Still feeling terrible, I began investigating the role of diet in gut conditions. I read about how animal protein and dairy can be very difficult to digest and how other people had experienced a plant-based diet reducing the effects of chronic disease, if not absolutely reversing it.
Over time, I started to make subtle changes and shifts in the food I consumed in very much a trial-and-error approach. I also watched the documentary Forks Over Knives in January 2014, and it was incredibly provocative for me, teaching me a great deal more about the value of a plant-based diet and inspiring me to start my own company, Purple Carrot, which is devoted to making plant-based meals accessible and easy for everyone.
I learned all too well during my pharma days that there are so many people in the United States today who are chronically sick. Heart disease is America’s #1 killer, seventy percent of us are overweight or obese, and by 2030, more than half of us will be diabetic or pre-diabetic. Each of these three horrible health conditions could be treated effectively with a plant-based diet. But as I dug deeper into the data, I also gained new knowledge and a greater appreciation for the positive environmental impact that can comes from embracing even a part-time plant-based diet. Did you know that our society is so obsessed with super-sized hamburgers that we need to expand the number of cattle born each year, just so we can slaughter them for consumption? In fact, animal agriculture is the #1 leading cause of global warming—it’s even worse than all forms of transportation combined. Beyond that, the negative impact on soil, coupled with the toxic runoff to water supplies in largely rural impoverished communities causes even more health problems for innocent residents.
I also developed a greater appreciation for the positive environmental impact that can comes from embracing even a part-time plant-based diet.
The part-time element was key for me—you don't have to do all or nothing to see great results. For me, eating a predominantly plant-based diet for the past two years has been critical for me to achieve the type of health and wellness that I have and feel today. Sure, I allow myself the occasional pepperoni pizza, I still love ice cream, and I will eat fish or chicken once or twice per week. But I now no longer crave the meats and processed foods that were once staples of my diet. Instead I love a plant-based smoothie with almond milk for breakfast; I usually eat a salad for lunch; and I rely on my favorite plant-based meal kit for most of my dinners each week. I feel better, and I know I am doing better things for my own body and for our environment. I’m also thrilled to say that I no longer feel or act like a Crohn’s patient and am free from the challenging elements of this chronic condition, which is by and large in a state of remission.
We would all be wise to take stock in our own behaviors and habits, and see where we can make small changes that can lead to big results. Find ten minutes each day to meditate and slow down your breathing. Commit to exercising on a more consistent basis. Think about the food choices you make and be deliberate in choosing plant-based meals, even just a few times a week, to make a positive impact on your own health and that of our fragile environment. And perhaps, most importantly, hug your kids every day. Be kind, and be grateful.
Want to get started on a plant-based diet? Vegan ultra-marathoner Rich Roll will teach you everything you need to know.