Our C-130 transport plane touched down in the middle of the night at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. It was 2010, and I had been deployed to Iraq to take part in Operation New Dawn ordered by President Obama. I was part of the crew responsible to keep the base hospital operational during the orderly withdrawal of US Forces. After a few hours of sleep I rolled out of my bunk, put on my battle dress uniform and made my way to the hospital in the 120 degree July heat for my first day of work. An NCO issued me a firearm and another checked my gas mask and chemical protection gear. I sat down to start reading radiographs, CT scans, and ultrasounds generated from combat traumas as well as routine cases like twisted ankles, kidney stones, and pneumonias. At first I only had to work 12 hour shifts 7 days per week. The base was large with over 30,000 military troops and contractors when I arrived, but most of the soldiers were healthy and combat injuries were diminishing every month as more and more troops were sent home.
When the trauma work was light in the middle of the night I finally had time to myself. The frantic demands on my time that I had been dealing with for nearly 20 years came to a sudden halt. After all those years of working and studying 80 – 100+ hours per week, suddenly I found that I had time to ponder life and study whatever interested me. I also wanted to use some of my free time to get in better shape. Fortunately, the Iraqi army had left a swimming pool when they turned over the base to the US Air Force, and the base commander had made it a priority to acquire gym equipment for the troops. After a night shift I enjoyed going to pool or the gym for a morning workout. The only inconvenience was the frequent C-RAM siren indicating incoming rockets and mortars. This required us to jump out of the pool and run for cover. I planned out an ambitious exercise regimen, but as the weeks went on I didn’t lose weight or feel stronger. In fact, I felt progressively worse. I was following the usual fitness precepts: alternating weight lifting and cardio while eating large amounts of protein — mostly meat, eggs, and dairy. Yet somehow my weight was going up while my stamina was going down.
Finally, my frustration reached a peak one night when I couldn’t even jog a slow mile on the lonely treadmill in the hospital basement without feeling exhausted. I walked back through the dark empty halls to my office and opened my scriptures to a well-known passage: Doctrine and Covenants Section 89. Of course, I was familiar with the prohibitions of alcohol and tobacco mentioned in this revelation, but I had never considered the other verses in the context of my own day-to-day food choices. I read the following:
Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
. . . the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth . . . these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.
. . . And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. (D&C 89: 12, 13, 15, 18–20)
After reading this passage I was struck with wonder. Suddenly it was clear to me that God prefers that we do not eat meat. How could I have ignored this simple recommendation all my life? I pondered and prayed about this scripture and become convinced that God would indeed bless me with better health if I would avoid meat. I resolved immediately to learn all I could about a vegetarian lifestyle and to incorporate it permanently into my life.
I still had about 4 months left in my deployment—plenty of time to research vegetarian nutrition. I studied material from prominent vegetarian physicians that I found online such as Caldwell Esselstyn MD and Neal Barnard MD. I also ordered multiple books including Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, The China Study by T. Colin Campbell PhD and The Spectrum by Dr. Dean Ornish, among others. After weeks of reading and considering all the evidence in the context of my medical training, I felt that it made the most sense to give up all animal products including eggs and dairy. I also realized that it was better to stick with whole foods that were closer to their natural form and to avoid processed foods containing added sugar and oil.
Once I set my mind to it, I actually had no trouble giving up meat, dairy, and eggs. I had seen the consequences of eating meat in thousands of patients; as a radiologist I had seen fatty plaque clogging critical arteries too many times too count. I had participated in image-guided catheter procedures to open up blocked arteries in desperate attempts to restore circulation. I had a feeling that most of these patients would go right back to ingesting artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fat in the form of meat, eggs, butter, and ice cream.
For me, the biggest challenge was giving up sugar. I quickly realized that I had some degree of addiction to sugar. Trying to abruptly give up all sweeteners left me with insatiable cravings and annoying headaches. With time and persistent effort, these symptoms slowly subsided.
The war was winding down and the base hospital was reduced to half-staff. As the only remaining radiologist I was on duty 24 hours per day 7 days per week. Leaving the hospital to exercise became difficult. However, I continued experimenting with various vegetarian foods. After enduring many sleep-interrupted nights, I was grateful when it was finally my turn to board the transport plane and head back to the USA.
Although most medical schools (including mine) omitted nutritional education from their curriculum, I compensated by continuing my self-directed studies when I returned home. I watched nutrition conference lectures and followed the latest vegetarian nutrition research. I continued reading books on the topic whenever I could find the time including Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss and Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease by Dr. Robert Lustig. The most valuable education in my opinion is simply personal experience. Living a whole-food plant-based lifestyle over the last few years has solidified my conviction that it is the best way to prevent chronic disease — especially when processed foods containing sugar, refined flour, and oil are eliminated. I am so grateful that my wife, who is a dietitian, has supported me and joined me in this lifestyle.
I was delighted to see many personal health benefits from my new diet. I had been eating standard greasy military mess hall fare for many years and at one point my total cholesterol measured 240, which put me in the high-risk group. My cholesterol immediately dropped to normal after I stopped eating animal products. Formerly intractable gastroesophageal reflux nearly resolved. Hepatic steatosis resolved. Rosacea slowly cleared. Without restricting calories or going hungry I gradually lost 40 pounds and have stayed at my ideal body weight since then. I can finally run without knee pain. I attribute my ability to run a trail marathon a couple years ago to the scriptural promises mentioned above.
My frustration has turned to great optimism for my future health now. I made a goal after returning home to visit the highest point in each of the 50 states with my family. I’ve bagged more than half of the high points already and also hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim along the way. I love the outdoors and continue to practice a whole-foods plant-based lifestyle in the hopes that I will be able to climb mountains with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for many decades into the future. If you are not already on board, I invite you to start your own vegetarian adventure and “eat like there IS a tomorrow.”
Chad Harston lives in Lexington Kentucky with this wife and four children. He received his medical degree at Baylor College of Medicine and then completed a 1-year internship and then a 4-year radiology residency in San Antonio Texas where he later served as Chief of the Breast Imaging section at Wilford Hall Medical Center. He served one tour of duty in Iraq and was subsequently awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. He received an honorable discharge as a major from the US Air Force in 2011. Dr. Harston is now the supervising radiologist for the Center for Breast Care at Lexington Clinic. Professionally, he specializes in the detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. Outside of his day-to-day work at the clinic, he enjoys learning how to prevent chronic diseases with healthy lifestyle changes. In his free time he likes to travel and climb mountains with his family.