It was Saturday, August 20, 2011. I woke up much earlier than usual to find the TV on and tuned to CNN where Dr. Sanjay Gupta was previewing a program called “The Last Heart Attack.” Dr. Gupta’s investigation of a “heart-attack proof” diet initially sounded very strange. I thought he’d be debunking some quack idea because it seemed impossible that a person could become literally “heart-attack proof,” but I soon realized Dr. Gupta was serious. Based on his research, he believes a “whole food, plant-based” diet can prevent heart disease. This was interesting to me, not because I had any risk factors for heart disease, but because I knew it is the #1 killer in America.
That very morning I started researching the diet on the Internet. I quickly learned what a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet means. “Whole food” means very limited or no processed foods (including refined oils) and “plant-based” means meals based on plant rather than animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs). It includes four food groups: vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans and lentils), and whole grains. In other words, whole plants, packaged as God (or nature) designed them.
I found plenty of solid evidence in favor of the diet and was surprised that it looked much more compelling than I had expected. I learned that the evidence demonstrates that a WFPB diet doesn’t just reduce our chance of getting heart disease, but actually eliminates it. This impressed me. It isn’t easy to make big lifestyle changes, and I don’t feel motivated when it only reduces my chances of having problems; it feels like a gamble. Eliminating my chances of getting a disease, especially the #1 killer, felt very motivating to me.
Equally important, I soon learned that the recommended diet does much more than make us “heart-attack proof.” I was astounded to learn that by eating a “heart-attack proof” diet, I could also drastically reduce or (in many cases) eliminate my chance of ever having to deal with most of the other chronic problems common on our society: strokes, diabetes, many cancers, kidney disease, arthritis, diverticulitis, obesity, and many more.
Up to this point in my life, I just assumed we’d all end up with chronic disease at some point. Eventual poor health seemed inevitable. I figured I’d “cross that bridge” when I got there. But now the thought of living life with a dramatically reduced chance of ever getting any of these diseases sounded pretty good. I started to consider what type of lifestyle change would NOT be worth these results. I started to think about what good health is worth to me.
My brief study that Saturday morning had an unpredictable effect on me. Within a relatively short amount of time (less than a few hours after watching the CNN preview), I came to the astonishing conclusion that I had better change my entire way of eating. For lunch that same day I began eating a WFPB diet.
Learning to Live with a New Diet
In my excitement over discovering new truths, it took a little time to realize what a radical effect this dietary change would have on my daily life. Being single had made it easy for me to get by on foods that require no cooking skills. If I couldn’t even cook “normal” food, how could I ever cook this strange stuff?!
I then realized that on this diet my food consumption would be totally my own responsibility. No one I knew cooked like this, and we certainly don’t have WFPB restaurants in Utah County! I’d have to prepare nearly everything I ate, and I couldn’t rely on the easy shortcuts that make yummy food acquisition a painless process. Without the refined foods, sugars, and fats of my past diet, figuring out how to make “whole food” taste good soon became a big challenge. Fortunately, I felt so committed to giving this my best try that even days of eating far-less-than-yummy foods did not make me want to give up.
During the next few weeks, I definitely was NOT enjoying my new diet. People who had been eating this way for years told me that my taste buds would change. I tried to imagine I could learn to cook. I tried not to think about food tasting like this for the rest of my life and instead focused on getting through the next few months while I figured things out.
Through reading on-line forums, I got to know some of the many people who eat this way. I discovered they truly enjoy their food and are experiencing the promised weight loss and increased energy and good health. In reading their stories, I couldn’t doubt their sincerity. Their food tastes had changed. It was obvious they relished their new foods with the same joy I had always gotten from eating. And, without all the added fat, sugar, and processed foods, they felt they could (for the first time) truly savor the subtle, delicious flavors of whole foods. They also appreciated a diet that allowed them to eat as much as they needed, never go hungry, and still lose weight.
I quickly found hundreds of recipes to support this diet. I tried many. They all failed. While others loved the food, I did not. I was now eating food to stay alive but not for enjoyment or pleasure. I did feel great after every meal, never weighed down or heavy. I had energy, and I felt good. I was losing weight. But I was discouraged. I was committed to the diet, but I wanted it to be easy, and it was not.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to study the new diet. The first book I read was The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. In this tour de force, Campbell presents not only the “most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted,” but also the results of hundreds of other mainstream scientific studies, all with the same compelling conclusion: the unquestionable benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet. I was sold.
The more I researched, the more impressed I was. This excitement is unusual for me. We’ve all heard people who are overly excited about this or that supplement or super food. We are regularly bombarded with news of health-altering wonder nutrients, and I’m sure they all have their merits, but the WFPB diet felt very different. This struck me as transparently and unambiguously true. It was not gimmicky; it rang true to history, science, and common sense; no one stood to make money by converting me to it; and I couldn’t help but notice it resonated with truths that were already an important part of who I am: the truths found in the Word of Wisdom.
For myself, somewhere between week seven and eight I suddenly realized I was liking my food! I began thoroughly enjoying three very large meals a day. I looked forward to eating; I ate with relish; and I felt fully satisfied after every meal. I had plenty of tasty WFPB snacks when I wanted them. I didn’t count carbs or calories. I felt fantastic!
I didn’t have any major health issues when I started the diet, but I did hope to lose weight. After high school I had gradually put on an additional 45 pounds. In 2005, I decided to try to cut back on calories to keep from ballooning out any further, and I very slowly began to lose weight. Over the next six years (between 2005 and 2011), I lost 20 pounds. After starting this diet, I lost 15 pounds in 12 weeks and 25 pounds in less than a year.
I had my cholesterol tested after three months on the new diet. My total cholesterol and LDL levels had both dropped 32%. My total cholesterol is now 130 and is in the “ideal” range (<150). When I had my carotid arteries checked in 2012, I was told they look like someone half my age. All of the small health issues I had also disappeared: a saliva gland that had been blocked for 10 years, annoyingly dry eyes, extremely itchy spots on my body, leg cramps at night, and occasional constipation. Since changing my diet, I’ve felt great, enjoyed plenty of energy, and am finally sleeping well.
Here is how I figure: I enjoyed plenty of meat and junk foods during the first half of my life. Now, I can enjoy different foods and better health the second half of my life. After all, what is health worth? And what have I really given up? I eat lots of delicious food, which I thoroughly enjoy. It is less expensive to buy and will save me in health-care dollars in the future. In addition, I have the opportunity to share something precious with others.
What I was not expecting when I made that decision was to discover that everything I was now learning about good health and nutrition was already contained within a document that was very familiar to me—D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom. Two years later I have now completed a book describing how a whole food plant-based diet opened my eyes to this 1833 revelation. The book is called, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective.
While writing this book, I invited others to contribute their stories of discovering the Word of Wisdom through a whole food, plant-based diet. As their stories poured in, I began to realize I could not include them all in the book. This is where the idea for a website was born. The idea was to create a site to share stories of people who are “waking up” to the Word of Wisdom, a place where we could all help encourage and support each other in this wonderful journey.
Living the whole food, plant-based lifestyle has been one of the most joyful experiences of my entire life. The physical and spiritual blessings have been enormous. I love the food! I love the way it makes me feel! I love the greater sensitivity to the Spirit that has come into my life. I love sharing the joy I’m experiencing with others. I know there is a reason so many of us are “waking up” to the Word of Wisdom!
Jane Birch, 52, is the Assistant Director for Faculty Development at the Brigham Young University Faculty Center. She is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and the owner of this site. You can find out more about her in About Jane Birch. 🙂