As a teenage boy I could eat anything and never put on a pound. However, as an adult, I found myself putting on weight until I weighed over 50 pounds more than I did in high school. My job as a BYU faculty member involved mostly sitting at a desk or standing in front of a class. That led to physical problems. At age 40, running and even walking produced pain in my knees that reduced my activity level even further. Nevertheless, I accepted this reduction and the accompanying gain in weight as part of the normal aging process. I didn’t worry much about it. I exercised moderately and consumed a diet relatively high in refined flour, sugar, dairy products, and meat, which I had been taught were “good food.”
When I was in my forties and fifties, a high school or college classmate or family member my age, who had been a healthy or even athletic youth, would occasionally appear in the obituaries—usually a victim of a heart attack, stroke, or cancer. Also, among those who were still alive, I noticed a significant number growing (in their own words) “slower, fatter, and stupider” and accepting these undesirable changes as inevitable.
In my early fifties, I started caring for my mother, who (like many people of her era) had never engaged in serious physical exercise or consumed very healthful food. She raised us on a standard American diet—white bread, hamburger, bologna, eggs, milk, and potatoes and gravy, with small side helpings of peas, green beans, or corn topped with butter. In fact, she slathered butter on nearly everything “to make it slip down your throat.” It should come as no surprise that she had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and low energy—especially as she entered her seventies. She just wanted to sit in her recliner and “save her strength.” Over the ensuing years, she suffered a series of ministrokes (caused by clogged arteries to the brain). Her vascular dementia robbed her of her mental powers. One Christmas, she suffered a heart attack, which left her weak even after the cardiologists placed a stent in her clogged coronary artery. After that followed congestive heart failure, breast cancer, diabetes, and other diseases that did not kill her but robbed her of a meaningful life, wore out her husband, ravaged their hard-earned life savings, and exhausted her family caretakers, like me. She declined slowly and sadly over a decade.
Caring for my aging mother through her declining years was a hard but valuable life lesson for me. Sometimes, she would point her finger at me and say, “You just wait; your turn is coming!” as if what she was suffering in her old age was my unavoidable fate. I earnestly hoped she was wrong and vowed to do everything in my power to stay active and healthy as long as I could in order to remain independent and productive in my senior years and spare my family the pain and expense that come with an aging process so many modern Americans have come to accept as “normal.”
When I was 53 years old, I enrolled in the “Y-Be-Fit” program at BYU and had my body and blood analyzed. I was shocked to find that my body was “obese” and that my cholesterol level (220) was in the “moderate risk” range. Even worse, when I started exercising more seriously, my cholesterol stubbornly remained at unhealthy levels, above 200. I started taking statin drugs, but my cholesterol level still stayed between 170 and 180, which was far from ideal and made me think that maybe my mother’s grim prediction would come true.
Shortly after turning 60, I happened across a book titled Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, MD. It explained that many of the leading causes of death in our modern Western society (heart disease, stroke, cancer) are attributable in large part to lifestyle. They cited research findings that determined that 70 percent of what we believe is normal aging is “optional.” I decided it was time to change my lifestyle.
Soon thereafter, a friend in my ward, who teaches physical education at BYU, gave a lesson in our high priest group on the obesity epidemic in America and its astronomical financial, physical, and social costs to our society. This good colleague and brother also introduced me to Forks Over Knives, a video that explains the research of Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., which concludes that a plant-based, whole foods diet can reduce or even prevent many of the lifestyle diseases that cause so much premature death, disease, and suffering in our society. I was attracted by the fit between the basic findings of Campbell’s and Esselstyn’s work and the positive aspects of the Word of Wisdom—the eating of grains, fruits, and vegetables in abundance and of meat sparingly (while not even mentioning milk and eggs as food sources).
About that time, I was at Costco one Saturday and watched a Vitamix demonstrator whip up a “green smoothie.” It was delicious, not to mention healthy. We already had a Vitamix at home, so it was a simple thing to start using it to make tasty and healthy green and orange smoothies (from spinach, carrots, kale, apple, banana, pineapple, etc.), which I drank twice a day. At the same time, I cut way back on meat and dairy products and increased my consumption of whole grains and legumes. My wife’s parents were immigrants from Japan, so she was pleased to add more Japanese-style vegetables to our meals.
When I changed my diet in these ways, an amazing thing happened. My weight, which had been so resistant to change, began to drop. Over a couple of months, I lost nearly 15 pounds, but when my weight reached the “ideal” (according to the charts) for my height and my BMI was right in the middle of the “normal” range (21), it stopped dropping. There it stayed for many months, as long as I stuck to my plant-based, whole foods diet. If I relaxed, however, and reverted to my old dietary habits, my weight would creep back up. For most of the past two years, I am pleased to report, it has stayed near “ideal.”
Just as my weight dropped, so did my cholesterol levels. As mentioned, for nearly twenty years, my total cholesterol had been well above 200 (as high as 239) almost every time it was measured. Being in the “moderate risk” category wasn’t very comforting. As I turned 50, however, my cholesterol level reached new heights (240-260), putting me in the “high risk” category. Statin drug therapy lowered my cholesterol, but it was still not ideal. When I switched to a plant-based diet, however, I finally reached my goal of “ideal” (<150) cholesterol levels. A recent blood test reported my cholesterol level is 130.
I can also report that since turning 60 I have had more energy and less disease than I did previously. Besides running for exercise, I started running for fun. At first, I ran 5K races, which were all I could manage. In 2012 (at age 62) I ran my first 10K race and surprised myself by winning the trophy for first place in my age category. In 2013, I ran a half marathon. And since turning 60, I have participated in three triathlons, winning a bronze, silver, or gold medal in my age category each time. That’s not bad for someone who gave up running twenty years earlier because of knee pain! But I don’t run to win medals. Although I am tired at the end of each of these races, I find a joyful sense of accomplishment in simply completing them. I see each success as a fulfillment of the promise of the Word of Wisdom that those who keep not only the “don’t’s” but also the “do’s” of this counsel from God “shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint” (D&C 89:20).
Lynn Henrichsen, age 63, is a professor of Linguistics and English Language at Brigham Young University. He and his wife live in Provo, Utah. They have four children and ten grandchildren. He holds a doctorate degree in education and has studied eight foreign languages, worked in or visited 26 countries, and has taught students from over 60 different nations.