I have four confessions:
1. I am a food addict. I often seem unable to stop eating, and forage for food all day long, food that is often high in fat and sugar.
2. I have coronary artery disease (CAD) caused by an unhealthy lifestyle.
3. I have lost over 50 pounds three times in my life, only to regain the weight two of the three times.
4. During my 30 years as a professor of biochemistry at Brigham Young University, I always included principles of nutrition as part of my biochemistry courses for pre-medical and pre-nursing students, but I have recently realized that much of what I taught about nutrition was wrong.
So here is My Story of ups and downs in body weight and in nutrition management. It’s a story of a long, slow process of making mistakes, trying to learn from those mistakes, and finally finding the value of a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) lifestyle. I’ll start with my first confession.
Food addiction—or more specifically, addiction to fat and sugar—is real. I know because my battle has been a life-long, roller-coaster process. I was chubby in my youth but a reasonable 175 pounds (I’m 5’ 10” tall) when I graduated from high school. During my mission to Peru, where most missionaries lose weight, I gained 30 pounds. I was able to lose most of that weight after my mission while an undergraduate at BYU, and I was 185 pounds when I got married. Over the next decade, my weight crept back up, and when I returned to BYU as a faculty member, I weighed 215 pounds.
At that point, I took up running. I started by training seriously for a five-mile road race, became hooked on running, watched my diet more carefully, and ran many short races and eight marathons over the next six years, including finishing the Deseret News Marathon in a personal-record time of 2:58. I weighed 155, down 60 pounds from when I first started running.
While feeling the health benefits of a low-fat diet coupled with running, I wrote the article “Running Away From It All,” which appeared in the February 1981 issue of the Ensign. I also taught classes on the value of exercise during Education Week at BYU and gave many firesides on health and fitness. I now wish I had focused more on nutrition—proper nutrition—and less on exercise.
Not long after the Ensign article was published, I began to let other things in life interfere with my exercise. I stopped running and returned to my old eating habits, the unhealthy Standard American Diet (SAD). I paid a big price. Two decades later, at age 55, I was walking across BYU campus and experienced shortness of breath and chest pains. My wife took me to the emergency room of the hospital. Over the next two days, I was diagnosed with CAD, had angioplasty, received three stents, and was put on Lipitor. My weight at the time was 235 pounds, my cholesterol was 291, and my triglycerides were 283. No wonder I almost had a heart attack!
I decided to change my ways. I went back to running and carefully watched my diet. I read Ornish’s Reversing Heart Disease and began a low-fat diet (but unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to adopt the full WFPB diet that Ornish recommended). Over the next eight months, I again lost 60 pounds, back down to 175. Over the next four years, I ran five marathons, including the Boston Marathon, and completed six triathlons, four century (100-mile) bike races, and a one-day 200-mile bike race (LOTOJA in northern Utah).
Unfortunately, after the Boston Marathon, I experienced atrial fibrillation, which required that I curtail my exercise. I still did some running, but I strayed from my low-fat diet and started putting my weight back on. In 2008, I retired from BYU and my wife and I went on a mission to Peru. Four years later, we went on another mission, this time to Spain. My weight reached 218 pounds.
After four months in Spain, in August of 2012, I began noticing chest pains when I walked briskly or hiked up hills. I knew what those pains meant: I had angina pectoris, a sure sign that the CAD had worsened. I wondered what I should do. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving our mission early to get my angina treated, so I decided to search for other alternatives. I tried to get a copy of the Ornish book that I had read many years earlier, but it was not available online. Fortunately, I found Esselstyn’s Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (in Kindle version), which describes the scientific evidence for a WFPB diet in preventing and selectively reversing heart disease. Then I read Campbell’s The China Study, Stone’s Forks Over Knives, Robbin’s The Food Revolution (an excellent book, which Jane Birch references in Chapter 8 of her book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom), and Campbell’s Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (another excellent book, also referenced in Jane’s book).
So, on September 1, 2012, I adopted a WFPB lifestyle. Now, 16 months later, my weight is down to 165, ten pounds below my high school graduation weight and 53 pounds less than it was prior to leaving for Spain. My cholesterol is 124 (aided with Lipitor) and my triglycerides are 54. And most importantly, my angina has greatly subsided, to the point that I can do brisk walking and even do some running.
Two wonderful things have happened with my WFPB diet: (1) For the first time in my life, I have lost weight without having to exercise for two or more hours a day. And (2) my taste buds have changed, and I now enjoy beets, sweet potatoes, spinach, and the like—food I had previously hated. I still battle food addiction, but now when I yield to the temptation to “forage,” I select WFPB snacks.
With the WFPB lifestyle (which includes 30–60 min/day of exercise), my food addiction and my heart disease are mostly under control. My weight is down to the best it’s been since I ran my personal best marathon thirty-two years ago. In addition, I now understand what I should have been teaching about nutrition in my BYU biochemistry classes.
Before I retired from BYU, my teaching of nutrition focused on the Mediterranean Diet and on the dietary recommendations in Willete’s Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating. Although, the Mediterranean diet is a good dietary program, it still has serious limitations. For example, although a study of people on the Mediterranean diet show that the progression of heart disease is slower than on a SAD, one-fourth of the patients in the long-term study still developed heart disease. On the other hand, research on heart patients on the WFPB diet, shows that the diet completely stops the progression of heart disease and sometimes reverses it. Research also showed that the WFPB diet helps prevent cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. If I were to return to the biochemistry classroom, I would teach the WFPB diet and about living the Word of Wisdom in its fullest sense.
So, what makes me think I won’t return to the SAD, regain my weight, and experience more serious CAD? After all, it’s happened twice before, so why not this time? Reading the scientific evidence for the tremendous health benefits of a WFPB diet helped me to understand the complexity of the problem, and gave me the motivation to begin a WFPB diet that enabled me to stay in Spain and to have the health and energy to enjoy the demanding, 50-hours-per-week of a temple mission. I feel my experience in Spain will give me the confidence to continue my WFPB lifestyle.
In addition, Jane Birch’s book has shown me the connection between a WFPB diet and the letter and spirit of the Word of Wisdom. I hope my story will help others understand the benefits of a WFPB diet. Living the Word of Wisdom to the fullest of our knowledge and ability will enable us to accomplish the purposes for which the Lord has placed us on the earth.
Scott Zimmerman, age 69, retired six years ago after a 30-year career of teaching and research as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Brigham Young University. His wife Beverly retired at the same time after 16 years as a professor of English at BYU. Since then, they have served two missions, one to Peru and one to Spain. They are the co-authors of over 40 books, mostly university textbooks on Microsoft products. They live in Orem, Utah, and have seven children and 23 grandchildren.
Scott Zimmerman was interviewed on this episode of Mormon Vegetarian.