The Standard American Diet was the only diet I knew for most of my life. While sedentary and pudgy when very young, I became more lean and active in high school and college. During the final year of my residency in anesthesiology, over working got the best of me. Frequent trips to the medical center cafeteria for calorie-rich, processed foods became the norm. Twenty extra pounds appeared out of nowhere. This is the point where my meandering journey of yo-yo dieting began.
While reading a newspaper, my wife learned about a diet that eliminated all refined carbohydrates (white flour, sugar, etc.). It was a sort of “sugar busters” diet. Without getting any books or outside help, we tried to apply it as best we could. The twenty pounds vanished and my energy level increased. For the first time since Physical Education, I began to exercise. We did well with this make-shift program for about three years.
When we were taught the missionary discussions and the Word of Wisdom was introduced, we embraced it. In high school and for a couple of years in college, I had smoked. Committing to avoiding tobacco forever made a lot of sense. As young as I had been at the time, I would get bronchitis each winter that lasted for months. Eliminating alcohol has also been a blessing. That is something that harms so many people in so many ways. We were also coffee drinkers, but willing to give that up.
Before baptism, we thought that it would be great to receive a sign of some sort, but we had also heard that it is evil to seek for signs. We did not feel that a sign was necessary for us to commit to living the Gospel. A few days before our scheduled baptisms, however, our coffee pot completely disintegrated. We found just the base on the kitchen counter. Inexplicably, the rest of the pot had shattered even though nothing had fallen on it. The base and fragments were all that was left. That was heart warming.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, after we were baptized as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our dietary wheels fell off. Our first ward activity revolved around red punch and Texas sheet cake (a kind of brownie with frosting). We decided that this must be the proper way to eat since these are an inspired people.
Over the next twenty-five years, I gained sixty pounds. The demands of family, Church, and professional life contributed to my downfall. Once again, open access to a hospital cafeteria with calorie dense food at no charge to physicians did not help (yes, there really is a free lunch). While I continued to exercise, my calorie expenditure was no match for the constant infusion of high fat, refined foods.
Although I was completely asymptomatic, in 2005 I felt prompted to get a cardiac CT scan. To my shock and chagrin, it revealed calcium in every aspect of my coronaries, including the left main coronary artery. My internist immediately ordered Lipitor and niacin. A stress echocardiogram was fortunately negative, but I was now motivated.
As disconcerting as it was to make this discovery, it was a true blessing. My father and two of his brothers were hypertensive, diabetic, vasculopaths. They all died slow, lingering, gradual, incremental deaths. Each had several blood vessel procedures and amputations. While this dragged out the process, it certainly did not change the result. Sharing this gene pool as I do has put me at significant risk of repeating the same curse. The warning had come to me that I would face the same end if significant action was not taken.
At this point, things started to improve. Several of my associates were Seventh-day Adventists. They invited me to their local Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP). We were welcomed and made to feel at home. They instructed us in how to properly live a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) lifestyle. For the second time in my life, twenty pounds vanished. We have often said that we had to go to the Adventist Church to learn how to properly live the Word of Wisdom. After developing unremitting pain in my thighs from the Lipitor, my internist discontinued the medication. By this time, I no longer needed it. The pain resolved in just a few days.
It would be a happy tale indeed if it ended there. Unfortunately, we began to blend old dietary habits with our new lifestyle. While we did not return to pepperoni pizza, we added veggie pizza slathered in cheese. All too often, either my wife or I would return home with a carton of Dreyer’s ice cream, a package of Oreos, or a bag of M&Ms. These things might as well have been methamphetamine for us. We would munch until they were gone. Five pounds crept back. To borrow from J. Golden Kimball, we did not follow a WFPB diet, but we crossed it as often as we could. We went to a VegSource convention, read books by the plant-based experts, and watched DVDs about healthy diets, but we continued to eat junk food on the side.
Somehow, I stumbled upon Sister/Dr. Jane Birch’s Discovering the Word of Wisdom Facebook page. A copy of her book by the same title was obtained. After thumbing through it, it was retired to a shelf. Then, a literal life-saving moment occurred during this year’s August BYU Education Week. Sister Birch was kind enough to invite me to visit in her office. This was an electrifying experience.
The first thing that struck me is that Jane looks to be about thirty years of age. Her commitment to a WFPB diet is palpable. Her kindness and great enthusiasm catalyzed an immediate recommitment on my part to eat properly. When I returned home, I found her book and read it. This is a remarkable work. It is the most thorough exposition on living the entire Word of Wisdom that I have seen. Additionally, her article on the comma in verse 13 is outstanding.
Having been re-enthused and recommitted, I have been blessed in so many ways. Ten pounds have vanished already. My energy level has dramatically improved. Yes. Yes. You ask: “So, Mr. Wise Guy, just how do you quantify that?” To which I reply: “My time to do the same resistance workout has dropped significantly.” That’s objective. Also, I just plain feel a lot better. That’s subjective.
A completely unanticipated blessing has come my way since I became much more careful in my diet. A couple of years ago, I developed a minor rest tremor in my left hand. My mother and her brother both had significant tremors later in life. My internist told me that I have a congenital Essential Tremor. It will spread and worsen. At some point, medication will be required to control it. I was totally resigned to that. After all, better people have had much worse things happen to them. Within just a few days of returning to a WFPB diet, my tremor has completely resolved. Coincidence? Placebo effect? My tremor is gone. That is what matters to me.
With this newfound enthusiasm and momentum, it is my hope that the old demon of refined carb lust will remain in the past. That is my goal.
Victor Werlhof, MD is 67 years old and lives in Chico, California (90 miles north of Sacramento). He practiced anesthesiology and has been retired 1.5 years. He and his wife have been married for 42 years and have 5 children and 5.5 grandchildren. He is currently serving a full-time Church Service Mission at the local Institute of Religion and as a BYU-I Pathway Missionary.