At age 51, during a physical exam required by my employer, my doctor told me that I either needed to schedule bariatric surgery or purchase a cemetery plot — because without the surgery, I would likely die within the next five years.
That was seven years ago. I weighed 340 pounds at the time, and my waist was 52-inches. I had been morbidly obese since my twenties. My cholesterol was about 400, my blood pressure was out of control, and I was taking daily insulin injections for type 2 diabetes, plus about 15 other prescriptions. My other medications, which cost me and my insurance provider tens of thousands of dollars annually, included antidepressants, statins, weight loss medications, and drugs intended to mitigate the side effects of other drugs. But still, it was a shock to hear that blunt prediction of my impending death.
Like many obese Americans, I had tried and failed almost every fad diet and weight loss plan ever marketed in the US. I failed on each of these diets after finding them unsustainable, requiring such things as extreme exercise, food deprivation, or eating almost all meat and no carbohydrates. My increasing weight and declining physical condition left me feeling hopeless and depressed, especially because others seemed to be blessed with genes more tolerant of the standard American diet than mine. And many of those others seemed to attribute my obesity to a lack of discipline or other character deficit. I had survived the military in my younger years and knew I had self-discipline, but I just kept getting larger and sicker with age.
As a last-ditch effort to avoid bariatric surgery, I decided to get a second opinion. But this time, I consulted with a licensed naturopathic doctor trained in nutrition, rather than another medical doctor who probably did not receive nutrition training in medical school.
My new doctor spent over an hour with me during our first meeting, rather than the 5 minutes I was accustomed to for medical appointments. She convinced me to commit to weekly visits with her for the next six months. She asked questions about my personal history and lifestyle, and did not prescribe more drugs. Instead, she prescribed a plant-based diet and told me to adopt a dog from my local animal shelter. “What?” I said, taken aback by her advice. I’d never owned a pet before. How could a dog help me lose weight and improve my health?
She explained that the root cause of my obesity and various health problems was poor diet, exacerbated by the fact that I had become reclusive and stopped engaging in life. Her words hit home. It was difficult and painful for me to travel and even to walk. The undisguised judgment of others who looked at me on the street felt shameful and humiliating. For these reasons, I not only stopped going outside, but I lost contact with all my friends, and I hadn’t been on a date in 15 years.
At the end of our first meeting, unlike the dire prediction of my previous doctor, my new doctor told me that if I walked my new dog for 30 minutes twice each day and strictly followed her dietary advice, I had a good chance to get off all my medications, normalize my health stats, and achieve a healthy weight in just one year. Really? I thought. How could that be possible? But since I had tried and failed at everything else and this new advice seemed a lot less extreme than surgery — why not just try what she is telling me to do and see if it works?
While getting used to my new plant-based diet, I called a local pet shelter. I told the nice person who answered the phone that I wanted to adopt an obese middle-aged dog, so we would have something in common. After answering a lot of questions about my home and lifestyle, she told me to come in, because she thought she had a great match for me. And that’s how I met Peety, a scruffy mixed-breed dog who had survived two shelters and seen better days. He was seven years old, at least 25 pounds overweight and, like me, appeared to be depressed and to have given up on life. After first looking at each other with disappointment, we decided to go home and give each other a try.
Peety and I quickly overcame our mutual skepticism and formed a bond of unconditional love that grew more powerful than any relationship I had ever experienced. Seeing how sick and depressed he was, I felt sorry for him and stopped feeling sorry for myself. I resolved to help him enjoy the rest of his life with happiness and health. After a short time, Peety began looking at me as if I was the greatest person on earth. He believed in me until I was able to believe in myself. His faith in me restored my self-confidence, and caused me to experience happiness and a sense of purpose. Because of his love for me, I decided to become the person who Peety thought I was.
Over the next year, simply by following my doctor’s advice, switching to a plant-based diet, and walking Peety twice each day, I lost 150 pounds, and Peety lost 25 pounds. I looked like a new man, and Peety looked like a new dog. Better yet, I felt like a new person. I was able to get off all my medications, and reversed my type 2 diabetes. I started dating again. I became the person I always wanted to be, all because I found the right doctor, because I adopted a dog and made relatively easy changes in my diet and lifestyle. I got off the fad-diet roller-coaster once and for all. And I’ve been able to effortlessly maintain my optimal weight for seven years now, medication-free.
I often wonder why other doctors aren’t prescribing the “miracle cure” that worked for me as a primary course of care, rather than medication and surgery. According to the CDC, 70 percent of Americans are obese or overweight. At the same time, millions of healthy but unwanted dogs are euthanized each year. The best solution to both problems is not surgery or medication, but healthy nutrition and daily exercise with a canine partner.
The health benefits of plant-based diets and dog ownership are well established. If you are home alone, in poor health, and your life feels like it is spiraling downward, please consider adopting a dog from your local pet shelter. The prescription that worked for me and Peety, in partnership with an informed healthcare professional, can work for you also.
For a descriptive guide about how to help yourself, a friend or a family member in my previous condition, please look up my new book “Walking with Peety, the Dog Who Saved My Life.”