The Power in Plants — Finding Ultra Book Excerpt

The following excerpt is from the book Finding Ultra.


MY SECRET WEAPON

Power in Plants

It’s 1984, a Tuesday, 7:15 A.M., and two high school students stand in line at Montgomery Donuts, out Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, Maryland. Marking time, my swimming buddy Brian Nicosia and I consider the merits of ordering chocolate-covered custard versus jelly-filled with powdered sugar on top. In the end, we split the difference: “Six custard-filled, six jellies,” I say, and Brian forks over some crumpled bills. We tread lightly across the icy parking lot, eating mouthfuls of doughnut as we make it to Brian’s car. Brian starts the engine, and as the car warms up we devour our super-high-calorie meal like lions lunging at prey, interrupting ourselves only to share a laugh over whatever just came out of Howard Stern’s mouth on the radio.

We’ve come directly from morning swim practice, where we knocked out four miles in the pool before most people had even woken up. Our chlorine-damaged hair is still wet, the tips frosty icicles courtesy of a typical subfreezing February weekday, but in our sugar haze we don’t even notice. In less than fifteen minutes, all twelve doughnuts disappear. After that, we drive to McDonald’s, where we order two bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits plus two Sausage McMuffins for me and two orders of pancakes, eggs, and bacon for Brian.

It’s just one morning like any other in a string of similar mornings: an insanely early swim practice followed by various iterations of sugar, flour, meat, and fat, taken in as quickly and in as large a quantity as we can manage. We’re teenagers, we’re logging four hours a day in the pool, and we can handle it — the more calories the better. We don’t think about what the stuff is, what it contains, how it makes us feel, or what it can do to us. We just eat.

Unfortunately, in my case, the ingrained habits of a high schooler became the default dietary approach of a collegian, and after college, during my stints in New York and San Francisco, my appetite turned to even cheaper, faster food. Cook my own meals? Forget that. Instead, it was Gray’s Papaya hot dogs (by the dozen) or Ray’s Pizza (five slices for five bucks). Burgeoning alcoholism finally curbed my appetite — to a point. I’d go out drinking on an empty stomach, wanting the buzz to hit harder and faster — as it invariably did — with no food to cushion it. But the night would always end the same — in drunken gorging at whatever fast-food institution happened to be nearby and open at three o’clock in the morning.

And it wasn’t a problem — until it was.

I barely lifted a finger — let alone a pair of swim trunks — throughout the nineties. Alcoholism left me too hungover to get off the couch, and then everything became about recovery, leaving me zero time to exercise. Or so I believed. Combine a new family to care for with ever-present financial pressures and, well, the state of my physique seemed very low priority.

For years, as I sought to excel as a husband, father, and entertainment lawyer, the idea of “eating healthy,” hitting the gym, or even getting some fresh air for that matter, rarely occurred to me. Who has time? There are just not enough hours in the day. I was no different from so many men I know and respect. And just like them, I had a bulging waistline to show for it.

Admittedly, even at my maximum weight of 208 pounds, I wasn’t, for my height, obese by today’s standards — but I was almost 50 pounds heavier than the 160-pound fighting weight I maintained during my collegiate swimming years. And what was worse, I didn’t feel great. In fact, I felt horrible. As described in Chapter One, my casual disregard for my own health caught up with me on the night before my fortieth birthday. I found myself gasping for air while climbing a few stairs on my way to bed, my mind and body collapsing in a sudden and awful understanding of what I’d become — and, more important, where I was headed. The signposts up ahead spelled out words in big red letters that were truly frightening: “heart disease” and “death.”

So what followed was what had to follow: a massive overhaul of diet, mind-set, and lifestyle. Those months were tough — days and nights of intense cravings, a body detox that left me dry-mouthed and shivering on the couch, and banishment of foods that I’d counted on for emotional comfort. But the clarity and wellness that eventually came made the process all worth it.

After that aha moment on the stairs in October of 2006, my do-it-yourself overhaul began with a seven-day herbal, fruit, and vegetable juice-based “cleanse” (for information on my recommended cleansing program, see Appendix III, Resources, Jai Renew Detox and Cleansing Program). Then came the uninformed six-month stab at vegetarianism, during which I reverted to my pre-cleanse lethargy. Discouraged, I was ready to throw in the towel and revert to my old eating ways. But in June 2007, I decided instead to launch an experiment, undertaking on a trial basis what is generically known as a vegan, or plant-based, whole-food diet. My program wasn’t devoid of just all animal products, but most processed foods as well. In the five years since, I’ve tweaked and revised the regimen to maximize my athletic performance, stave off the onset of illness and disease, and ensure optimum long-term wellness for myself and my family.

I’ve dubbed the regimen the PlantPower Diet.

From the beginning, the PlantPower Diet — even in its untweaked form — brought me tremendous energy. I felt lighter. My energy levels escalated to that which I experienced during my cleanse and remained high throughout the day. My thinking became clear. Absent were those lulls I’d felt after meals, those food comas I thought I just had to live with. And any depression I felt began to subside. In short, I felt amazing. My strength and endurance levels increased quickly and my cravings for dairy — even my beloved cheese — slowly dissipated. I began working out more, and as the weight slowly came off, I felt better and better. Buoyed by the results, I deepened my study and understanding of plant-based nutrition, disease prevention, and exercise physiology. I devoured every authoritative text I could find on these subjects and felt more and more convinced that I was on the right path.

Six months into the experiment, I’d already lost forty-five pounds, lowering my body weight to a lean and mean 165 pounds. Not only was I ripped, I was hooked. And then I really put my regimen to work, testing my body’s absolute limits.

I’m a forty-five-year-old man. A husband and a father who just five years ago crouched winded in my bathroom, fearing a heart attack. If you had told me back then that I’d be sitting where I am today, enjoying a level of fitness and vitality beyond anything I previously thought possible, I would have said you were a lunatic. I simply couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that my life would unfold as it has. And yet here I stand. How is this possible?

I can say with full confidence that my rapid transformation from middle-aged couch potato to Ultraman — to, in fact, everything I’ve accomplished as an endurance athlete — begins and ends with my PlantPower Diet.

Along the way, I’ve sought and been blessed with the support and wisdom of many others — medical authorities, professional athletes, spiritual guides, not to mention Julie, who was my very first mentor in finding a food lifestyle that worked for me.

And that food lifestyle has meant removing all animal products and most processed foods from my diet. No chicken, no eggs, no fish, no dairy. All plants, all whole foods, all the time. It’s what I live on. It’s what I train on. It’s what I compete on. It’s what I thrive on.

I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m just a guy who started paying really close attention to what he was putting into his body. A guy who undertook some study to better understand which foods do what and why. And a guy who liked the results so much that he started taking on challenges that he’d never even dreamed of before.

LET’S GET PLANTPOWERED!

When people ask me what and how I eat, I sometimes hesitate before I use the word “vegan.” Of course, that is what I eat; my diet is absent of any and all animal products. But the word “vegan” is a loaded term, connoting not just a nutritional regime but a code of ethics and a sense of political activism. For better or worse, there’s a stigma to the word, which all too often alienates those who could most benefit from embracing what the word represents.

As I talked about in Chapter One, I was at first quite skeptical about such a way of eating — simply because of the undertones that the word “vegan” brought with it. To me, “vegan” meant a far-fetched, hippie way of not just eating, but living. I imagined dreadlocked students at Humboldt State, kicking around a Hacky Sack in Birkenstocks and tie-dyed T-shirts to the melody of the Grateful Dead. Cool for them. But not my scene.

My turn from a dairy- and meat-based diet to a plant-based diet resulted not so much from a desire to adopt a certain lifestyle as from a simple question: What makes my body run the best? And the answer turned out to be simple. Plants make it run the best. And so I prefer to call my own eating lifestyle PlantPowered, a term that gets more to the heart of my relationship with food. Plants are what I’ve used to repair my health. They’ve given me the strength to do what I do. My pro-plant bias is not about being liberal or conservative. It’s about optimizing both short- and long-term wellness. My diet is PlantPowered, and therefore I am PlantPowered. Never in my life has the equation of food to body been more clear. The old adage is true: You are what you eat.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

In this day and age it can be hard for even the most “aware” consumer to know which foods are healthful. We’re so inundated with conflicting advertising and marketing messages telling us what to eat. Low-fat, non-fat, low in saturated fats, high in omega-3s, drink this, eat that, grass fed, red wine, no red wine, eat chocolate, you need more protein, don’t eat chocolate — it can make anyone’s head spin. Just walk the aisles at any typical grocery store and read the packaging — almost every product is adorned with a banner slogan about why it’s good for you. And then there are the supplements — vitamin tablets, protein powders, energy bars, weight-loss shakes, nutraceuticals, and cure-all smoothies. The totality of it all can literally cause vertigo.

What do I see? A preponderance of disinformation, artful misdirection, creative advertising taking liberties with the truth, and sometimes downright lies, all market-tested and carefully crafted to dupe and confuse.

But when you cut a wide swath through the blinding morass of obfuscation and advertising to boil nutrition down to the basics, it turns out that eating right — eating the PlantPower way — isn’t complex at all, or all that difficult or expensive to adopt. What I’ve done is to get back to fundamentals. At times I can get fairly “scientific” about what I eat, because I’m aiming for specific athletic performance goals — but my approach is probably not as complex as you think. So if you’re interested in the PlantPower way, you can jump in with both feet without a whole lot of thought or planning. There’s no need to be intimidated. This kind of diet doesn’t have to be rocket science!

In the most general sense, I eat and recommend plant-based, whole foods and advise staying away from many — but not all — processed foods. I don’t like to overcomplicate the eating part of my life, and I don’t obsess. I don’t prepare elaborate or expensive dishes. I don’t weigh my food, count grams, or overthink my proportion of carbohydrates to proteins to fats. Why? Because getting overly caught up in such minute details leads to burnout. And burnout always leads back to old habits. The name of the game is sustainability. And simply put, if it’s too complicated, it’s not sustainable. And if it’s not sustainable, what’s the point? Not only does it have to work, it has to be user-friendly, operating with relative ease within the framework of the modern busy family.

The general take-away is this: eat plants. Lots of different kinds. Vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, legumes. Every meal. All the time. All colors, all sizes, and simply prepared, close to their natural state. Keep it varied. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the middle aisles, which generally feature processed and refined foods. Don’t eat things with ingredients you can’t pronounce or that aren’t found in nature. Try to eat organic and locally grown produce when at all possible. Go easy on the sugar. And as for oils — one of the few technically processed foods I support in moderation — use sparingly or avoid altogether.

Eating this way doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. And after you adjust to the change, you very well may find, as I have, that it’s often easier to eat the PlantPower way than you imagined, since most of the foods are close to their natural state and thus very simple and easy to prepare. Keep in mind: The closer your plant-based foods are to their natural state, the better.

I didn’t invent my regimen from whole cloth. It’s built on a foundation of scientific data generated by leading medical professionals and other experts in the field: people like Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University and author of The China Study, a groundbreaking book published in 2005 that examines the close relationship between the consumption of animal proteins and the onset of chronic and degenerative illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity. In one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted, Professor Campbell and his peers determined that a plant-based, whole-food diet can minimize and actually reverse the development of these chronic diseases.

Equally influential is Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. A former surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, as well as a Yale-trained rower who garnered Olympic gold at the 1956 Melbourne Summer Games, Dr. Esselstyn concludes from a twenty-year nutritional study that a plant-based, whole-food diet can not only prevent and stop the progression of heart disease, but also reverse its effects.

You might have seen former President Bill Clinton in 2011’s CNN special The Last Heart Attack speaking with Dr. Sanjay Gupta about his decision to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet as a means to combat his own struggle with weight and heart disease. If you did, you know he cited Dr. Esselstyn, along with Dr. Dean Ornish, as key influencers in his decision.

Dr. Esselstyn’s son Rip, a former swimmer and triathlete and later an Austin, Texas–based fireman, authored a book called The Engine 2 Diet that in plain English demonstrates the power of a plant-based diet by chronicling the astounding health improvements of his Engine 2 firehouse colleagues who undertook his regime.

And yet another influence on me was former pro triathlete and ultra-runner Brendan Brazier’s Thrive — a go-to primer that details all the hows and whys of plant-based nutrition for both athletic performance and optimum health.

The irony is that, despite the consistent and unequivocal findings of these readily available books, from the moment I undertook my own personal experiment in nutrition and fitness, I met with resistance. Naysayers and critics, ranging from nutritionists and trainers to doctors to concerned family and friends, have tried to persuade me from this path. Whenever I advocate for the PlantPower Diet, I’m pummeled with well-meaning but myth-based objections: Aren’t you anemic? What you’re doing is dangerous. How can you stand all that bland food? You can’t be an athlete without steak and milk. It’s impossible to build muscle without animal protein. You can’t get enough calories without meat and dairy. I’ve never seen a vegan who looked healthy. You’re missing key nutrients. You’re harming yourself. Man evolved to eat animals. It’s not natural!

It’s crazy how emotional and threatened people can become when the subject turns to food and diet. Merely mentioning plant-based nutrition often prompts immediate debate. But I relish the dialogue. It’s been a kick confronting head-on the arguments of the critics and dissenting voices and putting them to the test. I’ve done my homework. I know how I feel. And my results speak for themselves.

I should make one thing clear: The PlantPower Diet is not a fad diet. I like to think of it as a lifestyle. The word “diet” can have a negative connotation and is almost always construed as something temporary, with health improvements and general wellness almost always taking a backseat to the primary goal — weight loss. But proper weight maintenance is only one aspect of living in optimum health. If you’re overweight, you’ll undoubtedly shed pounds if you adopt the PlantPower way. Maybe not as fast as you would on a starvation-based regime. But over time you’ll achieve your proper body weight. And most important, you’ll keep it that way. However, weight loss is not the focus of being PlantPowered; it’s the natural by-product of adapting to a new perspective on food that is keenly focused on achieving balanced, long-term wellness.

But despite PlantPower’s obvious benefits, I have no doubt that many of you reading this are starting to feel a low-grade panic, envisioning all your favorite foods vanishing from the fridge and the cupboard as you stare blankly at barren shelves. You’re thinking to yourself, No way.

Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But I can assure you that banishing favorite foods from your diet doesn’t mean sentencing yourself to a life of humdrum eating. It’s all about retraining your taste buds. Also, remember: There’s nothing wrong with starting slow. Let go of trying to be perfect right out of the gate. Use as guideposts the detailed nutritional information and additional reference materials in this book’s appendixes, and feel free to ease into it. Maybe avoiding fast food is all you can handle the first few weeks. That’s fine. But after that, try incorporating more plant-based meals into your daily rotation. For example, make that beloved chicken breast a small side dish to a plant-based entrée until you’re ready to let go completely. Next step: Remove the most tempting and unhealthy animal products and processed foods from your fridge and pantry. After that, replace dairy with almond and coconut milk. Small steps such as these will help your mind and body to adapt.

Over time, as you begin to feel better, you just might discover, as I have, a growing appetite and craving for truly nourishing foods. And with the experience of positive results might come a resolve to expand the proportion of plant-based foods that make up your daily menu. Before you know it, you’ll be a convert. The point is to change habits. Alter those and you’ll create sustainability.

Believe me, if I can do it, so can you.

A FINAL THOUGHT

We live in the most prosperous nation on Earth, yet as a society we’ve never been more unhealthy. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a vast array of very preventable diseases plague us unnecessarily. But rather than address these ailments’ underlying causes, our culture emphasizes pharmaceutical fixes. Just watch television for an hour and count how many ads you see for prescription medications.

If we want to heal — truly heal — and thrive, then we must embrace preventive medicine. A plant-based, whole-food diet has been shown, for example, to prevent and actually reverse heart disease (America’s number one killer) and impede or even arrest the development of a litany of other maladies, including the growth of cancer cells. Even erectile dysfunction is often symptomatic of circulatory disease. Overall, eating a plant-based diet is the easiest, most cost-effective — and environmentally conscious — way to vastly improve not just your own health but that of America and the world at large.

I’m not alone in my advocacy of this alternative approach to eating. In fact, plant-based nutrition has begun to go mainstream. Practitioners of veganism range from martial arts fighters such as Mac Danzig and Jake Shields, to Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens, to Dave Zabriskie, who made headlines in 2010 as the first professional cyclist to ride the Tour de France as a vegan. And it’s not just professional athletes who’ve caught the fever. Among the converts to plant-based nutrition: Twitter founder Biz Stone, real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman, and Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn. The list is growing daily.

Still wary? Then here’s my challenge to you. Using the information in this book’s appendixes, adopt the PlantPower Diet. Stick to it religiously for thirty days straight and you’ll feel dramatically better. Your energy levels will rise. You’ll feel lighter. Your focus will increase. Your mood and sleep will improve. Your blood pressure and cholesterol levels will normalize. You’ll feel motivated to exercise. If you’re an athlete, your recovery time, and thus your performance, will improve. And yes, you’ll lose weight. And if after a month you haven’t experienced most, if not all, of the above drastic improvements, I’ll happily wish you well as you return to your disease-provoking, artery-clogging, animal protein–based style of eating.