Updated April 25, 2013
I can still remember the day – I was 28 years old and working in downtown Chicago and had just finished my typical business lunch topped off by chocolate ice cream, when suddenly I needed to use the bathroom – like now! “That’s odd,” I thought, “I wonder if I’m coming down with the flu.” But, this urgency happened again and again, usually within an hour after a meal. I would have a rumbly tummy with painful gas and then diarrhea. “What’s wrong with me?”
My tummy troubles eventually became well-known among my family and friends. I passed up the much coveted rich dairy-laden desserts at family get-togethers and parties. Soon my mother began cutting out articles for me about IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome – a mysterious disease, often thought to be psychosomatic.
My next efforts for relief led me to make an appointment with a world-renowned specialist in the field of gastroenterology at the University of Chicago. I drove to this meeting with a renewed sense of optimism. But, like discovering the Great Oz behind the curtain, my appointment turned out to be a big disappointment. We chatted for about 5 minutes about my symptoms, he took a phone call, someone interrupted at the door, and finally as a way of saying “our time is up,” he wrote me a prescription for some tests. About a week later I got a bill for $900 – $450 for the initial office visit and $450 for the tests! I wrote back to him protesting the bill – telling him I felt sicker to my stomach from his bill, than after any meal.
Obviously, I did not return to this specialist, even though I was still suffering. I next visited a doctor in my hometown. His diagnosis was lactose intolerances (He thought I was unable to digest the sugar in cow’s milk). Unfortunately, avoiding diary products was not the final solution. Along the way, however, I discovered lactose was hidden in many prepackaged foods, from flavored chips to spaghetti sauces.
It was about this time (the mid-1990s) that my wife, Laura, became interested in more vegetarian-style meals. She is a voracious reader, and she kept coming back again and again to someone named “McDougall.” Soon “McDougall” became quoted as the food-oracle around our house. I was skeptical – thinking a diet without animal products whatsoever, was too extreme. After all, our bodies need protein and some fat. The typical American diet must be OK since most people I knew appeared to be healthy.
While I tenaciously held on to the common wisdom that I had been brought up with, I also began to notice that whenever I ate my wife’s cooking at home my tummy was as quiet as a sleeping baby. Whenever I ate out, which I often do because of work and travel, my familiar rumbly companion was back.
Discovering the cause and effect of my food choices made me realize I was normal. My confusion about my health had just been a matter of not being able to “see the forest through the trees” – I happened to be living in a culture dominated by a Northern European fixation on meat and dairy products. My self-esteem was boosted once I no longer viewed myself as having a weak and sickly body. I had a perfectly healthy body as long as I gave it the food it was designed for.
My wife was more than happy to make our home a “dairy-free zone.” She had also noticed that her tummy felt better and that she now had fewer sinus troubles. At home my intestines were consistently quiet and happy. Even beans, which most people regard with as much fear as I do dairy products, became readily digestible once my wife learned the simple trick of soaking them overnight. My IBS was “cured.” It now seems odd that I ever seriously thought that I had some sort of genetic abnormality.
After achieving a victory for “tummy tranquility,” I thought I would have no more problems with my diet. However, I was unprepared for the mental and emotional challenges provoked by going against culture. I’ve learned that food is a profoundly social experience, subject to the constraints, approval, or disapproval by all those around you.
My prejudicial favorite is the well-known phrase, “We have to put some meat on your bones!” Being thin makes me an easy target – I am 40 years old and 124 lb. at 5 feet 7 inches. Eating more consistently vegan eventually caused my 32 inch waist to become 31 inches, with a firm mid-section. Lunch at work usually involves a round of questioning: “How long have you been vegetarian?” “What about your kids?” and the classic, “How do you get enough protein?” I know that some of the questioning springs from genuine interest, but a lot of it is delivered with a definite prosecutorial tone. Many times I have put meat on my plate just to avoid my food becoming the topic of lunchtime conversation.
The social pressure intensifies when children are involved. In the Midwest, withholding milk and dairy products from a child – except when allergic – is akin to child abuse. But that’s exactly what we have done with our three children. Once again, my wife’s readings led the way, and her conclusion was clear: cow’s milk was for baby cows, not baby humans. Living outside this mainstream has caused me at times to be insecure when it comes to my children’s health. On more than one occasion I had to make doubly-sure that our facts were straight by pulling out the books, reviewing the research, and re-reading the labels – only then did I feel back at ease.
The results should have been all the proof I needed. Our oldest daughter is now 8 and has never had an ear infection. She has suffered fewer colds than her peers, and even those are relatively mild. Our second oldest son, now a 6-year-old, did have his share of colds in pre-school, and one ear infection – but, even this was relatively mild compared to the whoppers I used to get. When we adopted our youngest daughter from China at 12-months old, we were cautioned to not change her usual diet of steamed eggs and yogurt. But being the subversives that we were, we offered her our fare of leafy greens, whole oats, and baked sweet potatoes. At 18 months she is thoroughly enjoying her “McDougall diet” and growing like a weed. The growth of all three has been on target, even above average in my son’s case, and their teeth have come in on schedule!
I don’t mean to say our children are strictly on a pure vegan diet. In a culture saturated in fast food and sweets, we’ve learned to be flexible, lest too many things in the world become forbidden fruit. The compromise we’ve reached is that when we’re at home, we “McDougall,” when we’re out, the kids can have what the other kids are eating (within reason).
The “out of the house experiences” are the toughest. I travel frequently for business, including internationally. I have been in restaurants where the only leafy green is iceberg lettuce and the only “starch” is white bread or French fries. In South America, they love their meat so much that they say that a steak isn’t a steak unless it hangs over the plate an inch all around! In Asia, although there are more veggies to choose from, I have found that the dishes are almost always dripping in oil, and the waitresses have a blank stare when I say “no oil.” In some cases, the only thing on the menu that will give me enough calories to make it through the afternoon and still avoid stomach pains is the grilled chicken.
While the social and traveling challenges can be daunting at times, humility and a sense of humor make the journey do-able and the rewards are life-giving.
The McDougall Program is not about perfection, but about progress.
Life cannot and should not be perfect. Life just must work. In the case of dietary choices, your decisions must be wise enough to avoid disability and premature death – and to give you the energetic appearance and the physical comfort you desire and deserve. You must learn ideal behaviors for you and your family by refusing to be taught compromises. However, “knowing and doing” are usually not the same. Once well-informed, you make the best possible decisions everyday. In other words, don’t learn indiscretions; they will find their way into your life with too little effort.
Ignorance is the real enemy. Fifty years ago people smoked out of ignorance. Baseball players and sexy models advertised cigarettes. Rumors suggested smoking might be beneficial for exercising the lungs. In 1964 the Surgeon General made it official, “Smoking Kills and Causes Suffering.” People choosing this addiction in the 21st century are fully informed – as a doctor I feel no call to action when I see people puffing smoke (unless they are children). However, I feel compelled to spread the good news about a health-supporting, plant-based diet. Some people learn easily like Laura and Jeff. They now have control – these days, for example, Jeff can choose each day to be well or to be sick to his stomach.
Knowledge about nutrition today is where we were 50 years ago with tobacco. Even in this “information age,” most people are completely ignorant about what constitutes a healthy diet and why they are sick. They sit down to a block of saturated fat called cheese and they think they are eating an essential health-food. Remember, the world is just recovering from a lapse of sanity known as the (almost all-meat) Atkins diet.
Access to correct health information is a basic human right that most people are deprived of, largely because financial forces spread lies. The day will come when watching someone down a thick steak is as socially unacceptable and revolting as cigarette smoking is today. Until then, I hope you feel inspired to share the truth with whomever you meet.
For more information about the effects of foods on your intestines, please read the lead articles from my 2002 newsletter archives. For the common lower bowel problems of constipation and diarrhea see these articles: