Updated June 16, 2014
I was a former world-class athlete in two sports, swimming and rowing, and like a lot of retired athletes, I got very fat on the SAD (Standard American Diet). At 5’9 I ballooned up to 180 pounds. Unsuccessfully I tried to tackle the excess weight with exercise, up to 3 hours a day. After a year, I was still fat, on the verge of obesity according to a BMI calculator.
I love the story you (Dr. McDougall) tell about your daughter’s, Heather’s, friends, running and running and running and never making progress with their weight loss, and how she looks great without any serious exercise program. You were talking about me!!—At least about the old me, who exercised diligently for a year without losing a pound.
In 2011 my focus on nutrition was heightened when my two brothers, who are 6 and 8 years older than me, were diagnosed with heart disease within a week of each other. I suspected that I, like most other Americans, including my older brothers, eating the SAD diet, had lined my arteries with fatty plaques. I knew that “the deadly diseases” were headed my way because I was living in a fat, sick body. At this time my weight-related health issues included: debilitating pain in my feet when I awakened in the morning, pain in my knees and hips all day long, excessive phlegm production with constant clearing my throat after meals, gastric reflux, lethargy, and sleep apnea. I was scared, but I didn’t know what to do.
Shortly after learning about my brothers’ heart disease I watched Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN interview Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr, the author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. My eyes were opened by this documentary, The Last Heart Attack. Next my journey took me to the McDougall books. Mary’s cookbooks were my lifesaver and I can credit them with helping me lose 45 pounds three years ago.
When people notice my weight loss and ask how I regained my health, I always tell them that I eat starch. Most think that I am kidding. But my physical accomplishments are obvious and my improved self-esteem shines through. It took me 14 months to lose 45 pounds. At first, I lost rapidly, but then the process slowed to about one pound a week, soon I was seeing only a pound every couple of weeks, and finally one pound a month. Besides the weight loss, my cholesterol dropped from a total of 188 to 136 with great HDL and LDL numbers.
The turning point was when I learned the importance of starches: rice, corn, barley, bread, pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans. Finally I understood sustainability, comfort, and satiety from my food choices. With starches there is no longer painful hunger on a weight loss program. No counting calories or portion control. Once I saw it, I said to myself, this eating plan is truly a “no brainer.”
I am not only healthy, but I am happy. Most important for my happiness is that my energy levels are phenomenal and I am a competitive athlete again. I admit I was nervous in the beginning because when I competed as a kid, I was taught that protein was to be at the centerpiece of a high performance diet. I ate no “protein” in the form of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, or cheese. Now I keep a platter of sweet potatoes cooked and ready for post-workout snacks. I eat greens, starches and other veggies as the base of my diet along with a variety of fruits, legumes, beans and whole grains. My sense of well-being and confidence are bolstered by understanding that my new foods are loaded with protein, calcium, and all other nutrients that a winning athlete needs.
I am competing again at the World Indoor Rowing Championships, as a lightweight in the 135-pound class. Even though I was a former world record holder on the Concept II Rowing Ergometer in 1997, it was an uphill climb for me to regain a high level of athletic achievement due to the damage I had caused my body over the previous decade. This year, I was 2nd in the 40 to 49 age group at the World Championships and 11th in the world overall. I am on track to have a chance of winning a world title in the 50 to 59 age group next year. That should put me in the top 10 in the world overall. Furthermore, I hope to break a world record for my age group very soon. Lofty goals for someone who was in constant pain and on the verge of obesity just a few short years ago, don’t you think? Fortunately, I discovered that “It’s the food!” and the human body has the power to heal itself and excel with high performance, even in mid-life, given a chance.