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The Weaver Family: Conquering Ulcerative Colitis, Family Heart Disease & Finding Vibrant Family Life

The fundamentals of the McDougall Program are simple yet often difficult to implement. Star McDougallers have either adopted the Program themselves by learning from our website and books or joining one of our programs. For personalized help, learn more about the 12-Day McDougall Program. For questions on whether a change in diet can help your ailment, learn more about our consultations.
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“Nothing Tastes As Good As Healthy Feels”

In 1996, one of our marriage vows was “I will care for my body so my good health is an asset to our relationship”; we did not know how foreshadowing that statement would be for the strength needed to overcome what lie ahead.

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Rachel: I knew something was not right in my body. It began in small ways after the birth of my second child in 2003. I had frequent diarrhea and blood in my stool—not often but anything is a concern. A colonoscopy by the gastroenterologist showed ‘proctitis’.  No mention of the word autoimmune was used.  Mesalamine suppositories were prescribed with my assumed notion that the problem would go away.  The prescription helped for a few months.  The regularity of stool blood, or ‘evidence’ as we called it later, continued to come and go; however, across the next 3 years, the progression was clear: there was more evidence, more often as time progressed. After my third child in 2005, the mesalamine suppositories no longer worked. The urgency to go to the bathroom 5-10 times a day does not help one live a normal life.  In the fall of 2006, the gastroenterologist performed another colonoscopy.  Results showed I had 10 inches of inflamed large intestine with a diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis (UC).  The term “autoimmune disease” was finally being used by the doctor. When oral Asacol stopped working, the steroid prednisone was prescribed to get me into remission. I had a dozen side effects. When your young child prays that “mommy won’t have to take the pills anymore,” you know the side effects are serious.  Future medical treatment looked ominous with the possible long term use of 6-mercaptopurine (a cancer chemotherapy drug), and Remicade (a powerful immune system suppressant), and with surgical colostomy being considered a cure. It was inferred that I shouldn’t be concerned because more severe symptoms might not occur. None of those were options I wanted; my husband Mike became my researcher.

Michael: We had been trying to eat healthier because of Rachel and because of my own interest in fiber to relieve ongoing severe constipation.  I started making fresh ground 100% whole wheat bread.  I was validating a quote by Dr. Denis Burkitt related to fiber intake when I found him referenced in The China Study (TCS).1   I then tracked down references to the works of Dr. John and Mary McDougall and Dr. Esselstyn from the book.  From TCS and Dr. McDougall’s treasure trove website, I chattered to Rachel about the amazing things people accomplished from relief of autoimmune conditions to reversal of heart disease.  The evidence was clear; it made so much sense.  January 27, 2007, I said “Do you think we should eat this way for your UC and my family heart disease?”  She fully agreed.  I asked, “When should we begin?”  She said, “February 1 on condition that you get me recipes.”  I immediately ordered every new and used book that the McDougall’s had published in print or electronic format. Thank you Mary McDougall for all those recipes! After starting the new diet my former constipation was nonexistent.

Rachel: UC is a cruel bathroom centric disease, which goes through phases of remission and flaring. After going low fat, no oil, whole plant foods (McDougalling), across the next 6 months, my UC got better and better. In August 2007 I had 28 days of remission and thought we had found the solution.  Mike and I had each lost 7-12 lbs. gradually.  Dr. McDougall’s book”The McDougall Program” helpfully outlined elimination diets and tips for chronic conditions.2  I had already given up gluten, dairy, and corn because they seemed to increase my symptoms. From reading one of Dr. McDougall’s newsletters, we were tipped off that fruits, moderate vegetable, and starch intake were the most healing foods.3,4 The importance of eliminating sulphur-containing animal foods cannot be overstated.4 My UC then worsened in 2008-2009. While remaining plant based, we tried many things in a desperate attempt to get me into remission.  Looking back I also see I was sensitive to onions, most high fat foods, and particularly to hot spices like chili peppers which are in Ethiopian berbere.  After a year of hardship, Mike found a method that used fruits and green juices (a form of ‘fasting’ with calories) to potentially induce remission. This path harmonized with other research on UC remission.4 I was in another flare and ready to try anything.  I prepared to implement it for up to 6-8 weeks, and on day 21 my symptoms ceased.  I was ecstatic!! I brought back cooked food gradually with whole food starches at dinnertime and later at lunchtime.  Today, I eat a low fat, starch-centered whole food diet, with high salad, and high fruit intake especially at breakfast. I have been medication free and symptom free for nearly 5 years with two small flares due to spicy food intake that were fixed within days of using fruit, green juices, and rest to calm my system; no symptoms have occurred in the last 2 years. It took meticulous food logs and persistent lengthy trial and error to find and remove the trigger foods that bothered my system.

Michael: Rachel and I both grew up eating the typical “healthy” home-cooked standard western foods. Our mothers’ sincere caring was no match for industry messages and social traditions, which promoted rich foods, cheap oils, and convenience foods.  When we were young, we both had significant allergies requiring injections.  In my youth, I remember eating an entire box of Fruity Pebbles in one day.  By high school, college, and later bachelor life, I had miserable seasonal and dust allergies.  I always wondered why these issues afflicted me.  Fast forward to today—my allergies are mostly gone.  It is amazing.  I don’t have the lethargic feeling that occurred daily during the height of fall ragweed season.  Rachel and I were also called ‘husky’ and ‘solid’ when we were young—code names for being overweight.  Today we are consistently around 22 BMI, which is below our college weight levels.

My family has heart disease.  My father had 2 heart bypass surgeries, my mother and three uncles (both sides) had heart bypass surgeries, and my grandfather died of a heart attack at 54 years of age.  I realized that if I wanted to be heart healthy, I needed to get my unmedicated total cholesterol under 150 and maintain that level for 1-2 years in order to potentially reverse any existing disease.  I got my cholesterol checked monthly for around 18 months to keep me eating honestly.  I travel regularly as a computer consultant and I needed accountability.  In 2007, within 10 weeks of going low-fat, eating whole plant foods, and getting rid of soy milk and olive oil, my total cholesterol moved from 220 mg/dL to 139 mg/dL. Removing oil and rich foods made a large difference in lowering the numbers for me.  Over the next 2 years, my total cholesterol ranged between 119-162 mg/dL and my LDL was consistently below 100 mg/dL. My cholesterol would rise 10-20 points higher when I twice experimented with Vitamin D3 supplements for a few months.

In 2009, the vitality I felt drove me to exercising more—the eating pattern was working; perhaps more blood flow was coursing through my body.  For the last 4 years I have enjoyed exercising vigorously for an average of 45 minutes every day including running and strength activities.  This interest has been contagious within our family with Rachel and our children: Julie 12, Jenna 10, and Jameson 8.  In October 2013 our family, including Jameson, competed in running a 5K together; Julie, Jenna, and I competed in a local 4-mile race as well.

Our children enjoy how we eat—they believe it keeps them slender and vibrant.  They know the familiar quotations from Dr. McDougall “The fat you eat is the fat you wear”, “People like to hear good news about their bad habits”, and “Milk is for baby cows.”  Jenna says she feels extra energetic. Julie says people often mention to her that they wish they had her energy. Jameson likes the ability to work extra hard in outside activities and the garden—they all enjoy bicycling, running, swimming, and hiking. When they eat a restaurant meal with oil…they say “we feel heavy!” They like not getting sick.  If a cold comes, it is mild and is gone in 2-4 days without the need for antihistamines or prescriptions.  The children have not needed antibiotics for over 9 years—no ear infections in our household. Dr. Alan Goldhamer, whom we briefly consulted during Rachel’s trials, made the keen observation, “Rachel, your disease has saved your children.”  This prophetic statement is indeed true. Julie who remembers the former ways of eating mentioned that she is glad mommy got sick, not because of the UC, but because it changed how we eat.

Dr. McDougall’s knack for illuminating conservative therapies is a trademark.  Depression exists in my extended family, and over the winter, my mood was less happy.  It seems I was sleeping too long; by sleeping less per night and waking to an alarm clock, I was able to regain concentration and better mood.  Dr. McDougall wrote about light and wake therapy in 2004.6

Our family owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. John and Mary McDougall.  The primary reason we attended Vegetarian Summerfest 2013, was to meet John and Mary and sing them the potato song.5  We thought the song would fit their love of potatoes since a potato was on the cover of their recent book, The Starch Solution (highly recommended).  The beaming smiles on their faces while we sang to them in the hallway were rewarding and priceless.  Recently at my birthday party I was asked what my highlights were from the prior year; I said that singing the potato song to the McDougalls as a big ‘thank you’ was one of the most significant highlights of last year.

We feel a desire to support healthy eating in our area.  We regularly have potlucks with others.  Rachel is great at making practical, tasty meals; she enjoys sharing the recipes, flavors, and talents of her cooking.  I began a graduate program in nutrition, which I will complete in the next year.  In 2014, I passed The Starch Solution Certification Course.  We both hope to be an encouraging voice for healthy change in our community.

Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels.

Michael D. and Rachel J. Weaver
Harrisonburg, VA
April 2014

  1. Campbell TC, Campbell TM. The China Study. Benbella Books. Dallas, TX. 2006.
  2. McDougall JA, McDougall M. The McDougall Program. Penguin Books. New York. 1990.
  4. Jowett SL, Seal CJ, Pearce MS, Phillips E, Gregory W, Barton JR, Welfare MR.  Influence of dietary factors on the clinical course of ulcerative colitis: a prospective cohort study.  Gut. 2004 Oct;53(10):1479-84.    (See table 2 and 3. Vegetables, fruits and starches are prorotective.)