Note From Carolyn: If today’s article interests you and is ringing a clarion bell, get ready for a new Meridian health challenge next week. There’s nothing to purchase and all that is required is a willingness to put a whole-foods plant-based diet focused on the “do’s” of the Word of Wisdom to the test. I’ll be partnering with Jane Birch, author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom on this exciting challenge! Getting started information is at the bottom of this article with more details coming next week.)
As I write this article it is my 60th birthday! I have just completed an exciting 12-week health challenge, and feeling very optimistic about my own life and health. Over the past 9 months I’ve kicked sugar lost weight, inches, clothing sizes and gained things that matter much more than that. (The link to my blog is at the bottom of this article.) My health choices are a very conscious thing because I have relatives that live to be within weeks of their 100th birthday. Will I? If so, I’ve got 40 years ahead of me, and being 60 is, as President Uchtdorf has profoundly told us is soundly “in the middle” of my life.
Is the prospect of living up to age 100 good news or bad? To get my head wrapped around how long this is, I reversed my life 40 years. 40 years ago I was a BYU sophomore in 1974, younger than my youngest child, and had just completed the fun of being in the very first production of Saturday’s Warrior. Absolutely every major part of my current life at 60 is an extension of the lessons learned, skills established, and the relationships I made in those years.
Will my life in later years have as direct a link to what I am doing now? Will I still be alert, alive and treasuring life? Will I be able to be healthy, strong, active and independent? Will I have had the physical strength, energy and desire to be involved with my family and friends in order to make “memories worth remembering” and build relationships? Will they all be delighted to still have me around? Will I be productive and happy?
Truly, do we get to choose how long we live? Or the quality of life over those years?
I suppose these are normal questions for those of us where the bottom half of the hour glass has more sand than the top. Some say there is not much choice, as in a recent comment to one of my Meridian articles: “I really getting quite sick and tired of all the silly hype about avoiding sugar. When you get older things continue to go wonky. So be it. “
So be it?
Let me share an important and compelling health story from BYU professor Lynn Henrichsen, age 63:
As a teenage boy, I could eat anything and never put on a pound. However, as an adult, I found myself putting on weight until I weighed over 50 pounds more than I did in high school. My job as a BYU faculty member involved mostly sitting at a desk or standing in front of a class. That led to physical problems.
At age 40, running and even walking produced pain in my knees that reduced my activity level even further. Nevertheless I accepted this reduction and the accompanying gain in weight as part of the normal aging process. I didn’t worry much about it. I exercised moderately and consumed a diet relatively high in refined flour, sugar, dairy products and meat, which I had been taught were “good food.”
When I was in my forties and fifties, a high school or college classmate or family member my age, who had been a healthy or even athletic youth, would occasionally appear in the obituaries – usually a victim of a heart attack, stroke or cancer. Also, among those living, I noticed a significant number growing (in their own words) “slower, fatter and stupider” and accepting those undesirable changes as inevitable.
In my early 50’s, I started caring for my mother who, (like many people of her era) had never engaged in serious physical exercise or consumed very healthful food. She raised us on a standard American diet – white bread, hamburger, bologna, eggs, milk, and potatoes and gravy, with small side helpings of green beans, or corn topped with butter. In fact, she slathered butter on nearly everything “to make it slip down your throat.” It should come as no surprise that she had high cholesterol, high blood pressure and low energy – especially as she entered her seventies. She just wanted to sit in her recliner and “save her strength.”
Over the ensuing years, she suffered a series of mini-strokes (caused by clogged arteries to the brain). Her vascular dementia robbed her of her mental powers. One Christmas, she suffered a heart attack; which left her weak even after the cardiologist placed a stent in her clogged coronary artery. After that followed congestive heart failure, breast cancer, diabetes and other diseases that did not kill her but robbed her of a meaningful life, wore out her husband, ravaged their hard-earned life savings and exhausted her family caretakers, like me. She declined slowly and sadly over a decade.
Caring for my aging mother through her declining years was a hard but valuable life lesson for me. Sometimes she would point her finger at me and say, “You just wait! Your turn is coming!” as if what she was suffering in her old age was my unavoidable fate. I earnestly hoped she was wrong and vowed to do everything in my power to stay active and healthy as long as I could in order to remain independent and productive in my senior years, and to spare my family the pain and expense that come with an aging process so many Americans have come to accept as “normal.”
When I was 53 years old, I enrolled in the “Y-Be-Fit” program at BYU and had my body and blood analyzed. I was shocked to find that my body was “obese” and that my cholesterol level (220) was in the “moderate risk” range. Even worse, when I started exercising more seriously, my cholesterol stubbornly remained at unhealthy levels, above 200. I started taking statin drugs, but my cholesterol level still stayed between 170 and 180, which was far from ideal and made me think that maybe my mother’s grim prediction would come true.
Shortly after turning 60, I happened across a book entitled “Younger Next Year” by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, MD. It explained that many of the leading causes of death in our modern Western society (heart disease, stroke, cancer) are attributable in large part to lifestyle. They cited research findings that determined that 70 percent of what we believe is normal aging is “optional.” I decided it was time to change my lifestyle.
Soon thereafter, a friend in my ward, who teaches physical education at BYU, gave a lesson in our high priest group on the obesity epidemic in America and its astronomical financial, physical and social costs to our society.
This good colleague and brother also introduced me to Forks Over Knives (video at the bottom of the article) that explains the research of Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., which concludes that a plant-based, whole-foods diet can reduce or even prevent many of the lifestyle diseases that cause so much premature death, disease, and suffering in our society. I was attracted by the fit between the basic findings of Campbell’s and Esselstyn’s work and the positive aspects of the Word of Wisdom – the eating of grains, fruits and vegetables in abundance and of meat sparingly (while not even mentioning milk and eggs as food sources.)
About that time, I was at Costco one Saturday and watched a Vitamix demonstrator whip up a “green smoothie”. It was delicious, not to mention healthy. We already had a Vitamix at home, so it was a simple thing to start using it to make tasty and healthy green and orange smoothies from spinach, carrots, kale, apple, banana, pineapple, etc., which I drank twice a day. At the same time, I cut way back on meat and dairy products and increased my consumption of whole grains and legumes. My wife’s parents were immigrants from Japan, so she was pleased to add more Japanese-style vegetables to our meals.
When I changed my diet in these ways, an amazing thing happened. My weight, which had been so resistant to change, began to drop. Over a couple of months, I lost nearly 15 pounds, but when my weight reached the “ideal” (according to the charts) for my height and my BMI was right in the middle of the “normal” range (21) it stopped dropping. There it stayed for many months, as long as I stuck to my plant-based whole foods diet. If I relaxed, however and reverted to my old dietary habits, my weight would creep back up. For most of the past two years, I am pleased to report, it has stayed near “ideal.”
Just as my weight dropped, so did my cholesterol levels. As mentioned, for nearly 20 years, my total cholesterol had been well above 200 (as high as 239) almost every time it was measured. Being in the “moderate risk” category wasn’t very comforting. As I turned 50, however, my cholesterol level reached new heights (240-260) putting me in the “high risk” category. Statin drug therapy lowered my cholesterol, but it was still not ideal. When I switched to a plant-based diet, however, I finally reached my goal of “ideal” (less than 150) cholesterol levels. A recent blood test reported my cholesterol at 130.
I can report that since turning 60 I have had more energy and less disease than I did previously. Besides running for exercise, I started running for fun! At first I ran my 5K races, which were all I could manage. In 2012 (at age 62) I ran my first 10K race and surprised myself by winning the trophy for first place in my age category. In 2013, I ran a half marathon. And since turning 60, I have participated in three triathlons, wining a bronze, silver or gold medal in my age category each time.
That’s not bad for someone who gave up running twenty years earlier because of knee pain! But I don’t run to win medals. Although I am tired at the end of each of these races, I find a joyful sense of accomplishment in simply completing them. I see each success as a fulfillment of the promise of the Word of Wisdom that those who keep not only the “don’ts” but also the “do’s” of this counsel from God “shall run and not be weary and shall walk and not faint.” (D&C 89:20)
(Lynn Henrichson, age 63, is a professor of Linguistics and English Lanuage at BYU from Provo, Utah. His story is Taken from “Discovering The Word of Wisdom” by Jane Birch.)
My 60th birthday has been filled with wonderful surprises, including a session with my husband at the temple to celebrate our covenants and renew our great desire to build a “forever family.” There was a fun group gift from all our children, along with priceless videos from each of my distant grandchildren. As I strive to absorb the sweetness of it all, it may seem odd, but my thoughts can’t help but wander to a different birthday, when, if I’m gone they’ll glance at the calendar and say, “Mom/Grandma would have been 100 years old today!” Or if I’m alive, that it will be a day where I’m participating fully with them.
Barring an accident or health situation outside of my control, how will they be feeling about my life?
More importantly, how will my Heavenly Father feel about it and how I’ve taken care of myself? And honored the code of health I believe He provided within the Word of Wisdom?
On my 100th birthday, 40 years from now, will they smile and remember the fun we had? That Grandma was always one to play on the floor, swim, go the playground, hike and get into all the activity? Stay up late laughing when little ones went to bed? Will they remember and say it seemed a little strange, but down in the basement family room at Grandma’s, along with the special toys, there was an impressive home gym with a cable machine, a weight bench and her dumb bells that she used nearly every day, and that she and Grandpa often went on very vigorous walks and swimming every evening in the summer?
Will they remember how much she loved her salads and fruit and veggies? And that the treats were for very special occasions … and, come to think of it, she didn’t really eat the treats at all, but quietly set an example for living the “do’s” of the Word of Wisdom with fruit desserts? Will they remember that she spent loving time with them whenever possible, and how she valued her testimony and Gospel activity above all else, attending meetings, serving in the Ward, temple and on a mission? Will they remember that her energy seemed endless with the friends, activities and fun that filled her life?
I hope so. While we DON’T know exactly how or when our mortal lives will end, we DO know that what we eat and how we exercise plays a critical role and that our health choices are very much within our control, each and every day. I truly believe it is up to me and the choices that I make today and every day to create both the memories and the future. All of it makes me VERY excited for my next 3-month challenge: To continue my “Body For Life” workouts and 6 small meals a day, but this time with a whole food plant based diet. Care to join me?
If Brother Henrichsons’s story has made you think, as it did me, I invite you to consider joining my next 12-week health challenge. His story, along with many others that are equally inspiring, are in Jane Birch’s new book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom, and at her website. The book will be the foundation of our challenge, although you can get all the information you need for following a plant based diet at her website, and simply googling “whole food plant based diet.”
If you’re interested, it’s time to do some reading and praying in D&C 89, and gather your resources on the internet or at the library.
You may want to check with your doctor and have him to do a baseline of your weight and cholesterol levels so you have something to go on. For some, that’s the most compelling reason of all to take this on.
We’ll provide support through e-mails and conference calls. It will be free to join us, and while we’re planning on a 3-month time frame over the summer starting June 1, you’ll, of course, be able to choose to what extent and how long you want to participate. Details will be available next week.
In the meantime, you may want to check out the links below:
Forks Over Knives Video Summary
http://youtu.be/k8Gd-3CbNoQ (This will get you started)
Discovering The Word of Wisdom by Jane Birch (filled with excellent resources to get started on)
The China Study by by T. Colin Campbell
Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, MD.