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Dept. of Eating: I, Vegan

Posted by John McDonough  December 26, 2011 11:01 PM

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Those of you who have been trying to figure out if I'm a kook -- here is your answer.

This coming Sunday, January 1, will be the third anniversary since my wife and I switched to fairly strict "whole grain/plant based" diet, also known as "vegan."  I am as surprised as anyone.

On the one hand, so what? It's just what we eat. Nobody's business but our own. And yet, as I have gotten more knowledgeable about this nutritional choice, the meaning and implications keep growing. In my first post here at, I disclosed my interest in the intersection of nutrition, food policy, and health policy. During this coming week or so, I will put up a few posts laying out my thinking in various ways. This first one presents a bit of my personal story.

Until age 55, my life involved the standard American diet of sugar, fat and salt adorned with flavors and spices.  By 2008, I needed a change.  My weight had climbed to about 195 and my body mass index showed that I was officially overweight.  My health provider, Harvard Vanguard, sent me a note warning that my cholesterol was climbing to 200 and I should do something – diet, exercise, something.


"Vegan" appeared on my radar screen in several ways.  My step-daughter, Jax, had gone vegan six years before.  She was good about it, not preachy or judgmental – sometimes called “vegan-gelical.”  In 2007, I learned from another blog, “Life as a Health Care CIO,” that Beth Israel Deaconess Chief Information Officer John Halamka had been vegan for nearly 10 years with dramatically positive results.  I read a few books on the topic, notably “The Face on Your Plate” by Jeffrey Masson.  I also discovered that the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine had started a program called their 21-day vegan “Kickstart” which provides online help to try a vegan diet for just three weeks (next one starts on January 2nd).

So we tried it, my wife and I, beginning in January 2009, and haven’t looked back.  Since 2009, my weight has dropped by about 25 pounds to under 170, my waist size has dropped two inches, and my cholesterol is down 25% -- no statins or anything else since I started eating “nothing that has a mother.” That means nothing with animal based protein, and almost nothing with saturated fat: no meat, no poultry, no fish, and zero dairy.

Going vegan was not hard for me to get used to, and three weeks on the Kick-Start was a great transition.  I’ll give more details in future posts, though here are a few from my new reality.  First, no exaggeration, my new diet is the most flavorful, interesting and delicious of my life.  Second, I have more energy and experience far fewer energy peaks and lows during the day.  Third, I easily get all the protein I need, no problem, and take multi-vitamins to get enough D and B-12.  Fourth, it’s not always easy out and about, though not as hard as you might imagine, as more and more restaurants are becoming quite vegan friendly these days.

In short, not a big deal, and a big deal at the same time.  Next post, I will describe a little bit of what I’ve learned about the health effects of a “whole grain/plant based” diet.  After that, I’m going to take a leap and talk about the implications of all this for health care policy – the point of this blog. 


In the meantime, please feel invited to check out the 100% free 21 Day Vegan Kickstart offered by PCRM (if you like, they will send daily messages to your cellphone from vegan celebrities), beginning next Monday.  Usually, it takes folks at least several suggestions before trying with this diet.  So if I’m the first, then probably don’t bother.  But if you have heard this before from someone else and have not rejected it out of hand, you can start the challenge this coming Monday and try a bold experiment that may change your life. 


And, by the way, in case you have not heard, the nation’s #1 vegan is former President Bill Clinton whose weight is now down to what it was when he was in high school.  Not too shabby.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »


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