While living in Yugoslavia, I did not pay attention what I eat. I mostly ate at home. Going to restaurants was infrequent, on special occasions. At that time, “fast food” was not common, even when traveling. I remember at those times the food was brought from home, unpacked and eaten on the train or bus. I walked daily and a lot. With these life habits and good genes, I did not have to worry about weight. From a young age I was “tall and thin”.
Everything changed when I arrived in America. Food was cheap and present everywhere. Plenty of restaurants with a diverse selection of food. From Chinese, Arabic, Indian, Mexican, Japanese to French, German, Danish, Greek, Italian, and many others. In addition, “fast food” restaurants at every turn, including pizzerias and others. Going out to restaurants was common and cooking at home rare. Dinner rather than lunch was the main course, portions were constantly increasing, and drinking Coca-Cola and similar beverages became commonplace. Driving a car was necessary because “time is money”. This is America! The city was spread over a large area, and public transport was reserved for people without cars and those who could not drive due to various reasons.
In Yugoslavia, alcohol was used for any occasion, but in America it was food. Meetings were held in a restaurant, hotel, or food was brought and served in conference halls, amphitheaters, and other places where there was a gathering. Going to church, cinema, theater, concert, could not be imagined without consuming food and drinking sugary beverages. Because I was a doctor, an additional risk factor was related to the contact with pharmaceutical companies that had associated the marketing of their products with free and plentiful food and drinks.
You can imagine how this lifestyle affected me personally, and American society as a whole. You guessed it, unhealthy weight gain, a diabetes epidemic, heart attacks, high blood pressure, joint pain, and the list go on and on. As for me, in a year I “earned” 30 pounds. Of course, the clothes from Yugoslavia did not suit me anymore. My body build of “tall and thin” was no longer sustainable. I started worrying about my health. Appendix and gall bladder surgery had been just the beginning. Increased blood pressure, back pain, and asthma followed. I had to do something. I started to pay attention what and how much I eat and drink, to run or walk a few miles every day, regularly weigh myself, limit going out to restaurants, etc. It had given results, but now a change had been created in my body with a tendency to gain weight again, especially in the presence of chronic stress in my life.
When I met Tina (my wife), and while we were still dating, going out to a restaurant and drinking wine or beer, the obligatory dessert or ice cream after a hearty dinner, was part of the ritual we were practicing. Tina was obese as a child, so she had to apply draconian measures to lose and maintain the desired weight, so with her support I learned how to control the amount of food consumed and gradually reduce going to restaurants. But the biggest impact on me came from my younger daughter when she became vegan, not for health but for ethical and climate change reasons. I followed her in that direction, but I soon realized that the whole food plant-based diet had tremendous health benefits including weight loss. I effortlessly lost 20 pounds and when I stopped using processed sugar another 10. In addition, for the first time in my life, I started cooking and preparing food. In the last 5-6 years, going to restaurants has become rare and related to special occasions. I almost returned to the weight I had in Yugoslavia 33 years ago, my blood pressure became normal, and laboratory tests confirmed the optimal functioning of my organs.
The American environment is “toxic” in terms of a healthy attitude towards food, with the result that I have seen patients who suffered from inability to lose weight, gained weight due to mental disorders or medications they used, or became addicts whose drug was food, usually very caloric and in large quantities. I sympathized with them and decided to dedicate myself professionally to this problem. I read available literature, went to professional conferences, gave lectures, used appetite suppressants, became a healthy lifestyle coach, and even joined a team formed to treat obese patients at the Eating Disorders Institute.
My immersion in this field has led me to learn that most chronic diseases (including obesity) are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle consisting of poor nutrition (animal products such as meat, milk, dairy products, and eggs, as well as processed foods), a sedentary lifestyle, the presence of stress, and a lack of love and social support. That is why for 40 years there has been a so-called Lifestyle Medicine program which is based on four simple principles:
- Healthy diet (which includes whole, unprocessed organic plant foods, with at least three servings of beans (legumes), two servings of berries, three servings of other fruits, one serving of cruciferous vegetables, two servings of greens, two servings of other vegetables, one serving of flaxseed, one serving of nuts and seeds, one serving of herbs and spices, three servings of whole grains, five servings of liquid).
- Daily exercise (90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity is recommended, such as brisk walking (four miles per hour) or 40 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running or active sports). Besides of the positive effect on weight loss, exercise boosts immunity, reduces serum sugar, blood pressure, improves mood and sleep, as well as cognitive functioning.
- Stress reduction (relaxation, yoga, meditation, nature, hobbies, journaling, therapy, conflict resolution), and
- Love (intimate and social connections, meaningfulness, empathy, understanding and kindness in interpersonal relationships).
There are numerous scientific studies that have proven that if you accept these principles of living, you will be able to reverse the course or cure many chronic ailments such as ischemic heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, obesity, depression, high blood pressure and cholesterol. For example, participants in the Dr. Ornish program (https://www.ornish.com/) managed to change the gene expression of over 500 genes after 3 months, turning on genes that promote health and turning off genes that promote disease. In addition, they reversed cellular aging as measured by telomerase length. Although losing weight was not the primary goal, they lost 20 pounds on average.
As I have written in previous texts, it is not easy to change habits, especially in a radical way, but it is not impossible either, especially if there is a desire and motivation, freedom of choice and commitment to the goal you want to achieve. So start a healthier life, one step at a time. Go ahead.