If you told me when I was in my early twenties that my excessive junk food diet would negatively impact my health, I would have laughed at you; I simply saw no evidence to support that theory. Between the ages of 16 and 22, I worked at a grocery store and ate the same thing on my lunch break every day for six years: a can of Coke and two candy bars. I was not only in perfect health during that period, I had the proportions of a supermodel at 5’10” and 125 pounds. I had perfectly white, cavity-free teeth. My porcelain skin glowed; my hair was long and shiny. I was the picture of health despite indulging daily on fast food burgers, milkshakes, greasy fries, cookies, and candy. But the seemingly enviable girl with the freakishly high metabolism was about to get the surprise of her life. What my outward appearance failed to reveal was the damage taking place inside my body.
At age 22, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis; I was the only person in my family with this affliction. My doctor immediately prescribed four medications and gave me the following nutritional advice with a straight face: “Don’t eat any fresh fruits or vegetables.” Even in my sugar-coated, deep-fried, junk food induced stupor, I knew that sounded like bad advice, like a recipe for further deterioration of my health. How could fresh fruits and vegetables be bad for me and how could eliminating them benefit me now that my risk of developing colon cancer had tripled?
My decision to become a vegetarian at age 25 was purely motivated by animal advocacy, not health issues, yet after eating more plant-based foods, I started to feel better. For the next 25 years, my condition was mostly in remission with occasional flare ups, but it disappeared completely when I became a vegan at age 50. Today, at age 57, I am not only medication-free, but my diet consists of whole grains, legumes, and, against medical advice, fresh fruits and vegetables.
I’ve experienced many benefits of being vegan in the second half of life (or maybe it’s the middle third of life because I feel like I’m going to live a very long time.) At so-called “middle age,” when many think their best years are behind them, here are five things you can look forward to at age forty and well beyond if you choose to live a vegan lifestyle.
1. Control or reversal of disease. There are countless documented stories about people who have controlled or reversed diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, and even cancer by turning to a plant-based lifestyle. Documentaries like Forks Over Knives include compelling stories about people who turned to grocery stores–not pharmacies–for weight loss and newfound health. Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics released a position statement on the health benefits of a plant-based diet for people of all ages.
2. Brag-worthy numbers. Weight, blood pressure, pulse, cholesterol, triglycerides–the numbers don’t lie, and mid-life vegans can usually stack their digits up against those of any millennials. My cholesterol went from 260 to 160 with a combination of a vegan diet and exercise. It’s important to note that being vegan made me want to exercise more, and I’ve heard that from other vegans as well. I had the energy to do more, so running became a way of life that I continue to this day. It’s quite possible that eating healthier foods prompts us to behave in healthier ways.
3. Little or no body odor. I swear that immediately after completing the 2010 New York Marathon, I could have walked into a crowded elevator and offended no one. Vegans simply have a light, almost imperceptible body odor; and it’s not just in their imaginations. A 2006 study at Charles University in Prague, found that vegans do indeed have a more favorable odor than meat eaters. Once at a business dinner in New Orleans, I ordered the only seemingly meatless menu option, a side of beans. The next day I awakened to a very offensive smell; it was me. I later learned that the beans were cooked with a ham hock. Whenever restaurants lie about their ingredients, I can always tell, the next day, because body odors don’t lie. It doesn’t mean that vegans don’t need to bathe because bacteria develops on everyone, but in general, the sweet smell of veganism is real.
4. The joy of regularity. You don’t miss it ‘til it’s gone, but let’s face it; after 40, regularity becomes an exciting yet diminishing proposition. Vegan foods give us the high-water content and fiber we need. Vegans also tend to be more inclined to consume high fiber ingredients like flax meal, bran, brown rice, and other foods that aid in digestion. It might not sound like much to the youngsters, but people over 40 get pretty excited about regularity. Good times.
5. Inner tranquility. If you eat a vegan diet for reasons having to do with animal welfare, you can expect to enter the bonus round of late life plant-based benefits–a transcendent inner peace that comes from knowing you are not bringing harm to the sentient creatures of our planet. At a time in life when there’s no shortage of stress from work, taking care of kids, or assisting elderly parents, there’s nothing like making a good karma deposit to gain a little peace of mind.
If we pay close enough attention, we can learn that aging does not mean the absence of good health but the re-creation of the health we would have had if we had simply made better choices during the perceived invincible years of our youth. The good news is, you can enjoy the health that may have eluded you in your younger days by simply starting to make better food choices today. Maybe the best years of life really are ahead of us.
Do you follow a vegan diet? What benefits have you noticed?
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Photo: Sandra Sellani