An enormous billboard advertises the opening of a fast-food restaurant. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

Eric O’Grey, who lives in Rockville, gave me some advice for sticking with the new healthy eating plan I’ve started. Go all in on a whole-food, plant-based diet. And get a dog. That’s what he’d done: changed his diet, adopted a dog from a shelter and begun walking the new companion.

He’d made the change in 2010, at age 51. At the time, he weighed 340 pounds. That’s considered morbidly obese for a man who stands 5-foot-10. “Tying my shoes would leave me out of breath,” he recalled.

A year after changing his eating habits and taking daily walks, his weight dropped to 175 pounds. He wrote a book, published in 2017, “Walking with Peety: The Dog Who Saved My Life.” Today, at age 60, he’s kept the weight off and works with the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates preventive medicine and eating a vegan diet.

On March 9, he’ll run in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in the District.

“You can do this,” O’Grey told me over lunch recently.

I’d stopped eating animals and animal products last month. Including fish and dairy. The weight has started to come off, the blood pressure and cholesterol levels are going down. I do feel better.

But the bad-food industry is a formidable foe. Its marketing schemes make Big Tobacco look like amateurs. Burgers and fries on highway billboards. Buckets of chicken and biscuits on TV. Pop-up ads for hot dogs and sodas on my phone. Two-for-one pizza ads on my radio.

Even though I know that fast foods are not healthy and don’t even taste that good, the sight of crispy fried chicken or a sizzling burger in the mass media can still make my mouth water. The same could be true of fruits and vegetables. But I hardly ever see an ad for those.

From 2013 to 2017, TV junk-food marketing aimed at African Americans increased more than 50 percent, according to a report released last month from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Black teenagers saw more than twice as many ads for unhealthy foods as white teens in 2017, the study found.

Obesity is a national epidemic. Polyunsaturated fats and carcinogenic meats don’t care about your race. They want to clog your arteries and corrode your vital organs. Heart disease and cancer are the top two killers in the country, for all groups. Unhealthy foods are contributing to more deaths than all the gunshot wounds, car crashes and drug overdoses combined.

But there’s no denying that some groups are targeted more than others.

“I told my doctor that I was only eating what everybody else was eating,” O’Grey recalled. “My doctor said that was the problem.”

Fast foods and microwaves, that’s what he relied on. I was the same way. I’d go to a fast-food drive-through late at night and find a line of cars virtually surrounding the place. I’d become disgusted seeing so many people hooked on junk food that there was no place in the line for me.

What most neighborhoods need is a gym and a health-food store. What you get are drive-through fast food, drugstores and dialysis clinics. The message is not subtle. The insidiousness is right in front of our eyes.

I hope those days are over for me — and everybody else at risk of suicide by food.

O’Grey was a reminder of where that kind of mindless eating can lead. The obstacles we face when the food can be delivered cooked and quick. And he’s also living proof that there is a healthier way.

Before switching his bad eating for good, O’Grey had been taking 15 different kinds of medication — for anxiety, hypertension and cholesterol. He was on 200 units of insulin a day for Type 2 diabetes along with medication to counter the side effects of all the other medicine. He had no friends, rarely left his apartment and slept 12 hours a day.

“I hadn’t dated in 15 years,” he said.

He used to eat once a day — two extra-large pizzas and a two-liter soda, more than 10,000 calories total — then fall into a food coma.

“One of the many doctors I’d seen told me that I should have bariatric surgery or else, in five years, start picking out a spot in a cemetery,” he said.

For O’Grey, an experience aboard an airline helped him make the change.

“As I was walking down the aisle of the aircraft, I saw the look on the people’s faces. It was a look that said, ‘Please, God, don’t let that fat man sit next to me.’ ” He squeezed into a center seat only to discover that the airplane had run out of seat-belt extensions. He couldn’t buckle up and the airplane could not take off until an extension could be found.

“Several people around me were saying things like, ‘He’s too fat,’ and ‘I’m going to miss my flight because this guy has no self-control.’ It was humiliating.”

He had already been scheduled for bariatric surgery but decided to give the plant-based diet a try and to get a dog — one last attempt before having part of his stomach removed. It worked.

In 2017, he got married. His wife, Jaye, had weighed 197 when they met. He became her nutrition coach, and in just over a year she was down to 115 pounds.

More proof that a whole-food, plant-based diet can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life. And fast.

“You have to wonder, why aren’t more people eating this way?” O’Grey said.

From those initial walks around the block with Peety, he joined a running group. When Peety died in 2015, he took it hard, nearly went back to some old eating habits. But he stuck with the program and got another dog.

In addition to running marathons, he’ll be participating in the Ironman Maryland competition in September.

I was still new to all of this and just didn’t want to find myself at some drive-through window grabbing a burger and fries. I needed support.

O’Grey said that he, too, notices the TV commercials for fast foods but isn’t tempted by them. There are other ads that take the sizzle out.

“I’ve seen fast-food ads followed by ads for pharmaceutical products — medications for conditions caused by fast foods in some cases,” he told me. “And those commercials are sometimes followed by ads for lawyers involved in class-action lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies. It’s a circle of insanity. Why not just eat more fruits and vegetables?”

Maybe I’ll get a dog, too.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.