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I will eat healthier — and this time I mean it

Pericles Silva delivers salads to those attending a healthy-eating class last week at the GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon, Va.
Pericles Silva delivers salads to those attending a healthy-eating class last week at the GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon, Va. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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I will eat healthier. I will consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. No animals or animal products.

If it had eyes and legs, I won’t eat it. If it had roots, it’s a meal.

That is my get-fit manifesto. This time — yes, there have been other times, but this time — the goal is not just to slim down but to work toward getting a specific item removed from the D.C. Department of Health website:

“Obesity is a national and local epidemic. More than half of all adults living in DC are overweight or obese; rates climb to over 72% in the District’s Wards East of the River (Wards 7 and 8). Racial disparities with regards to obesity in the District are extreme, for example, less than one in every ten White District residents are obese, whereas one in every three African Americans in the District are obese.”

And there is only one way to change it: Drop the weight — because the alternative is death.

So, repeat after me:

I will triumph over cake, pie and buttered rolls.

Cheese will fear me.

I will defeat Colonel Sanders, Popeyes, Ben and Jerry’s, Famous Amos and Mrs. Fields — with both hands tied behind my back if necessary.

I will win this food fight.

During the past year, I have learned much about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. I’ve attended classes at the GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon, where owner Gwyn Whittaker and her staff show you how to shop for healthy foods and use them to prepare nutritious and tasty meals.

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I’ve also learned that knowing how to eat healthy is different from eating healthy. But those who walk the walk are reaping astounding rewards.

Cecilia Hayes is one. She is in her 70s and lives in Northern Virginia.

She was suffering from congenital heart failure when she began taking the monthly “Kickstart” classes at GreenFare just over a year ago. She switched from fatty, sugary foods to plant-based, minimally processed meals.

It didn’t take long for her body to respond.

“What happened was, after three months, I went to my heart doctor, and she said my condition had improved significantly,” Hayes told me recently. “My blood sugar was down, and I had lost weight. The other thing, which is hereditary — women in our family get swelling in the lower legs. I’d been fighting that for years. Now the swelling is gone, and I can wear shoes that I hadn’t been able to get into for years.”

My taste buds recoil at the thought of choosing, say, tofu over cheese. But Hayes’s results should make that choice a no-brainer.

I also spoke with James Loomis about the benefits he got from switching to a plant-based diet. Loomis is director of the Barnard Medical Center in the District, which puts emphasis on nutrition in the prevention and treatment of disease.

He has served as team internist for the St. Louis Rams football team and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, as well as tour physician for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Before going on a plant-based diet in 2011, he was overweight, suffering from asthma and a knee injury. Then he happened to read a book, “Forks Over Knives,” that spurred his dietary change. Today, he is 60 pounds lighter and no longer has asthma. The knee is working fine, too.

“I’m 60 years old, and I’m training for the Ironman triathlon,” Loomis said. “It’s amazing that I can contemplate that at my age.”

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Loomis added that going plant-based changed him not only personally but professionally as well.

“I came to realize that what we call a ‘health-care system’ is really ‘sick care,’ ” he said. “Our system — with a focus on surgery and pills — can add years to your life, but it takes away life from your years. The only way we can truly add life is by focusing on the root causes of disease, and in many cases, it’s the food we put in our mouths.”

And yet, here I am still loving steak and cheese and barbecued ribs — despite an abundance of evidence linking red meat to cancer.

One reason may be the messaging.

“We as doctors talk about this the wrong way — addressing the problem out of a paradigm of fear,” Loomis said. “ ‘Get your blood pressure down or you’ll have a stroke.’ People already know that. What we need to ask is: Why would it be important not to have those bad things happen? Write down the top five reasons.”

Hadn’t tried that before. Let’s see if it helps.

Whittaker, the owner of GreenFare, says we have been conditioned to eat a certain way. And unlearning takes time. “When parents give children candy as a reward,” she says, “that pleasant association with sweets stays with the child.”

Better to give them an apple, she says.

It takes a few weeks of eating plant-based for our taste buds to reset, Whittaker said. And after a while, you’ll be wondering why we were craving the foods that are killing us.

There is no underestimating the challenge, however. As noted in a report last week by the World Resources Institute, “researchers have long presented the environmental case for shifting high-meat diets toward plant-based foods, but achieving large global benefits is harder than often suggested.”

Harder because not everybody has access to healthy plant-based foods. Harder because many of those who do have an abundance of plant-based foods still make bad choices like I do.

Or did.

But no more.

Repeat after me:

Steel-cut oats will be my new Breakfast of Champions, not Cocoa Puffs.

I may have pigged out on Thanksgiving, but I will not eat myself into a stupor during the rest of the holidays.

Black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, okay. Chitterlings? No way.

The epidemic of obesity will be vanquished.

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