What a story! Stop whatever you are doing, and read Jeff’s amazing and inspiring story of transformation. His entry into a plant-based world will have you on the edge of your seat. It’s easy to say that he’s totally changed his life, and the lives of those around him by embracing the pillars of a plant-based diet.
He describes himself as a “regular guy who needed to make changes.” See how Jeff lost 35 pounds, lowered his cholesterol to 135, and became an endurance athlete.
Learn how this 46 year old resident of Palm County, Florida is setting new goals in his life everyday–both at the end of his fork, and on the trail.
In His Own Words
I’ve always dabbled in health and wellness for years. I had always considered myself to be reasonably active and healthy, when one day, I experienced a debilitating pinched nerve in my neck. The nerve pain radiated throughout my entire body. It was a fluke occurrence which resulted in constant pain that made it difficult to sleep, work or even stand up, and this lasted for almost two, solid months.
I became scared of re-aggravating the nerve through any sort of activity. The pain didn’t come back, but the fear sidelined me for nearly a year from any real physical activity. The fear lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which turned into weight gain, and a loss of fitness. I was in a real funk and wasn’t real sure to do about it.
At about the same time, my wife was making fitness a priority in her own life. She asked me if I wanted to compete in a mud run obstacle course race she was participating in. At this point, I was quickly speeding toward middle age. I could no longer sit around pretending to be active in my life when I hadn’t been for years. My son who was eight (at the time), seemed to be tireless. If I wanted to be able to keep up with his energy level, I needed to step into action. Even before the nerve pain, I would wake up each morning like many of us with “creaks and pops” and I just chalked it up to getting older, but in reality, I wasn’t very fit. This was my chance to do something about it.
My wife gave me a spark of motivation to get off my butt and start reclaiming my health. By some miracle, I survived the run, even managed to climb nearly every obstacle. It was the hardest six miles I had ever traversed in my life, but I wanted do more. I had never run track in school or competed in races before, but I was hooked.
I dropped a few pounds after training for the mud run, but I wasn’t seeing the weight loss and performance I had desired. One day I stumbled over the documentary, Forks Over Knives, and the companion Forks Over Knives: The Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue. I learned about Rip Esselstyn, a firefighter and a former triathlete who was cooking plant-based meals in of all places, Austin, Texas. I thought to myself, “If this firefighter can eat this way and even convince his Texas firefighter buddies to go plant based, then he must be onto something.” Forks Over Knives and Engine 2 became my catapult into the plant-based world.
I also learned about a number of “super” athletes like Rich Roll from his book Finding Ultra (Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony, 2012), whose own middle-aged transformation really resonated with me. There was also Canadian athlete, Scott Jurek and his Eat and Run book (Bloomsbury Publishers, PLC, 2013) as well as Brendan Brazier’s Thrive (Perseus Books Group, 2008) series. Each athlete and author had adopted a plant- based diet. They were doing incredible things. On the Rich Roll podcast, Rich talked about a Southern Louisiana “Bayou Boy” named Josh LaJaunie who had lost 200 pounds on a plant-based diet. Josh was not just competing, but he was winning races.
For me, a lifestyle overhaul was in order, not just a change in diet. I decided it was time to wake up and go to work. I had to do this. I continued my fitness routine and then one day on a family vacation I finally announced to my wife that “this” was the last turkey sandwich I would ever eat. I was going plant- based the following day. Dairy, eggs and animal protein were cut at the same time. I wanted to see what plants could do.
My wife was less than enthused with my decision. I heard the standard line, “Where will you get your protein?” argument from her. She had experimented with vegetarianism years earlier, but didn’t stick with it. She even told me that I would have to cook separate meals for myself! At the time, the only dish I was comfortable in making was pasta with mushrooms, and of course, turkey sandwiches. I told her I had done the research, and that I was convinced it would work. Up to this point, I hadn’t told her about the books I had read, the documentaries I had watched, and the athletes I had learned about.
At first, the process seemed completely overwhelming. I remember walking into a local grocery store and browsing the frozen food aisle. I noticed that nearly every single product contained either dairy or animal protein. A number of frozen vegetables were even coated in butter! I was scared, taken aback. I left the store without buying anything. When I got home, it hit me. I remembered that the “standard American diet” was processed foods, like those in that frozen food aisle. They were not going to work, even if they were more convenient. I needed whole, plant-based foods to be the backbone of my diet.
I hit the books again reading through the recipes to find dishes that looked interesting.
At first, I made mistakes like trying to make a new recipe every day, which was exhausting. I learned later, that instead it would be easier to find a handful of staple recipes I could make on a regular basis. On the weekend, I could experiment with new recipes, but during the week, the recipes needed to be quick and easy. Another mistake I made was with calorie intake. As it turns out I was not eating enough food at first. I felt faint, drained of energy early on, but learned that I wasn’t consuming enough food considering my somewhat intensive 5-6 day a week workout routine. After a few weeks, my calorie intake was dialed in and the weight started coming off, and my energy increased in abundance.
Quinoa salads replaced my usual “go to” turkey sandwiches. I started eating Rip’s Big Bowl, oatmeal, flax seed and fruit. I replaced eggs and bacon and soon after, my taste buds were changing. Foods I avoided in the past like beans, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli started to now taste amazing. My palate became opened to foods like Portobello mushrooms, chia seeds and lentils. Yes, I even ate kale on a regular basis, my body seemed to even crave dark, leafy greens. Cooking became easier when I became comfortable with those staple dishes. I no longer worried; it became effortless to put together a meal in 10 minutes.
Grabbing whatever vegetables and beans I had on hand to combine them with some quinoa, for instance. One of my favorite indulgent foods, pizza, was still doable, I just skipped the cheese and added lots of veggies and sauce on whole wheat pizza dough. When I made pasta, I used black bean or whole grain pasta, combined with spinach and other veggies, which included more than enough protein. I didn’t feel like I was cheating myself out of food. I was cooking hearty dishes that easily satisfied my appetite after a long workout.
Throughout that first year I had lost 35 pounds, completed in multiple mud runs, a handful of running races and added cross-training in the form of weight training, plyometric HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and cycling to my workouts. I had started with a 5K race, then, moved up to half-marathon distance (13.1 miles) races. In a couple of races, I even managed, by some miracle, to finish 3rd, and in the top-ten for my age bracket.
I wanted more of a challenge though. I had my sights set on completing something called an ultra-marathon. For those who are unfamiliar, an ultra-marathon is technically any distance longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). I had grown fond of running half-marathon distance trail races, and wanted more of a challenge. A 50k (30.1 miles) race was now in my sights. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy considering, as I had yet to run even a full marathon. I anxiously signed up (with a little encouragement from the running buddies I met a my local track workout). I stepped up my training, even turned a relay race into a road marathon that included two massive bridge runs. Weeks later, I set out to run the ultra-marathon, which was grueling and hot, but I persevered and finished, which was my only goal that day.
My journey isn’t over, in fact, it’s just beginning. I took 20 years of weight off in a less than a year, and achieved a level of fitness that I’ve never experienced. A weight loss, that that I have sustained while eating from an array of delicious plant-based foods. There were other benefits to be had. My immune system seemed to be more resilient from colds. Recovery times became shorter, and a lot of those “creaks and pops” went away.
As it turns out, my biggest critic soon became my biggest supporter when my wife decided to go plant-based. Then, other people around me started adopting a plant-based diet like my niece and her boyfriend. Even some of my omnivore friends were adding more greens to their diet!
There were lessons learned, too; a transformation, no matter how small or large, requires hard work and dedication and a lifestyle needs to be sustainable for it to work long term. Having a support system, in the form of family and friends, gave me the confidence to continue. This “regular guy” has not been transformed into a ”super” athlete, but, the lifestyle has given me the energy and endurance that I’ve never experienced before. Plant-based nutrition has enabled me to reshape my life, with a side benefit of being cruelty-free, even minimizing my impact on the environment.
Change hasn’t always been easy but it has been worth it.
Now for that upcoming 50 mile race!
What We Have Learned About Jeff
- He thinks it is important to “strip and massage your kale.”
- His favorite dessert is a chia seed pudding served with fresh fruit.
- Oh, Jeff also makes his own almond milk.
- He and his wife both cook plant-strong meals, he adds that his wife never used to eat his cooking!
- Jeff works at a “standing desk,” where the height can be easily adjusted.
One Last Question to Jeff
What is one thing you’d say to Rip if you were having dinner together?
“What is the best way to continue reaching those audiences in need of a plant-strong diet?”
Jeff’s goal is to take his new passion and travel in Rip’s (and others) footprints to reach the masses.
We think that Jeff is well on his way.
photos courtesy of Jeff Mayer