My road to a plant-based whole foods lifestyle - by Siegfried Verheijke

Current stats: 53 years old, Belgian, 182cm, 80kg

I love my mum. She gave birth to me and she raised me. She always supported me. And she never judged me, even when she had every right to. My mum was also the one who fostered my love passion for nature and travelling, and she encouraged me to do sports and be free. This helped me become a national-level track & field athlete in my secondary school years, and gain a scholarship to go and study Chinese in Xi’an, China after my university studies in 1989. Since then I have lived in China, Hong Kong and Chile, travelled around the world, raised a family with two wonderful children, and competed in many multi-sport races.

Now my mum is 75 years old. She has Type II diabetes, needs two insulin injections per day, has a hard time walking, and is declining cognitively. You may say that this is unavoidable, that it’s just the way of things. I disagree. I think that for a large part this has to do with the diet that my mum was brought up with and that she passed onto my sisters and me: the typical Western diet, heavy in dairy and meat products, with butter sauces, pastry, cookies and lots of meat being considered the standard of health and wellness.

I won’t go into detail as to why my mother’s generation grew up with this idea – parents who have gone through wars and famines tend to want to give their children as much calorie-dense food as possible. I just want to say that I grew up on such a diet, and that, even as I learned gradually about the atrocities and lies of the meat and dairy industry, it was very hard for me to keep away from such foods. In truth, I was addicted to sugar, meats and dairy for the satiety that it gave my body and brain.

In university, the first seeds of my current plant-based whole foods lifestyle were planted by my then girlfriend, who in 1988 gave me a book about industrial chicken production. I was disgusted by what I read, but it wasn’t until seven years later that I started doing something about it.

Fast forward to 1995, when I decided to stop eating one type of meat per year. Yes, one per year. Obviously, this was ridiculous, because in the first year I decided to stop eating frog legs, and the second year lobster, two types of meat that I almost never ate anyway.

Then in March 1997 I decided to stop eating meat altogether for four reasons:

1) Animal rights; 2) Environmental pollution; 3) World-wide scarcity of agricultural land; and 4) Hormones in meat.

At first this change was hard, as I was still addicted, and also because the Chinese food banquets that I often attended had amazing dishes of meat. Still, over the course of six months I managed to stop eating meat altogether. However, I kept eating dairy and fish, and considered myself a pescatarian.

By 2000 - I was now 35 years old -, I had gained only a little bit of weight, weighing in at 81 kg just before I went on an expedition to break the Guinness World Record cycling at high altitude. We managed to set a new record of 7008m in August that year. To my surprise, in the 16 days of the expedition I lost 7 kg of body mass. When I got back home in Beijing, I was a skinny 74 kg, just like I weighed back in 1992. I felt great with this new and lean body!

Then something happened that would greatly influence my future health; within days of my return home from the hardships of the high-altitude expedition my body started craving food, lots of it. I started eating lots of calorie-dense foods, and I could not stop. Consequently, within six months I had ballooned to a staggering 93 kg! I was pretty shocked when I looked at myself in the mirror, and decided to lose weight. In four months, I managed to bring the weight back down to 83 kg with training and just eating less. However, once I started doing interval training, I got injured, so I had to stop training. Without endorphins in my body I felt miserable, so I gained weight again by eating large amounts of cookies and peanuts, and drinking lots of processed juices in the evening.

This yo-yo dance of gaining and losing weight happened several times since then, and did not stop until April of 2017. Each time that I felt that I was too heavy, I would train harder and eat less, not realizing that this was not a sustainable way of doing things, inevitably causing injury because of a lack of nutrients in my body. And after each injury I would start gaining weight all over again. So I went from 83 kg to 93 kg, then down to 82 kg, then back up to 97 kg, and so on.

For me things started to change mid-2016, when my scale told me I weighed 102 kg. A few weeks later I visited my parents in Belgium, only for my mum to tell me that her diabetes situation had gone from taking pills to getting a daily shot of insulin. While she said that everything was fine and under control, I felt that it definitely was not under control, because just one year earlier she did not need insulin shots.

Already for a few years I had been wondering whether diabetes type II was something that you could inherit from your parents. At least, that is what the doctors in Belgium told me whenever they tried to interpret my consistent high cholesterol levels (238 mg/dL). However, I found such an explanation rather unsatisfactory and felt that maybe I could do something about my cholesterol level if I improved my eating habits. Still, this was just a thought, and I never really took it upon myself to learn about it properly.

Then in October of 2016 my colleague in Argentina was hospitalized with pectoral angina and had one stent placed to save his life. Only a few weeks later my colleague in Mexico died from a heart attack at the age of 49. People said that he liked to smoke, drink and eat a lot, although he was thin and looked fit. So was his lifestyle the direct cause of his death?

These two events, together with my mother’s worsening diabetes situation, made me think that I should start doing something about my weight and health. So I started paying a bit more attention to my food and working out a bit more. By April 2017 my weight had dropped to 93 kg, but I still felt and looked like an overweight middle-aged guy.

Then on April 17 I got an email from my friend Tony, who is a cyclist and triathlete who has been keeping fit and slim his whole life on a high-fat dairy and meat diet.

His email said: “Hi Siegfried, you were right. I am going vegan for health reasons. Long story short: a younger cycling friend had a massive heart attack, survived. After that, I got a CT angiogram to rule out any heart disease. Unfortunately, the results were shocking. Not good at all. Seeing a cardiologist soon. I'm thinking strict Low-Oil-Vegan for now, but may add wild salmon, walnuts. And will keep up with the fish oil tablets. Worried a bit about Vitamin B12. But otherwise looking forward to the new adventure. Have been at it for 4 days now. Feeling good.

Just two weeks later, I had a Skype call with Tony, during which he explained that he had adopted a full low-oil plant-based whole foods diet, that his cholesterol levels were down dramatically and that his (moderate) belly fat had almost completely disappeared. I was shocked that a close friend who looked so healthy could have a heart problem because of his diet, in spite of the many hours of sport that he does on a weekly basis.

I told him that that was it: I was going to stop eating dairy and fish from now on. Not only for moral reasons, but now definitely for health reasons. So on May 5, 2017 I adopted the plant-based whole foods lifestyle, and it has been an amazing experience so far.

Within days I started losing weight and feeling better. After 10 weeks I had lost 8 kilos and my waist had shrunk by 15 cm. By October 2017 I had lost 13 kg in total and my waist was now 76 cm, down from 99 cm in May! Moreover, my skin condition has become much better, I sleep one hour less per day and have more energy, and feel much younger overall. Also, my body does not have these warm spots inside anymore, as the inflammations have gone. More importantly: I was able to reduce my LDL cholesterol from 158 to 86.

On May 23, 2017, Tony and I set up a 2-person WhatsApp group called Plant-Based Whole Foods to share scientific information, experiences and recipes. This group now has grown to 20 people, as more and more friends and acquaintances are inspired by the changes that they have seen in us and want to make a change in their own lives.

After having read hundreds and hundreds of pages of scientific information and watched dozens of relevant documentaries and videos about it, it is clear to me that a plant-based whole foods diet is the best that humans can live by. Currently most people are still unaware of this, as they live in a world that has been lied to by the dairy and meat industry for decades. The good news is that more and more people are learning about the truth, and I believe that as more famous people start talking about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle (e.g. Venus Williams, James Cameron), society as a whole will come to understand that a meat and dairy-based lifestyle is not sustainable for our planet, nor for our health.

It is no longer hard for me to stay away from animal-based products and ingredients, as I associate those with cruelty to animals, pollution, sickness and death. The hardest part for me is to watch people I love being ravaged by the consequences of their dietary choices and the lack of knowledge that they and the majority of the medical community in Belgium and other countries have about this.

I am very angered by the fact that our ‘modern’ medical industry is founded on the principle of keeping sick people alive, rather than on curing them, simply because that is a better way to make money. And my mother is just one of the yearly millions of victims of the criminal greed of the pharmaceutical and medical world by which we are surrounded.

My hope is that the truth about this will become clearer to the younger generations, and that they will learn to make the right choices. I am now sharing my experience and knowledge with my children. I do not force them to become vegans, I just want them to use this knowledge to make informed decisions about what they want to eat in life. And I sincerely hope that they will come to the same conclusion as I have: that a plant-based whole foods lifestyle is the best way forward for ourselves, for animals and for our planet.