Fit versus Healthy

By Craig Hafer 

I used to think that if I were fit, I was healthy.  Let me tell you my story. 

I was born and raised in Billings Montana,  I spent my early childhood years growing up in the 1960s.  My grandma would come over for dinner on Sunday evenings and my mom would fry up chicken — in Crisco oil. Yummy, I loved that fried chicken.  So good.  Nothing was out-of-limits from the grocery store, including Cracker Jacks and Oreo cookies.  Occasionally we would eat TV dinners when the parents went out for the evening.  Do you remember the metal tray with the aluminum cover TV dinners that would go into the oven?  My mom mixed dry milk with 2% liquid milk to minimize milk cost.  Of course there were no electronic games, smart phones, or computers.  We were physically active playing outside.  We rode bikes, hiked a lot, and played running games. 

I went to Idaho State University and Montana State University where I earned MS and BS degrees in Physics.  I worked for one company for 30 years as a scientist studying the effects of space radiation on integrated circuits.  My former company manufactures “computer chips” that are used on nearly all US satellites and vehicles (e.g. mars rovers).  I was a scientist and a researcher.  Researching nutrition and disease was an easy follow-on transition for me when I moved on from my professional career. 

My dad had his first heart attack when he was 67 years old.  Over the years he has had angioplasty and stents put into his coronary arteries.  He had stents put into his leg arteries.  Coronary artery disease does not just affect the heart arteries; it affects all the arteries in the body.  He’s had micro-strokes in the brain which caused his memory loss.  The most dramatic event of his memory loss came 10 years after he had his first heart attack when he forgot to put his plane’s landing gear down when he came in for a landing.  It was a great landing, however; nobody got hurt and the plane was repaired, although he never flew again.  Today my dad is 92 and a shell of his former self.  He was previously a talker with a lot of witticisms.  Today he usually does not speak unless spoken to.  He sleeps most of the day.  Physically, he can barely get out of his chair to make his way to the bathroom.  He has been in this compromised and slowly deteriorating state for more than 10 years.  He is a alive, but not living.  

Eight years ago my cholesterol was high at 214, above that arbitrary high limit of 200 set by the medical profession.  At the time I was running 40 to 60 miles a week and running five marathons a year.  I usually placed in the top three in my age-group.  I was extremely fit.  Nonetheless, I could not outrun the cholesterol.  My doctor told me that coronary artery disease was hereditary and that since my dad had coronary artery disease I would have it too, and for the rest of my life.  The only remedy my doctor offered was a prescription drug. She told me I would need to take a statin drug for the rest of my life.  Somehow she talked me into taking the statin drug.  Statin drugs come with a number of side effects for some people, including memory loss, confusion, kidney and liver damage.  The side effect that crippled me was neuromuscular damage.  The morning of the LA marathon I was in so much pain from my sciatica nerve I could barely get out of bed.  I did not run that day, and I stopped taking the drug.  I never again had sciatica nerve pain. 

Three years ago, my wife and I ran across the book, “The China Study by T Colin Campbell”, and my research on nutrition and disease prevention began.  The information in The China Study completely turned our thinking upside down on nutrition, disease, and the whole medical paradigm.  Nearly everything I thought I knew about nutrition was simply not true.  In the book, Dr Campbell mentions Dr Esselstyn’s work and book – “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.”  Dr Esselstyn was a heart surgeon and realized his patients were not getting better – he was just patching them up and they would return.  He decided after 11 years of performing surgery to do something different with 18 severe heart disease patients.  How severe?  In the eight years leading up to Dr. Esselstyn’s intervention, these patients had 49 coronary events, including heart attacks, angioplasty, and by-pass surgeries.  Some of these patients were too weak, had been operated on too many times, or had other medical complications to continue with conventional treatment.  These patients were basically on their death beds with little time left.  Dr. Esselstyn had them eat plant-based whole foods and eliminating fats and oils from their diets.  He imaged their constricted arteries before the intervention and three years after the lifestyle change.  In 70% of the cases, after three years the arteries were no longer constricted and looked normal.  The patients, for the most part, no longer needed prescription medication and after 26 years – that’s 26 years, five patients died from other causes. 

After reading The China Study and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, my wife and I immediately adopted a plant-based whole food lifestyle.  Plant-based means that our food grows out of the ground, close to the earth.  No, yogurt is not plant-based.  No cheese is not plant-based and no fish are not plant-based.  Whole food means that it is unprocessed or minimally processed with no preservatives, no additives, no food colors, no trans fats, no oils, no or small amounts of added salts, no refined sugars, and no unpronounceable ingredients.  We refer to this as a lifestyle since we are not counting calories or setting out to achieve any short term goals (e.g. weight loss).  We can eat as much plant-based whole food as we like without gaining weight.  One month after adopting our plant-based whole food lifestyle, my cholesterol was 149 and the next year it was 140.  The following year I didn’t bother going to the doctor.  Campbell, Esselstyn, and others have never found coronary artery disease associated with anyone with total cholesterol less than 150 mg/dL.   

Eight years ago, my doctor told me that heart disease was hereditary and that I would need to take prescription drugs for the rest of my life.  Today I have bullet proofed myself from heart disease along with the other leading causes of death in the US, including cancer, stroke, brain diseases, infections, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, and iatrogenic causes. 

Although I was extremely athletic and fit, I was running with a deadly disease – atherosclerosis or a buildup of plaque in my arteries.  I was unhealthy and susceptible to a heart attack or stroke at any time.  Exercise is important and perhaps it kept my cholesterol from going even higher, but what we are putting into our bodies is much more important.  There are no side effects to eating plant-based whole foods and it may prevent us from acquiring one of the top killer diseases.  What have you got to lose by adopting a plant-based whole food lifestyle?


About the author:

As Health for Life Visionaries, Craig and his wife, Hae, give workshops to educate and inspire those who would like to be healthier in mind, body, and spirit. They provide supportive coaching.