OC Plant based

Like many people, Michael Wojcik was on a daily medication he didn’t really want to take — and would often forget to take — because he felt fine. Wojcik's cholesterol numbers would rise and fall, but in any case were dangerously high. The medication was, for all intents and purposes, supposed to keep him alive.

Wojcik’s cholesterol at one point topped out at 260. At the start of the summer of 2018, that number had dropped to 229. By the end of the summer it had fallen to 174.

The reason for the recent 55-point drop was simply a change in diet.

Wojcik was among more than 130 Ontario County employees who took part in a county-wide challenge to switch their diets to nothing but plant-based foods for 10 days. Participants were challenged to eliminate from their diets meats, dairy products, oils.

Ten days may not seem like a long time, but without certain comfort foods people are used to eating at their leisure, that 10 days can drag.

Wojcik, who works in the county finance department, knew he could handle the 10-day challenge and wanted to see if the diet could positively impact his cholesterol numbers, as proponents had told him. He was more than pleased — stunned, actually — by the results.

“It’s all about the numbers,” Wojcik says.

Wojcik stuck to the diet plan. While his typical meals were before that meat- and potato-based, he was “religious” about the parameters of the challenge. At the end of the 10 days, his cholesterol levels had dropped by 55 points, he had lost about seven pounds, and his blood-sugar levels had fallen.

Wojcik plans to continue with the plant-based diet, although he may modify it to include one day for meats. Plus, after seeing the dramatic drop in his cholesterol levels, Wojcik says his wife is interested in switching over in hopes of also lowering her blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

“When I first came home with the challenge and explained it to her… she looked at me and said ‘you’re on your own,’” Wojcik says.

But she’s been his biggest supporter, loading the household pantry with fruits and vegetables and getting rid of foods not permitted in the diet.

Bringing the challenge

The 10-day challenge was the brainchild of Victor Primary School teacher Doug Schmidt.

In 2009, Schmidt suffered a heart attack and was told he was going to take medication the rest of his life. That wasn’t something he wanted to do, and he turned to this diet in hopes of reversing his medical future.

Schmidt became acquainted with the diet after learning about Blue Zones — regions of the world where people live the longest lives. One common denominator among the inhabitants of these regions is they consume a plant-based diet, he says. He switched to the diet, outlined in Rip Esselstyn’s “The Engine 2 Seven-Day Rescue Diet,” and has not looked back.

Over the past 10 years, Schmidt has lost 60 pounds — going from 225 to 165 — and his cholesterol has dropped to 125. He takes no medications and last year ran a marathon for the first time. He attributes the results to exercise and improved nutrition.

“A plant-based diet provides the vitamins and minerals you need,” says Schmidt, 59. “That’s what it’s all about. There are lots of diets out there, a lot of information on different things that are supposed to be healthy, and you never know what is healthy.

“This is the only diet proven to prevent and reverse heart disease, for one, and it can help almost every chronic conditions Americans are suffering from, from IBS to auto-immune issues to Type 2 diabetes, to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high sugar — it helps with all of those.”

And it has nothing to do with simply being vegan.

“There are a lot of unhealthy vegans out there,” he says. “It may make some vegans mad, but Oreos and potato chips are vegan and they are not healthy.”

Schmidt took his success to the Ontario County Wellness Committee and laid it out as a challenge to county employees. Instead of the seven days promoted by Esselstyn, Schmidt selected 10 days because people will see an even greater result with the three extra days, he explains.

“They brought me in for this,” he says. “By trade, I am a teacher. In January I led a jump start for 1,300 people in 35 school districts.”

Schmidt says he has seen people’s cholesterol drop 30 to 50 points after just 10 days on the eating plan. He’s seen people with extremely high glucose and blood pressure drop into the normal range in a couple of days.

“Some lose a pound a day, for 10 pounds in 10 days,” he says. “It’s really amazing, when you give your body proper nutrition, what it can do for you. I feel better than I did in my 30s. Last year, I ran two half-marathons and my first full marathon.”

He doesn’t mess around with the plan. That means no dairy, no meat, no cheese, no eggs and no fish.

“So, all you’re eating is fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, which are beans, so that’s it," he says. "There are different doctors out there who support this."

It may be hard for some at the start to adjust to not having meat as part of their meal.

“The thing is, vegetables have always been the side, not the main course, for many Americans," Schmidt says. "People struggle with that. It’s always been baked, boiled, steamed or fried and it’s always been on the side."

A stir-fry is a good example of a plant-based meal that can be made sans meat.

“It has lots of vegetables and grains in the form of rice," he says.

“Carbs have been misunderstood,” he continues. “White bread is a carb but not a healthy carb. But whole grain bread is a healthy carb because it has the whole grains. All the vegetables, fruits and grains are carbs — the carbs our bodies are meant to run on, not the carbs in processed foods.”

Schmidt says that after he improved his health, he decided to help others “wade through the different diets” with help from his wife, Shari.

To learn more, he suggests watching the movie “Forks Over Knives” or visit NutritionFacts.org.

Evidence it works

The results speak for themselves as far as Schmidt and Wojcik are concerned. And Wojcik wasn’t alone among the Ontario County employees who saw significant changes. Several other challenge participants also shared how the 10-day diet affected them.

Vivian Russell experienced a 50-point drop in her cholesterol level. She also lost about nine pounds. Russell has been on medication for her cholesterol for the past year and hopes she will get off treatment.

“If I can get off this Statin, I’ll be a happy camper,” she says.

Because of the strict nature of the diet, Russell thought it was going to be harder than it proved to be. The first few days were hard, but the recipes from the Esselstyn book helped her begin to really enjoy what she was eating. Two recipes in particular, one for baked french fries and one for stuffed pepper soup, were among her favorites.

Another participant was Julia Santiago, who has struggled with her weight for much of her life. Santiago tried diet after diet, but nothing really worked well for long. Each of those diets or weight-loss systems were never easy, but the plant-based diet is, she says.

“Eat plants,” she says, and adds you can eat as much as you wish.

Santiago’s clothes fit better and her sleep has improved since making the change. She’s converting her family to the plant-based lifestyle as well.

Ontario County employee Korinna Roach has dropped a dress size since taking on the challenge. She’s down to a size she said she’s never worn as an adult.

Roach says the diet was challenging because she had to learn “new ways of cooking without using oil or butter,” and eliminate dairy products and eggs. But once Roach started on the diet, she wasn’t obsessing over not eating some of her favorite snacks like potato chips or sea salt caramel ice cream. The change for Roach has been immense.

“Several years ago I was an avid walker and on the fourth day of this challenge, I began walking again and plan to do a 5k in September,” she says. “I have so much more energy. I feel brighter, more with it. I am sleeping better. I feel great and more confident. I have embraced this lifestyle.”

This article was originally published in Community Health magazine for Ontario County Employee Wellness.