Broccoli

Back a few years ago, when I had three small kids, I decided to go back to school and get a Bachelor of Science in a subject I was very passionate about: exercise. It is one of the best decisions I ever made.

Another huge interest of mine has always been nutrition. So I minored in nutrition. I learned very quickly that a proper diet can change the outcome of your life. Debra Goodwin taught all six of the nutrition classes I took at Jacksonville State University, and we studied case study after case study after case study. It did not take me long to get her point.

Not enough emphasis is placed on diet in the medical world. Changing one’s diet can literally save your life. It can reverse diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and more. So why don’t more people know this? And when they know it, why don’t they practice it?

Twenty-three years ago, I became a vegetarian when I was pregnant with my middle child, and kept it up for three years. (Bacon was my downfall.) The funny thing is, that baby — who is 22 now — has been a vegetarian for about seven years.

I have never been a big meat eater, and I love animals, so why not? But now I have a third reason. I truly believe a plant-based diet can prolong your life.

The sky is the limit when it comes to fresh vegetables to choose from. Knowing how to cook them so you don’t negate the benefits is a must.

My husband and I are blessed in that we live on a farm and are able to eat that way 75 percent of the time, thanks to his amazing garden. But we also visit the farmers markets locally and in Atlanta when we can.

Do we eat right all the time? Of course not. Someone who tells you they do might be fibbing. I am guilty of eating something I know I shouldn’t eat and thinking the whole time, “I shouldn’t be eating this.” I have NOT mastered the diet, yet!

Diet is the hardest thing to do right all the time. I have always said it is easy to exercise for an hour every day, but the food decisions you make the other 23 hours of the day are by far the most important and the most difficult.

Recently, a friend introduced me to a game-changing book by Dr. Michael Greger called “How Not to Die.” This New York Times bestseller is a must-read for anyone interested in their health.

Greger also has a website, nutritionfacts.org, that is a must website to visit and visit often. The website features science-based, peer-reviewed videos, blogs and articles that are straightforward and easy to understand.

There are more than 2,000 topics to learn about, such as allergies, causes of cancer, improving your mood and on and on. There are 30 videos on arthritis, 84 on soy, 191 on weight loss and 465 on cancer … you get the idea.

I like to choose my information from someone like this, who has spent a lifetime studying and has the qualifications to back it up. Greger donates all profits from his books and DVDs back to his nonprofit, nutritionfacts.org.

I understand not everyone is interested in a plant-based diet, but everyone can learn to modify their diet to maybe have meat-free dinners once or twice a week, and to eliminate processed meat such as hot dogs and lunch meats, which are considered a class one or group one carcinogen.

The World Health Organization has classified red meat as a probable carcinogen. The American Cancer Society says to eat less red meat, which to them is beef, pork and lamb, as well as less processed meat because of the preservatives.

That is enough for me. I am not interested in red meat if that is the case. Over the years, I have eaten very little meat but am now even more committed.

As of today, it has been about eight months since I had red meat, and I don’t miss it. In that eight months, I have eaten no meat to speak of — except for a few pieces of bacon. Darn that bacon!

Since I have major heart disease in my family (maybe you do too), I think this is a wise thing to do. My cholesterol is very low (120) and I am not eating the saturated fat that many others get from eating red meat.

Is this the right choice for you? Or can you make small changes that will make big changes in your overall numbers?

As we get to a certain age, it is important to reevaluate the food we take in, and make smarter choices. By doing this, we can manage our health issues and stay far away from the ubiquitous medications that many people are consuming. After all, we are what we eat.

Ann Angell is a certified instructor and personal trainer and  manager of the Oxford YMCA. Her fitness column appears the third Sunday of each month.