Let me tell you a little story. When I was in college, I was on the swim team and in great shape. After graduating, I hung up my goggles and focused my attention on building a career, raising kids and getting the bills paid. You know: life. But as I inched my way towards 40, depression and being 50 pounds overweight, I got a wake-up call. After a long night of mindless television on the couch, munching away on junk food, I went upstairs to go to bed. My chest tightened, and I got so winded that I nearly passed out. I was gripped with fear. Heart disease runs in my family, and I realised then and there that it was very likely that I could die of a heart attack - just as my grandfather had at an early age.
That was a turning point. I changed my diet and dove back into swimming. Today, I'm vegan and a successful ultra-endurance athlete. I'm not telling you this to brag but to remind you that it's never too late to change the course of your life. And this Men's Health Week, 10 to 16 June, is a great time for men of all ages to take their health into their own hands. You might start by going vegan.
I'm convinced that eating vegan whole foods has made me a better athlete. I'm lighter on my feet and less prone to injuries and have more strength and stamina than I did even in college. I've also clocked two top finishes at the Ultraman World Championships, one of the most gruelling endurance races on the planet. Ultraman, a three-day triathlon that circumnavigates the entire Big Island of Hawaii, consists of a 6.2-mile swim, a 261.4-mile bike ride and a 52.4-mile run. I'm living proof that an athlete can power his or her body just fine with vegan protein.
But whether you're a taxi driver or a triathlete, eating healthy vegan foods is a smart choice. When I first went vegan, my goals were modest: avoid a heart attack, lose weight, and feel better. Going vegan can help you achieve all these things.
Plant-based foods supply all the protein and other nutrients that your body needs - without all the artery-clogging saturated fats and cholesterol found in meat and dairy products. We all know that heart disease is one of the leading killers of men (and women). And the easiest way to protect your heart without drugs, hands down, is by cutting animal foods out of your diet. According to a recent large-scale study at Oxford University, not eating meat reduces your chance of developing heart disease by a whopping 32 per cent. Former US President Bill Clinton, who underwent coronary bypass surgery in 2004, has famously embraced vegan eating - and has shed more than 20 unwanted pounds on his heart-healthy, plant-based diet.
Going vegan can also help you ward off cancer. A study of men diagnosed with prostate cancer found that a diet rich in plant foods can slow or even halt the progression of the disease. Other studies have linked vegan eating with lower risks of colon cancer and stomach cancer. It makes sense: dark, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale and fruits such as blueberries are loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants, and beans, whole grains and other fibre-rich foods help rid your body of excess hormones that can contribute to cancer growth.
According to Loma Linda University's Adventist Health Study-2, which has been tracking more than 96,000 participants from the US and Canada for more than a decade, vegetarian men also live, on average, 9.5 years longer than their meat-eating counterparts. Vegetarian women live 6.1 years longer.
And, fellas, vegan men are less likely to suffer from impotence - since the fat and cholesterol in meat and dairy products slow the flow of blood to all the body's organs, not just the heart. Most impotence is caused by artery blockage, and physicians and nutritionists agree that the best way to prevent artery blockage is to eat a diet high in fibre, including plenty of fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains.
I'm not here to tell you what you should or shouldn't do. But I do hope that by hearing about my experience, you'll be inspired to make positive changes in your life. Why not try eating vegan during Men's Health Week, and see how you like it? Once you realise, as I did, that what you eat is directly connected to how you feel (imagine that), I bet you won't want to go back to a diet of greasy, heavy animal products. You have nothing to lose and plenty to gain.