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October 29th, 2010
07:59 AM ET

Human Factor: Rich Roll's 'experiment' in fitness

In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to a survivor who has overcome tremendous odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Be inspired by their successes, as we have been.

Very late on the eve of my 40th birthday just four years ago, I was blessed with a precious moment of clarity.  Face to face with an unforgiving mirror after a losing battle with a simple flight of stairs that left me buckled over and seeing stars, I was shocked out of a long-held denial and forced to confront an uncomfortable truth more painful than my heaving lungs - that I was woefully overweight, terribly unfit, and facing a certain future of heart disease – a trending topic in my genealogy.

It was time for a change.  A line-in-the-sand, life altering kind of change.  Seizing the moment, I awoke the next day to formulate a plan and put it into action.

A plan I like to call The Experiment - a journey in nutrition, fitness and wellness that has drastically and forever altered the trajectory of my life.  A journey that over time has divorced me from everything I previously held true about food, age, fitness and health.  A journey that starts with an average overweight middle-aged guy and culminates with feats of athletic endurance I had no idea I was capable of.

It all began when I decided to adopt a 100 percent plant-based whole food diet.  A discipline that involved removing all animal products (and most processed foods) from my diet.  No chicken.  No fish.  No dairy.  Nada.

At the time, my expectations were limited and my goals modest – lose a little weight; maybe feel a little better.  That was it.  In fact, I secretly harbored hope that The Experiment would fail so I could resume my predilection for pizza and nachos - free of guilt and knowing I had tried everything.

But to my surprise, I was amazed at just how fantastic I felt after only 10 days on this regimen.  My energy skyrocketed, fueling a return to a modest exercise routine.  Gradually, I started to shed the pounds.  Slowly, the fitness returned.  And my energy levels continued to improve.  Then came the desire to pursue an athletic challenge.  Nothing was overnight, but a mere few years later I found myself almost 50 pounds lighter with a 10-minute lead and Day 1 stage victory in the 3-day double-ironman distance triathlon known as the Ultraman Hawaii World Championships.

How was this possible?  I am not overstating the case to say that everything I have accomplished as an endurance athlete over the last few years, including two Ultraman World Championships and EPIC5 – an endurance odyssey in which I completed 5 ironman distance triathlons on 5 separate Hawaiian Islands in under a week – begins and ends with my plant-based whole food diet.

But what about protein?  Aren’t you anemic?  How can you stand all that bland food?  You’re harming your body!

I field questions like these on a daily basis from all types of naysayers, including doctors, trainers and nutritionists.  But I have answered them all.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, I am fully fortified on a surprisingly delicious routine of very nutrient dense plant-based foods and recipes that have enhanced not just my overall health, but my athletic ability as well.  In the last four years, I’ve had nary a sniffle.  And at 44 years of age, I am the most vital and physically fit I have ever been in my life.  It’s not an inconvenience.  And its not an impediment – it’s my secret weapon.

We live in the most prosperous nation on Earth, and yet we have never been more unhealthy as a society.  Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and a vast array of very preventable diseases plague us unnecessarily.  Rather than redress the underlying causes of these diseases, we place too much focus on the treatment of symptoms with pharmaceuticals, thus prolonging and exacerbating very solvable problems.  Just watch television for an hour, count how many ads you see for extraneous prescription medications, and you get the picture.

If we want to heal, truly heal, then we must keenly redirect the national health debate on one thing – preventive medicine.  Simply put, and backed by balanced scientific studies, a plant-based whole food diet has been shown to prevent and actually reverse heart disease (America’s #1 killer) and impede or even arrest the development of a litany of other maladies, including the growth of cancer cells.  And overall, it is the easiest, most cost effective (as well as environmentally conscious) means to vastly improve the health and environment of not just America, but the world at large.

I am not alone in this belief.  In fact, plant-based nutrition has now entered the zeitgeist as a legitimate mainstream phenomenon.  From successful professional athletes to high profile cultural influencers, more and more are opening up to the advantages of living “plantstrong.”  Even former President Bill Clinton recently joined the fray, a bold move that created a media frenzy and will, I hope, catalyze profound, long-term positive effects on our national health dialog.

We all know fad diets don’t work.  But greater lasting health always remains within one’s grasp, regardless of age or condition.  Everyone has the power to change.  It just takes a decision.

They say that the enemy of wisdom is contempt prior to investigation.  Don’t take my word for it; do your own research.  Still not convinced?  That’s fine; just do me one simple favor – eat more plants.

But if you decide you want to feel as good as I do, then join me – I dare you.

How to Connect with Rich

RICH ROLL WEBSITE & BLOG: http://www.richroll.com

TWITTER: http://twitter.com/richroll

In addition, Rich and his wife Julie Piatt recently released their first plant-based e-cookbook titled JAI SEED.  For more information and to purchase for simple download, visit:

http://www.jai-lifestyle.com/cookbook

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Filed under: Exercise • Healthy Eating • Human Factor • Nutrition • Obesity

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.