Winning PETA’s Sexiest Vegan Over 50 Contest

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) asked me to blog about why I entered this contest and what drives my desire to help aniamls of all kinds, including humans. When I heard I’d won, I was truly surprised and speechless. Especially by the announcement itself here.

What does it really mean to win this contest? I was a little leery about entering. After all, I went to college during a time when I helped set up the first women’s self-help clinic that was established on my campus. “Our Bodies Ourselves,” helped women to move beyond the sexual revolution to ensure 3d-book_1we broke through glass ceilings. In my first TV job, I was the first female evening anchor. I had bosses when I worked in TV and then later in financial services who said they would help me break through glass ceilings. In my career in financial services, no matter the brokerage firm, the ratio of men to women was 10:1. One of my colleagues was convinced I was really an undercover reporter from “60 Minutes.” In financial services, I learned a great deal that helped me crunch the numbers and develop the concepts for Eat Vegan on $4 a Day. Every one of the recipes had an estimated price based on ingredients found at any big box or grocery store.

I got so tired of hearing stories on the news that said you can’t eat well on a budget. I’d done this for the better part of 30 years and knew it wasn’t true. I wanted to show that you don’t have to shop at a health food store to eat a balanced, healthy vegan diet.

My second book, Kitchen Divided, was born on the road as I found so many new vegans in particular, had begun their journey solo leaving friends and family members behind. I began asking audiences, “How many of you live in a mixed marriage…where one is veg and one is not?” Much nodding and groaning. I love jumping outside the vegan box and finding new ways to entice people to the vegan table. First was through the wallet, next through making peace in the kitchen, and my third child, Paleo Vegan, was born as some of my running and fitness friends, even some who were vegan, began embracing the paleo fad.

It seemed to me that most of the meat-based paleo books I read were just the high-protein diets all over again, nicely marketed and cleaned up a bit. But they still seemed like Atkins, South Beach and the Zone Diets in disguise. Time to reclaim and redefine paleo for vegans. And all the research I found supported that we were way more gatherers than hunters. The September edition of National Geographic Magazine and its aptly titled cover story, “The Real Paleo Diet,” agreed with me. It was full of great quotes supporting veganism and the many concepts and research quoted in my book.

IMG_2820As I write this, my non-vegan husband, Clarence, just suffered a near-death heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery. We met as young TV reporters at competing stations in Miami in the 1980’s. He was and still is the smartest, nicest man I’ve ever met. I found in my TV years, it was very hard to be in a relationship of mutual respect.  Simply, it was hard to find nice and smart in the same person. We met before the word “vegan” was commonly used or practiced. I went vegan but he did not.

It broke my heart. It nearly killed his.

If he had made it to the hospital an hour later, doctors told me, he would have died. They said I saved his life, but it sure hasn’t felt that way. If I had really saved his life, I feel like I would have helped him go vegan years before. My social media friends tell me not to beat myself up. Yet it is hard to avoid feeling like I IMG_4445didn’t do enough.

Whoever says a vegan diet is complicated or difficult, hasn’t seen what I’ve seen the past few weeks. They haven’t seen this. This is difficult.

The tubes, technology and treatments for open-heart surgery are complicated and excruciating. The second day after surgery, my husband locked eyes with me and said, “I am not going through this again. It is the worst pain of my life. I’m ready to eat vegan.” He has a long road ahead of him. He has had many “little” complications that 10 days out, still have him in the hospital.

He never estimated how painful having your chest cracked open for open heart surgery could be. He is 18 IMG_4449years older than me and was so sure this wouldn’t happen to him.

I had watched both my parents and sister have open heart surgery. My grandparents and many relatives had heart disease, and the precursor, diabetes. Many had osteoporosis, arthritis and Alzheimer’s. I was the healthiest adult by a long shot.

I am the only adult female without breast cancer. My mom, aunt and both sisters had it. We were part of the original breast cancer gene studies. Did I get all the good genes? I think not. Researchers have told me that half the breast cancer cases in my family are genetic, the other half, environmental. Genes take a trigger. There is much we can do to defy them. My cardiologist told me my heart ejection factor is that of a 21 year-old. “You have the heart of a 21 year-old,” he emphasized. The only reason I’d seen a cardiologist was because of a congenital heart murmur, which has also been a non-issue. The cardiologist said, “That diet and exercise thing is sure paying off.” Most doctors don’t take a single nutrition class in medical school. Their education is not funded by the broccoli industry or lobby. As I say in “Eat Vegan,” there’s no money in broccoli. No corporation that makes it. No broccoli lobby or association. When you understand that, then you have to be your own investigative reporter like I was and figure out the truth about food.

My vegan journey began when I had almost died from a colon blockage at age 28. As a TV reporter, I barely had time to catch a meal, let alone one with fiber in it. Emergency room doctors said they had never seen a blockage so large in someone so young and that I would need to be on medications the rest of my life to keep it under control.

It was the same year my sister got breast cancer. I ran to the health food store and read all 5 books on fiber. That’s all there was at the time. First I went macrobiotic…a popular diet then that was mainly vegan except for fish. But with way too many rules and restrictions for a busy reporter, I morphed to vegetarian, and then eventually vegan. I also began going to animal rights meetings and watched some of the early videos of how elephants were abused in circuses. I covered some of the worst animal abuse stories from puppy mills to animal shelter atrocities. The dots began connecting. Some people go vegan for health reasons. Some go to prevent animal abuse. Some do it because as many agencies and organizations have said, giving up eating and using animals will do more to help the environment and reduce carbon footprints than giving up driving altogether!

I kept writing and watching movies with my husband, hoping something would sink in. Kitchen Divided was the blueprint for how I tried to make our changing ways in the kitchen work.

For many people, divorce is not an option. With a long history for both of us, as TV reporters trying to fight for truth and justice, ours was a bond of romantic soul mate glue that could not come apart. I saw in my cooking classes that people often get desperate on their deathbeds. Not everyone gets a second chance after a heart attack. And if they don’t change eating habits, the surgical miracles are undone within a year. I’m hopeful Clarence and I will get that chance.

Bradenton_Herald_photo_1So why would such a trail-blazing feminist succumb to a contest using women (and men) as sex objects? Because sex sells.

It always has and always will. Sadly, what I learned in my 18 years as a TV investigative reporter is that the only time animal rights stories got any coverage is when PETA showed up in front of a fur store with not much coverage. Bikinis in January in the Midwest were always a great visual. Especially healthy-looking ripped vegans in bikinis.

Anything to show that a vegan diet doesn’t make you weakling, as the stereotypes go.

What was quite clear to me over the years is given that there was and is no money in broccoli, PETA and IMG_3885other grassroots organizations not nearly as well funded as the Dairy Council which has enough money to hand out free chocolate milk cartons to every finisher and attendee of the many 5K or longer races I do. The dairy industry funds websites devoted just to this not-so-subtle promotion.

The Dairy Council has a very public campaign I’ve seen on their website as well as at coaching workshops called, “Marketing Chocolate Milk as the Ideal Recovery Drink for Children.” Seriously? I can’t imagine anything more sludgy or disgusting after a race. Most runners crave potassium-rich bananas or Vitamin C-rich citrus fruits like oranges or grapefruit.

Even more appalling, in my research for Eat Vegan on $4 a Day, I was shocked to see how many advertising dollars fund the dairy and fluid milk industries, both separate categories, compared to say, the watermelon industry. In media consulting, my husband and I were actually hired by the National Watermelon Promotion Board, which received a few million dollars annually. The meat and dairy industries received close to a billion dollars! Even more incredible, the cozy alliances between the USDA, which is supposed to be telling us how to eat more healthfully, financially supports corporate dairy giants like Pizza Hut and McDonalds. This is why when you walk into a school cafeteria, you don’t see posters plastered on walls like the meat and dairy industries’ “Got Milk?” Or, “Meat: It’s What’s for Dinner.” Or “Pork: The Other White Meat.” You don’t see posters that say, “Broccoli: It’s what’s for dinner.” Or “Broccoli, one of the other thousands of beautiful green vegetables.”

My work is payback for all the vegan hero doctors like Dr. John McDougall and Dr. Neal Barnard whose books I read in the 1990’s to save my life, and the lives of so many others. Their advice flew in the face of conventional medical and pharmacological wisdom. But it worked. When I quit TV news and joined my husband in his successful media consulting business, I sent e-mails to both doctors saying if there was ever anything I could to help them, to please let me know. Dr. Barnard invited me to help do media training for his staff at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. During one visit, I smelled my way into the kitchen where the first Cancer Project classes were getting tested. When I learned about the program, I said, “I have to teach these classes. It’s what I’ve been doing informally most of my adult life.” I trained and taught the classes for 6 years before my books were published and traveling on book tour curtailed my cooking class schedule.

IMG_1267The PETA contest is about showing that especially after 50, a vegan diet works WAY better than botox, surgery or supplements. And it is so much cheaper! Combine eating vegan with a little aerobic exercise and it is magical! I’ve found that the reason I’m 7th  in the US W60-64 age group in the 1500 meters is because my meat-eating colleagues were too tired and sore to compete by day 3 when the 1500 meters competition came around. I heard them “scratching” or dropping out at the registration table. After competing in other events the previous two days, they were too pooped. I was a little sore, but like many other vegan athletes, I find that the healing and anti-inflammatory power of plants keeps me injury-free and energy-strong. I had to qualify for Nationals first at the local county, and then at the state level. I have now placed in 75 5K or longer races for my age group.

One of the ironies is that after being a stay-at-home mom for 6 years, I re-entered TV news as a morning anchor in St. Louis. Each station I worked for had a make-up consultant. This station’s consultant said, “Ya know, 40 is never too young to have a facelift. And the more often you have them at a younger age, the more effective they are long-term.” Then she pointed out both male and female, locally and nationally, who had had them. She concluded with the memorable phrase, “You just don’t get to be Barbara Walters’ age and look like that.” A close relative had just had a facelift done by doctor who was also her friend. He accidentally dropped a scalpel within millimeters of her carotid artery. She has a scar to this day. A facelift wasn’t on my bucket list. After a couple of Emmys, the National Press Club Award and some other awards, it was time to shop for another career.

Teaching cooking classes and speaking around the country about demolishing vegan myths has been my passion.

472497_392876317431801_2054131445_oI started running for health. I began competing because I could wear my vegan shirt which engages many people who see me at races.

I’ll be standing with one of my awards and someone almost always comes up and says, “Aw you can’t run, race or compete in the Olympics on a vegan diet.”

I start with saying, “Ever hear of the Olympian Carl Lewis? He was vegan and credits his performance to a vegan diet. As do many athletes like me.”

Many running experts have told me it is rare, mainly because of genetics, for someone with my sprint times to have ever finished a marathon, something I’ve done twice, as recently as last January. I credit that ability to do both sprint and endurance running to the power of plants. I’ve noticed how my body changes as my training changes. Compare the changes in the photo above and the one below. Above, more defined muscles with training for sprinting. Below, a typical marathoner’s body with less body fat. A lean, green, vegan machine.

Both are healthy images. I hope you’ll agree I don’t have a protein deficiency. Most people in developed countries do not. In fact, the USDA’s website now says Americans get too much protein and they’ve downsized their daily protein recommendations. Whatever my training schedule is, it’s all about feeling great and being around for the grandchildren, something my parents and extended family could only dream about. My parents were so sick and diseased, they couldn’t lift my children, let alone babysit them. Entire generations are losing each other, and don’t even know it. Our children will be part of the first generation to not outlive the one before it, unless we move to save them and our planet, very quickly. No animals, human or otherwise should suffer needlessly, especially from such preventable diseases and abuse. Go plants!