When my two daughters ask me why we decided to go plant-based, I think back to dinnertime when I was growing up in the 1970s in Camden, New Jersey. Keeping the fridge and cupboards stocked was problematic for my mother, so my two younger sisters and I would take a vote on what was ideal based on the limited ingredients. Three out of seven days we had “breakfast for dinner,” since there was always a carton of eggs, milk, pancake mix, and a few slices of bacon lying around. On special days we would have BLTs on toasted Wonder Bread—yes, that white bread that turns into paste when wet—layered with mayonnaise and a yokey fried egg. Other nights, my mother would serve fried liver with mashed potatoes or white rice or macaroni.
Over the years my mother worked feverishly on her nursing degree to help my sisters and I escape the immense poverty, minimal education, and debilitating crime in a city that seemed bent on self-destruction. There were no shopping malls, movie theaters, or recreation centers for us kids to escape to. There was, however, bullying, fights, drugs, and free blocks of government cheese that we used to make grilled sandwiches that hardly melted under the heat. Food stamps played an integral role in our food choices and level of nutrition. When times were tough we survived on mayonnaise sandwiches; when times were good we ate out at McDonalds and Roy Rogers. While my mother made us eat Quaker Oats and corn and peas (the kind that came in frozen bags), our diet mostly consisted of foods that were fried or made with enriched white flour. The only physical activity available to my mother was the dreaded long, weekly walks from the grocery store with heavy bags of sugar, Kool-Aid, and every fattening snack imaginable. She also roller skated, which burned calories. Yet, we certainly didn’t look at any of this activity as exercise, and these foods were what my mother could afford. None of us knew they had the potential to cause heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.
I was introduced to a healthier diet by my father. My parents split up shortly after I was born, when they were teenagers. After serving in the Vietnam War my father found himself in Washington, D.C., where he became a strict vegetarian (vegan by today’s standards). When I visited him on the summer and holidays I inexorably took on this strange pattern of eating. Protein shakes, vitamins the size of grapes, gluten, tofu, soy milk, millet, and fruits and vegetables of all colors, shapes, and flavors replaced the crap I was used to eating. The change was so devastating that I would always break out with rashes when I switched diets. My father said it was the poisons detoxing from my body. Yep, he was officially “mad” in my book. Looking back, he was absolutely right. A former boxer, Pops was lean and muscular and always practiced what he preached.
My father never explained his reasons for becoming a vegetarian and how it led to healthier digestion, growth, and living. He also never showed me how to read labels, and he certainly didn’t expound on the nutritional benefits of a meatless and dairy-free diet. My sisters from my father’s side and I would look at each other sideways and just ate the stuff. We also rode bikes, walked to the zoo, swam, went camping, and practiced yoga. My father was fervently in tune with the mind–body connection and even made us meditate.
Each fall I would return to Camden leaner and stronger than when I left. My mother encouraged me by purchasing a cement weight set that I used to work out five days a week. Without a doubt, by the age of 12 I was the strongest kid in the neighborhood. This was useful on the treacherous streets of Camden. Back then we played basketball, football, raced each other on foot, and biked or walked everywhere. Our families didn’t have the luxury of modern transportation. Every kid in Camden was fit. More importantly, there were so many bullies looking to pick a fight that speed was a common necessity for escape. I considered myself a peacemaker and saw no moral victory in fighting, until later in high school.
High school was a pivotal time for me. My mother moved us out of Camden and into the suburban neighborhood of Voorhees where the education was much better. Soon, I was living out the prototypical story of the kid from the city who goes to school in the ’burbs and makes good. I did well inside the classroom and out, and gradually developed into one of the top athletes in New Jersey. I won state titles in track and field, excelling in the 100- and 200-yard dash, hurdles and the long jump. As a 205-pound running back I led my high school football team to a conference title and a spot in the Group Championship game. I was racking up accolades and awards, as well as recruitment visits from Division 1 collegiate football programs. It became clear that I would become the first member of my family to attend a Division 1 University and on scholarship, no less.
Although I went on to play for North Carolina State and later transferred to the Georgia Institute of Technology, my story soon became one familiar to many college students, as heavy drinking started to played a major role in my educational and athletic development. Thinking back, I do believe every day of the week I took in some booze and even an occasional blunt. Oftentimes I went on the field still intoxicated from all-night binges. My focus eroded and my athletic skills diminished. On top of that, the coaches were stuffing us like factory animals. I grew to 220 pounds of pure muscle while chowing down on meat and potatoes. Inevitably, I lost my love for the sport and simply showed up in order to graduate.
Afterwards, I started working in various fields of the automotive industry where my old man had made his career. He published African Americans On Wheels automotive magazines, pivotal since his company was the only diverse media outlet in the auto world at the time. Who would have thought, a vegetarian entrepreneur breaking into the upper echelons of big business? Eventually I ventured out on my own and founded Automotive Rhythms Communications, a lifestyle automotive media and marketing portal. This allowed me to travel the globe assessing new automobiles and motorcycles, as well as cuisines that were new to me. Here I was, a kid from Camden, staying in a 5-star hotel in Paris and being given the opportunity to try foie gras, frog legs, and snails. Unfortunately, with all the traveling and hosted dinners came more eating and drinking to unprecedented levels. By the end of a night I would typically have consumed nine glasses of wine and a few Johnnie Walker Blacks and sometimes Blues, which goes for typically $50 a glass. How much better could it get, I thought? This disastrous lifestyle continued for ten more years.
One morning in 2011, I walked into the bathroom, stepped on the scale, and discovered that I weighed more than 240 pounds. I looked in the mirror. My face was thick and my skin as dry as a raisin. When I went to the closet, I noticed that I now wore size 42 jeans and 3X shirts. How had this happened? Maybe I didn’t hit the gym every day, but I still played basketball, flag football, and weight lifted. I had even cut back on the partying and drinking, but my daily diet was only slightly better than what I had grown up with, except that I had given up beef and pork. Yet, chicken cheese steaks, wings with blue cheese, sugary drinks, and chips and other snacks ran my life. To top it off I was driving everywhere since Automotive Rhythms always had a fleet of vehicles in the driveway. Why ride a bike when a $100,000 Mercedes-Benz was steadily awaiting? But enough was enough, and I decided to make a change.
The very next day I signed up for the Men’s Health Urbanathlon, a 9-to 11-mile run through the streets of Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Training for the event required four days of running activities, alternating between distance and sprints, and two days of strength training. I decided to do the Chicago race first because I wanted the chance to run up the hundreds of stadium steps at Soldier Field—where my hero, the running back Walter Payton, played—as part of the course. By the time race day came around I had lost 25 pounds, toned up quite a bit, and stopped drinking alcohol completely. Additionally, I progressed from not being able to run a mere mile without breathing heavily to checking off 8-, 10- and 12-milesdevoid of hesitation or strain. Best of all, I had dropped four waist sizes and two shirt sizes. It felt good to be trim again.
Since most of what I had been by taught by public educational institutions regarding food was wrong, I set out to educate myself by reading a book a week, watching health documentaries such as Forks Over Knives, and attending seminars and health conferences. Slowly, light was being shed on the childhood eating habits I had learned from my father. Eating fruit triggered certain memories of his garden. Once I understood that we must eat whole foods from the earth to meet the balance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients our bodies need, I went on a mission to rid myself of all meat, dairy, and processed foods. But it wasn’t enough that I was getting healthier; I needed my wife and daughters, ages 9 and 6, to be healthy too. I began to make changes, replacing fattening snacks with celery and hummus, soda with fresh kale and pineapple juice or a strawberry smoothie with coconut milk. Dinnertime now involved whole grains such as brown rice, millet and quinoa, and cruciferous veggies like spinach, broccoli, and collard greens. With sadness, I realized how costly the healthier path to eating could be, and understood why my mother couldn’t nourish us as she wanted to. My wife and I also began incorporating the kids in as much physical activity as possible, including swim class, soccer, dance, and family bike riding. Now my six-year-old likes to hit the punching bag with me.
But even that wasn’t enough. I looked around me and saw all the fast food, sugary drinks, and excessive Internet and television use that have supplanted home-cooked meals and active living to a point where obesity and lethargy are accepted as the norm. For that reason I founded Fit Fathers, an inspirational program to help families focus on the well-being of themselves and their children. The program offers fitness workouts and routines, recipes for wholesome meals, nutritional food shopping advice, childhood activity integrations for busy parents, recommendations on degenerative disease prevention and fitness-friendly places to travel, and of course encouragement to keep mothers and fathers on top of their game.
So when my daughters ask me why the family decided to go vegan, I tell them that it is the best food in the world and that our bodies need nourishment from foods that grow rather than foods that are killed. We love animals and they deserve to be free, just as we humans do. Over the years I have learned to distinguish between eating as an omnivore and as a herbivore, and ultimately chose the better path. But I have no regrets with the manner in which I was raised. It has shaped me into the person I am today and allows me to engage with those who currently live the life I used to. The journey towards health and happiness is awaiting; sometimes we just need a little encouragement from those who have walked the same path and completed the journey.
Word by Kimatni D Rawlins