As we at MamaSezz well know, changing to a plant-based diet can change your life in ways you never expected. In this series, we talk with some of the world’s most soulful, dedicated (and often funny) individuals. We get to hear their stories of suffering, transformation, and service — and we learn how food is an essential part of their journey.
This week, we talked with Mark Cerkvenik, who by his late 50s was sick of yo-yo dieting. After watching multiple family members struggle with sickness, Mark knew he had to make a change with his diet. He gradually went whole food plant-based, and today he feels healthy, fit, and on top of the world. And best of all? No more yo-yo dieting!
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What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet?
Eating the standard American diet, I did not become deathly ill or morbidly obese. I just became overweight and unhealthy. I was a classic yo-yo dieter trying many different diet plans over my lifetime.
By 56, I reached 232 pounds, about fifty pounds over my ideal weight. My total cholesterol was in the 280 range and blood pressure was 140/90. None of these numbers put me in catastrophic territory, in which I was necessarily facing imminent collapse of my health. But all of these health metrics were bad enough that it wouldn’t have been shocking if I had suffered a heart attack or other life-changing or life-threatening event. I was simply another average unhealthy middle-aged American, taking blood pressure medication while resisting pressure from my doctor to take cholesterol medication.
I worked in healthcare and was in charge of organizational development for a major academic medical center in Chicago, working to improve patient and staff satisfaction and performance. It often occurred to me that the organization that I was working to improve had a supply side problem: heart patients and cancer patients were often dissatisfied with their care simply because the system was stressed by their overabundance. Too many sick patients create a beleaguered, overworked staff. Why was such an unnaturally high percentage of the population developing so many diseases?
I thought I had a pretty good diet. I didn’t eat red meat, chicken, or pork. I was a pescatarian and ate a little bit of dairy. My diet seemed demonstrably better than many of those around me. And yet, like so many others, I was carrying around too much weight, and I knew the statistics well enough to realize I was entering the danger zone for cardiovascular disease.
What happened? Was there a defining moment that triggered change or did you have a gradual journey?
My wife Lorrie and I watched and experienced suffering and death over 17 years. We lost aunts, uncles, our parents – and witnessed health crises (strokes, breast cancer, heart disease) of close friends. Well meaning but ill-informed doctors only offered the typical treatment consisting of surgeries, various medical procedures, and a lifetime of prescription drugs.
Based on the latest research I was reading regarding chronic illnesses and dietary choices, all of this trauma we experienced was clearly exacerbated if not attributable to our loved-ones' food choices. I resolved to do what I had gradually, over time learned that I needed to do: I went on a 100% whole food, plant-based diet in February 2018.
I gradually got down to my ideal weight, lowered my total cholesterol to a healthy level, and got to a healthy blood pressure that’s now usually around 115/70. Nothing was dramatic, nothing was overnight, but the trajectory was healthful and steady throughout.
How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
I have tried many diets before and was your typical yo-yo dieter. This diet provides me with so much variety and flavor. I am not taking food away and starving myself, but adding new dishes and flavors all the time! This is a diet/lifestyle of addition and abundance!
I also educated myself and consistently exposed myself to others who are on this journey! My wife and I are on this journey together, so having both of us make this transition has been a big plus!
What is your life like now and how did a plant-based diet impact your health and life?
Today, I teach people how to transition to a whole food plant-based diet, run employee wellness programs, provide health coaching, and partner with a vegan travel company cooking delicious no-oil whole-food plant based meals for travelers. I no longer feel like I struggle keeping weight off. I meditate 5-6 times per week. Walk about 90 minutes per day.
I’ll be 60 years old in December and can honestly say for the first time in my life I have control of my eating and weight.
What motivated you to contribute to the book about diet and our environment, called Food is Climate?
This book gave me an opportunity to widen my audience and share my story with the hopes of motivating people like me who don’t currently have health issues but are at risk for developing heart disease, diabetes or other life threatening chronic illnesses, to adopt a whole-food plant based diet.
I want people to know that aging doesn’t mean countless doctor visits and an endless list of medications.
I also had no idea that our food choice is the most far reaching way to address climate change. I recycle, pride myself on conserving energy and own 2 cars, one that is 100 percent electric and the other is hybrid.
However, the most impact I can have on climate change is what I eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner thereby avoiding animal agriculture with the potential of reducing CO2 emissions by 87 percent! Much more effective than my electric car or a solar panel on my home.
If you could meet and have lunch with one person (alive or dead) who would it be?
It would be a whole food plant-based and oil-free family dinner with my aunts, uncles, parents, and in-laws I mentioned earlier. I’d like them to know that my wife Lorrie and I are taking care of ourselves and our mission is to share my story and motivate others to adopt a whole food plant-based diet!