It’s all fine and dandy to keep hearing every author and nutritionist say how important it is to eat a whole food, plant-based diet but how do you REALLY know? We hear and read advice over an over again, but until we see and hear an actual person who has been living by this advice for the last 35 years…Well that’s a different story. Redondo Beach resident Wendell Covalt has been eating a plant-based, vegetarian diet for four decades! At 71 Years old, Wendell says he feels just as strong physically and mentally as he did when he was in his 30s and largely credits this to his eating and exercise habits. With the Blue Zones Project’s theme of the month, “Plant Slant”, in mind, we interviewed Wendell about his recommendations for healthy living and the benefits of plant-based nutrition. Wendell speaks at Blue Zones’ HQ in Redondo Beach next Tuesday in an event open to the public.
HM: Tell me a little about your background.
WC: I was born in Indiana, received a Bachelors Degree in Civil Engineering and a Masters in Finance. I was involved with a Computer Software business that was largely successful and moved to California in 1988. I have always been invested in helping the environment and became an activist. I am currently the LA Coordinator for Green eace. At 26 years old, I had a good friend who was a vegetarian and decided to give it a try. By 30 I was a full-blown, committed vegetarian. I still don’t like to put a label on it…I just like to eat plant based whole foods. I became very interested in this way of living and was inspired by the books “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins (John Robbins is the son of one of the Founders of Baskin and Robbins Ice Cream chain and chose to not go into the family business due to it’s contribution of making America sick), “Ready to Live” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and the book with the biggest impact…”The China Study” (Highly Recommended). I didn’t want to become one of the “norms” in society meaning, you turn 50, you go to the doctor and get put on all different medications to help with what is caused by poor diet and lack of exercise and stress management. I am one of those people that likes to get the word out and spread what I feel is an important message so I decided to start showing the documentary “Forks Over Knives” at my home and would invite friends to attend. I would pair this viewing with some education and personal experience to motivate those in my life to get healthy.
HM: Before becoming vegetarian, did you struggle with anything having to do with your health and wellness?
WC: I definitely had a sensitive digestive system and struggled with some allergies. Once I eliminated meat and dairy, my allergies and most of my sensitivities went away. It wasn’t until I eliminated ADDED sugar from my diet that virtually ALL my issues disappeared. I have not had any processed, refined sugar since 1988.
HM: Wow, good for you!! That is a huge commitment. When you eat dessert, what do you make?
WC: I consider fruit to always be a dessert. I also love to make things with coconut milk, dates, and nuts.
HM: What would you consider to be your biggest struggle during the transition period going from omnivore to vegetarian?
WC: Most people aren’t comfortable being around someone on a “different” diet. They just don’t know what to make of it. I constantly was asked, “How can you eat like that? That’s all your having?” or would get comments like, “There’s no way you are getting enough protein.” People would also consider me a “hippie,” if you will, solely because of my food choices and environmental concern. Also, I do not feel restricted in my food choices whatsoever. Many people feel that their food choice determines their enjoyment…I just enjoy eating this way.
HM: You said you have credited part of your well being to staying active. Have you found it difficult to supplement your workouts with plant based protein?
WC: When I retired I started to work out more and wanted to make sure I was getting enough protein. I used protein powder for a little while but realized I was getting plenty just from diet alone.
HM: What are your protein staples and what supplements do you take if any?
WC: My staples consist of beans and lentils, leafy green veggies, and whole grains. I add Chlorella powder to my morning water and take a Vitamin B12 Supplement.
HM: Do you find that the perception of what it means to be a vegetarian has changed over the last 35 years?
WC: It is easier in California than it was in Indiana. It’s generally more accepted these days but some people will always be closed minded and emotionally tied to their diet regardless of the information out there.
HM: Did you originally become a vegetarian/plant-based foodie out of compassion for animals or because of your health?
WC: It started off with doing it for my health. Once I started to learn more about the farming methods and how the animals were treated, it turned into me having compassion for the animals. As I started to learn even more I realized that the way the animals are treated directly affects our health. It comes full circle. These animals are living in horrible conditions, are sick, are fed antibiotics and GMO grains, and cannot provide us with the kind of nutrients that plant based proteins give us. Not to mention the environmental effect factory farming has on our nation. The energy it takes to produce 10 pounds of grain is the same it takes to provide only 1 pound of beef. Cows are also major contributors to methane, which pollutes our planet. They are cutting down rainforests in Brazil to make room for raising cattle. A place that provided us with fresh oxygen is now being replaced with a methane producer. If we were to have just ONE meatless day in the US we would dramatically save on water, grain, and pollution because of how much energy, time, and money it takes to run a factory farm.
HM: Since you eat so healthy, do you also eat all organic?
WC: No. I use my trusty cheat sheets to refer back to the dirty dozen and the clean 15 so I know what I need to buy organic and what I don’t need to. I also have my own garden, which is currently growing about 12 different vegetables, herbs, and fruit. I like to get my bulk items like nuts, seeds, and buckwheat at Whole Foods and buy organic produce from Sprouts or Whole Foods when needed.
HM: What benefits do you see physically and mentally from eating a plant-based diet?
WC: I am 71 years old; I am not currently and never have taken any prescription medication for anything other than for temporary use. Not only do I not need prescription medication but I also know it only treats symptoms, not the root cause. I haven’t had any reason to go to the doctor in over 5 years other than for my yearly physical. All my levels are in the healthy range and I can’t credit that to anything but the way I choose to live my life. I don’t count calories, I eat as much as I want until satisfied, and I am able to maintain my weight. As far as my mental health goes, I feel as sharp as I did 30 years ago! I also think the fact that work out at the gym every other day, walk or bike the days in between, practice yoga, and meditate has helped me to stay young.
HM: How long have you practiced Yoga and meditation?
WC: I have practiced yoga for 25 years and I now meditate once per day in the morning for 45 minutes.
HM: Can you describe what a typical day looks like for you?
WC: I wake up at 4:00 a.m. to meditate for 45 minutes and then go back to sleep until about 6:30. I didn’t always do it that way but that has been the routine for a while now. As soon as I get up I drink two glasses of water, one with my chlorella powder added to it. For breakfast I usually will eat brown rice or a grain of some sort topped with beans, one or two vegetables like kale and zucchini, and some watermelon on the side. At 9, I go to the gym to work out or do my hour-long walk or bike ride. I am usually not hungry right after the gym so I don’t eat again until lunch but if I have a snack it will usually be a banana, some nuts, or dates. For lunch I typically have a tossed salad with almond butter on whole-wheat toast and two pieces of fruit. Dinner likely is a soup of some sort with barley, kale, lentils, and carrots, a helping of vegetables with some olive oil and lemon juice, and of course, a piece of fruit.
HM: I know with my clients, they tend to experience a lot of cravings because they either are not getting proper nutrition or they are going to extreme with restricting certain foods. Do you ever struggle with cravings considering you are getting such adequate nutrition yet restricting a lot of foods that most of America loves to eat?
WC: Like I said before, I don’t feel like I am restricting anything. This is just the way I eat. When I do get a craving for something sweet or crunchy, I will usually reach for some dates or nuts. They totally satisfy my cravings. It takes getting used to but after 35 years of eating this way, it’s a lifestyle and second nature.
HM: What are your three top tips for someone that is trying to get started with eating a more plant-based diet or just trying to eat healthier in general?
WC: #1, you have to eliminate the worst offender, which is vegetable oil. Vegetable oils are so highly processed and refined that it likely makes most foods that could be healthy UNHEALTHY. All fried foods and processed foods contain vegetable oils for the most part. These oils also oxidize very quickly causing inflammation in the body, which is a precursor to many diseases. The three oils I use to cook with or season my food are coconut, palm, and olive oil.
#3, find restaurants to dine out that have healthy options. My two favorite places in the South Bay are The Green Temple and Chicken Maison (they have great Mediterranean food).
Make sure to join Wendell and Beach Cities Health District Dietitian Winny Chen, next Tuesday, the 2nd, at 5:30 at the Blue Zones Project office for a special viewing of “Forks Over Knives” hosted by Wendell! Whiny will be there to end with a question and answer portion. RSVP by clicking this link http://www.bluezonesproject.com/events/408* To find out more about the ‘Plant Slant” theme and restaurants in the area that have healthy options, go to www.BlueZonesProject.com and take the pledge! You’ll also be eligible to receive a Blue Zones Perks Card to receive up to 20% off at Blue Zones designated restaurants.
Courtney Hermann was born and raised in Redondo Beach. She obtained a degree in Kinesiology, with an emphasis on Wellness, from CSU Monterey Ba, where she also played on the Womens Division II soccer team. Prior to graduating, Courtney attended the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and then opened her own practice, Healthy Makeovers, in Redondo Beach. Courtney currently works with clients 1 on 1, in groups, presents corporate wellness lectures and organizes programs to small through mid-sized companies. For more information, see www.HealthyMakeovers.com and follow Courtney on Facebook at www.facebook.com/healthymakeovers for daily tips on health, nutrition, and lifestyle, recipes, and motivation!