Change Your Food, Change Your Life: Jeff’s Transformation From Chunky Frat Guy to Healthy and Happy*
*Results may vary by individual
Written By: Jeff Taraday
If you met me today, you would see a healthy, happy and fit plant-based nutrition advocate and exercise enthusiast, but my journey to becoming a health coach and nutritional educator has been long and unlikely. A few years ago, I was nearly unrecognizable in appearance, lifestyle and temperament compared to where I am today.
I grew up in a pretty healthy household – both my parents were (and still are) very active and fit and family dinners were, for the most part, what I used to think would constitute a healthy meal: a small side salad or soup followed by a main plate of a big piece of animal protein, like chicken breast or turkey, some sort of grain and a token vegetable, like a few pieces of broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Sure, we occasionally had huge pieces of steak with mashed potatoes and my favorite beef chili on top of spaghetti (similar to Cincinnati’s Skyline Chili) and we ever so rarely brought in fast food, like fried chicken or pizza. But for the most part, my mom would regularly cook what she believed was a nutritious meal for her family, most nights of the week.
But that was at home. While I was in high school, I played baseball and since seasons pretty much don’t exist in Southern California where I grew up, I was able to play year round. The field my high school team played on was about 15 minutes off campus, so my teammates and I used to carpool over during the last period of the day, which we always had free. Without fail, before we made it to the field, we would stop for some sort of deliciously horrible fast food – chili cheese dogs, pizza, chicken parmesan sandwiches, or our favorite, In-N-Out burger (we’d actually have contests to see who could eat the biggest burger before practice). So while I ran, worked out in the gym and was outside nearly every day, the junk food I ate on a regular basis pretty much negated any fitness gain I could have made. These pre-practice indulgences were where I cultivated my love for all things salty, fatty and fried.
College was where I took my food addiction to the next level. I went to school in St. Louis, Missouri, where deep-fried ravioli (for some reason it’s called “toasted ravioli” there), barbeque and bread sticks filled with melted cheese made up some of my essential food groups. I was no longer playing baseball thanks to some shoulder issues, so I decided to take up some other hobbies – beer, cigarettes and pot. My friends and I would go on pilgrimages to Memphis, only a four hour drive away, to stuff our faces full of as many dry-rubbed ribs and pulled pork sandwiches as we could buy and late-night runs to White Castle for a “Crave Case” (literally a briefcase full of burgers) became an almost weekly ritual. My buddy and I even took dates to White Castle for Valentine’s day (classy right?). Needless to say, my health didn’t register so much as a blip on my radar of priorities during these years and looking back now, I realize my energy level was awful, my skin was oily and acne-filled and my mood varied between degrees of irritable and depressed when I wasn’t self-medicating with booze and drugs. I think if you asked a sampling of my classmates what I was like during those college years, those who didn’t know me too well would probably say things like “that guy was a madman” or “he was kind of a jerk.” Not how I’d like to be thought of.
Post-college, I found myself back in Los Angeles, working at a job I wasn’t passionate about, unsuccessfully searching for a girlfriend and desperately trying to hang on to the “glory days” of massive frat parties and debauchery. I noticed that as I was getting older, my weight started to balloon. I certainly wasn’t going to make the cover of Men’s Fitness while I was in college, but I never felt “heavy.” I desperately looked around at as many dietary theories and weight loss books as I could find, searching for the magic formula for instantaneous six-pack abs and 9% body fat, yet nothing I tried seemed to work at all. Until two things happened that would give me the tools to transform my life.
At the infamous White Castle; that’s me in the back left.
When Everything Changed
The first thing that happened was that my best friend at the time, who happened to be a girl, became my girlfriend. She provided me with the confidence, support and a little bit of a kick in the rear-end to get my act together, quit smoking and binge drinking and clean up my health. She’s now my wife and I can’t even begin to tell you how instrumental her love and encouragement has been for me – but that’s a subject for a different post, at a later time.
The second thing that happened is that I happened to have a conversation about health with a close family friend, a man who has served as a mentor to me for years. Although he’s been incredibly successful financially, he had neglected his health for years until he learned some eye-opening things about the power of a natural plant-based diet to prevent and reverse chronic disease and a whole host of other ailments. He now drinks green juices multiple times a day and even employs someone in his office to make juices and salads daily for his employees. The day after our conversation, a large package of books showed up at my front door. In it were all of Norman Walker’s books about juicing, raw foods, and detoxifying the body, along with T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study.”
As I read through these books, it felt as if a switch had flipped in my brain. By chasing vanity and weight loss gimmicks, I had been focusing on the wrong thing entirely. Maybe if I focused on a nutrient-dense plant-based diet while flooding my body with nutrients from green juices, I could reverse some of the damage I’d done in high school in college and put myself on the road to long-term health. So I did it, and this mindset shift – from focusing my overall health and longevity than on immediate weight loss – was really the key to unlocking a whole new life.
Transitioning to a plant-based diet wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but since my girlfriend happened to be a vegetarian already, she was already somewhat familiar with some of the stuff we began to make. I made sure to try to have a big serving of juice every day along with an enormous salad and within months, my energy level had shot through the roof and I had lost about 25 pounds. More importantly, it felt as if my brain had broken through a fog of fatigue and muddled thoughts to a new reality of clear thoughts and positive thinking. With the increased energy and nutrients in my system came better performance in the gym and soon I was accomplishing athletic feats I could have only fantasized about before. My friends from college couldn’t believe it – this unhealthy barbecue and junk food addict had given up animal products and had turned into a health advocate? Had hell frozen over?
I continued to soak up as much information about nutrition by reading as many books as I could find and by browsing inspiring websites like FitLife.tv. I also started to study up on matters of the subconscious mind. I set up my own blog to chronicle the changes I was noticing. I continued to feel better and better and noticed that the changes I was making were having an influential effect on other people, I came to the realization that my mission in life was to inspire and educate others to become the healthiest and most vibrant version of themselves.
So I became a health coach: I went back to school, eventually left my day job and now I work both privately and in the corporate world with a wide variety of individuals and families seeking the answers to optimal health. I’m also on the board of Groceryships, a non-profit which offers comprehensive programs of nutritional education, emotional support and financial assistance to low income families seeking to make healthy changes here in Los Angeles. I still have a long way to go with my career and my personal transformation, but I’ve set myself on an entirely new and more fulfilling life trajectory. The act of changing the food I put in my body from processed junk and hormone-laden animal products to nutrient-dense organic plans laid a foundation transformational change in the rest of my life. If you’re still struggling to find happiness, fulfillment in life and optimal health, know that those seemingly out-of-reach goals are attainable. I’d suggest that re-thinking the food you put on your plate and flooding your body with nutrients from fruits and vegetables can do more than alter the physical composition of your body; it can act as a springboard to transform the rest of your life. Give it a try!
Me: then and now
If you’ve gone plant-based or have questions or comments about getting started, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or connect with directly.
Certified Health Coach and Nutritional Education Trainer
at The Plant Eater
Jeff Taraday is a reformed junk food addict, barbecue junkie, and beer-swilling frat guy who discovered the power of a whole foods, plant-based diet in in 2010. Switching to a plant-based diet has helped him lose over 40 pounds, clear up his mind, and transform him into a fitness and exercise junkie and a plant-based nutrition advocate.
Jeff is a certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and a Nutritional Education Trainer through the Nutritional Education Institute. He has also completed a certification in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Foundation. He is the author of the blog The Plant Eater, and coaches individuals and families how to easily and deliciously incorporate nutrient-dense, plant-centric meals into their daily lives. He currently works as a wellness coach for a corporate wellness consulting firm to improve the lives of the employee populations of companies around the country.
He is also a member of the board of Groceryships, a non-profit that provides grocery scholarships, nutritional education, and emotional support to low-income families in South Los Angeles, California.
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