11/19/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

One Man's Journey From Obesity and Diabetes to Health

I recently met John, a trim, silver-haired, energetic man in his mid-60s who was a guest at our evening church service for the community. In my remarks during the open sharing time, I offered some of the ideas I had gained after attending a lifestyle medicine conference.

John introduced himself to me afterwards and began telling me his inspiring story. We both feel our meeting wasn't a coincidence.

A few years ago John was a self-described chocolate and Mountain Dew addict, ate the "American" diet of meat and potatoes, and was 70 pounds overweight. He often felt tired and had no energy. His doctor diagnosed him with diabetes and said he would have to take medication for the rest of his life, progressively requiring more pills as the years went by. John followed his doctor's orders for a year and he got a little better, but when his health took a turn for the worse, his doctor told him he should expect more of that.

Health experts often point out the connection between diabetes and obesity. In the Metrowest Boston area where I live, recent reports found that "18.1 percent of adults are considered obese, more than 76 percent of the region's adults aren't eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day, and more than 16 percent aren't getting enough regular exercise" (Community Health Assessment, Metrowest Daily News).

In my remarks during the church service, I shared how I'd learned that many doctors and their patients are finding that diseases, such as diabetes, can be reversed by changes in lifestyle. I also pointed out that I felt encouraged that more health professionals are acknowledging the necessity of mental changes, not just physical ones. This makes sense because behind each physical change -- whether it's a change in the food one eats or daily exercise -- is a thought. We all know that diets don't work unless they substantially change poor habits for better ones. So behind each "lifestyle" change is a commitment to do something good, to bring balance, restraint, order, etc. to one's life.

My years of studying and practicing a spiritual approach to health care have shown me that one of the best thought-changers is prayer, which has a way of elucidating fresh, inspired and specific ways to approach life's challenges with renewed energy and joy. It's the ideas I've received in prayer and listening for Divine direction that then inform the decisions I make in my life and that have led to renewed health and problem-solving solutions.

Dr. Dean Ornish has been a leading proponent of lifestyle medicine and addressed the conference. He is the first in his field to demonstrate that comprehensive lifestyle changes may begin to reverse coronary heart disease without drugs or surgery. Even Medicare agreed to provide coverage for his program -- the first time they've ever covered a program of comprehensive lifestyle changes. Dr. Ornish lists four important steps to a healthier life:

  1. Eating right
  2. Exercising
  3. Managing stress
  4. Having love and connection in your life

He emphasized the fourth point, to which my new friend John agreed, saying, "Probably the most important part is to love yourself and love your neighbor -- because without that, it makes doing any of the other things very hard."

John told me he just couldn't accept the verdict that he would be unhealthy and dependent on medication for the rest of his life. So he decided to do something about it. After some investigative reading, he realized he could take charge of his life by changing his food habits and incorporating exercise into his daily routine. He said his taste for meat and sweets "went away after a few weeks," and he began eating a vegan, plant-based diet.

Today, three years later, John has lost the 70 pounds (after formerly weighing 230 pounds), changed his lifestyle permanently, and no longer suffers from diabetes. In fact he says he feels good every day. After a move to another state, John returned to visit his former doctor, who was stunned by the transformation and confirmed -- despite what he called his allegiance to a purely "science-based" view of things -- that John was a "blip" on his medical screen and he was indeed "in perfect health."

John told me prayer played a part in his dramatic change. "I believe the spiritual, the physical, the mind is all part of our overall health," he said. "Once I decide to do something, I am resolute and the word 'cannot' is not in my vocabulary at that point. People have said to me, 'You must be strong-willed. I could never do that!' But I disagree. It wasn't about being willful. I prayed to God to have the strength and wisdom to make changes and follow through on them. I believe the body to be like the temple of God. God gave us the gift of life and we have the ability to choose and think about what's right. This wonderful gift of life is ours to take care of and be grateful for."

John is well read on the subject of health. Among other spiritual and practical teachings, his personal library includes a copy of Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Since it's a book that has largely informed my spiritual practice, along with the Bible, I asked him whether he was familiar with this passage:

"If mortals think that food disturbs the harmonious functions of mind and body, either the food or this thought must be dispensed with, for the penalty is coupled with the belief. Which shall it be?"

He confirmed that he had read this, which turned our conversation to the subject of the thought behind the food. John commented, "I believe we are a combination of our thoughts and experiences -- we're all impacted by those experiences. We might have toxins in the food, but we also have toxins in our thought -- whether they're sick thoughts, and aren't God-like or spiritual thoughts -- and we should consider how those thoughts might affect us."

John says today he feels younger, his clarity of thought is better than ever and he never gets tired. "Before this change, I needed a nap every day," he says. "One of the things that intrigues me is for the first time in my life, I haven't gotten sick in the winter. No colds or seasonal flu and my lifelong bronchial problem has stopped."

If lifestyle changes and a relationship with God reversed John's health problems, the impact of these elements must be more powerful in our lives than even current studies show. They're worth investigating.