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In honour of Dr John McDougall: my thoughts and some stories

Andrew Taylor - Spud Fit | July 1, 2024

I woke up on my birthday (the day after my wife’s birthday, we call this couple of days each year ‘the festival of us’) to the news that my hero, who’d made an unimaginable impact on our lives, had passed away. I managed to keep it together while my kids gave me presents and sang happy birthday, then I left for work and the floodgates opened.

It’s taken me a while to put these words together. Dr McDougall’s death hit me pretty hard and for a couple of days I just couldn’t face anything to do with Spud Fit – after all none of it would’ve existed without him. For now I just want to share some thoughts and stories with you about what he meant to me…

John McDougall was the most hard core punk rocker I knew, and I don’t even know what music he liked! He embodied the punk ethos of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarianism and anti-corporate greed by being amongs the first doctors to shine a light on how companies have been able to influence science. He showed us how giant corporations with deep pockets could use their resources and power to produce studies that were really just paid advertisements. He was fearless and relentless in standing against the sponsored misinformation that was funded and produced by the food, health and medical industries. Dr McDougall embraced the punk DIY ethic through encouraging us all to stop looking for solutions in pills, potions and other products and instead take control of our own health in the most basic, sustainable and accessible way possible – food. He pushed back against corruption and greed and fought for systemic and political change in how we approached health. Perhaps most importantly for seasoned punk rockers, he never sold out. Despite huge pressure coming from all angles, he never modified or watered down his message in any way; being challenged brought out the best in him.

On a mid-October afternoon in 2015, after yet another attempt at weight loss had gone off the rails, I grabbed myself a beer from the fridge. As I cracked it open I suddenly realised that for all these years I’d been treating food the way an alcoholic would treat the beer in my hand. I was always so focused on doing whatever I could to make some numbers change, that I was unintentionally sabotaging my own efforts with unsustainable diets that overcomplicated things and made it all so much harder than it needs to be. An alcoholic only has one choice to make and I wandered how close I could get to that level of simplicity. Could I use the abstinence model to treat my problem with food? How close could I get to quitting food, while still being healthy? Was there one, single perfect food that could sustain me in good health while allowing me to quit everything else?

I googled something like “what is the perfect food” and the top result was a McDougall video called “Potatoes, the perfect food”. Four mind-blowing minutes that plunged me deep into a rabbit hole of research that ultimately changed the direction of not just my life, but my purpose.

A few short months later I’d already lost 10kg (22 lbs) in January alone, when a sneaky friend shared my story with a journalist. My attempt to eat only potatoes for a year went viral around the globe on a scale that I still struggle to grasp. One of the thousands of media requests came from a TV show in the US called The Doctors. I looked up some clips and was pretty sure they were going to try to make a fool of me on live TV, so I told them I’d only come on their show if they got Dr McDougall to join me. At that point I’d had no contact with him at all so I was totally amazed when The Doctors told me this man who’d quickly become a hero of mine had agreed! He commanded respect with them in a way that I couldn’t and he turned what I’m sure would’ve been a pretty terrible experience into a very positive one. I was absolutely awestruck by the whole thing.

Despite being on TV together, we didn’t actually get to talk to each other, we just answered questions from the hosts and then when we went off air it ended pretty abruptly. In my eyes he was still a mythical beast that existed on a different plane to the rest of us and I was very grateful for his help. A short time later he invited me on to his weekly webinar where we finally got to have a great chat, both on and off camera. At the end of the webinar he invited me to speak at his Advanced Study Weekend, a health conference that he hosted yearly. To illustrate a little about the kind of man he was – despite knowing that I would’ve gladly paid my own way and spoken for free, he booked and paid for my airfares and accomodation and paid me $1000 USD for the privilege. I didn’t want to take the money but he hid cash in an envelope that he told me just had a thank you card in it and I only opened it after I left!

Before my talk we were chatting and I told him that it felt strange for me to be presenting alongside a bunch of doctors and scientists who were genuine experts in their fields. He calmed my nerves, saying “nobody in the world is a bigger expert than you. Just be yourself and tell your story, they’re gonna love it.” John’s daughter Heather was to hold up signs to let me know when there were 15, 10 and 5 minutes left in my hour, to help me wrap it up in time. When she held up the 15, I noticed John whisper something in her ear and sit back down. I kept on talking, waiting for the 10 minute sign as my cue to wrap up and leave time for audience questions, but it never came and I ended up going 20 minutes over time. Heather told me later that he was enjoying my talk so much that he asked her to put the signs away and just let me talk. What an honour that was.

We talked many times over the next few years, unfortunately less often over the last couple. He was always so generous with his time and supportive of our work. I never had to ask him twice for anything, he usually just said yes before I’d even had a chance to explain. He often mentioned me in his talks and presentations and he even regularly sent his patients to me, when he thought I might be better at helping them, a true sign of his humility.

I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to know him in a small way. His influence on my life really can’t be put into words.

Many people start out with a punk mindset and change their ways over the years as the pressures of life set in. Dr McDougall went the opposite way, digging deeper and pushing harder for change not just in food and health but animal rights and climate change. He was a visionary and pioneer in so many ways and remained ahead of his time right to the end.

Let’s honour his legacy by putting his life’s work into action in our own lives.

Eat simply, live fully,

Andrew

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