Lost 140 Pounds, Greatly Reduced Sleep Apnea Symptoms, Recovered from Prostate Cancer Surgery With Blue Zones Lifestyle Shift
By Lisa Monroe
In the food industry for most of his life, Jeff Uher has always taken pride in making healthy nutritious food for others. Yet as a busy chef, he has not always taken good care of his own health. Four years ago, he got a wake-up call when he visited his doctor. He weighed almost 300 pounds and had high blood pressure and sleep apnea.
Like many of us, the changes in Uher’s body had crept up on him so gradually that he had just accepted them little by little over a long period of time.
A little overweight when he finished high school, Uher said he could always manage his weight when he was younger. But later, over the years, it slowly became more difficult.
“I have been a chef all of my life and have always been very geared toward quality foods, good preparation, and the use of whole foods for nutrition and health. Over time my weight had crept up, partly from being around food all the time and mainly from not paying attention to myself.”
Uher, 61, said: “My doctor looked at me and said I weighed 296 pounds. And I looked at him and said, ‘I’m never going to be 300 pounds in my life.’ He wanted me to go to a healthy living center here, and I told him, ‘No, I understand food and I’ll work on it.’ But then I decided to go and the doctor there thought the best option was bariatric surgery. But I have a cousin who tried bariatric and it didn’t work. So, I decided I was going to change my lifestyle.”
Making Blue Zones Life Changes
Unbeknownst to Uher at the time, many of the changes he put into place aligned with Blue Zones principles. About a year into his weight loss journey, he finally heard about Blue Zones from a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. This newfound knowledge gave him the confirmation he needed to continue the steps he was taking toward his weight loss goals. Plus, as he researched and learned more about Blue Zones, he learned even more strategies for healthy living.
“Because my aunt had lived in Rome for about 17 years, I took an interest in Sardinia right away,” Uher said. Sardinia, Italy is one of the original blue zones, areas in the world where the people are the longest-lived. “And I have some cousins who are half Italian and they had a grandmother that cooked a lot of different things. I was aware of some of the diet. So, I did look at Blue Zones closer, especially the Sardinia research. I also looked at Ikaria, Greece. What I found was that my diet was matching a great deal of the diets I saw in those two areas.”
“I had shifted to higher levels of vegetables and more beans, lentils, legumes. I had also dropped the meat way down. I had stopped eating meat two days per week. And I had upped my level of fruit all the way. I ate quite a bit of fruit and changed what kind and how much I ate. I ate more berries for one thing. I sort of looked at things from a standpoint of what they were doing for me to give me nutrients and fiber. I was doing all this but not quite at the level that I saw when I started to look at the way they were fixing food in the blue zones and the way they would plate it.”
Uher said that giving up meat was one of the hardest parts of his new diet. “I actually have a cousin who said to me at one point, ‘I don’t think you eat enough meat.’ I thought it was interesting that in the blue zones, people sometimes don’t eat meat more than five times a month.’ But when you try to tell an American this, the response is, ‘Oh my God, how can that be?’ And my response is that you really don’t need it. I’m not saying that none is necessary, but we don’t need it at the level we eat.”
Other Blue Zones principles were helpful for Uher too. “When I looked at the plate size and portion sizes, I had to shift again,” he said. “And now, when I eat a meal, I really do only have the three or four ounces of meat or fish if I have it, but I might have five different vegetables. And I don’t worry so much about how much of the vegetables I eat. I also don’t use sour cream or a lot of butter or any of that. I cut all that out.”
“My level of added sugar has also dropped off tremendously and I gave up sodas a long time ago. I now drink a lot of water and can’t even stand the taste of soda. I also gave up juice. I drank juice for quite a while, and then I learned that it’s just a lot of sugar and it’s healthier to just eat the fruit,” he said.
One significant change Uher made was to switch from using olive oil, which he’d used for years for cooking and flavoring food, to using avocado oil. He initially made the change because he wanted the health benefits from avocados but doesn’t like eating them because he doesn’t care for the texture. But after trying avocado oil, he found it adds an interesting buttery flavor to vegetables which he really likes.
Uher also tries to make sure his meals include color. “Interestingly, my mother was always the kind that looked at everything like that — like a rainbow. I call it my palette of paints. And the doctors that I worked with thought that was a great way to look at food. I just constantly move through the palette and mix it all up.”
How Uher Transformed His Health
Eventually, Uher was able to lose over 100 pounds, lower his blood pressure, decrease his visceral fat level, and alleviate his sleep apnea. He transitioned from a 46-inch to a 32-inch waist. And later when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to undergo surgery, his doctor credited his speedy recovery to his healthier lifestyle.
What started out as a diet that he had to consciously think about has now become a permanent lifestyle change that comes naturally to him. “Now I don’t consciously think about it. I just put meals together a certain way. It’s just how I’ve learned to eat. I build my meals from my vegetables, not so much from the meat side, like many Americans do.”
“I am a Blue Zones advocate, giving the cookbook and other materials to friends and family so they can see how easy it is to incorporate a better way to live in every manner,” he said.
Sometimes people find it all a bit intimidating, he explained. “I encounter people that will say, ‘It’s just too hard.’ I explain, ‘It’s not that hard. It’s just making a change. And I’m not telling you to change all of it today.’ I tell them to start making small changes and they’ll gradually see things begin to shift. I say it takes time for the changes to become a ‘natural’ way of life and to take it in steps if needed,” he said.It’s not that hard. It’s just making a change. And I’m not telling you to change all of it today. Click To Tweet
“My own ‘crash course,’ as it was, came from my commitment to ‘fix’ my weight and health. I pulled information from many sources and once I found the Blue Zones, I knew I had found ‘home.’”...once I found the Blue Zones, I knew I had found home. Click To Tweet
Following a recent doctor’s visit in the summer of 2020, Uher reported: “I just had a full check-up with my doctor and my weight is 160 pounds, and my doctor is reducing my blood pressure medicine with the blessing of my cardiologist. All cholesterol numbers are phenomenal as well as my triglycerides and sugar levels. And I’ve started mentoring some people in transitioning their diet and activity to improve their health.”
Lisa Oliver Monroe is a journalist and author of a travel book about America’s Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown). Her writing has been published by Virginia Living, Boomer Magazine, Kirkus Media, Advance for Nurses, and Colonial Williamsburg, among many others.