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Growing up in Detroit, John McDougall ate bacon and eggs for breakfast, cold cuts for lunch and lots of beef, pork and other meats for dinner.

This typical midwestern diet caught up to him when he suffered a massive stroke at 18.

"I was in the hospital for two weeks," he recalled. "By the time I was 22, I weighed 235 pounds. At age 24, I had major abdominal surgery."

Now, more than 40 years later and 60 pounds lighter, the physician and nutrition expert lives an active life in Santa Rosa with his wife, Mary.

Since 2002, McDougall has run his own wellness program at the Santa Rosa's Flamingo Resort, bringing in 2,000 people a year to lose weight on his plant-based diet.

"When people reach their 40s, 50s and 60s, they realize that life is terminal," he said.

"They say, &‘I'm not going to get out of this alive, so let's make this as enjoyable as it can be.' People come here, and we teach them how to be well."

In his spare time, McDougall windsurfs in Bodega Bay, plays with their dog and takes his grandchildren on family vacations.

"They're our whole life," the 65-year-old said while eating a tofu burger from the McDougall menu at the historic resort. "There's hardly any room for anything else."

McDougall became a household name in the 1980s, after writing a string of best-selling diet books and cookbooks.

In the 1990s, he sounded off on a daily radio show in Santa Rosa, often alienating the medical community with his stridency.

"When I started, I was a little more edgy. I would talk about how heart surgeons were killing people," he said. "I've mellowed. ... I'm more diplomatic now."

At one time, more than 100 restaurants in the North Bay carried McDougall dishes on their menus. Now there are 30 or 40, he said, including Gary Chu's, California Thai, El Patio and Sonoma Taco Shop in Santa Rosa.

By the late 1990s, a new wave of low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkins diet, began to eclipse McDougall's high-starch, low-fat plan.

"In the '70s and '80s, we had 2 million books sold on the New York Times bestseller list," he recalled. "Then in the 1990s, (Robert) Atkins came back. ... He came back in a big way."

Nowadays, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from the carb-curbing camp. McDougall was featured in the 2011 book and documentary, "Forks over Knives," alongside Dr. Neal Barnard, another proponent of the plant-based diet.

Meanwhile, folks like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and former president Bill Clinton, who suffered a heart attack, have touted a low-fat, plant-based diet as a way to prevent and reverse diabetes and heart disease.

"Clinton eats no dairy, no fish," McDougall said. "He's in phenomenal health now."

Last month, after a long hiatus, McDougall published a new cookbook, "The Starch Solution" (Rodale Press), featuring 100 recipes developed by his kitchen-savvy wife.

In the book, he touts the same diet he has been advocating for the past 30 years. What's new in this book is his quest to not only to save lives, but save the world.

"The meat and dairy industry have caused severe destruction all over the world," he said. "We've got to get the food right soon."

It was Al Gore's 2006 documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," that opened his eyes to the ailing planet.

"I think that film shocked a lot of us," he said. "I realized that things have to be changed."

McDougall still walks with a limp, a permanent reminder of his stroke. Still, he regards that incident as "one of the great fortunes of my life."

It's what drove the oldest son of a housewife and a Ford Motor Co. engineer to become a physician. He graduated from Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine in 1972.

It was love at first sight when he met Mary, a surgical nurse, in a Grand Rapids, Mich., operating room in 1971. But it wasn't until he moved to Hawaii to do his residency and work as a general practitioner at the Hamakua Sugar Company that McDougall discovered his life's work.

"My plantation patients taught me how to eat," he said. "The first-generation Japanese, Filipino and Chinese kept their same diet. They were trim and they never had heart disease, arthritis or diabetes."

The second generation was a different story.

"Their kids raised in Hawaii were eating richer food," he said. "The kids had gotten a little fatter and sicker."

After becoming a board-certified internist in 1978, the doctor started his own dietary-medicine practice in Hawaii. In 1987, he took a job in the Napa Valley at St. Helena Hospital's lifestyle program, where he stayed for 16 years. The couple moved into the Hidden Hills neighborhood of Santa Rosa, where they raised their three children.

Their oldest, Heather McDougall of Calistoga, works in administration at the McDougall Program. Patrick McDougall of Fairfax, a research chemist with a Ph.D., works for a subsidiary of Chevron in Richmond. Craig McDougall just finished his residency in internal medicine and has been hired by Kaiser Hospital in Portland, Ore.

Meanwhile, McDougall is still determined to get Americans to return to a simpler, starch-and-vegetable diet.

"It's just one U-turn," he said. "It's not complicated."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@ pressdemocrat.com.

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