WGME-13 news anchor Jeff Peterson used to be a meat eater’s meat eater. He ate beef, chicken or pork at every meal. He turned up his nose at tofu. He mocked vegans.

Then Peterson became a vegan himself.

The change to an all plant-based diet literally happened overnight. He and his wife, Laura, watched the 2011 documentary “Forks Over Knives” in February of this year and it opened their eyes to the health consequences of the standard American diet and the healing powers of vegan food.

“I remember looking at my wife and I thought that would make a good story for News 13,” Peterson recalled.

His idea was to adopt a vegan diet for 60 days and have the cameras follow any resulting changes. But Laura, who works in human resources for a local company, told him his real motivation for making such a big change shouldn’t be his job but his own health and family, which includes five children ages 2 to 13. Jeff agreed, but he knew a good TV idea when he saw one, so he remained committed to documenting his dietary changes for his viewers.

Prior to watching the film, both Jeff and Laura were taking steps to improve their health, so Laura readily agreed to join him in the challenge.

The next day they cleaned out their cupboards of foods that contained meat, dairy or eggs and began centering their meals around plants. They also had their cholesterol levels checked and weighed themselves. Then they began shopping and cooking in a whole new way.

They didn’t make elaborate plans. They didn’t spend weeks gathering recipes. Instead they just went for it.

“I think it’s easier to do it like a Band-Aid — veeeerip!” Laura said.

“Reading labels has become the standard now when we go to the store,” Laura said. She added that the dairy derivatives whey and casein tend to lurk in many foods, “especially pre-processed and packaged foods. They have veggie shredded cheese that has casein in it.”

Jeff too is surprised by how many items in the grocery store contain hidden animal products.

“I go in to buy bread and I go down the entire bread aisle,” Jeff said. “Only one kind of hamburger buns don’t have milk in it.”

Recalling his prior life as a meat eater, Jeff said: “I would make fun of people who would read labels. Now I’m one of those people.”

Since she does most of the cooking, Laura took several vegan cooking classes at Whole Foods Market and invested in a number of vegan cookbooks. Her favorite cookbooks include “Life in Balance” by Meg Wolff, “Blissful Bites” by Christy Morgan and “The Lean” by Kathy Freston.

Because Jeff and Laura have a blended family, finding meals the children — particularly the older children — enjoy has been one of the biggest hurdles.

Laura said while their 2-year-old will eat anything, their 13-year-old daughter is much more picky. The solution they’ve found is veganizing familiar dishes, such as shepherd’s pie, lasagna or tacos.

In contrast, their 13-year-old son is a budding chef and has embraced vegan cooking as an interesting challenge.

Meals the whole family enjoys include sweet potato burritos, black bean burgers and stir fry.

But Jeff and Laura don’t force their vegan diet on the kids.

“If they have friends over and they want to have pizza, we buy them a regular pizza,” Laura said. “If the grandparents take them to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, we’re not going to jump up and down.” 

THE RESULTS AND REACTION

At the end of the 60-day experiment, Jeff had lost 31 pounds. Equally impressive, his overall cholesterol level dropped from 128 to 87, his LDL cholesterol plummeted from 70 to 47 and his triglycerides plunged from 151 to 69.

“My doctor said he’d never seen anything like this,” Jeff recalled.

Noting that many people with lifestyle diseases such as high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes find they can get rid of their medications after adopting a vegan diet, Jeff said, “It’s like the medicine of the 21st century.”

Laura said the diet change boosted her energy levels and left her feeling light rather than bloated after meals.

“I lost seven pounds in that timeframe,” Laura said. “I didn’t have as much to lose, but I hadn’t been able to lose it. I hadn’t been a big meat eater, but I did love my dairy.”

Her total cholesterol dipped 43 points over the course of five months.

In addition, they both saw their race times improved, shaving minutes off their results in 5Ks and 10Ks.

In May, Jeff’s four-part series on his transition to a vegan diet aired on WGME-13.

“In 25 years of television and all the stories I’ve done, I’ve never had as many people come up and talk to me about one as have about the vegan series,” said Jeff, who anchors the 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. newscasts.

As a follow-up to the series, Jeff began posting a weekly vegan recipe on his Facebook page.

“The first few weeks I did it I’d get 80 to 100 comments,” Jeff said.

While many comments were positive, he was more intrigued by the people who took personal offense at his posts, with quips such as “don’t push it down my throat” and “humans are the top of the food chain.”

He said the hostile reactions to the recipes stand out from the comments he gets on other posts.

“On Fridays I do a movie recommendation,” Jeff said. “I’ve never had someone say, ‘I’m a fan of dramas. Don’t try to cram comedies down my throat.”

Now that he’s at his ideal body weight (and had to buy all new clothes), Jeff has been surprised by the comments he’s received about his physique.

“People will say to me, ‘You’re getting way too skinny,”‘ Jeff said. “People aren’t used to seeing people at regular weight.”

But Jeff doesn’t let the negative comments get to him.

“I laugh it off,” Jeff said. “I think the whole thing is funny.”

This December, Jeff even plans to poke fun at his conversion to vegan eating during a fundraiser for the needy at the church he attends in Gorham.

But on balance, much of the reaction he’s received from viewers, friends and family has been positive. A number of friends have even followed his lead and started eating a plant-based diet.

Being a public figure, he also fields frequent inquires from people who want to improve their own diets.

When asked, Jeff offers four pieces of advice.

First he tells people that while an immediate switch worked for him and Laura, others might do better with a gradual transition.

He also tells people that “going vegan is not for everybody. But if you can cut out processed food and meat a couple times a week,” such a move will have health benefits too.

Along the same lines, he recommends “reversing your plate.” This means instead of eating a large piece of meat and a small side of vegetables, eat a large helping of vegetables and a small piece of meat.

Finally he reminds people that exercise and staying active was a key part of his weight loss and improved health. The good news (for those who hate the gym) is that Jeff says now that he has more energy and feels better, he actually looks forward to working out.

Laura adds that the cook in the family should purchase a few vegan cookbooks, plan out a handful of meals and use meat substitutes as tools to help transition to whole foods, plant-based cooking.

Even though his initial motivation was a compelling story, when he reached the 60-day mark, Jeff didn’t want to go back to his old eating style.

“There’s no way I’m turning back,” Jeff said.

Another frequent response, according to Jeff, is people who say: “‘I could never do that,’ and I said the same thing. I love a good hamburger and steak. But people have no idea that after you get going it’s not hard.”

Calling himself a former meat-aholic and Laura a former cheese-aholic, Jeff said, “If we can do it, anybody can do it.” 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila