How Whole Foods’ CEO Went Vegan and Got Fit

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods. Joe Pugliese / August

I like to hike long distances, but I never felt I could take the time to do it while I was running Whole Foods. That changed on 9/11. I was in New York: I actually heard the impact of the second plane from the car I was in. Debris was raining all over. I'd been in that Trade Center many times; I felt like I could have died. I took that to say, "Hey, you don't have infinite time. Stop putting off your life." I decided that day to take a six-month sabbatical to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Since then I've hiked it twice, plus the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, and trails in more than a dozen other countries. I stopped taking compensation from the company nine years ago, so if I want to take a trip, I don't feel guilty. I prefer ultralight hiking, because it's a lot more fun than carrying a heavy pack. My pack weight before food and water is about seven pounds. I could go under five, but I like to sleep in a tent.

Spending day after day in nature provides a temporary escape from the demands of Whole Foods, and my mind slows down. I get fit. I start by hiking 15 miles each day, or about seven and a half hours. I'm sore on days two and three, and less sore by day four. After the first week, I have "trail legs" and my mileage creeps into the high teens. By the third week I'm in the low 20s. After a month, my mileage hits the mid-20s, about 12 hours a day. The longer I stay on the trail, the better I feel.

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Back home in Austin, Texas, I do pushups and pull-ups, but my resolution for 2016 is to get regular weight training going again. I'm convinced it helps increase bone density, and at 62, that's the type of training I need for long-term health and strength.

Down the Rabbit Hole
I grew up eating the standard diet of the '60s — which is to say, crap. I didn't eat vegetables. I ate burgers, fries, mac and cheese. At the University of  Texas, I decided to live at a vegetarian co-op. I wasn't a vegetarian. I just thought I would meet interesting women there, and I did, including the girlfriend I started Whole Foods with. I became a vegetarian soon after I moved in. If I had been hanging with a biker gang, I probably would have become a Harley guy. But I became the food buyer at the co-op, learned how to cook, and found the path for my whole life.

I became a vegan in 2003, after a woman interrupted the Whole Foods annual meeting to tell us how bad ducks were treated. We had a big argument, but then we started an email correspondence and she challenged me to learn more. That summer I probably read a dozen books on animal welfare. What shocked me the most was the phenomenon of factory farming — animals endure terrible lives of abuse and suffering — and it's hidden away. After reading the books, I knew too much to keep eating meat. Remember The Matrix? Take the blue pill or the red pill? I didn't want to go back to sleep.

And I knew I didn't need animals to be healthy. From my research, a 100 percent plant-based diet is probably the healthiest one we can eat.

I've been vegan 13 years now. It's not a big sacrifice. People fear changing their diet — food is one of the great pleasures in life, after all — and we think we'll have to eat things we don't like and lose all the pleasure. But whatever you eat, you get used to it and you start to like it. I taught myself to eat all kinds of food I originally didn't like but now prefer — kale, collard greens, mustard greens. I'm working on a book, The Whole Foods Diet, which talks about this whole philosophy. It's like going to the gym: You'll be sore at first, but then your body adapts, you stop being sore, and you get fit. It's the same with eating healthier, only you're exercising your palate.

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There Is No Safe Place
We still sell meat in our stores. We have to provide what people want to buy. Around 5 percent of the population is vegetarian, and about 1 percent is vegan — that's not enough for a successful business of our size. You have to pick when to be evangelical. But I do think I know how to avoid heart disease and diabetes and how to maintain a trim body.

I could have stayed safe with my old diet. The basic temptation we all have is to contract, to go back to the safe place. But at a pretty young age, I learned a valuable life lesson: There is no safe place. Give up that quest. Growth happens when you are under stress, when you are being challenged. That is an opportunity. You have to show up.

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