Wendell Covalt began eating a plant-based diet roughly 45 years ago. His decision wasn’t based on a dietary trend or made as a form of protest against meat lovers. It was a decision made out of convenience. His wife at the time was a vegan, and rather than cook two separate dishes for every meal, Wendell embraced a vegan lifestyle.
What he hadn’t anticipated was how much the switch would improve his overall well-being. “I noticed over time I started having more energy. I felt better,” he notes. But today, at 80 years old, Wendell’s enduring health is the true testament to his plant-based lifestyle.
“When I was 60, I hoped that I could still do the same things at 65 and 70,” Wendell says. “I had this idea that as people got older, there were so many things they could no longer do.”
But year 65, 70, 75 came and went with Wendell staying as active as ever. “I only see a doctor once a year. And all my markers—like my cholesterol, my A1C and my blood pressure—are really low.”
With so many people ailing due to poor dietary habits, Wendell felt inspired to share his story with others. “You look around and see how many people are dying of heart attacks or cancer or diabetes. Many of the health problems people are dealing with could be helped [by changing their diet and activity level]. I think people should know that just because you’re 70 or 80, you don’t have to stay home and watch TV.”
So Wendell started volunteering to host lectures at work. “I was part owner of a computer software company,” he notes. Next he started presenting at Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Dominguez Hills and eventually on Princess Cruises, which he’s been doing for around 10 years.
Wendell’s audience is mostly seniors. “People come because they’ve seen a friend or they have been warned their cholesterol’s too high or they know someone who had a triple bypass. In most cases, it’s not just curiosity. Something has triggered [their interest].”
But it can be a challenge presenting people with an alternative they’re not accustomed to. “It’s sometimes offensive to people that you don’t eat the same way they do. They take it as ‘I think I’m different’ or ‘I think I’m better,’ and they gradually wander off.”
But as a 45-year vegan, Wendell is pretty used to this. Living in the hyper-health-conscious bubble of Los Angeles, it’s easy to forget that gluten-free, vegan, dairy-alternative options aren’t readily available on every street corner of the country. And certainly not 45 years ago.
“When I was 60, I hoped that I could still do the same things at 65 and 70. I had this idea that as people got older, there were so many things they could no longer do.”
A native of Indiana, Wendell also spent time working in Atlanta. Finding a variety of vegan options was tricky, to put it mildly. But Wendell got creative, cooked at home and often carried his lunch with him. He made it work.
He attributes his health to the things he puts in his body but also to his commitment to staying active. “I go to the gym every other day,” he says, noting that he can still do 50 consecutive pushups. And he can do a 4-minute plank … just saying.
When it comes down to what has played more of a role in his overall health—his commitment to fitness or his diet—Wendell gives far more credit to what he eats. “You could be very physically active, but if you’re eating something that’s a carcinogen, physical activity won’t get rid of it.”
When asked about his indulgences, Wendell pauses to think. It’s a tough question for a person who doesn’t feel he’s restricting himself. He doesn’t count calories or deprive himself of anything he wants to eat. Being a vegan isn’t so much a diet as it is a lifestyle.
Wendell and his wife, Ginger, spend their time hiking, traveling and caring for their 150-square-foot organic garden. His enthusiasm for encouraging others to take control of their health and explore how their diet is contributing to their overall well-being isn’t waning. For Wendell, living longer is far more appealing than getting old.