When I was 45 years old, I had some major health issues. Despite being a gym nut, I was 45 pounds overweight, my total cholesterol was 358, and I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I was shocked, as I thought what I ate was healthy—mostly vegetarian foods with lots of cheese, butter, eggs, and fish.

Fortunately, my neighbor told me about Dr. John McDougall’s work and how I could rid myself of poor health by following his recommendations. I read his book that very day and jumped right into healthy eating.

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A week later, my neighbor told me about how the production of cheese is linked to wailing baby calves (who are torn from their mothers), and she told me to read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Singer explained that it’s not just a matter of eating meat, but rather a question of animal suffering. That was the “aha” moment for me, and I went vegan on the spot. I had always loved our dogs and cats growing up and brought home rescued animals all the time.

In the following months, I read many more science-based books on healthy, plant-based eating—by everyone from Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn to Dr. Neal Barnard and Dr. Michael Greger. This increased my knowledge about why we humans need to eat plant-based whole foods. Our number one killer is heart disease, and before going vegan, I had been a walking time bomb. But I turned my life around and beat my cancer, my obesity, and my heart disease just by removing all animal-based products from my diet.

I was so upset that I had no clue about any of this before, and I felt betrayed that my doctors hadn’t told me that I could have prevented my health problems by making the right food choices.

Then I watched PETA’s eyewitness videos, the Earthlings movie, and more and knew that being a voice for animals would become my life’s mission. These profound movies jolted me into animal advocacy on a daily basis. To this day, I assist all the animal advocacy organizations I can to educate the public about the plight of animals, and I watch all of Jane Velez-Mitchell’s stories about the use of animals for food, clothing, and entertainment, often featuring undercover footage. I feel that humans have been largely brainwashed to think of animals as objects rather than as living, breathing, sentient beings whose desires match our own need for love and safety and to be free of pain.

Getting my health back by eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet was vital for me. Now, I have the energy and emotional strength to fight against cruelty to animals. Seven years ago, I started Sacramento Animal Rights Group with my dear friend, Camilla Kendall. I also started the Sacramento Vegan Society, which boasts well over 2,000 members, and put on large events with speakers to educate all about healthy eating, animal advocacy, and sustainability.

For my 70th birthday, I decided to make a film about the disconnect that farmers have with the animal-based products they sell. I gathered 22 animal advocacy friends, and we filmed egg, dairy, and meat farms from Sacramento to Los Angeles and back. Because of my husband’s death, I have not put this film together yet, but even so, several of our tour members had warrants out for their arrest. The animal agriculture industry is so fearful of the exposure of the horrific cruelty inherent in their practices that they use their money and power to try to stop us. They are trying to make filming, sometimes of illegal behavior, illegal!

Five years ago, I became certified to teach the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Food for Life program, and last year, I became the owner of my late husband’s vegan dog-food company, v-dog, which is now being run by my son, Darren Middlesworth.

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At age 72, I’m just getting started. Watch out, world!

I hope my story inspires you to learn about what happens to animals in the food industry and to make the switch to vegan eating. Going vegan is the most important step you will take for the rest of your life. You will feel so good knowing that you are taking great care of yourself, that you are no longer hurting others through your food choices, and that you are no longer supporting animal agriculture, which is a major reason for the depletion of the world’s resources. Your reward—being on the right side of history—is priceless.

Linda Middlesworth is one of PETA’s 2015 Sexiest Vegan Over 50 contest winners. As a vegan health coach, she runs the 30 Day Vegan Health Watch Program to help others reach their goals. She assists vegan advocacy groups by organizing demonstrations and rescuing animals.