Plant-based Diets and Personal Transformation

Written by  Margaret Ruth

Meet three people who transformed their bodies—and their lives—along with comments from area experts.

My 75-year-old mother once reminisced on family eating habits of the 1940s. In the aftermath of depression and war, my suburban grandmother had been typically creative with "creamed anything": The ubiquitous creamed chipped beef on toast was usual fare in homes and diners.

Dining culture eventually changed with better economic times and less expensive food, made available by mass production and interstate transit. By the time my mother was planning meals in the '70s, families like ours focused on low-fat meals for health. Salads with diet salad dressing. Broiled fish. Vegetables with low-fat spread. By then Americans were worrying about excess weight and cholesterol. Still, fast food and pre-packaged convenience items continued to grow in popularity.

By the 2000s, serious concerns about food additives, hormones and environmental toxins have led a growing number of people and nutrition experts to eschew cheap, mass-produced, overly processed consumables. Apparently those hippies were right! We all know by now that healthy eating might involve a diet with more natural, plant-based foods—versus manufactured versions—plus the "right" type of fats and meats. Many of us are pretty sure this is a good general idea at this point. But what exactly does "natural" food and a "holistic" diet mean and how do you go about doing it?

In general, these terms refer to choices that entail the least processing and additives possible. Many who have chosen a more natural diet report an array of physical improvements, from significant weight loss to alleviation of disease symptoms.

But various means abound. Google "food pyramid" and get dozens of results. New Food pyramid. Anti-aging pyramid. Raw Food pyramid. Real Food pyramid. Paleo pyramid. Holistic Health pyramid. Search on "natural diet" and find more. Eat Clean diet. Gluten-free. Vegan. Organic. Macrobiotic. Among numerous claims and studies, a plethora of modern opinions can feel overwhelming to someone just starting out.

To cut through diet confusion, it helps to hear about a friend's personal experience. Massage therapist Eva Chavez, for instance, used to be a typical overly-busy person, eating what was available without thinking, or sometimes not eating at all: "I had a high stress financial services job. My energy levels were regularly low and my focus would waver throughout the day." After researching ways to find better health, she started incorporating "clean" foods, free of additives and hormones, into her lifestyle. She experienced more energy and mental clarity almost immediately and, in the process, found a new more satisfying career. So, sometimes rethinking holistic diet choices can lead to rethinking an entire lifestyle.

No one diet fits everyone. Three local CATALYST readers recently shared their individual journeys of physical and personal transformation that resulted from changing their diets towards more natural food choices. They explain their process of becoming unprocessed food adherents. Each choose different plans, changed their diets at different paces, and utilized different tools to help them change their lifestyle for health reasons. Each experienced dramatic physical changes and, along the way, transformed their life. Anyone wavering on how to feel physically better will find inspiration from knowing that food really is the best medicine for some. After reading these individual stories, you might find something that works for you, too.

Portia Early:

"I transformed my weight, skin, attitude and my life by getting the toxins out"

In 2010, experienced radio DJ, artist and local music scene expert Portia Early started a personal blog that wasn't about music or media. She called it Smobergirl, which identified her main interest as stopping the toxic intake of alcohol and smoking. In May that year, she had quit both addictions on the same day and committed to fill the mood gap with a diet focused on nutrition-packed superfoods and toxin- and additive-free whole foods. Within a year she had lost 20% of her body weight, saw dramatic skin changes, felt more energetic, became a certified yoga instructor, and to this day has remained addiction-free.

As much as it sounds like an overnight success, her journey away from a typical American fast food and sugar diet had started in 1995 when she wanted to lose weight; she took some small steps back then such as eliminating soda and ice cream. In later years, the movie "Supersize Me" induced her to immediately drop fast foods. She continued to consult with holistic nutritionists who had her start with small changes such as a basic breakfast smoothie with kale, fruit, maca powder, chia seeds, flax, and hemp protein.

By the time she quit alcohol and cigarettes overnight, she had the knowledge of how to use her diet to get through cravings and mood swings, and continue to clear her system of toxins. She became adept at creating healthy breakfast superfood smoothies by studying recipes and shopping the Salt Lake farmers markets. "I became the smoothie queen when I quit!" She expanded her repertoire to include full meals that are raw or lightly cooked.

With so much content over the last three years, Smobergirl—http://smobergirl.blogspot.com—reads like a cookbook for a personal diet journey, continually posting original smoothie and recipe creations, colorful photos, personal observations and helpful hints.

Early's personal food plan includes mostly vegetables and fruit, but some eggs and fish, too. She believes in selecting organic and local foods as much as possible. Experiments with other detoxification diet ideas are ongoing, the results of which she reports back to readers, radio listeners and friends.

Although some local and organic foods and ingredients are more expensive, Early believes she saves money by not eating out as much and not eating a lot of meat. She recommends that when making a major switch like this to take baby steps; only change one thing at a time. Also, allow yourself some tiny vices, such as chocolate or occasional treat. "It's what you do over the long term that counts."

Leigh Kade:

"A plant based diet saved my life!"

"In 2002 I experienced heart palpitations while trying to get off the couch. The thought of leaving my wife widowed and my children fatherless just because I couldn't control my eating terrified me," Kade remembers. Working the night shift and feeling like he had no control over his eating, he weighed 360 pounds at the time, avoided exercise and hardly slept. A typical breakfast included four eggs with a half-pound of cheese and dinner was whatever he could get his hands on. Today he reports that he is 100 pounds lighter, his children never get sick and is pretty happy that he hasn't "keeled over dead from a heart attack." But for his family, those results meant embracing a new dietary lifestyle.

After his scare, Kade and his wife Rachel made a life changing decision and started to teach themselves how to cook without meat. This meant learning about vegetables, grains and whole foods from a vegetarian life­style point of view; "We started to understand that our diets had been poisoning us." Gradually, by cleaning up the family's food choices, health problems started clearing up. Kade lost 60 pounds during that time.

After considerable research, the Kade familiy transitioned to a vegan diet four years ago. For instance, Kade says that after studying the mainstream dairy industry methods of using hormones and other things that upset him he was able to give up cheese—something he thought he could never do. Finding out about pesticides, hormones and fillers was enough to make doing without dairy easy.

The family continued to get healthier after giving up animal products. Kade lost another 40 pounds, and they appreciate this choice is also better for the environment. Although expensive at first, it forced them to cook a lot more to cut down on prepackaged food. Now they fully embrace the new lifestyle.

All that research, learning and cooking has changed their lives. The Kades opened the vegan restaurant, Frisch Compassionate Eatery, in Salt Lake last spring to share how tasty vegan food can be, show the benefits of a compassionate diet, and eat what Kade calls "actual food."

Kade believes a plant-based diet can save the world; he recommends reading Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero and, of course, coming into his restaurant for delicious vegan food that Kade cooked himself.

Kim Newman:

"I stopped needing glasses and medication and lost 43 pounds"

Four years ago, devoted wife and mother Kim Newman had to make a decision: She had borderline high cholesterol and high blood pressure, needed glasses and was 50 pounds overweight from her last two pregnancies. "The doctors said that if I didn't change something, I would need medication within a year," she says. And she has a severe dislike of unnecessary medication.

So Newman did some homework. She had been a vegetarian for 26 years but ate junk food, and loved cheese and ice cream. She read a study that convinced her to avoid all animal products. It claimed that a plant-based diet appeared to prevent major food-based health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and more. Her family had vegan meals from that point on.

The results of switching most of her family to a plant-based diet astounded her. Within three months, she stopped needing glasses, lost 43 pounds, her cholesterol dropped to 140 and blood pressure dropped to normal. Bouts of constipation ceased. There were changes to the children's health conditions, too. Her 18-year-old daughter's cholesterol went from 168 to 79. Another daughter, who has Down Syndrome and autism, stopped having painful chronic constipation and some self-injurious behaviors started disappearing within three months of initiating a vegan diet.

Four years later, enthusiasm for the beneficial results of the diet change endure. Newman has found that a whole plant foods diet is less expensive in general than the standard American diet. She does like vegan junk food, which is more expensive and can lead to weight gain, too. "I follow my own plan but do tend to lean toward Neal Barnard, John McDougall and Joel Furhman's recommendations. Those doctors base everything they recommend on science and tested results."

The biggest cost in switching was the difficult learning curve that comes from rethinking how to plan and prepare meals for a family, she adds. But there were payoffs to this effort. Newman now calls herself The Veggie Gal and became so adept at vegan cooking and substitutions that she created a website, http://www.theveggiegal.com. Spreading the word of how easy and delicious vegan-prepared meals can be has been an "awesome" unexpected outcome. She has found a passion for helping others improve their health by presenting recipes, recipe substitutions, colorful photos, tips, advice, food ideas and more

Newman concludes from her experience that "following a plant-based diet is something that would heal the world of most of the disease we currently have. Plus the animals are happier too!"

Experts Weigh In

Nutrition experts in Utah not only encourage a more natural way of eating for improving physical ailments, but also for preventive care. Here are some local professionals' hints, tips and insights to consider when choosing a diet that can transform the way you feel.

One of the most important dietary changes anyone can make is to stop eating modern wheat. It quickly turns to sugar, making us fat, and it plays havoc with some gastrointestinal systems, as in gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease. Perhaps most importantly, immune cross-reactions with some of the molecules in wheat are causing a dramatic increase in auto immune disorders.
—Dr. Todd Cameron BSN, NMD
Cameron Wellness Center

Balance, variety, and moderation are key to a healthy lifestyle. To make positive diet changes, focus on healthy fats, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates. This means eating more beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy oils such as olive and canola, eggs, and maybe some lean cuts of meat. Simply cutting down on processed foods and refined sugars would also do wonders for our health. Many studies have shown that eating in this pattern decreases risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and inflammation. When making big lifestyle changes, it's always a good idea to talk to a health professional first.
—Laura Holtrop Kohl MS, RD 
Dietitian, Harmons Grocery

As a vegetarian athlete for over 23 years I have experimented and changed/modified my diet as I've gotten smarter. What my body needs now is different than what it needed when I was 40 years old. Food consumption is very important to a person's health but it's also difficult to create change without persistence. Start small and build on your accomplishments. Try changing one thing a week. It's usually easier to add something than drop something.

General advice for changing the diet for better health:
1. Keep a handwritten (not typed) food recall journal.
2. Cut out as much sugar as you can.
3. Cut out all of the trans fats (read labels)
4. Avoid things that come in a box.
5. Try cutting out gluten and see what you notice.
6. Eating fat is not a bad thing!
7. You only need 2-3 servings of fruit per day—don't overload your smoothie with it!
—Dr. Michael Cerami, DC
Utah Sports and Wellness Center

There is no ideal, perfect diet for everyone. The most important piece for me is connection: how do we eat in such a way that nourishes, sustains and maintains our body/mind/ spirit/planet in a particular way. In my work, I encourage my patients to begin to reconnect with the simple practice of cooking and preparing food.
Lately I've been working with diets that reduce, or eliminate completely, those foods considered "inflammatory." Focusing on healing foods helps to heal the digestive tract, calm inflammation throughout the body and begin to lay the foundation for healing. Fresh, preferably organic vegetables and fruits; "good" fats; high-quality, digestible proteins; and fermented foods make up the backbone of one style of "anti-inflammatory" diet.
—Dr. Leslie Peterson, ND
Full Circle Care

I love the Paleo diet; it focuses on meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, eggs and fruit. There is quite a bit to say about the relationship between food and health, but here are some key points to choosing a healthy diet: Choose 100% natural food, free of preservatives, hormones, sweeteners, antibiotics, pesticides, radiation. Eat a massive amount of vegetables. Avoid overly starchy items. Have adequate protein and natural fats by eating eggs, nuts, seeds, and grass-fed, free-range animal proteins. Avoid sugar, carbohydrates and saturated fat.
Some people say that health food costs too much. I want them to consider that bad health is expensive and environmental degradation is also costly. Having good health reduces medical costs that stem from being overweight and developing food allergies.
—Dr. Todd Mangum, MD
Web of Life Wellness Center

The first step is realizing you need a lifestyle change and the second step is commitment. Awareness and knowledge are key aspects in developing healthy eating habits. Conscious eating involves choosing clean foods that are free of additives and hormones. Finding local produce and meats is ideal. Make simple, positive shifts that easy to track and maintain, such as adding more vegetables to meals.
—Eva Chavez
Licensed Massage Therapist

Looking for a roadmap?
The University of Michigan has a terrific site illustrating the Healing Foods Pyramid at http://www.med.umich.edu. This pyramid emphasizes water, whole, unprocessed plant based foods, fish, healthy fats and meat products. It also leaves room for pleasures such as alcohol and treats too.

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