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HH: What made you decide to switch to a plant-based (vegan) diet?
I switched to a plant-based diet about 14 months ago for health reasons. The thing is, I've always been quite healthy and athletic. My weight has always been stable in a healthy range and I've always been very active with few medical problems. However, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol and cancer are quite common in my family. Many family members have died before age 60 of heart disease, like my cousin who died at age 34. I adopted a plant-based diet because I wanted to try to minimize my chances of getting these diseases.
HH: How did you come to hear about eating a plant-based diet?
An athletic friend of mine had switched to a plant-based diet and was posting her experiences on Facebook. I honestly thought "she's lost her mind, that's extreme!" But it collided at a time when a family member was quite sick from cancer, and I was thinking about how extreme the treatments are for cancer, heart disease, etc. (I later watched this same message in the movie Forks Over Knives ) Until then, I had a fatalistic view about my risk for disease, and that I had no control over my chances of getting one. I felt that regardless of my exercise and a fairly good diet, that genetics determined my future, instead of taking total responsibility for what I can control. I work in a busy ER as a Social Worker, I know that many things are out of our control in life. Especially awful, tragic things. But at that moment as I was thinking about my "extreme" vegan friend, and my sick Aunt undergoing extreme cancer treatments; I was reaching into the fridge late at night to grab a block of cheese to snack on before bed. I said to myself, the ONLY thing that I can control in this moment is what I put in my mouth to eat. I still may have a heart attack or get cancer, but at least I know that I tried to make a difference with my nutritional choices. I didn't eat the cheese, and started to research a plant-based diet. I read The China Study, Veganism for Dummies , and a few other books, and made the switch in January 2011.
HH: You've been able to get your family on board with eating plant-based -- tell us about that.
I've found that by posting photos of my food, writing little tidbits (it's usually "This Happy Herbivore cookbook has such easy recipes!") that my loved ones become interested, and then also do their own reading/viewing/research, and have started to change their own habits. It brings me so much joy to see my family members, especially my 19 year old niece, to my 30 year old cousin (with a busy family and daycare business), to my 60 year old Aunt, start to adopt a plant-based diet.
HH: Why did you take the social media/picture approach?
I find most people just bombard their loved ones with information :) I wanted to be more than the stereotype of the weirdo San Franciscan cousin/daughter/sister/friend/niece/coworker that was taking up veganism. There is science, research, good health and medicine behind eating plant-based. But growing up in small-town Iowa, and living in a generally meat-centric country, it can be a tough crowd to share my plant-based food experience. Food and health is such a delicate subject, at times more delicate than discussions about religion or money. I decided to post photos of the food that I make from on my Facebook page, thinking that others may become interested. Instead of talking about plant based eating, and wanting to avoid the stereotypes, I felt photos of food were less intrusive. At first, friends and family were mildly interested in an ingredient or food they've never had or heard of before. The food also tasted good, and that was obvious by the photos. Friends and family started to ask for recipes, the names of Lindsay's cookbooks, and started sharing. I celebrate and say "woo-hoo!" every time someone asks me about plant-based eating because I believe that it's a positive way to eat and feel good. Who doesn't want the ones we love to feel their best?
HH: Have you noticed any benefits or positive changes since making the switch?
I was physically fit to start with, but I still had health conditions that I had become used too. My cholesterol has been high since age 13 and I've had hypothyroidism since age 21. My cholesterol has improved, with my (already good) HDL jumping 14 points into the 80s. My thyroid function has improved after 14 years of hypothyroidism, it's become more active. My weight has dropped a few pounds and I've become leaner, but stayed just as strong with lifting weights, boxing, and athletics. I was seen by a Nutritionist in December 2011 who wrote on my analysis numbers "Gorgeous!" I get plenty of protein for my weight and activity level, as well as calcium, Vit. D, Bs, etc. I'm almost afraid to write this but my asthma has disappeared which I believe is linked to not eating dairy or my acid reflux going away. Even though I was fit and at a healthy weight to start with, I didn't realize the little things wrong that add up until they all have gone away. My mental health and spiritual health has also changed for the better. You don't realize when you are eating meat and dairy what your mind and spirit can feel like with not eating animals. Eating plant based brings a certain peace to your spirit and soul. I'm much calmer. My emotions are not as extreme as before but I feel much more aware, aware of my body and the world around me. I appreciate and respect all forms of life much more. This has been a big, positive change and something a lot of vegans don't discuss for fear of sounding weird!
HH: Have your family members experienced any positive benefits?
My Aunt Kathy has lost 20 lbs in the past 2 months and feels much better eating mostly plant-based. My Aunt Jan has lost 22 lbs in the past 7 months and improved her other health "numbers" by eating more whole grains and more plant-based foods, and her and I both share the same love for quinoa. My cousin Brandy, in her very busy life, sets aside time to cook plant-based meals for her husband and three children. Her husband and young children are all open-minded and supportive, and love Lindsay's recipe for Red Lentil Dal (and they've never had Indian food prior to this!). I also just recently started using the meal plans and I can't believe how long I waited! I'm a planner at heart, so a whole week's worth of meals planned out and a shopping list, along with the recipes, was like an organized planner's dream come true. I find myself looking forward to a particular meal and being surprised with new recipes throughout the week. I cook most of the meals in one day, one shopping trip in the week, and no stress during the week to figure out what to eat! Posting photos of what I am eating has been the most helpful tool in my family and friends becoming interested in plant-based eating. I even post photos of 4 pots simmering on the stove when I'm making my meals, or the photo of my meal at my desk at work. It shows that the meal plans, and plant-based foods can be straightforward, and work well into a busy, active life.
HH: Any additional comments or advice for others?
We live in one of the most fortunate times in one of the most abundant countries on Earth. There is no reason that a person has to settle for not feeling fantastic. We have everything at our fingertips, from information about nutrition, to choice, to being able to buy almost any food at our local stores, farmer's markets or online. I encourage others to try plant based for for a week, a month, or longer. Take it on as a learning experience, you will eat a larger variety of foods than you ever thought possible.
UPDATE: A year later Kim checked in with an update. Read her progress here.