My discovery of true health began in about 2011 when I realized that I was just 1-year shy of my mother’s age when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wondered how I could prevent the same diagnosis in myself. At the same time, a friend of mine who was taking a nutrition course asked if she could do a 3-day study on my eating habits. Being an almost life-long Vegetarian, I thought my friend would come back to me with glowing comments on my diet. I ate better than so many of the people I knew and thought I had a reasonably healthy diet. It came as a shock when her comment on reviewing my 3-day food diary was (in significantly more graphic words), “you eat horribly.” She suggested I give up my junk food and cheese addiction to improve my health and even cooked for me for a month. As I didn’t know how to cook healthy foods and hated salads, her help was vital. She started feeding me smoothies with lots of greens daily along with a variety of delicious meals that you can now get delivered to you through on-line food plans.
My palate changed, and I started craving healthy options over the next month. During that time, I read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, watched movies like Forks Over Knives, and researched how diet and health were connected. By the end of the month, I had dropped over 10 pounds without changing my daily activity. My cholesterol plummeted from what, as a physician, I had been taught was normal, my energy level skyrocketed, and my exercise tolerance had improved drastically.
I was amazed that the information I was learning had not been taught in medical school and wasn’t standard of care. I was angry that I had spent most of my life struggling with weight and often failed at dieting. Yet, here I was eating way more than I had in the past, loving the food, and losing weight to the point of having to eat more to keep weight on. That had never been the case in my life before. Unlike my patients and peers struggling with menopause, I had no similar symptoms and felt younger, thinner, and healthier than I had in my 20’s. And all of this was without any medication.
This realization and lifestyle paradox prompted me to start questioning my medical practice. I started going to medical seminars for whole food plant-based medical providers, taking nutrition courses (which we were never taught in medical school), and became board-certified in Lifestyle Medicine. When I had the time to share this new knowledge with my patients in my traditional Family Medicine Practice, the results were astounding. Like me, they would get better from their chronic diseases, get off medications, and feel younger and healthier.
Unfortunately, my busy walk-in practice didn’t allow me to spend the time I wanted with my patients. Nor did it allow me to practice what I was preaching in terms of other lifestyle modifications. Hence, I decided to drastically change my life to “walk the talk.” I left traditional medicine and started teaching the group-oriented CHIP, Complete Health Improvement Program, with my partner, who himself lost over 60# and got off five medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol following the same diet and lifestyle changes. We also started working with patients individually through our DOKS Lifestyle Medicine practice. After learning about the Rochester Lifestyle Medicine Institute, I took their 15-day Jumpstart and Lift programs. Seeing the benefit for myself, I encouraged family members, friends, and patients to join the great programs they offer.
With my improved health, I no longer worry about getting the myriad of health issues in my family, including breast cancer, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. My arthritic knees do not hurt me the way they used to, even though I am even more active than before. I feel and look younger and healthier than I have in decades – AND I AM HAPPY! What a wonderful thing to have your health and feel great.
Unfortunately, I don’t have “before” pictures since I hated how I looked and threw out the photos from when I was not thriving. You can see from my “after” picture, I am happy, healthy, and (I think) look more youthful than my years!!!
I grew up eating the typical standard American diet; after-school snacks of potato chips and oatmeal cream pies followed by meatloaf and mashed potatoes for dinner. I ate what I considered to be a mostly “healthy” diet in my early adult years, punctuated with plenty of sweets. I’ve always had a major sweet tooth, and as an emotional eater, I have definitely turned to sweets to soothe any sort of uncomfortable emotion I might be experiencing.
I was fortunate that I never had any major health issues, so for many years I didn’t give much thought to the foods I ate, what was in them, and how they affected my body.
In 2010, after watching the documentary Food Inc., I decided to stop eating meat. This change in my diet was based on animal welfare and was not motivated by a desire to be healthier. I was still eating the occasional piece of fish, with plenty of eggs, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream in my diet.
It was around this time that I first noticed that full-fat dairy foods, like ice cream and cheesecake wreaked havoc on my digestive system. I clearly remember an incident that happened when I was taking night classes at my local university. After work, and before class, instead of having a sensible dinner, I stopped at an ice cream shop and had a huge bowl of my favorite flavor smothered in hot fudge. A couple of hours later, my intestines were making the loudest, most embarrassing noises! There is no way the students sitting near me couldn’t hear it. I wanted to crawl under my desk and disappear!
Subsequent attempts at eating rich dairy products would often lead to me being curled up on the couch with intense abdominal pain. I decided I should go to the doctor and get checked out, since my symptoms seemed to match what I had read about gall bladder attacks.
My doctor ordered a full blood work panel and an ultrasound of my gall bladder. Everything looked normal with my gall bladder, but my cholesterol numbers came back high. Even though I was eating a vegetarian diet, this was my second cholesterol reading over 200. This really frustrated me! I wasn’t eating any meat, poultry, or seafood at this point, so how was this even possible?!
I would soon learn that the solution to both my high cholesterol and nagging abdominal pain would come with a change in my diet. My husband and I happened to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives between Christmas and New Year’s of 2014. We found the information extremely compelling and it inspired us to make some changes. We decided we would start 2015 with a whole foods, vegan diet. For us, that meant giving up the eggs, cheese, and yogurt that were part of our daily routine, plus the rich desserts we often indulged in when we ate out. Our thought was that we would give it a try, and we could always go back to our regular vegetarian diet if we decided to.
I found when I ate this way, the abdominal cramping was no longer an issue. It completely disappeared! Eating a whole food, plant-based diet also effortlessly brought my total cholesterol down into the 150s. I know my body is healthier eating this way. These pictures, taken at ages 36 and 46, clearly show the impact a healthy diet can have on your body! I’m committed to eating this way for life!
On January 1, 1991, my husband Ted (Dr. Veggie) and I became 100% plant-based. Actually it’s a little more complicated than that. We had been eating that way for a while but didn’t have a clear line of demarcation, so we looked at each other and said “well, we’ve been completely vegan at least since January 1!.” Ted will tell you that he initially made the change for environmental reasons. I had always been interested in cooking and health, and around that time I was starting to be aware of animals and have some animals in my life. The fact is that, once you become vegan for any reason, you become more open to considering the other reasons, and as you learn about them you just get more and more confirmed in your motivation to be plant-based.
To be truthful, our transition was so long ago that I don’t remember much about it. I do remember a short period of time when I felt like I couldn’t get enough to eat! So I just ate more; that’s when I realized you never have to be hungry on a well-planned, healthy vegan diet.
One challenge we had was feeling a bit alone and as though we were making it up as we went along. That’s not completely fair: there were vegan heroes going back decades before we made the switch, people like Jay and Freya Dinshah, George Eisman, and Brian and Sharon Graff who formed the North American Vegetarian Society. We became vegan shortly after the Rochester Area Vegetarian Society (RAVS) was founded by Rhoda and Stan Sapon, and we benefitted from their help and RAVS’s help. We went to RAVS meetings and eventually took over the leadership in 1995. But there are so many more role models and resources now than there were 30 years ago: websites, organizations, and a positive explosion of vegan cookbooks as opposed to the one or two good ones when we started out.
Eating vegan has always tasted delicious to us since we started. I did have to make a conscious effort to choose healthy. I love pasta and for years resisted eating whole wheat pasta, because I figured I deserved to enjoy what I liked. Now we use only whole wheat or brown rice pasta and I prefer it. Everyone is on a path of improvement, even long-time vegans. I love being part of the RLMI Jumpstart check-ins, and cooking class, and potluck, because I get inspired by the choices participants make and their tips and ideas for making things delicious while staying within Jumpstart rules. Just remember, it’s supposed to be delicious!
I think I’ve impacted lots of people through both Rochester Lifestyle Medicine and the Rochester Area Vegan Society (RAVS). RAVS has about 300 members and before COVID, we had monthly meetings where up to 100 people would attend. Another favorite thing for me was staffing information tables at health fairs and other events held by colleges, companies and towns, where I interacted with literally thousands of people over the years, handing out literature and engaging in conversations.
I always tell people one of the things I love about food is that you get to make new decisions three times a day and every time you shop. If you are struggling on the plant-based path, you get a fresh start every day. That’s cause for optimism and one of many reasons to welcome the New Year!
Author’s Note: Carol and her husband, Ted, raised all three of their children on a plant-based vegan diet. As adults, their children are still plant-based and very healthy.