This time last year, Kara Bell was in her ninth month of a new whole food, plant-based lifestyle and nearing a milestone: losing 100 pounds.
And that was only part of her success story. In that time, she also had reversed her Type 2 diabetes and no longer needed medication for high blood pressure.
Last March when Bell gave a presentation on her experience following the whole food, plant-based lifestyle at Neighborhood Reads bookstore in Downtown Washington, Danielle Snider was in the audience. She had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) a few months earlier and was looking for something positive to do for herself.
“I heard her story and how encouraging it was, and even though I didn’t suffer from any of the conditions that Kara did, I felt it was something I could do for myself,” said Snider, who works as an art teacher at Washington Middle School. “I feel like I was desperate to wrap my hands around something that I could take control of.”
Snider began following in Bell’s footsteps with the whole food, plant-based lifestyle, and the results were noticeable. She lost 20 pounds (although she is quick to say that wasn’t at all why she began eating this way, just a nice bonus), but more importantly, she began feeling an overall sense of health that continues today.
“I feel healthier, from the inside out,” Snider remarked. “I feel clean.”
And because of that feeling, she can more easily recognize when something is happening to her due to MS as opposed to being caused from a less healthy lifestyle.
Next week, Snider and two other women (Maria Brady-Smith and Tammy Thorpe) who have taken up the whole food, plant-based lifestyle will speak about their experiences in a free presentation, “Proven Power of a Plant-Based Diet,” Thursday, Jan. 16, at 6:30 p.m. at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St. in Downtown Washington.
They know people have questions about how to take up this lifestyle and what it is really like to live it day-in and day-out. They admit there are challenges at times, but they have found it to be so enjoyable and beneficial, they wouldn’t think of going back to their old ways of eating.
“This is the easiest thing I’ve ever done actually,” Snider told The Missourian. “I don’t feel like I’m on a diet. I don’t feel like ‘I don’t eat meat, cheese or oil,’ because once you’re used to it, it doesn’t feel like you’re restricting anything. You just know what you can eat, and you eat those things.”
“Plus, there are so many recipes that you are looking at what you do eat, not what you don’t eat,” said Brady-Smith, who works at the bookstore and previously was a parent educator with Washington Parents as Teachers.
Each of the women had a different reason for taking up the lifestyle, but they agree for them there is no going back.
Goal: Lower Cholesterol
Brady-Smith looked the picture of health to people who knew her, but her numbers told a different story. Her cholesterol and blood sugar levels were getting worse.
“I had been vegetarian for a long time, and I felt like I had a healthy lifestyle and diet, but my numbers just kept going up, and I told my doctor, ‘I feel like my effort is going up and my health is going down,’ ” said Brady-Smith.
Her cholesterol had gone from 230 to 260 to 268 and her doctor wanted her to start taking medication to lower it. She tried that, but didn’t like the side effects, so she asked about changing her diet instead.
She tried the Mediterranean diet, which is similar to the whole food, plant-based diet, except that it doesn’t eliminate oil.
After six months of getting 10,000 steps a day and following the Mediterranean diet, Brady-Smith said her numbers hadn’t budged. “Not even a point,” she remarked.
“I was really frustrated, because I didn’t want to be on medicine,” she said.
She learned about the whole food, plant-based diet from Bell, who was a regular customer at the bookstore and also someone she knew from church. Then she began reading about it and doing her own research.
She began with “Undo It” by Dean Ornish, M.D., and “Dr. Neal Bernard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes,” because her hemoglobin A1C was in the pre-diabetic range.
Four months into following a strict whole food, plant-based diet, Brady-Smith was at the doctor’s office for something else and opted to have some blood work done to check if her numbers had changed any.
The difference was drastic. Her cholesterol had gone done from 268 to 200, and her A1C had gone from 6.0 to 5.7, which was significant. On top of that, Brady-Smith had lost 15 pounds and felt healthier than ever.
Goal: Preventing Diabetes
Tammy Thorpe, Union, is a lymphoma survivor of 16 years, and when her doctor told her that her A1C of 5.9 put her on the cusp of pre-diabetes, she was devastated.
Both her mother and grandmother had Type 2 diabetes, but they led very sedentary lives compared to her. She took a kick boxing class several times a week and typically spent her evenings exercising.
Her doctor told her to consider changing her diet and talked to her about her soda intake. It didn’t seem like she drank a lot, maybe one regular soda a day or even every other day, but it was contributing to her high blood sugar, the doctor felt.
Thorpe said she was pretty upset the day her doctor told her she would likely develop Type 2 diabetes, if she didn’t do anything to change her diet. After surviving cancer, she didn’t like facing another disease.
“I was mad,” said Thorpe. “But that’s when I realized this was in my control. I could change my diet.”
She had seen The Missourian article about Bell’s success with the whole food, plant-based diet, and made a point of attending her presentation at Neighborhood Reads.
But even before that she made one immediate change. “I eliminated soda that day,” said Thorpe.
“If someone would have told me to take something out of my diet to prevent cancer, I would have done it. I didn’t think I was that unhealthy. I wasn’t overweight. I didn’t think I was at risk for cancer. So being at risk for diabetes was a wake-up call for me,” she remarked.
“I didn’t want to take medicine every day for something that I could change. So I cut out the soda and started reading food labels.”
Thorpe had been eating a lot of processed foods — things that came out of a box or a can. Her family was busy and on the go a lot, and they cooked with processed foods out of convenience.
By cutting out soda and processed foods, Thorpe’s blood sugar went from 5.9 to 5.4 in just six months.
But just two days into following the whole food, plant-based diet, Thorpe knew she was on to something good because her IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and acid reflux were gone.
“It was awesome,” she said, smiling. “I’ve had IBS with constipation since I was a child. No doctor ever told me to take out dairy. All dairy is binding for me. Now if I eat poorly, both those things come back immediately.”
Looking back, Thorpe said things only improved for her after she changed her diet.
“My numbers never changed when I was just exercising but eating the same,” she commented. “They didn’t change until I changed my diet . . . I did lose weight, but I didn’t get the number improvement until I changed my diet.”
Bell shook her head knowingly.
“In the plant-based world, they say you can’t out exercise a bad diet,” she said. “And that is definitely true. You can look great on the outside, but your numbers tell a different story.”
Goal: Taking Control
Before being diagnosed with MS, Snider had lived a healthy lifestyle. She had never been diagnosed with any chronic condition and never been put on medication long term.
Being told that having MS would require her to be on medication for the rest of her life, “seemed pretty bleak,” she said.
“I felt like even though I do currently take medicine for the disease, there has to be something I can do for myself to improve my health.”
After reading about Bell’s experience in The Missourian and hearing her presentation last March, Snider took up the whole food, plant-based diet right away. Her husband joined her, but their three daughters did not.
That requires a lot of work, she admits, making two meals essentially — one for her and her husband and another for their children, but it has been worth it.
“I was so on fire for something and this really felt like an answer,” said Snider.
The daily medication that she takes can’t reverse any of the damage already done to her body by MS, but it can help prevent the disease from progressing any further. And following the whole food, plant-based diet is a way of preventing other health problems — like high cholesterol or high blood pressure — from adding to the strain on her body or the pills in her medicine cabinet.
‘Be Bold, Eat Plants’
Since Bell gave her first presentation at Neighborhood Reads last year, she has continued to press forward in her whole food, plant-based lifestyle.
She launched a Show Me Plants, PlantPure Pod offering education and support to people wanting to take up the whole food, plant-based lifestyle. The group meets monthly (the next date is Saturday, Jan. 25, from 10 a.m. to noon at Scenic Regional Library in St. Clair, 515 E. Springfield Rd.
And now she is launching Show Me Plants Book Club, reading a whole food, plant-based book every two months.
“We’ll meet every other month to discuss a common book related to the whole food plant-based lifestyle,” said Bell. “This month’s book is ‘A Plant Based Life: Your Complete Guide to Great Food, Radiant Health, and Boundless Energy’ by Micaela Cook Karlsen.”
The first meeting will be Wednesday, Jan. 22, from 6 to 7 p.m. at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St. in Downtown Washington.
Bell also will be one of four speakers at a Women Empowered event Saturday, Jan. 18, from 9 a.m. to noon. at Sunset Bluffs on Bieker Road For more details and ticket information go to https://OnTheRiseWashMO@eventbrite.com.
Bell also has plans to being working with a company, Plantricious, to certify dishes at restaurants that are whole food, plant-based options. She will be target restaurants in St. Louis and Washington.
Those menu items will have a symbol to identify them as whole food, plant-friendly, which will make eating out an easier option for people who follow this lifestyle.
Bell said she has already been bold enough to ask for various recipe accommodations when she goes to local restaurants, but this will take that a step further.
“My motto is ‘Be Bold,’ so I’m going to do it. I want to blaze a trail . . . and I’m hungry, and I want to eat out,” she said, with a laugh.
The other ladies said eating out has been the most challenging part of maintaining the whole food, plant-based lifestyle. Even when friends invite them to pick the restaurant, finding something on the menu that meets their diet can be challenging at best and impossible at worst.
“In the beginning, it was almost impossible to go out to eat. I made all the wrong choices,” recalled Snider.
Now she knows what places she can go to eat and what to order from their menus.
Brady-Smith said in her experience, finding a dish that doesn’t have meat or dairy isn’t as much of a challenge as finding one that doesn’t use oil. That has been the hardest part.
And the women admit that they can be tempted by the sights and smells of foods they once used to eat. But the memory of how those foods used to make them feel is enough to stop them from taking a bite.
“ I just keep this thought in my mind that I’m doing the best that I can for myself. And the results that I’ve seen motivates me,” said Snider.
But on those occasions where she does slip up, Snider doesn’t throw up her hands in defeat.
“Kara said something at her talk last year that has always been really encouraging to me to stay focused,” Snider recalled. “It was, ‘If you make a mistake, make your next bite right.’ ”
Bell smiled at hearing her own advice. She has had to remember that herself this past year, which has brought a lot of stress to her as she is currently going through a divorce.
She hasn’t been as good about strictly following the whole food, plant-based lifestyle as she would like. She has slipped occasionally, usually out of convenience.
“With that deviation, immediately my acid reflux and achy joints came back,” said Bell. “And I didn’t deviate a lot. And not very often.
“Some days are good, some are better and some are best, but perfection is not the goal,” said Bell. “Progress is the goal.”
For more information on Bell’s experience with the whole food, plant-based lifestyle, go to her website and blog, beboldeatplants.com.