By: Elisabeth Barlow
My food history could be summed up by the phrase “meat and potatoes,” as long as we were talking about fried potatoes. I liked meat, dairy, chips, cookies, white bread, sugar, etc. and was a generally picky eater. As a teenager, I remember opening a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos after school and eating most of the bag by myself. I am shocked I didn’t end up with more health problems, but I was a typical teenage girl who didn’t want to eat her veggies.
Once I was married, the pounds started to creep on. By the time I was pregnant with my first child, I was 10-15 pounds heavier than when I got married. After the baby was born, I had a lot of weight to lose, but I didn’t do anything until my baby was almost two years old and I realized I was as heavy as I was when I was full-term pregnant. I joined Weight Watchers online because I thought it was a safe and effective way to lose weight. I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight after a few months, but I quit once I reached my goal and wanted to stop paying a monthly fee and obsessively track everything I ate. I went through the same cycle with each successive pregnancy until after my fourth baby which is when I found a better way!
I started thinking about my relationship to food after watching the Overcoming Addiction series that was put out by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One of those videos was about a woman that overcame food addiction. I had never thought I had a food addiction, but I often felt like if I started eating a package of cookies or chips, I could never stop with just one or two! Many times I felt like the only thing that would relieve my stress was chocolate or a bakery item high in fat and sugar. I craved meals heavy in cheese and bacon. Although I knew I wasn’t eating the healthiest foods every day, I was resistant to anything that said to stop eating meat. I had read the Word of Wisdom before and knew that I could eat meat sparingly and that animals are for our use.
However, I was also worried about my health. I had a yearly blood draw coming up as part of our insurance requirements, and I wanted to be able to improve my numbers and not have to pay a surcharge if I had worse results than the year before. My post-baby weight loss had stalled, and to top it off I got sick with a horrible stomach virus or food poisoning and had to take two days off of work to recover. So, in March of 2016 when I found Forks Over Knives on Netflix, I was determined to try a whole food, plant-based diet. Now that I have been eating that way for 6, going on 7 months, I want to recap everything that has changed for me.
First, I reread Doctrine and Covenants 89 with new eyes. I couldn’t believe I had ignored verses in there that were so obvious! Yes, flesh of beasts and fowls of the air are ordained for our use with thanksgiving and to be used sparingly. But I had not read the next verse closely: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” I felt completely different about meat after reading this. I can’t honestly say that I have ever been in a desperate enough situation that I would have nothing to eat except meat. I also was amazed that not only did this verse suddenly stand out to me, but that almost the same thing is said AGAIN when you read on further in verse 15: “And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.” Now I know things that are in the scriptures are important, but they are more important when they are said more than once. I was definitely thinking I had never experienced famine or excess of hunger, so I knew that I had never needed to eat all the meat I had eaten. I resolved to never eat it again unless there was nothing else available. The only time I had trouble was the first week or two when I would do really well for breakfast and lunch but then give up at dinnertime. Soon, however, I was doing much better on my resolution for all meals.
Although giving up meat was not a hard decision, I had to do a lot more research before deciding to eat a vegan diet with whole foods and no oils or processed sugar or flour. I did research on websites by Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Dr. Michael Greger. I checked out books like The China Study, The End of Dieting, and Plant-Powered Families from the library. As I read, I felt like my whole idea of nutrition was turned on its head. Potatoes and rice can be good for you? Animal protein from meat and dairy is consistently linked to chronic illnesses? How could I ever change my diet so dramatically? I loved cheese on everything. I used to drink milk with most of my meals and poured it on cereal. Well, the desire to avoid cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses that I see so frequently at my job in a hospital lab was very motivating. I also have older family members with many of these same chronic illnesses that I was finding out could be reversed and prevented through some simple food choices. Reading about a diet that eliminates most of these illnesses was like learning about the fountain of youth! How could I not give this a try?
My cholesterol was very high and I needed to lower it and this was the way to do it! Some of my family and friends were not very excited about my new diet unless I said it was to “lower my cholesterol” and then they would say, “oh good for you, I could never stop eating (fill in the blank).” So I basically went on this diet alone, but was so grateful for the online communities and resources that I found through Jane’s website and Facebook! I also always have books checked out from the library on plant-based nutrition and am learning new things every day. I am not perfect at this, but I feel so dramatically different from before. My desires to eat the best food available from what God has ordained for our use and the things that are pleasing to him for us to eat has motivated me and given me the strength to succeed.
Initially I experienced a lot more gas (from increased fiber) but then I suddenly became more regular than ever before in my life! I was constipated most of my life and didn’t even realize it could be so easily fixed by dropping animal products, processed foods, oils, and eating mostly whole plant foods! Mom always did say I needed to eat more fiber . . . why is it so hard for kids to listen to their mothers? Fortunately, the gas has decreased back to normal!
Another thing I noticed was that my acne decreased significantly. I used to always have zits I was dealing with EVERY DAY. I really hoped the acne would stop after high school, but I was still dealing with it as a 33 year old. Now, I just get one or two occasionally, if I get any at all and they come and go much faster. The worst breakout I have had was after I had some oily veggies and rice from a food truck. I was motivated to not try that again anytime soon. I can make my own for much less money and without the oil!
I am consistently losing weight without counting calories or depriving myself of food. I remember dieting in the past meant smaller and smaller portions in order to keep losing weight because I wasn’t completely avoiding the rich and processed foods out there. I thought I shouldn’t have to give up foods, just limit how much I was eating. That is just not a fun way to live and I’d eventually quit in favor of eating whatever and as much as I felt like. Since 6 months ago, I have lost 33 pounds so far. I eat as much as I want of plant-based whole foods (whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds) without added oil or refined sugar and flour.
I love oatmeal with fruit, nuts, cinnamon, and a little maple syrup. I love rice, black beans, corn, salsa, and guacamole with corn tortilla chips or wrapped in a tortilla. I love salad with dairy-free, oil-free dressings. I love having fruits and vegetables throughout the day as snacks. I love veggie pizza with no cheese or meat. I love whole grain pasta and brown rice now. I love potatoes without any butter or sour cream. I am constantly trying new plants that I never liked before but now I enjoy them. I even like mushrooms and onions. I have started to think about all the food I can enjoy and nourish my body with instead of moaning about not eating meat, eggs, and cheese on a daily basis. I never thought that would happen. I also save money at the grocery store by shopping mostly in produce and bulk foods.
I now have more energy than I ever remember having. I have started running for FUN! I can run and play or chase after my four kids. I recover faster and sleep well at night and can wake up early if I want to go run. If I have a lot to do around the house, or errands to run, I have the energy to do it as long as I have eaten good, plant-based meals!
My total cholesterol last year was 246 mg/dL. When I got tested this year after only four months of eating this way, my total cholesterol had dropped to 124. My bad LDL cholesterol dropped from 152 to 57. I have a new appreciation for the quote by Hippocrates who said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” I lost six inches around my waist. My BMI is finally in the normal range instead of in the overweight range. My blood pressure was rarely ever high, but now it is lower and NEVER high. I’m all around feeling so much better, just as we’re promised by the Lord in D&C 89 when we follow the Word of Wisdom. I only half followed it before by not using drugs and alcohol, but I have discovered that our modern society has very addicting FOOD as well. I used to want to go eat some donuts, pastries, or chocolate after a stressful day at work, but lately I have wanted to go running instead. Oh my goodness! I used to think people that LIKED running were strange.
Another important benefit to me has been seeing my three-year-old’s eczema on his legs disappear. He has had these bad looking rashes and scabs on his legs ever since he was a little toddler, and I thought it was something in the environment so I would try to change detergents or soaps to see if it would help. I gave up on fixing it and just hoped it would go away as he got older. The doctors just prescribed hydrocortisone cream to apply topically and never said a word about diet being the possible cause. Well, it dawned on me a month or so ago after reading some stories from other people that switched to plant-based diets that maybe the cow’s milk was causing the eczema and sure enough, I stopped buying cow milk and my son’s legs cleared up and look normal for the first time since he was a baby.
Since working on my food choices, I have felt an increase in spiritual learning as well. I feel excited when I am reading nutrition books by secular authors with no church affiliation but can find research proving to be true what I have had in my scriptures all along. I have new insights coming to me when I am reading scriptures, attending church, or even when I am just doing random daily things. For instance, I was helping my one-year-old walk since she is just learning and was able to realize that we are all at different stages and abilities in our lives from those around us. Heavenly Father isn’t frustrated with us when we lag or fall short of what someone else is already good at. Like a loving parent, He is excited for our progress and loves us no matter where we are at and what we are capable of. He can see what is ahead and is infinitely more patient than you or I.
So the benefits and blessings have been so numerous that I can’t see myself ever wanting to go back! I have truly had a change of heart and feel thankful to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ for these incredible blessings in my life and look forward to maybe one day seeing my family and friends enjoying the same benefits. It is going to possibly take a lifetime for some, but I have learned to not be pushy. It is wrong to command people how or what to eat, as we learn in D&C 49. My experience so far tells me that food is a deeply touchy subject like religion and politics. I can see why, because it has such far-reaching consequences and deep feelings attached! Many of my fond memories of family and friends are related to food we may have cooked or eaten together…and now I eat so differently from how I used to eat and have been relearning nutrition and learning how to cook all over again. I still have different food in the house for my husband and older kids that I know isn’t the best, but I survived on the SAD (Standard American Diet) into my thirties so I will just show patience and love and encouragement towards my family while they choose for themselves how they want to eat. I know that my food choices are already having an effect in small ways and hope that through my example and word of mouth I can help those I love improve their health.
Elisabeth Barlow lives in Pocatello, Idaho. She is 33 years old, married to her husband of 13 years and mother of 4 beautiful kids ages 1, 3, 6, and 10.
Note about the photo: This photo is Elisabeth at her first 5K at the beginning of September where she had the energy to run most of the time and recovery was easy—even though the most she had ever run at a time was 2 miles!