By: Erica Rivera
As newlyweds in the summer of 2014, Heber and I were determined to not die young, fat, or sick. More importantly, we were aware that we had stepped into a potential “fat trap” with marriage: it seemed like so many of the people that we knew put on noticeable amounts of weight in the first year (and subsequent years) of being married. So we got serious. We signed up for a gym membership together, consulted various dietitians, and read numerous articles and websites about all of the best practices to stay fit and healthy. We set goals. We watched carbs. We ate grass-fed beef. We used “healthy” oils. We had so much to learn.
Happy for objectives and goals, I stopped really worrying about whether there was a better way for me to be fueling my body. But of course, the ever-inquisitive Heber was uneasy about some of the conflicting information we were receiving about what to eat. More importantly, previous to our marriage he had been doing research to help his mother’s heart condition and had stumbled upon Dr. Esselstyn’s work Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. This led him to watch Forks Over Knives and read some of the accompanying literature. He was hungry for change, for truth. I was hungry for the pork that we had just purchased.
Though I was convinced that we had to ingest animal protein (and massive amounts of it) to properly build muscle and stay fit, I was not happy about the part of my brain that was constantly fixated on food and worried about calories and gaining weight. To me it was clear that my body was a machine and relied on exactly calculated proportions to function properly. For years I had been obsessed with labels and eating just enough to have all of the bodily functions in order. I went through phases of exercising obsessively in order to make sure all of those extra calories were put to good use in my body. One of the petty reasons that I had been reluctant to serve a mission (though I eventually did and was so happy to have served) was because I could not control my diet, or my companion’s desire to exercise, with the same precision.
Heber himself had gone through some issues with weight and nutrition. He is a chef, and besides the need to try the fine-dining dishes he made, for many years he worked long hours. There was no time to worry about “healthy” eating, let alone exercise. After some challenges with weight, he committed to himself that he would not let himself go down that same path. Moreover, he knew better than I did that food not only is a joy to eat, but is the life source of our bodies. He was aware of the different kinds of fuel available and the effects, including how his mother felt differently when she cut out animal foods for a time. Because of his conviction, I was more open to learning alternatives to my own carnivorous lifestyle.
One evening, Heber and I watched Forks Over Knives. I felt really moved by the film, almost as if my eyes had been opened to what seemed obvious all along: our diet and lifestyle were killing us! Both of us felt overwhelmingly like this was something good and promising for us and our future family. That same night, we committed to give up all animal products and start eating whole-food plant-based (WFPB).
We were curious about how this lifestyle would line up with LDS church principles. Heber and I read Doctrine and Covenants 89 to put the WFPB diet to the test. Having both been missionaries and having taught the principles outlined in this section numerous times, we now saw the words in a different light. I can remember reading this passage with investigators and how strange I thought it was when they would stop and ask if we could eat meat. To my current embarrassment and dismay, I always assured them that their traditional meat-fest barbecues were clearly in-line with gospel teachings. But in the summer of 2014 as Heber and I read, it was clear that meat and animal products were to be used “sparingly,” with “thanksgiving,” but even more so that it was “pleasing unto [God] that they should not be used” (D&C 89: 12-13). We continued to pray and fast about this change, all the while eating plant-based.
Thereafter there was really no question of whether it was right or wrong for us. Being able to follow this lifestyle together made a huge difference as well, and we gained strength from each other’s commitment. The change in our home was not hard. I began to enjoy cooking (almost as much as Heber) and Pinterest became an excellent resource, as well as the Forks Over Knives Cookbook. We felt good. We had more energy. We didn’t feel heavy after we ate. We really enjoyed exploring new recipes together (we still do!). The challenge then became telling our families.
We learned swiftly that strict food practices, like politics and religion, can be the most taboo and controversial of conversation topics. I was reluctant to share with the world the food conversion we had gone through. In contrast, Heber was excited and shared with everyone that would listen what we had found. Though he was still required to cook foods with animal products at the restaurant, he spoke with some friends at work about our new way of eating. In turn, one of his co-workers told us about Jane Birch’s book Discovering the Word of Wisdom, and we noticed that she was at BYU where I was studying. I soon contacted her and she was gracious enough to meet with me. This indeed was a blessing for us, as ever since our first meeting, she has been an excellent resource! She has helped us to find other like-minded people, as well as to learn more about food and God’s will for us here on the earth. Most importantly of all, she gave me courage to let others know that what I was doing was good for my body and would bless their lives, too. Over the next few months after the summer of 2014, Heber and I told our family and friends about our lifestyle change. In some instances we felt shunned, or at least misunderstood. As our families and friends have seen our commitment to the WFPB lifestyle and that “eating plants” isn’t all that bad, they have become more accepting of our choices.
Almost a year after our marriage, Heber and I were excited to find out that we were expecting our first child! Of course with all of the rush of emotions and excitement that this can provide, it also brought a host of concerns about my diet and the baby’s future. Heber and I had studied out the matter and determined (through resources such as John McDougall) that a WFPB pregnancy was the best way to go—for carnivorous and herbivorous mothers alike. I continued to exercise as much as I had done before becoming pregnant. I would occasionally have some slight nausea (and I hated kale for some reason), but otherwise I was able to maintain eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, tubers, legumes, and grains. My main staple was potatoes—I could eat a 10 pound bag of russet potatoes (myself!) in a week.
Many well-meaning people would lecture me on the importance of protein, of combining plant-based sources of protein, of taking supplements, etc. Though at times I was worried that I was not following “standard procedure” for a pregnancy in our culture, I felt great and was always doing well at our check ups with our midwife. I exercised up until our son’s birth (often running up to 5 miles) and gained about 18 pounds total. We were blessed to have an excellent midwife who was not concerned about my weight gain, and was supportive of our choice to be “vegan.” Our baby boy, Santiago (Santi) grew well without complications. Indeed he seemed a bit too comfortable in the womb—finally he came at 41 and ½ weeks! He weighed 7 pounds and 13 ounces and was 21 inches long. He has always been in the 90th percentile for height and weight and has developed beautifully. What’s more, I credit our diet to an abundant supply of breast milk and to our son’s fascination with any food that is green (broccoli, peas, green beans, leafy greens). Because I maintained a diet rich in plants, I believe our son prefers these foods over other more-processed options.
Heber has continued to be a WFPB missionary in his work, which can be challenging in the commercial kitchen. He is now executive chef at Utah Valley Hospital and has been key in implementing a fresh and plant-plentiful salad bar at the cafe. A few of our family members have “seen the light” and now eat more plant foods, particularly in Heber’s family. Further down the road, our dream is to open a restaurant specializing in plant-based foods to help improve others’ lives.
We continue to learn more about this amazing lifestyle rich in plants. With more information and research, we have understood that others also have to come to this knowledge for themselves. The beauty in the Word of Wisdom is that it is “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” (D&C 89:3). The Word of Wisdom becomes another piece of the Armor of God, protecting us from “designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days,” particularly concerning enormous corporations who produce our animal foods (D&C 89:4). Heber and I find that we are now more grateful and aware of the food we consume. As parents we have been able to “run and not be weary” and “walk and not faint” (D&C 89:20). Most importantly, our conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel is even more solidified: we know that Heavenly Father loves us and wants for us to live happy, whole lives.
Heber (32) and Erica (28) Rivera live in Orem, UT, along with their son, Santiago (1). Heber is a chef with a degree from “El Instituto Culinario de Monterrey” in Mexico. Erica received her dual BA in Speech Communication and Spanish Literature from Utah State University and her MA in Mass Communications from Brigham Young University. They love to cook, shop, read, exercise, travel, and spend time outdoors as a family.