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How It All Ve-gan: Plant-Based Lifestyle

How I transitioned to a plant-based, vegan lifestyle.

When I turned 40, I was struggling with excess “baby weight” (despite the fact that my son was already 4).

My energy level was at an all-time low and a recent trip to the doctor revealed my cholesterol was high. What could I do? Had I not tried every diet in the book? Had I not spent frustrating months yo-yo dieting and partaking in sporadic, grueling fits of boot-camp type exercising? I knew I was ready for a change but the answer continued to elude me.

My lightbulb moment finally arrived early one morning as I watched a Today Show segment featuring Rip Essylsen’s book, “The Engine 2 Diet.” He was extolling the miraculous and life-altering benefits of the vegan lifestyle. I called Barnes & Noble and told them to hold a copy for me. I picked up the book that afternoon figuring I’d return it the following morning.

I mean come on, how could someone like me, a really good cook and even better baker, give up meat … and fish … and DAIRY?!  I was so NOT a vegan.

That night, I climbed into bed and read that book from cover to cover. I was amazed at its’ straightforward simplicity, but giving up the foods that I had known and loved all my life did not seem like a daunting task ... it seemed impossible.  

In my Italian-American household, food was the center of the Universe; it consoled us during the tough times and rewarded us in celebration. As with so many people, food was a part of my culture and a big part of my identity.

I needed to rethink my relationship with food. I had to look at food, not as a reward or consolation, but as fuel for my body. I began planning meals mindful of how it would help or hurt my “engine.”  I set the bar (very) low, but my pilgrimage took on a life of its’ own. 

One vegan meal a day turned into one vegan day per week. I quickly began eating a vegan diet full time, but allowed myself "free passes” for holidays and nights on the town. It wasn’t long before I was ordering salads, whole wheat pasta and fresh fruit at fine restaurants too.  

I experienced the positive effects of a plant-based diet almost immediately and never looked back. Today, I find strength and empowerment in the knowledge that my cholesterol dropped 40 points and I’m 15 pounds lighter.

It is a scary road to travel … I know all too well. Putting yourself first can be daunting, but you owe it to yourself and to those you love to be the best you can be. Miraculously, you will find that what begins a quest for health, becomes a journey of self-exploration. I actually like myself again after so many years of disappointment and frustration.  

As a nation, we are over-worked and over-stressed and we all look for ways to soothe ourselves. I have learned how beneficial it is to soothe myself with a good book or a laugh with a friend rather than a piece of cake. However, when I do indulge in that cake it is a guiltless pleasure because it’s made with healthful, wholesome ingredients that won’t weigh me down.

Today, I take time for myself to enjoy hobbies like reading and knitting. In the summer months I relish my weekly trips to the Red Bank Farmers’ Market, where I plan my plant-based menus with Mother Nature’s bounty. 

My husband and I also grow our own veggies in the yard every summer to the delight of our children. I love afternoons at the beach or sipping iced green tea on my back porch. These are the simple pleasures I had been missing and am so grateful to have rediscovered. I’ve learned it’s not the meal we are eating that satisfies us, it's the people who share it with us.

Over the coming weeks I will be sharing my tips on how to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet, as well as showing you how to indulge in good food without the guilt. I will show you how a vegan lifestyle, even on a part-time basis, can positively affect your health and vitality while allowing you to enjoy foods you will love — even desserts!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Shannon K. Winning June 04, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Melissa - I'm so glad you wrote this post. I am toying with the ideas of going a little bit vegan but am terrified to give up my friends greek yogurt and cheese. In your future posts I hope you will give us examples of what your first vegan meals and once a week vegan days were like.
Jeff Gonzalez June 04, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Great Article!
Melissa Bartolone June 04, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Thanks for the positive feedback Shannon! I will be talking about substitutions for our favorite foods over the coming weeks; however, I believe if there's a food you can't bare to part with, such as dairy, don't. Moderation is the key. Life isn't about deprivation....it's about comprise;). I
Melissa Bartolone June 04, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Thanks Jeff! As always, you're a great fan.
Maria June 04, 2012 at 10:48 PM
Hi Melissa, I too have a copy of the Engine 2 Diet and have been on the plant based diet journey, which I totally believe in. I even got to meet Rip in person at an event he did at the Whole Foods in Paramus.Thank you for your article and I look forward to reading more of your tips. Maria
PJ June 05, 2012 at 05:20 AM
Hi Melissa, Enjoyed your article! I've been pondering going the Vegan "route" myself. As of this writing I am about 85% vegetarian, having given up red meats, pork and grease-laden foods about 8 years ago. There are still a few foods I need to give up, in order to fulfill the needs of being what I call a "vegan-vegetarian". I'll get there, I'm sure. :) I like what you posted to "Shannon" in an earlier post "Life isn't about deprivation...it's about compromise". I whole-heartedly agree with that statement. We don't have to deprive ourselves, and moderation is the key, as long as we remember that the compromise we're doing is for our health...and nothing more. Many of my friends who've enjoyed the same way of eating for years squawked at me when I would talk about wanting to go on a "lifestyle" change, but when they see me now, as compared to what I looked like before going Vegetarian, they're thrilled with the results and that I am a happier person than I was before. Since being "almost completely" vegetarian, I have dropped 80+ pounds, I look years younger than my friends who're the same age as myself(52 years young, thank u very much), and have more than enough energy to get me thru the day, with some to spare...I sleep better at night, etc..... I could go on and on about the postives changing my lifestyle/eating habits have brought into my life, but I don't want to toot my own horn louder than I already have. LOL Thanks again :) PJ
Melissa Bartolone June 05, 2012 at 12:17 PM
PJ, Yes, Yes, YES!!! You've got it PJ! Many people are so resistant to the vegan lifestyle because they feel it will deprive them... but what is a diet? It's short-term deprivation for a short-term result. Yo-yo dieting made me feel like a gerbil on the wheel; but when I created a new lifestyle I became confident, empowered and successful! I can recommend a book by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman entitled, "The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions." It offers many clever techniques to help us recreate our favorite foods vegan-style;) Keep up the good work, PJ, and thanks for such a positive and motivating comment!!
colleen June 05, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Great Article, Melissa. I am looking forward to reading more of your tips.
MiMi McGee June 05, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Hi Melissa! I am a plant-based (vegan) blogger, chef, nutritionist and cooking instructor in Maine. I am from Monmouth County and have a brother in Freehold. I just stumbled across your post, best success with your vegan adventures! I think as a "foodie" you will find it fun, healthy and incredibly awesome!! Best Wishes! MiMi McGee Leafy Cafe
Emily June 06, 2012 at 09:33 PM
Sometimes it takes time to break the old habits of eating foods that compromise our health. You feel so much better with smaller portions, eliminating beef and all red meat, etc. Even eating Chinese food which can be quite caloric and salty, you can order steamed vegetables. A steamer is a wonderful, inexpensive purchase. There are so many ways to prepare kale, escarole, bok choy, spinach and so on. Eggplant can be filled with beans, quinoa, other vegetables. For those who are part vegan and choose to eat fish or chicken--both can be steamed or baked. Eliminate most sugar laden foods, fatty foods along with excercise such as walking, biking , swimming-you'll feel so much more energetic throughout the day. Just changing your diet is not enough. That along with getting away from too much T.V. and sitting around will stimulate the mind and body. Good luck to all those who follow a healthful way of life!!
Emily June 06, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Shannon , some people choose a complete vegan diet. I choose to eat the Greek yogurt with fruit..Don't feel guilty because you can't follow a total vegetarian way of eating. Even if you practice moderation and eliminate foods that are considered unhealthful , you're doing something positive for your well being. Of course, along with the vegan lifestyle, all sodas should be eliminated.
Melissa Bartolone June 06, 2012 at 10:18 PM
How right you are Emily. When you allow your mind, and palate, an opportunity to explore you realize there's a world of healthy options waiting for you to taste and enjoy! I will be exploring vegan options in restaurants soon, along with some local suggestions...stay tuned!
Melissa Bartolone June 06, 2012 at 10:23 PM
Thank you for your thoughtful comment MiMi! I've been on my "vegan journey" for 3 years now and I must say it's been great. Continued success to you in your many endeavors!
Lindsay Brydges Walsh June 06, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Mellssa, thank you for sharing. After dealing with Lymes Disease 2 years ago and still struggling with the after affects and wanting fight back my heredity for Colon Cancer I am now venturing into a raw foods diet and though I'm not fully there yet, I can tell a huge difference on the days I eat "clean" vs the days I am not prepared. I'm excited about the idea of having fresh foods in my body and around my family in hopes they too adopt such a healthy lifestyle.
Curious George June 06, 2012 at 11:16 PM
All things in moderation goes a long way...I don't think one has to go completely vegan to maintain a healthy life style as long as you discipline yourself to stay off the sugar based sodas and other soft drinks (seltzer is a good substitute), limit the sugar content in the cereals you eat and other foods...That's the big killer. Don't be deceived by the diet sodas because they are just as bad if not worse. The main thing is smaller portions both at home and out. If possible share the one entree with your partner or guest...As Emily said, substitute steamed vegetables in Chinese restaurants because the oils they saute their foods in are bad. Whole grain pastas and breads in moderation and again, smaller portions. Exercise is vital. You don't need expensive gym memberships or hi-tech clothes to walk...walk...and keep walking...until you build up the cardio to go further and/or faster. Even around the block once a day will effect changes but you've got to burn more calories. You have to want to do it and that's where the discipline comes in. It is so sad to stand behind some behemoth in the supermarket checkout line with a cart full of 64 oz soda, cocoa puff cereals, Wonder Bread and a package of hot dogs. The knowledge is out there but sadly, too many people don't want to hear it and we're all paying the price for their bad decsions with health care costs.
Melissa Bartolone June 06, 2012 at 11:51 PM
Lindsey, what an inspiring comment! I am happy to hear you have won your fight with Lymes Disease and your proactive approach against cancer. I'm glad to hear that you are feeling the positive affects of "clean" food days vs. processed food days. I believe if more people gave themselves the opportunity to experience these changes, they would be more inclined to alter their lifestyles. I applaud your quest into raw food territory; and also suggest you read up on the Macrobiotic lifestyle. Any books by Michio Kushi or Christina Pirello are a great starting point. I am excited by your enthusiasm and desire to pay your quest for health forward to your family. I wish you continued success:)
Melissa Bartolone June 07, 2012 at 12:06 AM
Lucky you to have met Rip - he seems like a great guy. I appreciate your comment and look forward to posting more on a subject that I am very passionate for.
Jacquely June 11, 2012 at 01:48 AM
Along with Rip's book, you should watch Chow Down, a film that follows patients of Rip's father, of the Cleveland Clinic, who are struggling with heart disease. It's so entertaining yet very informative too.
Melissa Bartolone June 11, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Thanks for the heads up Jacquely, I will definitely check it out.

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