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Peña: The results make up for the struggles of sticking to a plant-based diet

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Posted: Monday, April 16, 2018 2:30 pm

My former student Elias Peña shares how he has partnered with his father to take control of their health destinies, some of the struggles along the way, and the results they now enjoy!


As I sit and watch my father planting broccoli and spinach into our garden, I cannot help but think about how far we have come as a family. It’s been more than four years now since my family and I began this plant-based journey.

It all started when I took Professor Hagenburger’s nutrition course at Cosumnes River College. I was skeptical at first about going green, but I had heard and read so much about the many benefits that I eventually caved in and decided to give it a try, not only for myself, but especially for my dad.

My father’s health was going downhill around 2014. He has been a diabetic for more than 15 years, and his doctor was pressuring him to get on insulin. His A1C level at the time was 11 percent, which reflected an average blood sugar over 300mg/dL — putting him at risk for heart attack, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and even amputations.

It was tough seeing my father struggle. I could not sit idly by and do nothing about this. I decided to gather a few recipes and get busy in the kitchen.

My father was the main cook of the household. We ate whatever he made, which was traditional Mexican and American food.

Although I knew that I needed to help my dad improve the nutrient content of the food he was eating, the best I could do at the time was use the microwave to heat up frozen Hot Pockets.

So, I started with the cook himself! I told my dad that I loved his food very much, but that we needed to get serious about improving our health.

For months, my father resisted any bit of change. He said that he was going to “live his life his way,” and that he just needed to “change portion sizes.” My father is a great person, but he can be very stubborn at times, especially when it comes to food.

I figured that if I jumped right in and got us going, we might actually enjoy cooking new recipes together, so I made us a list and we went shopping. The first dish we ever made together was a simple broccoli and tofu stir-fry. It came out really good, to our surprise, as we’d never cooked with tofu before (but enjoyed eating Asian food at restaurants).

As weeks went on, my father and I continued to make small changes together and replaced pantry items with healthy alternatives. We started going to stores with lots of healthful offerings, such as Sprouts and Trader Joe’s. We spent a considerable amount of time on YouTube looking up videos to help us learn how to prepare whole plant foods.

It actually became an enjoyable experience, once we got the hang of steaming vegetables without steaming up the whole kitchen. Soon, I had a spatula in hand and was tossing eggplant patties around like a natural.

While we were having fun in the kitchen, the full shift to eating plant-based whole foods did not come easy.

I found it incredibly challenging to consciously make the choice to eat this way every day, perhaps because I hadn’t yet fully made the decision. Professor Hagenburger talks about moving from “I can’t have it” to “I don’t want it.” My father, too, was finding himself slipping into his old habits.

We had been eating the same standard American diet for so long that it was deeply engrained in our lives — rather, our habits. It may seem silly, but driving past my favorite fast food restaurant and not stopping took a huge emotional toll on my mind, even though I knew that eating there was not going to help me reach my goal.

There were days when it was a struggle, and peer pressure to go eat out at a place that I knew had few healthy options caused me a lot of anxiety. There were many moments when I wanted to give up and go back to my old ways, momentarily forgetting how bad eating that food made my body and mind feel.

When I went out with friends, when we started talking about where to go eat, my suggestions were often met with raised eyebrows and sarcastic responses. I kept in mind the fact that they didn’t have the same perspective, so instead of crumbling under the fear of what my peers would say, I modified my dishes wherever I went, and helped my father do the same.

Often conversations with my father were about how people just didn’t seem understand why we were eating a plant-based diet. Family events were particularly tough, because there were many traditional dishes that we chose not to eat, and many family members took offense to this.

The bottom line was that there was little acceptance during the early period of our journey. No one wants to feel like the outcast, but I know my father and I did; however, what kept us plant-based was that we were starting to see and feel changes in our health.

Within a few months of going plant-based and eliminating most of the oil in our diets, my father and I had lost roughly 30 pounds, and we’ve kept it off. We both felt a big difference in our energy levels — less brain fog and more mental clarity. We were making trips to the clothes outlets because we were not able to wear our old outfits. We created a garden and started growing our own food.

People around us started to become more open when they saw the real change in our family’s life.

Fast forward a year and two months, and my dad set up an appointment with his doctor. His weight went from 298 pounds to 220 pounds, his A1C levels had dropped from 11 to 7 percent, and he was advised to get off two diabetic medications that he had been taking for years.

His doctor was stunned. More importantly, my father was happy.

To be able to see all of his stress early in the year melt away, made it all worth the struggle.

My advice to anyone who is considering going plant-based is to get started! You can’t steer a parked car, so make an achievable goal for yourself and stick to it. Don’t waste any time getting discouraged when you fall off the path — just learn from the situation.

As long as you are willing to make a change in your life, you will see results. Remember, the hardest part is often making the decision. Then, it just becomes how to get this done, and the possibilities just might start flooding in.

OK, I should get back to helping my dad with the garden!

Timaree Hagenburger is a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health and nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. She is excited about the new Plant-Based Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture certificate program there, and can’t wait for former students like Elias to come back and take her hands-on cooking class. She might even be able to get his dad to take it with him! Timaree also conducts local events and corporate wellness work, has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV and published her first cookbook “The Foodie Bar Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy.” available at www.FoodieBars.com — where you will also find details about her upcoming events.

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