Pharmacist On a Plant-Based Diet

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Meet my new friend Michele. She and I met at PCRM’s (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) headquarter in Washington D.C. during the Food For Life Instructor training. When I heard Michele’s story, I knew it had to be shared. Michele has a background as a pharmacist and I am thrilled to bring you her story!

IMG_0044Michele

Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up?

I am the second of four children and grew up in Wilmington, Delaware.  Both my parents still live in the same house in which I grew up.

In 1985, I joined the US Air Force, and was stationed in Las Vegas, NV, then RAF Lakenheath, England, then Albuquerque, NM.  In 1994, I left active duty and went into the Air Force Reserves (in which I am still active) so that I can concentrate on my holistic medicine practice. In 1997, I left New Mexico and lived in California where I began Aroma Rx Inc, and eventually opened a storefront (The Aroma Shoppe) in Los Alamos, CA in 2003.

The events of 9-11 resulted on my excessive military duty, and in January 2007 had to close Aroma Rx and The Aroma Shoppe for a call up again to Active Duty. This sent me to Mountain Home, Idaho, then Frederick, MD then Andrews AFB, MD,  and finally Falls Church, VA. In August 2011, I came back off active duty and back into the reserves, where I maintain my current reserve position at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, VA.

Two weeks ago, I relocated to Lewes Delaware, where I intend to expand my holistic health practice, with a primary focus on Whole Food Plant Based Nutrition utilizing the PCRM Food For Life program. I will also be focusing on completion of my PhD in Public Policy and Administration with a Health Policy Specialty.  Perhaps I can use this knowledge to enact legislation to “put health back into healthcare”.

What inspired you to go into pharmacy?

I have wanted to be a pharmacist since I was 10 years old.

When I was 10 years old, my father suffered burns over 30% of his body in a work related explosion. He endured some of the first skin grafting procedures in Delaware while he was hospitalized for quite some months, along with outpatient treatments that included a myriad of creams, ointments, liniments, and pain medications.  I became the “drug runner” between my house and the local pharmacy (called Happy Harry’s) about a half mile away.  Several times a week I watched in fascination as Pharmacist Herb practiced his craft:  After he reviewed the illegible writing on a piece of paper from the doctor and typed up a label, he performed his mathematical calculations.  He then weighed out powder ingredients on a Class A Prescription Balance, triturated them in a glass mortar and pestle, measured liquid ingredients in a Cylindrical Graduate, selected a hydrophilic ointment base, used a spatula to mix the powder, liquid, and ointment ingredients together into a homogenous mixture on a ground glass ointment slab using geometric dilution.  He precisely filled an amber glass ointment jar, smoothed off the top, capped, and applied the typed label to the jar.  I signed a log sheet as a receipt of this miracle cure for my father, and off I went back home to cheerfully deliver the lifesaving contents of my Happy Harry Pharmacy bag.  My fate for being a pharmacist was sealed—my 10-year-old brain had witnessed how to make the “cure” for whatever ails people.

But something went wrong after just 18 months of practicing pharmacy.  I was dispensing an average of four medications per person, and frequently as many as twelve.  Not only were these people not getting any better, many were feeling worse…perhaps from side effects, unknown drug interactions, or misdiagnosis.  This approach was not only ineffective but outrageously expensive.  How could my beloved chosen profession drastically change from my first exposure in 1972 to 1987 while I witnessed it routinely fail people?  Thus began my inquiry on how I could practice pharmacy and positively impact peoples’ health and wellbeing.

Being in England opened my eyes to holistic healing through herbs, essential oils, and a variety of other healing modalities.

During the introductions at PCRM, I recall you said something about that you were tired of dispensing boat loads of medicine to your patients….Tell me more about that! Where and how did you become aware of nutrition as medicine?

It is disheartening to dispense so many medications for chronic illnesses that result from lifestyle choices, whether from overeating, eating the “wrong” foods too often, using chemicals (i.e. tobacco, recreational drugs and alcohol, or prescription drugs) to improve our moods,  or not having the education to make healthier choices.  In many cases, people would just rather take a drug to say, reduce cholesterol, rather than make appropriate life style choices.

Innately, I had always known that “you are what you eat”, and that food could serve as a healing modality. However, the information that the public receives isn’t always accurate. For instance, people think that olive oil is “healthy” and therefore pour it on everything, and then wonder why they are still fat. Or think milk is something that is required for babies because it is what is taught or seen as a standard of practice/standard of care.  Another example is people that falsely believe that chicken is “healthier”  than red meat.  Or that one needs animal meat to get protein in their diet, or that vegetarians don’t get enough protein. These fallacies can go on and on.  I too, was guilty of teaching these myths because it is what was taught to me as fact and evidence based. I also was a huge advocate of supplementation, and although I still see the need for certain supplements, my view has changed.

I stopped eating “red meat” since I was about 12. (I boycotted milk even earlier than that, which did cause some adversarial situations with my mother. (I did agree to consume cottage cheese and yogurt because I did like these two foods and was a compromise to satisfy my mother’s determination to insure I was getting adequate calcium…again, another fallacy in educational information of the average consumer.) It simply would not digest easily, and would sit there in my stomach like a rock and cause pain. So then it was just fish and chicken for a couple more years, then just fish, then after college, when I was living in England, it became primarily vegetarian, with some eggs because I made some awesome quiches!  I was also doing short triathalons at this time, and masters swimming, and nearly 200 miles per week on my bike, but ironically, being very weak, experiencing some hair thinning, and having a higher body fat than I wanted. So I knew I was doing something wrong with my nutrition.

When I returned to the US in 1992, I went to see a nationally recognized and prominent nutritionist, who had me do a food diary (this was a first experience for me), put me on a supplement routine,  and insisted I add back more eggs, seafood, and chicken into my diet. Which I did.  Another significant factor that she did for me was to identify a gluten intolerance, which was probably one of the most profound health improvement that my visit to her did. The results were immediate and significant. I regained my health within a month’s time, dropped nearly 20 pounds, and was back full of energy.   The problem is that I really didn’t enjoy animal products anymore, and eventually dropped the chicken to maybe once a month, seafood a couple of times a month, and continued with eggs and dairy. Being gluten free has also been part of my life since this visit in 1992.  I was also living alone, which made it simpler to eat what and when I wanted with no regard to anyone else.  SO I was able to maintain good health eating about 80% plant-based for close to 16 years.

True North

When did you decide to go plant-based vegan?

When I moved back to the east coast in 2008, my friends told me about this clinic called True North (http://www.healthpromoting.com/) and that I definitely needed to go for myself as well as an educational opportunity to expand my current knowledge and to meet interesting people. So I eventually went there.  Since I didn’t have any chronic illnesses, I took the opportunity to go there to catch up on my rest and take my own personal vacation. I did not do the water fast which they are known for (you’ll have to visit their website for the details),  but engaged in their “feeding program”  which consisted of 100% whole food plant based foods, no oil, no sugar, no salt.  I was in heaven!  And to top it off, someone else prepared it! At True North, they also provide lectures and DVDs on nutrition, which was invaluable in my understanding of why a WFPBD is so perfect for health, along with the environmental and animal protection aspects involved with a WFPBD.  When I returned from True North, I immediately enrolled in the T. Colin Campbell e-cornell certification program (http://www.tcolincampbell.org/courses-resources/).

Who or what inspired you to do so? Was the transition difficult?

Quite frankly, I didn’t know a lot a lot of details about a whole food plant based diet (WFPBD), or veganism, until I went to True North. I thought I knew what the word “vegan” meant, but really didn’t understand that it is about nutritional choices, and food intake, rather than my perceptions of animal rights activists or Birkenstocks, which I to this day am cautious about using the word “vegan” because I am sure that my old thoughts are very common among others as well due to our societal programming.  Once I learned the nutritional value and healthful aspects of a WFPBD, I never had to think about anything else but eating this way.  It’s as if that one minute I was vegetarian, then next minute I was WFPB. End of story.  Period. Dot.

It was super easy for me.  When I returned back home after True North, I cleaned out my cabinets based on food labels, and now it is tons easier for me to shop…down maximum of 3 aisles…vegs/fruit, grains, frozen foods. It is tons less expensive because I don’t have the need to purchase packaged foods because of all the fat and sodium in them, and I continued to expand my use of dried beans in bulk.  I also shop at Farmer’s Markets, and joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture….people can find one in their area by visiting http://www.localharvest.org/csa/). I also learned to purchase things in season, and then can or freeze things for later use.

I also am not an advocate of “transition” foods such as tofurkey, veggie burgers, or any of those other “products” that mimic the taste and texture of animal based products.  Concentrated soy, boatloads of salt, sugar, and fat, and processing like wild…to me that doesn’t even constitute itself as food! To me, that’s like having a smoker wean off the cigarettes. I’m an advocate of cold turkey, just do it.

One thing to note…I think personality and behavior play a great deal on the ease or difficulty of switching to a WFPBD.  Dr. Doug Lisle (a physician at True North, lecturer, and author of The Pleasure Trap…..you can google him for more info.) would agree, and in fact, discusses this at length at True North.  I am someone that does not need a lot of variety, who views food as a means of sustenance (vice food as pleasure), and sees the value for health by eating the most nutrient dense foods. I did not need a lot of salesmanship in making the switch.  I am cognizant of these behavioral and personality issues when teaching someone about WFPBN because I have to speak to them in a way that will affect their decisions to make it a more permanent choice for them.

How has your family/friends reacted to you switching to this new diet? Has anyone decided to change theirs?

Having been a holistic pharmacist since 1987, my friends have always experienced me as someone who is “different”.  That makes me smile just thinking of this.  I don’t make a big deal about it since it’s not a big deal to me, only them. I can always find things to eat on a menu, and the chefs at restaurants are more than willing to be accommodating. It allows them to be creative. I do acknowledge that they may use more salt or oil than I am used to, but I just consider that part of the social “cost” of doing things with my friends. No big deal.

Several of my friends have incorporated more WFPBN aspects into their daily living. I don’t preach, and only discuss a WFPBD when they ask, which seems to be more frequently.  I did have someone live with me for the past 24 days while I relocated, so I “warned” him in advance that this is the only way I eat, and that if he wanted “junk” food in the house, he would have to make that investment in, and then remove any leftovers upon his departure. He said he was “game for the Michele Vegan Boot Camp”, so he ate everything I ate, and ended up losing 20 pounds!  Wow, that’s fantastic! (I’m sure if he didn’t insist on wine every night with dinner, that weight loss would have been more significant.) He also received a first-hand education on food preparation, and food label reading. He ended up snagging my FFL 21-Day Kick Start book…now I have to purchase another one! For Thanksgiving, we had a WFPBD offering for 8 if us, although there was a very small turkey prepared for those that insisted on turkey. Funny that the majority of the turkey was left over while the other WFPB dishes were nearly consumed…including the gluten and sugar free, low fat, vegan brownies that I made!

You live in a small community? How do you think people’s reaction will be to you advocating diet vs. pills? Has there been any reaction so far?

Lewes DE is a small community (http://www.ci.lewes.de.us/, http://www.ci.lewes.de.us/) in southern Delaware.  As of 2012, Lewes’s population is 2,747 people. Since 2000, it has had a population growth of 2.37 percent. It is considered in top 10 places to retire.  During the summer, it becomes populated with summer vacationers. I lived here in the early 1980’s when I did my pharmacy internship at the local hospital. I have already been cycling with the Sussex Cyclists, and they are awesome! They love to talk about their health and are anxious to learn about healthy alternatives to pharmaceuticals and diet. Just last week I spent some time with a retired nurse practitioner that informed me of a small group of people that have gotten together in the past for “vegan” cooking. Several in the community have attended the 3 day kickstart class from PCRM.  I think there is a growing excitement to have a certified FFL instructor in town. They are fortunate to have you, Michele!

What are your future plans?

Over the next two months as I initially get settled here in Lewes, I will need to re-establish my businesses here in Delaware.  I will also have to “turn on” my websites which I have had in storage mode until I was ready to jump into business again full time, after my active duty military obligations were fulfilled. That is what I am currently working on, as well as setting up a few new blogs. I also am committed to doing my PhD coursework . You’re a busy woman!

I have some military duty during this time, which takes me back to Falls Church.  But I continue to network in targeted community groups to determine the interest as well as a “point” person that will make it easier for me to gain traction. I’d like to start by offering free 90 minute introductory courses to establish interest and credibility, not only for my FFL classes, but in my ongoing lifestyle medicine/holistic healing classes that I have offered for several years (i.e. drug and herb interactions, natural approaches to diabetes, sports supplementation, etc).  By February, I think I will be ready for my first cancer, diabetes, or kickstart program.  I also have been offered an opportunity to align with an organization out of Michigan for the manufacture and distribution of my aromatherapy product line, which will take some time to establish that part of my business.

Be the Change...

I had a knee injury at the end of October which has kept me off my bike, but my time at the gym for weight training has increased. I also am having a custom bike made which should be ready by Christmas, which will be my gift of health to myself for the decades to come.  That’s priceless! I’ll send you some photos when I get it…. In fact, I had etched into the frame my favorite saying…”Be the change that you wish to see in the world” which is attributed to Gandhi, but upon researching this saying, Gandhi really said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” It really doesn’t matter if he said it or not, the essence is still the same…can you imagine a world where change for the positive exists, in health, fitness, nutrition, prosperity, etc? That’s what my bike and cycling mean to me so I had it engraved on my custom bike instead of my name, which most people do. I can’t wait to see that! Sounds awesome! Yes, I can imagine a world in which health, fitness, nutrition, and prosperity exists for everyone!

Do you have a favorite book or dish or something that you would like to tell my readers about?

Not really. I’ll think on this. My favorite changes from person to person and situation to situation. I guess my favorite is the one that makes the difference for someone.  Perhaps that’s why I use so many different websites and books…but they all are basically from the same mold: clinically relevant, evidence based, scientifically accountable, results oriented. Recipes need to be easy, inexpensive, no sugar, no oil, no salt, (and if possible, no gluten), and 100% plant based.

There are also several DVDs and books on the topic that can be referenced somewhere else, but when I establish my new blogs, I’ll list them all out for people.

Any final thoughts for my readers about diet and health?

I read somewhere that a WFPBD may only add a couple of years to one’s life. Although I don’t really care if that is true or not, my thing is the quality of life that those years have.  If taught properly about nutrition and how to make healthy foods look, smell, and taste good, then the choice is a no brainer. Stop focusing on why/why not, expense, what others will say, and all the other “reasons” that people make for not being accountable to themselves with their health choices. Focus on being healthy and accountable to the person in the mirror. Then you set the example by actions, not by words.

Why spend money on expensive pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures when the answer really is in a couple of aisles in the grocery store? Why not invest 30 minutes a day on fitness to improve health, rather than spending weeks and months recuperating from surgical interventions when health has deteriorated? Once health becomes a way of life, you don’t really even notice that you are doing something “different”.  Just like brushing your teeth. Simple. Make the choice today.

Michele, I can’t begin to thank you enough for all that you have shared here! You Go, Girl! Your thoughts are so clear, compelling and inspiring!

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About urbanveganchic

I'm an urban chic woman, who is passionate about educating others about the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based vegan diet, cancer prevention & survival, as well as art & life. I love adventures and travel. As an artist and a teacher, I care deeply about healthy living, being a conscious steward of our planet, and being kind & respectful towards animals. Learning about a vegan plant-based diet has been like discovering a new country and falling in love with it, so if I sound like I'm enamored you now know why! As a world traveler, I truly wish I had discovered this beautiful new country twenty years ago! Better late than never, as they say, cause there's no going back now! Born and raised in Scandinavia. Proud owner of a tripod cat & a foxy little pup. Speak four languages...some better than others. Working on the fifth one. We are all either part of the problem or the solution! Health & Happiness to you! ~UrbanVeganChic

6 responses »

    • Hi Anne,
      Thanks for reading! You and I can talk about what you’re eating. I can certainly offer a few tips in this area. Going vegan doesn’t necessarily mean “going healthy” – so many products that are vegan are high in fat, salt, and oils. You want to avoid these! I personally keep nuts and olive oils to a minimum! Please do not be disheartened because I know you know that you’re on the right path! Focus on the plants! I recently bought the “BRAVO” cookbook by Ramses Bravo. He’s the executive chef at True North! GET IT!!! Love ya, Anne! Talk soon! xo Nina

      • Hey Nina,
        I am pretty careful about not eating junk. I try to make my own food so I know what’s in it and can control the sodium. I never buy packaged foods or food that has a long list of ingredients. I go by the “never buy food you see advertised on TV” rule ( I made that one up). I will admit to eating far too many carbs – grainy bread, pasta, flax seed crackers.

  1. That was an amazing article, Nina. Thanks so much for posting it. And thanks to Michele for spending the time to answer your questions. I would love to sit down with her and ask her a few myself. I’ve been vegan for 2 years and have never weighed so much in my life. I’m disheartened by it and would love to relearn what veganism really is. I do it for compassionate reasons but it seems my health isn’t better. I should take a class or go to True North 🙂

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