Today, SevenPonds is speaking with Caryn Dugan, founder of the website STL Veg Girl and an expert on plant-based nutrition. Caryn began researching the benefits of a plant-based diet after a cancer scare in 2008. She later went on to study nutrition and health at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Roxube School of Cooking. Caryn has also trained at the Wellcoaches School of Coaching.
Kathleen: Thanks for speaking to me today, Caryn.
Caryn: You’re welcome!
Kathleen: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be interested in the benefits of a plant-based diet?
Caryn: Certainly! It all started in 2008 when my dad died from cancer, and exactly 10 weeks later, I learned I had malignant melanoma. I was still reeling from my dad’s death, so my diagnosis sent me into a world of turmoil. I tried everything to relieve the stress I was feeling — yoga, acupuncture, you name it. But nothing worked. So I turned to the internet to see what I could find.
Kathleen: And you found answers in plant-based nutrition?
Caryn: Slowly but surely, yes. I was skeptical at first. Before all this happened, I was the “Lean Cuisine queen.” I believed anything that was low-carb and low-fat was good for you just because the box said it was. But the more I read, the more convinced I became that a plant-based diet was really something I should try. I found dozens of studies that said plant-based nutrition had all these benefits, including shrinking some cancers. And not one study pointed to anything negative. So I said, “Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Kathleen: So you became a vegan just like that?
Caryn: Pretty much. I just went home and emptied the pantry. I tossed out all the animal-based foods, everything canned and everything made with refined flour. Then I went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of fruits and vegetables and Ezekiel bread. I wasn’t much of a cook at the time, so I just looked online and found recipes for steaming vegetables.
Kathleen: Wasn’t that really boring? Eating nothing but steamed vegetables, I mean?
Caryn: Yes it was! My husband was very unhappy and totally rejected it at first. But he knew I was doing this for a good reason, so he decided to take a vegan cooking class at Whole Foods. He loved it, and so the next time they held the class, I went with him. I hit it off really well with the instructor, and I loved learning how to make tasty, vegan meals.
Kathleen: Is that how you began your career?
Caryn: Yes, although I didn’t look at it that way at the time. The woman who was teaching the class, Bridgette, asked me if I wanted to become her assistant. I thought, “Who, me? I can’t cook!” But I took a chance and said, “Yes.” I started going to the classes twice a week, learning and studying with her. Then, after about 2 ½ years, she moved to Tennessee, and Whole Foods asked me to take her place. I was shocked. I didn’t think I was qualified. But I took a chance and agreed.
Kathleen: How did you become involved with the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine?
After losing my dad to cancer and having cancer myself, I was very interested in learning more about how we can use nutrition to prevent or even reverse cancer. And that’s what the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is all about. They do studies and make evidence-based recommendations about how to use a plant-based diet to promote wellness, whether you currently have cancer or are trying to prevent it. So I attended their Food for Life certification program and eventually began to teach classes myself.
Kathleen: What was that like?
I was terrified! But as I began working with people with cancer I started to realize, “This is a big deal.” The people attending the classes were so sick and so tired. They were really struggling to feel well. And by teaching them about plant-based nutrition, I was helping them. I began to feel like part of a larger community. It was very, very fulfilling.
Please come back next week for part two of our interview with Caryn, where we will talk further about the benefits of a plant-based diet, and Caryn will give you some vegan cooking tips.