In 2003, Stephanie got really sick. As she writes on her blog, she was “off-work-for-six-months sick. Can’t-walk-around-the-block sick.” Told that there was no treatment for her diagnosis, she gave up sugar, gluten, processed foods, and adopted a plant-based diet. Here, she talks about cooking vegan, sugar- and gluten-free, what happened when she traveled in France, and why she’s decided to help others by renovating their favorite recipes through her blog.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in San Diego, CA with my hubby and Golden retriever Buddy Girl. My primary job is as a museum consultant, and I’ve had my food blog since July 2010.
How would you describe/define your diet today?
Super-fresh and delicious! I went off gluten about 5 years ago and refined sugar about 6 years ago to try to address some health issues. I went mostly vegan one year ago to see if I could lower my cholesterol. (And I did, 40 points in 5 weeks!) So I eat mostly plants and am gluten-free and sugar-free. I do make exceptions for special occasions and when I travel. Then I shoot for gluten-free first, vegetarian second, vegan if I can get it.
Tell us about the evolution of your diet. How has what you eat changed over the years?
I had been interested in food, and learning how to cook, since I was a teenager. I read “Diet for a Small Planet” by Francis Moore Lappé when it first came out in the 70s, along with the Pritikin Program in the early 80s. Diet for a Small Planet changed the way I thought about food and my choices, and I was vegetarian for many years as a result. I was not vegetarian from ages 34-49 (we ate meat about once a week, and red meat maybe once a quarter). Now, I’m mostly vegan, and gluten- and sugar-free.
What encouraged you to go from vegetarianism to veganism?
I completely respect people who are strict vegans, and people who choose to eat animal products. Whether or not you think it’s wrong to eat animals, it’s not necessary. For the planet—it’s not sustainable. I was eating very little poultry and seafood, and making sustainable local choices there, but was still using dairy and eggs. My cholesterol kept going up, so I decided to try going vegan. While that might sound restrictive, I actually eat so well and feel fantastic. Removing certain things from my diet, especially processed foods, has inspired me to try all sorts of new foods, like unusual grains, mushrooms, and even seaweed and cactus pears.
What prompted the first change?
My big switch to sugar- and gluten-free was because I got really sick in 2003. I couldn’t work for nearly a year. They thought I had fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
What was difficult about that?
Actually, having something I could DO to impact my health was empowering. When they tell you that you have chronic fatigue, it comes with, “And good luck with that, because there’s no treatment and we can’t help you.”
So, when a health practitioner suggested I get off sugar to lower my inflammation, I was willing to try anything. When I started feeling better about three weeks in, I knew it was the way to go. Same with gluten. Yes, I have to think about my food more, especially when eating out. But I have my life back.
Are you ever tempted to “slip up”? If so, how do you stay the course?
When I went to France, after wanting to go all my life, I knew I was going to eat whatever I wanted. I was really tired of the rich food after 2 days, but did enjoy it. I knew I would just detox when I got home. But my face got all puffy and I broke out, and it’s taken me a while to get back to feeling well, so I wouldn’t do that again. I don’t believe there are “bad” foods… just choices that aren’t as helpful for me as others. But I do believe we should make friends with our food, and try to eat things we believe are good for us.
What continues to be difficult about maintaining a veg lifestyle?
Being vegan and gluten-free is the hardest thing, because so much of vegan food involves gluten. So I focus on the gluten-free part first. I always bring dishes to any occasion (unless it’s catered) so I know I have something to eat. If I’m going out for a business event, I call ahead to find out about the menu and what I can eat, so that I don’t have to have that conversation in front of colleagues.
Going vegetarian or vegan often requires more cooking. What do you say to people who’d like to go veg, but don’t have time to cook?
There are so many options available now… just go to Trader Joe’s and take a look. My husband, who used to love meat, will eat their baked tofu in strips in wraps for lunch. While cooking skills are helpful, there is a lot you can do as an “assembler.”
You write a blog called “Recipe Renovator”, which remakes recipes with healthier ingredients. Why did you adopt this point of view on your blog?
While there are thousands of food blogs and recipe sites, I found very few featuring vegetarian food that was gluten- and sugar-free.
I also wanted to meet people where they were and see if I could help. So people can email me favorite or family recipes, and I can help them modify them for special diets.
I was inspired by Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I started the blog to serve… wanting to help people who knew they needed or wanted to change, but didn’t know how.
What do you think is the easiest aspect of your current lifestyle? What do you do to make it easier for yourself?
My husband is super-supportive and will eat everything I cook. That helps a ton. It also really helps to live in Southern California, as we have such amazing produce here.
What do you see as the greatest benefits of your current diet?
Where do I start? No need for cholesterol-lowering drugs. Visiting the doctor once a year instead of every 3 weeks. Feeling well. Having energy. Maintaining my proper weight (which is more difficult because I’m in perimenopause, but still much easier on this diet.)
What advice would you offer to people who are considering adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet?
A world of delicious food awaits you! Find a blog you like and sign up for their e-mail updates, to keep a fresh supply of ideas coming. The 21 Day Vegan Kickstart is a really good free program. And, find a buddy to help support you. Cook together.
Could you share a favorite recipe?
I love my Dirty Rice with Soy Chorizo… it represents my evolution in food.
It’s a a rich New Orleans dish that a friend lightened with turkey and turkey bacon, that I further renovated by using soy chorizo. And my meat-eating husband loves it. And it’s easy to make. And it uses up celery leaves, which I never know what to do with. I’ve made it for company, and also it’s just a good Sunday night supper.
Want more renovated classes and family favorites? Be sure to visit Stephanie’s blog!
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