By Monika Szekely
I grew up in a small town in Eastern Europe. My family roots are Hungarian and German, so the foods we ate were heavy in meat and fats, although the vegetables were grown in the garden and all meals were cooked by my mother from scratch. Despite the unhealthy foods we ate, my family was relatively healthy, although one grandfather passed away at 77 years old of a stroke, and my father was overweight and a smoker.
Following my childhood dream, I graduated from Medical School (where I didn’t learn anything about healthy nutrition) and the following year I moved to the US. At this point, I was in my mid-twenties. Very quickly I got acquainted with the American Diet, as I worked in the medical field where we were overwhelmed with pharmaceutical company financed lunches. It didn’t take too long before I started getting sick. I developed digestive issues, which have worsened, and eventually I ended up seeing a gastroenterologist because I had lost about 20 lbs. Following an endoscopy and a Barium Swallow, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. It was a crushing diagnosis on the brink of my 30th birthday. After 3 months of treatment, my issues had not subsided, so I underwent a second endoscopy, this time with a biopsy, that showed no sign of Crohn’s. I was discharged with the “IBS” label and I took it upon myself to educate myself about how to live with this disorder. My digestive symptoms were bad at this point. I was crippled with pain every day, my tummy was rumbling, and nothing I did gave me relief. I took an online Nutrition certification, but unfortunately didn’t find any information that could’ve helped me. By accident, I discovered one day that it was the Splenda that I was using in my coffee that was giving me these problems. As soon as I removed it from my diet, my digestive issues subsided. This was the moment when I made the connection and realized that not everything sold in grocery stores is safe for consumption.
I had embarked on my journey to learn about healthy nutrition. While my digestive issues were put to rest, I soon started getting food intolerances. First sulfites (dried fruit, canned foods, salad bars), then sulfa drugs, MSG…I became an obsessive-compulsive label reader. As the years passed, I discovered more and more substances: carrageenan, citric acid, protein powders, yeast extract, etc. and had realized that my safest bet is to cook my meals from scratch without any additives. The main symptoms I would get from these food additives are delayed type, mostly puffy face, swollen hands/feet, severe IBS symptoms, brain fog, fatigue, and skin rashes. I addressed it with my GP, and her only answer was to avoid these food additives…which I was already doing to the best of my knowledge.
Five years ago, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. At this point, besides obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, he had hypertension, a stroke, diabetes…and now cancer. Because of the advanced stage surgery was not an option, and radiation therapy was the only palliative, so once again I dived in the literature to find ways to keep him comfortable. This quest led me to one day watch the documentary “What The Health,” and my life was changed that day. I adopted a whole food plant-based diet the next day, and never looked back. Unfortunately, it was too late for my father, as we lost him to the cancer two years ago. Although, he made it 3 years past the diagnosis of terminal cancer, which is impressive, and most of those 3 years were pain-free. I’m attributing this to the newly adopted plant-based diet.
My transition to an unprocessed plant-based diet wasn’t seamless, as I quickly discovered that Nutritional Yeast was giving me the same reaction I described above. About one year into my plant-based lifestyle, and feeling amazingly well on it, my GYN recommended I incorporate soy into my diet as I was approaching pre-menopause, and HRT was not something I was wanting to consider. I willingly obliged! I was using organic whole soybeans, and organic edamame, and sure enough it was helping with the night-sweats. However, a few months later I started getting persistent skin hives, even ended up in Urgent Care covered in them one day. Was referred to an allergist and all tests were negative. I was told I have idiopathic dermatitis. And things got worse…both my wrists started hurting and despite being active I was getting muscle soreness and stiffness. At this point, I was sent to Rheumatology and had an entire batch of tests done to look for autoimmune disorders. But once again all labs came back negative. My IBS had flared up and was getting very bad. One day I decided to stop the soy…and within 2 weeks all the symptoms had subsided. I am not allergic to soy, but I am intolerant to it.
I have maintained a plant-based diet because I truly believe that it is the right diet to be on, and like Brenda Davis, RD famously said “A diet is only good for the human species as it is ecologically sustainable and ethically justifiable”! My journey opened me up to so much learning. I truly believe that my “encounter” with Splenda has triggered hypervigilance in my immune system, that has set me on this rollercoaster of food sensitivities. I am also looking into the role of the microbiome, and even potentially SIBO. I can see that the road ahead is still uncharted, but I’m on my way! Meanwhile, I decided to also help others who might be in my situation. I see so many posts online about people trying out a plant-based diet and feel “horrible”, or bloating is an extreme issue, and can’t help but wonder if they are not going through the same experience I went? After completing the Plant-Based Nutrition Certification through eCornell I started teaching plant-based nutrition in the local community and hoping to be able to reach many people who struggle with the transition.