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PLANT PLATES: Making the switch to a more plant-based diet

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A couple of weeks ago I recommended readers pay close attention to the role food plays in their overall health and well-being. The topic of food comes up a lot in my work as both an Integrative Health Coach and a Team Trainer at Whole Foods. At Whole Foods, the questions are more based on the location of food, such as “where is the peanut butter?” As a health coach, I often hear the anxiety-ridden statement, “I just don’t know what to eat!”

This is not surprising given the constant flow of information about the Keto diet, the Whole 30 diet, the Paleo diet, and all the foods you should and shouldn’t eat. Talk about overwhelming!

Choosing what to eat used to be a lot simpler, but times have changed and we’ve been given a lot more choices when it comes to how we want to nourish our bodies. Unfortunately, a lot of those choices come laden with ingredients our taste buds love but the rest of our bodies wish we wouldn’t eat. 

I can’t emphasize enough how impactful food is on our overall well-being. How will you feel in an hour if you choose to eat the doughnut for breakfast versus a more nutritious option like a protein smoothie with kale and strawberries? How clear will your mind be hours after a fried fish and chips lunch versus a salad laden with fresh veggies, pumpkin seeds and avocado?

The doughnut (my personal weakness) and fried fish are hard to resist while in the moment. While those seconds after we say “no” may be tough, it takes moments to move on and some may even feel a sense of pride for not being seduced by those temptations.

PRO TIP: Keeping a simple food journal can really help us make the connection between what we eat and how we feel. It helps us be more mindful, a key “ingredient” when it comes to changing food habits.

I, too, have been confused at times about foods and what’s best for my body. With a natural inclination to eat “healthy” and with no known food allergies or specific reasons to eliminate any foods, I’ve experimented with how different foods feel in my body and how they affect my energy level, mental clarity, and overall state of health. I have come to the conclusion that a mainly plant-based diet feels and works best; is most appropriate given my genetic history of high cholesterol; and also aligns with my value of doing less harm to the Earth. What this means is that I choose to eat no meat several days a week, include 4-6 daily servings of veggies and fruit, and limit sweets to special occasions (like Boombalatti’s ice cream dates with my family).

PRO TIP: For resources on plant-based eating, visit Forks Over Knives Beginners Guide and McDougall Health Programs

My personal choices align with the recommendations of Dr. Dean Ornish, author of “UnDo It!” Dr. Ornish has completed over 35 years of research on how diet and lifestyle can affect our health. He designed a Lifestyle Medicine program that is offered at hospitals across the country and is covered by Medicare and some insurance companies for people with risk factors like coronary heart disease and diabetes. There are two hospitals in North Carolina that offer the program and one of them is New Hanover Regional Medical Center.


There are four areas of focus in the Ornish Program. Graphic taken from


I heard Dr. Ornish speak in Wilmington last year and was very inspired by the compelling evidence he shared about how eating a whole foods, plant-based diet helps prevent and even reverse the progression of many chronic diseases. The reason, Dr. Ornish explains, is that many chronic diseases “share so many common underlying biological causes, mechanisms, and pathways.”

What does that mean?

It means that the effects of lifestyle changes affect all of the mechanisms that create the environment for heart disease, diabetes and other conditions to develop. For example, your lifestyle plays a key role in (Taken from “UnDo It!”):

  • Chronic inflammation and immune system dysfunction
  • Chronic emotional stress, depression, overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, stress hormones, and lack of sleep
  • Gene expression (lifestyle changes can change your genes) and sirtuins (sirtuins help cells stay in balance)
  • Telomeres (located at the end of chromosomes that keep chromosomes from sticking together. The longer the telomeres, the slower you age).
  • The microbiome (eating the right foods allows your microbiome to come back into balance)
  • Oxidative stress, cellular metabolism, and apoptosis (apoptosis is the death of cells, which eliminates potentially cancerous and virus-infected cells, and maintains balance in the body.
  • Angiogenesis (growth of blood vessels)
  • Stasis (referring to blood flow)

I met someone last week in the aisles at Whole Foods who is currently in the Ornish program at NHRMC. This man, I’ll call him “John,” was already very healthy before he started the program, but months before had an episode where he felt an alarming sensation running down his left arm. He knew something was not right and after getting checked out, ended up having double stents put into a major artery because of a 98% blockage. He was stunned, but also very motivated to improve his already healthy habits.

John is halfway through the Ornish program right now and is at the healthiest he’s ever been. In addition to losing weight, he feels stronger than ever, running 16 miles per week and biking 44 miles per week. On speaking about how this could happen to someone already in good health, John says, “Meat + fat + cholesterol clog my arteries more than some people. I wish I had known about the Ornish diet before.”

PRO TIP: John’s favorite meal is a fruit smoothie and he loves experimenting with different recipes. He shared a fat substitute with me that consists of prunes, water and lecithin (carried at Whole Foods). I’m going to try this the next time I make a batch of my favorite Life Changing Bread.

The Ornish program is based on four tenets: Move More; Eat Well; Love More; Stress Less. I’ve focused on the Eat Well portion of his program in this article because I see diet changes having the most immediate effect on people’s lives. Dr. Ornish suggests making big diet changes all at once if you are seeking to reverse a life-threatening illness because you’re likely to feel better much more quickly, which keeps you motivated to stay on track, as opposed to making small changes slowly. Dr. Ornish has found the average patient loses 24 pounds in their first year with the Lifestyle Medicine program despite eating more food and eating more frequently. Weight loss from a lower fat, plant-rich diet coupled with exercise, stress management, and supportive relationships are the key actions if you want to reverse or prevent most chronic diseases.


Chelsea Thornhill is a Duke Certified Integrative Health Coach who partners with people who are ready to create habits and behaviors that support the health and well-being they desire. Learn more at

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