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My Health Journey

It’s a new year and the time when people are making resolutions about how they are going to improve their lives. One of the most popular resolutions is to lose weight and eat better. Unfortunately, too many resolutions are abandoned before the first week of the year is over.

I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions because I have goals that I set for myself all year long. But this year I did announce 2 goals that I intend to seriously tackle: writing and publishing my cookbook and finally reaching my weight loss goal of weighing exactly half of what I used to weigh.

My health story had been published on Christina Pirello’s web site, Christina Cooks, but when I went to read it, the link was gone. Christina has redesigned her web site and I guess my story was deleted 🙂 So I thought I would post my story here, updated, so it would at hand for when I need inspiration. I hope it inspires you as well!

My Health Journey

Growing up illness was always a part of my life. Every time I was bottle-fed, I would cry. My mother thought it was colic but when my cries grew louder and stronger, she took me to the doctor. He fed me whole milk and my entire body became covered in giant, red hives. I was allergic to cow’s milk so I was switched to a soy-based infant formula. When I was 2 years old, I contracted a virus that put me in the hospital for weeks, hooked up to IVs in my arms and legs. Many of my childhood days were spent in bed under a sheet-made tent filled with vaporizer steam to help the croup I got repeatedly. My cough was so bad, my father said I sounded like “a dog barking.” Doctors made house calls back then and it felt like mine was always there with his black bag of medicines and syringes, visiting more often than friends or relatives did.

It feels like I grew up in doctors’ offices and hospitals. My mother began working in a hospital when I was 3 years old and I often spent time after school there, doing my homework in the radiology waiting room. She suffered from allergies, asthma and skin conditions that took her from one doctor’s appointment to another. My father and grandfather were admitted numerous times for various illnesses and I was the one to sit at their bedsides. Between the ages of eight and ten, I was hospitalized four times for serious kidney and urinary tract infections and was put on a salt-free diet for a while. Stomach pains led to a diagnosis of colitis. I grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive home so I also suffered from stress and headaches. Between these ailments and my recurrent respiratory infections, I missed more school than I attended. In 8th grade, I actually missed 86 days of school! There were always bottles of cough medicines and antibiotics mingling with my flavored, chewable vitamins.

There was also always food to comfort me like my mother’s delicious chicken soup with matzo balls. I was a meat lover – steak, burgers, lamb and chicken. My only vegetables were potatoes, peas and salad. I was also an “animal lover” but the connection between the animals I petted and the ones on my plate was lost on me. Luckily, I have never had a sweet tooth so cakes, cookies and ice cream were not temptations for me but when we went out to a restaurant for sundaes, I ordered the fried chicken dinner instead. I craved salty and fatty foods like potato chips and anything fried. My weight was steadily increasing and my parents took me to Weight Watchers at age 13 after my freshman homeroom teacher suggested I lose weight. I lost 40 pounds that summer and returned to high school a happier, more outgoing sophomore. However, I continued to have chronic bronchitis, asthma and stomach problems.

My college years were my happiest because a busy schedule kept me away from home more often. I had two majors, biology and psychology, I was pre-med, and had two part-time jobs. My stomach pains worsened and a gastroenterologist diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and advised me to relax as I was on the verge of developing an ulcer. He gave me an anti-anxiety medication but I didn’t take it. I didn’t like the idea of taking medication; little did I know what my future held for me. In my second year of college, during an appointment for bronchitis, my doctor discovered a lump in my neck. I had two rounds of biopsies that both returned “inconclusive.” The endocrinologist started me on thyroid medicine but the mass continued to grow rapidly. Suspecting it was malignant, they removed half the gland. It turned out benign but I would need to take a thyroid supplement for the rest of my life.

In 1999, I became very ill with an autoimmune disorder that presented with a horrible array of symptoms, made worse by their visibility on my body. I was covered with huge hives and welts that no medicine could calm. My eyes, lips and joint tissues swelled to the point that I was actually sent home from work because I was too deformed to look at. My hair was falling out. I was so fatigued I couldn’t walk my dog around the block. Doctors did test and after test and prescribed one medication after another but nothing helped and they had no answers. I was put on mega-doses of hydroxyzine which only succeeded in knocking me out. Feeling alone and helpless, I turned to the Internet and found a support group for people with similar symptoms. They suggested taking Lysine in high doses and avoiding foods with MSG, artificial colors and preservatives and that helped more than any medication had. Tests finally showed I had a gamma-globulin deficiency (inherited from my mother) which made me more susceptible to illnesses and would increase my healing time. I had to change jobs because I could no longer handle the commute to work. Massive doses of steroids finally helped the hives and most of the swelling.

Then I began having horrible headaches I assumed were migraines. They turned out to be from my blood pressure which was soaring at about 220/120. My doctor put me on medication, then another medication. Then a few more. Feeling old and scared, I once again turned to Weight Watchers. I went to a meeting near my new job in Tribeca. The leader was wonderful. She was fun, used psychology (a big plus with me) and made us sing happy songs at the end of the meetings (“…when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”) I made zero-point vegetable soup and had a loss every single week! My routine was comforting and exciting. I would teach class, then walk to my WW meeting on Liberty St., and pick up another ribbon or star for my success. Then I would head to the Au Bon Pain stand in the World Trade Center and eat my vegetable soup outside in the Plaza in front of the Twin Towers. I lost 50 pounds in 3 and ½ months. On 9/11, the building where my meetings were held was destroyed and I quit again. I tried another meeting in another place but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same after that tragic day. Gradually, I put the weight back on.

The years went by with me proclaiming my love of animals while I continued to eat them and gain weight. Fast forward and I am 268 pounds with a host of medical problems and a dozen prescription and OTC medications in my drawer – Nexium, Prevecid, Singulair, Micardis, Asmacort, Mucinex, Immodium, Correctol and more. “I wish I could be a vegetarian but I love chicken too much. I could never give up chicken.” That was my mantra but my world was about to hit rock bottom.

My husband, Tom, (boyfriend at the time) and I started Weight Watchers together to lose weight. Several weeks into the program, I herniated a disk in my back and ended up immobile, on the couch and out of work for over a year. My chronic bronchitis transformed into recurrent bouts of pneumonia that required multiple rounds of high-dose antibiotics. In the span of a few months, I lost my 14 year old dog, Poochie, to cancer as well as what remained of my family. Depressed and in pain, I lay on the couch watching television. Deprived of my usual fattening, comfort foods, I started watching food and cooking shows on The Food Network, The Travel Channel and other local stations. I became a huge Rachael Ray fan, likening her personality to the potential of mine, when not plagued with personal loss. For hours a day, I would watch cooking shows and attempt to “Weight Watcherize” the recipes in order to stay on program. I started ordering cookbooks and cooking magazines. I was watching food, reading food and thinking food every waking hour.

Health became a concern as I read about high-fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives and MSG and I cleaned out the refrigerator and the pantry of anything that contained these items. We had nothing left in the house. It was amazing how these toxins had infiltrated their way into almost everything. I also began reading about dogs and cancer, how over 50% of dogs and cats die from cancer and that this was not true years ago. Having lost Poochie to cancer and being involved with the wonderful organization Canine Cancer Awareness, I read about what actually goes into pet food and was horrified. Then realized what goes into us and was even further horrified. Reducing our meat consumption was starting to sound like a good idea.

Then I found Christina Pirello of the TV cooking show “Christina Cooks.” She showed how to “makeover” favorite foods without meat, without dairy, without refined flours or sugars, without cholesterol or saturated fat and I was in awe of her. I bought her books, I watched her religiously, I wanted to be her. She mentioned the word “vegan” but I was not there yet, I was not aware enough for it to register. Even though I had always wanted to be a vegetarian. Even though I loved animals, my food addiction and denial got in the way. I suggested to Tom that we have a few meatless days each week, to which he agreed. I learned how to cook delicious vegetarian meals and realized that the “side dishes” were always my favorites anyway. Lucky for me, I loved vegetables and salad was always a requirement with dinner. With a few vegetarian days each week, my diet was back on track; then I ate meat and felt sick again. The final hammer was about to come down.

After doing some internet surfing, I requested vegetarian starter kits from PETA, Vegan Outreach and Compassion Over Killing. Then I watched the video, “Meet Your Meat.” I cried throughout the whole thing and swore I would never be a part of that suffering again. When my husband came home, I made him watch it and he cried too. We began the journey together and became vegetarians. Little did I know, there was so much more for us to do. I read several books that changed my outlook: “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins, “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason and “Breaking the Food Seduction” by Dr. Neal Barnard. I learned it was not enough to give up meat; the dairy and egg industry caused even more suffering. We stopped buying dairy products and replaced them with non-dairy alternatives. This was hard for me because I was used to buying low fat and non-fat items for my diet. Non-dairy alternatives did not use these labels and seemed to have more calories but I soon learned the benefits of the non-dairy alternatives. Eggs were the hardest thing for me to give up. I was used to my “healthy” egg white spinach omelet for breakfast and I did not like tofu yet but the sting of hypocrisy was too harsh to ignore and the eggs were soon gone too. I became a proud vegan!

With meat, dairy and eggs out my diet, my symptoms began to disappear. My post-nasal drip was gone, my allergies subsided, my sinuses cleared up and my digestive system was renewed. I haven’t had a case of bronchitis or pneumonia since. Even with my immune deficiency, I have barely had a cold. Even my perimenopausal symptoms such as hot flashes have improved. I have more energy than I have in years. One by one, I stopped taking all of my medications.

After learning about autoimmune disorders and inflammation, I started eating a gluten-free diet. This cut out a lot of the processed, convenient vegan foods. I now eat a more whole-foods vegan diet and I feel so much better. My autoimmune disorders still flare up but when they do, the symptoms are not as severe and last a much shorter time. My blood tests show that all my numbers are completely normal!

So far, I have lost 116 lbs. and I hope to lose more. I am on a mission to weigh exactly half of my starting weight. I used to wear size 26 pants and now my jeans are a size 8!

Growing up, my identity was that of an overweight, sickly person. There was always something wrong with me. Life was filled with ailments, doctors and medications. I thought I would never be “normal.” Now I try to let food be my medicine and food no longer controls me.  My new identity is that of a much healthier vegan person and for the first time in my life, I love who I am!
The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.

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17 Responses to My Health Journey

  1. Rhea Parsons January 25, 2012 at 3:12 am #

    Lisa – thank you. I think once you eat whole foods and forget the boxed, convenience stuff, being GF and vegan isn’t that hard at all.

    Honestly, I don’t use a lot of vegan cookbooks because I like to veganize and deglutenize regular recipes but I’d recommend Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Appetite for Reduction. Most of the recipes are GF and they are whole foods.

  2. Anonymous January 25, 2012 at 1:04 am #

    Omg…not bologna …BLOG!!!!

  3. Anonymous January 25, 2012 at 1:03 am #

    Wow Rhea…so inspiring! ! I came here looking for GF vegan recipes, but this is much better! I’ve been vegan for almost 12 years, GF for 2, after being diagnosed with MS. Sometimes being both GF and vegan can be daunting, but your blot helps!! Do you have any favorite cook books? There are lots to choose from (which is relatively new), but not sure which ones would be worthwhile. Thanks! I’m new to the bologna thing and don’t have a profile, but it’s Lisa from VFE.

  4. Rhea Parsons January 16, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    Thank you Debbie and Toni 🙂

    Reia – I’m sorry you suffer from the hives too. No one really appreciates just how disfiguring and horrible they can be. How did thyroid medicine help you? Email me.

    Ichalua – for me it has always been more diet than exercise. I had that herniated disk that kept me from doing a lot. I finally found a few exercises that I could do without hurting my back and I try to walk a lot.

  5. Icahlua January 16, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    I really enjoyed reading this! I love happy endings 🙂 I’m curious.. Was it mainly diet or did exercise play a big part too?

  6. Reia January 15, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    Wow, you have been through a lot. I too have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder after years of suffering with disfiguring and dibilitating hives. Currently, my hives are carefully controlled with thyroid medications, but there’s always a chance of a flare. It’s encouraging to hear that you have been able to get off all meds with a vegan and gluten free diet. I am transitioning to a vegan diet (currently vegetarian) so I look forward to getting inspring recipies from you!

  7. Toni January 11, 2012 at 3:04 am #

    Rhea – what an amazing story! You and I have so much in common – we need to talk, girl! 🙂 How sad that meat and processed foods made you ill your entire life, and that it took as long as it did for someone – that someone being YOU, not any of your doctors, I might add – to figure it out. I’m glad you’re finally rid of the suffering from your major health problems. You are an inspiration, and I can tell that I am going to become a frequent visitor to this blog! Keep on rockin’, girl!! 🙂

  8. Debbie January 9, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    What an inspiring story and great before & after photos! Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. Rhea Parsons January 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    Thank you all for your comments.

    weekly group – thank you 🙂

    Snow White – yeah, the ringer and that’s just the health story :p

    Tina – thank you. Love you.

    Jo – thank you. I get my “poor me” moments but I love helping others. That is what makes me happiest!!! I’m not at half my weight just yet 🙂

    Crystal – thank you so much!

    Quincy – thank you!

    Ashley – you’re doing great!! Keep it up and keep in touch. Friend me on FB.

  10. Jo Tyler January 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    P.S. I just picked up a copy of People Magazine’s Half Their Size edition…you should be in it Rhea! (Promoting a compassionate, healthful vegan diet, of course!) Maybe submit your story to the editor?

  11. Ashley January 6, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Wow what amazing story, its so inspirational. I mean myself I am at the point where I did weigh about 287 and now 4 months later I am 252 and still working on to where I want to be.

  12. quincy Kirsch January 6, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    You are such an inspiration Rhea ,
    ! So proud to have you as a friend and fellow vegan advocate . I wish everyone with health , weight and compassion connection problems would read this and take it to heart .

  13. Crystal Gable January 4, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Amazing story… I knew about your weight loss but knew nothing of your health problems and suffering. So happy for you and also for having you as an inspiration!

  14. jo tyler January 4, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    Wow, you are truly a survivor, Rhea! (In fact, I kept hearing that song playing in my head as I read this.) What an amazing journey you have had so far. Many others would have just wallowed in a state of “poor me” – but you chose to care about others instead. Thank you for the selfless compassion you have in your heart for all animals. Thank you for being you, for being vegan, and for continuing to shout from the rooftops!

  15. Tina January 4, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    You are amazing Rhea! LOve Ya! I know that you will reach your goal! Tina

  16. Suburban Snow White January 4, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    Holy cow! You went through the ringer (sp?) didn’t you? Glad you are okay now and feeling so good!

  17. weekly challenge group January 4, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    You Rock!! Thanks for sharing your journey

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