As we at MamaSezz well know, changing to a plant-based diet can change your life in ways you never expected. In this series, we talk with some of the world’s most soulful, dedicated (and often funny) individuals. We get to hear their stories of suffering, transformation, and service — and we learn how food is an essential part of their journey.
This week, we talked with Leila Dehghan about her plant based journey. Leila had been vegetarian most of her adult life, but loved her junk foods. She suffered from chronic migraines her whole life, so much so that it got in the way of her career. Once she went WFPB, her life changed forever.
What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet?
I’ve been vegetarian on and off since medical school, but I was a very unhealthy vegetarian. Now with the knowledge I have, I realized that my diet was predominantly made up of processed foods, and lots of refined carbohydrates. I also developed an eating disorder while growing up. So, I was always on a diet. In order to satisfy my sweet tooth I replaced my meals with cakes and muffins. Many days I’d just have coffee with a blueberry muffin as my dinner. There were only two fruits that I ate every day without fail: an apple and a banana. I don’t know why I felt that my diet was healthy as long as I had my two fruits per day.
When I went vegan, I continued the same unhealthy pattern, especially the first few months when I had no idea what I was doing. I ate lots of peanut butter jam sandwiches (because it was sweet and I couldn’t find many low-calorie vegan cakes) and bland steamed vegetables.
I had migraines since I was little. My father, two aunts and a cousin also had migraines, but mine were worse than theirs. My migraines were the reason I couldn’t continue my medical career. After I quit medicine, I couldn’t hold any job because I often had to call in sick because of a bad migraine attack. I had tried every possible medication and alternative therapy. I’d actually get angry whenever someone told me about a new treatment they had read or heard about.
My migraines kept getting worse. I was having 18-20 days of headaches every month and about 12 of them were really bad migraine attacks. That’s almost two thirds of a month. You can imagine I had no real life. I tried to squeeze in as much as I could on the pain-free days while also being cautious not to overdo it and triggering yet another migraine. I couldn’t plan anything because I didn’t want to have to cancel last minute. I came across as rather asocial and reserved which means I didn’t have any friends.
I love martial arts, but my training has always been sporadic because of my migraines. It was frustrating not to progress despite my efforts and passion. I had already given up on my dream of becoming a pediatrician, but I also had to watch how my life was shrinking further. I had to give up on one dream after the other. That was no life.
After quitting medicine, I tried a few office jobs, but I couldn’t last because of my migraines. Then I became a personal trainer which offered some flexibility in terms of hours and work commitment. When you’re a vegan personal trainer, people ask you the one-million dollar question “where do you get your protein?” So, that pushed me to learn more about a vegan diet and educate myself about nutrition.
Then one day my sister who is a doctor told me about a conference on nutrition in medicine by Plant-based Health Professionals UK. I immediately signed up. That conference opened my eyes. It was the first time that I heard of “food as medicine”.
The success stories were mind-blowing. The scientific evidence was fascinating. If people could cure their cancers on a whole food plant-based diet, then maybe I could cure my migraines or at least reduce the number of migraine attacks with this diet.
I started reading more, attending health summits and watching videos. The more I found out about the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet, the more curious I got. Then one day after a very bad migraine attack which lasted five days, I made the switch. I did it overnight. Once again, I didn’t know what I should be really eating, so I kept it simple. A cabbage soup, a few pieces of whole grain breads, lots of fruits, a handful of nuts, and a simple vegetable dish.
Five days into my new diet I noticed that I didn’t have any headache. A few weeks later I did have a migraine attack, but it was less severe and lasted less than 48 hours (the average migraine lasts 48-72 hours).
How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
Many people say my diet is extreme, that I’m not enjoying my food, but as cliched as it sounds nothing tastes as good as good health does. Being pain-free, being able to dream once again, plan and actually have a life – all of these are enough incentive. Being able to follow my passions is worth more than any food. Also, once I learned a few new recipes and learned how to use spices and herbs, my meals turned tasteful and interesting.
What is your life like now?
A whole food plant-based diet has given me a new lease on life. I went back to university and obtained a Master's degree in clinical and public health nutrition because I wanted to understand the science better and use it to help people make the change. I’m a board member and the education lead at Plant-based Health Professionals UK. We’re committed to educate other healthcare professionals as well as the public on the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet.
What are you most proud of?
Last year I created the “21 Day Plant-based Health Challenge," which was launched in October 2020. Each time I get an email from one of the participants telling me how the emails and my advice helped them to transition to a plant-based diet and how their health has improved on a plant-based diet, I feel overjoyed and a sense of accomplishment. I’m vegan for the animals, but I eat a whole food plant-based diet for my health, so each time I help someone to make that transition, it makes me happy for two reasons: less animals are being hurt and someone else has regained their health and can now realise their full potential.
If you could meet and have lunch with one person (alive or dead) who would it be?
Bruce Lee. I’ve always admired his indomitable spirit.
Have Your Own Plant-Based Transformation?!
Tell us all about it! We'd love to know how a plant-based diet changed your life and health. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.