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.
We’re thrilled to talk today with Deitra Dennis, registered nurse and national board certified health and wellness coach.
What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet? What was life like before starting your plant-based journey?
Being a southern girl from Macon, GA, our meals consisted of vegetables from the garden, as well as the Standard American Diet of foods that were high in fat, salt, and sugar.
A typical Sunday Dinner included collard greens, cornbread, macaroni & cheese, and chicken; the meal also included sweetened iced tea – which is the house wine of the south. Of course, the meal wasn’t complete unless you had a dessert, usually a pound cake.
Growing up the meals were not just about the food it was also about connection and an experience. We ate meals together at the table every day. So food was again experience of comfort and community.
My journey to health for me, my family, and community began when I was nine years old. I remember the day vividly, when my mom received a call that my cousin who was in her 20s had passed away. The devastation on my mother’s face was unparalleled and left a memory that led me to observing her and others around me from that day forward.
I noticed family members with amputations, blindness, complications of diabetes, stroke and deaths from chronic conditions. I don’t remember the age but I verbalized that I had to do something about this because this can’t be normal. This declaration led to me becoming a Registered Nurse and the Nightingale Pledge of “…devoting myself to the well-being of those assigned to my care…” resonates with me even now.
Well, once becoming a nurse and working in the field, I started to notice patients that were what we call “frequent flyers.” A frequent flyer is a person that repeatedly admitted to the hospital most times complications from the same chronic condition(s).
Many of the patients had an impact on my career but there was one patient in particular that stands out. The young man was in his 20s, morbidly obese – weighing well over 500 pounds. This young man had been in the intensive care unit for long period prior to his transfer to the floor where I worked.
Upon being a patient on my unit, the young man had an even longer inpatient stay due to the comprehensive care needed. After several weeks, the young man was discharged from the hospital to inpatient rehabilitation because he had to re-learn how to walk. We all were very excited for him as he had become like family because of his extended hospitalization.
The excitement soon turned to sadness when we were informed that once the young man discharged home, he returned to his old way of eating and passed away due to complications of his chronic conditions. This was very devastating news; it felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. I was in disbelief because it felt like a full circle moment and time travel back to when I was nine years old hearing the news of my cousins passing.
It was then in 1998 that I knew that the trajectory of my nursing career would transition from the bedside to the sidelines as a health coach – and to the table-side as a nutrition/cooking instructor, in order to help those assigned to my care sustain a healthy lifestyle.
The journey began in 1999 when I relocated to Atlanta, GA and my path of being in the right place at the right time meeting the right people and being offered the best opportunities.
My first introduction to a plant-based way of eating was in 2001 when I met Donna Green-Goodman, a public health educator and wellness coach. I had accompanied my godmother to a demonstration where Donna and her mother were cooking up delicious vegan comfort food. Donna also shared how she reversed an aggressive form of breast cancer by adopting plant-based eating and adhering to lifestyle principles.
I was very impressed by her story that I decided immediately to transition to a lacto-ovo vegetarian way of eating. Lacto-ovo means that I continued to consume eggs and cheese; I did however, change from dairy milk to plant milk.
What happened? Was there a defining moment that triggered change or did you have a gradual journey?
I thought that I was doing good in being an example to others by adhering to the lacto-ovo vegetarian way of eating. I must say that in 2001 – my weight was 235 pounds, and being 5’71/2” in height, I was teetering close to obesity.
As time went on and my passion continued to grow on how I could help my community become healthier. I had to start with the woman in the mirror and ask her to change her ways.
You know life has a way of causing you to put your money where your mouth is. So, in November 2016 at a Food for Thought Conference, I attended a workshop entitled "Food as Medicine," which included a live cooking demonstration. This really resonated with me. The facilitator was dynamic and it was indeed a full circle moment going back to 2001, when Donna was speaking on the same information.
I took heed to what I call a spiritual nudge; as soon as the conference ended and I returned home, I immediately began searching for a program to become certified as a food as medicine instructor that very evening.
After a brief search, I found the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine Food for Life Instructor Certification Program. I read all of the application details and one of the requirements included that you maintain a vegan lifestyle. At this point it was a no brainer; it was time to take the next step and let go of the cheese and eggs.
I have to tell you that the years as a vegetarian didn't yield much weight loss. It wasn't until I began my vegan journey on December 1, 2016 that the pounds were released.
I was at my highest weight of 235 pounds in 2001. In 2008 I was at 225 pounds. And in 2018 when I attended my 30th high school class reunion I was at 188 pounds.
How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
Great question. The quote by Maria Reyes-McDavies says it best – “You must define your Why before you can begin with the What and the How.”
That said, my "Why" is for my health, being an example for others, and the health of my community.
What is your life like now? How did a plant-based diet impact your health and life?
As of today, I have released 60 pounds on the path to let go of an additional 10-15 pounds!
What is your favorite MamaSezz food/dish?
Name one item on your bucket list:
I don’t have a bucket list but I would love the opportunity to have a cooking show with Carla Hall based on her cookbook – Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration. The show would serve up traditional flavorful African Heritage foods – demonstrating that eating healthier, as well as whole food plant based, is delicious and doesn’t sacrifice taste.