Our whole family's health was transformed on a plant-based dietWritten by Ali Brown
The Dickman family thought they ate well. But when Dan and Susannah approached middle age, they saw their energy levels decline as their weight increased and chronic pain became commonplace. As caregivers to two adult sons with developmental disabilities, they knew they needed to prioritize their health. Since going plant-based, they've not only regained energy and lost weight, they've healed from chronic pain and debilitating migraines, all the while witnessing tremendous changes in their adult children as well. The Dickmans now help others learn about and implement a plant-based lifestyle.
MamaSezz co-founder Meg Donahue caught up with this inspiring family to hear about their journey and what they're up to now.
What was your life like before you changed your diet?
My husband, Dan, and I have followed a whole food, plant-based diet since 2010 after eliminating animal meats, but periodically eating fish and cheese 2 years before that.
We are the parents of three adult sons Joshua, Christopher, and Zachariah, two of whom, Josh and Zach, have disabilities which have meant that as adults, they still live with us.
We have always been interested in healthy eating especially when our sons were born. We always tried to make sure that vegetables and fruits were a daily part of our diet, even when our sons were not as happy about such a decision. We also promoted and modeled daily (and outdoor) activities both as individuals as well as a family.
Even though we thought we were eating healthy and exercising, we all struggled with weight gain, high cholesterol, and lack of energy.
Dan struggled with back pain and migraines. We attributed much of this to getting (a little) older and as far as our sons were concerned, their access to other food at school, with friends, and at activities where we weren’t directly involved. Dan and I would periodically engage in more intensive exercise regimens – additional walking, bike riding, hiking – but often these would have limited span due to life responsibilities and inadequate energy from the foods we were eating, and we would fall back into the same life pattern.
For years, particularly in the early 2000s, I had sought out and was being treated by a Naturopathic doctor for food sensitivities and allergies, and periodic but relatively intense sinus headaches. Though the doctor recommended the use of natural supplements and a rotation diet with continued consumption of lots of fruits and vegetables, a completely plant-based diet was not mentioned.
Dan was dealing with back pain and started to have cluster migraine headaches, which became increasingly persistent and at times quite debilitating. He initially followed the medical route by seeking treatment which included various medications as well as oxygen. None of these strategies proved very effective and the side effects from some of the medications were much less than desirable. Again, a plant-based diet as a possible prescriptive action was never mentioned.
What happened next?
Both Dan and I knew we did not want to age this way i.e., feeling tired, having pain, and taking medication for all the typical diseases that ran in our families (colon cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol) as well as other individual medical problems which took time and joy away from our lives.
In addition, being caretakers to two of our sons with developmental disabilities meant we needed to be as healthy as we could be for as long as we could. We wanted them to be healthy in their adult years and not have to deal with the additional challenges of poor health as they aged.
In 2010 I decided (and urged Dan) to go completely plant-based. We introduced and integrated more plant-based meals for us and our sons, though our two sons at home were still eating some meat when we went out to eat as well as some lunch meats.
What is your life like now?
From a health standpoint, I lost 25 pounds and have kept it off to this day! My cholesterol (I have a family history of high cholesterol) dropped, and I do not take any medications.
The biggest change that I noticed and that continues today, is the amount of energy I have. Dan and I started walking and I even started running in 2018. Running was something I never thought I would be able to do. I have continued to run and placed 1st in my age group at several 5K races. Dan and I completed a virtual half-marathon in 2021 and a 15K in 2022.
We wanted to learn as much as we could about following a plant-based lifestyle. In 2012 Dan and I went to a Farm 2 Forks presented by Rip Esselstyn and his family. In 2013 we took the eCornell T. Collin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition course. Then in 2014, I traveled to Washington D.C. to attend PCRM’s Food for Life Instructor program.
Both Dan and I have been helping our community learn how eating more plants can improve their health. I also appear on our local News 25 Lifestyles show to talk about the benefits of eating plant-based and to make easy recipes to share with viewers.
From a health standpoint, my weight dropped about 20 pounds within a couple of months and my cholesterol levels, as well as blood pressure which was never problematic, did drop significantly. More importantly, my migraines disappeared and have never recurred since!
Further, the periodic back pain which was present since I had surgery for two compressed disks back in 1984, was reduced significantly, both in intensity and frequency. I am sure, part of this had to do with the significant weight reduction, but I am also certain that the plant-based diet has reduced inflammation in me as well as my perception of pain in general.
Finally, the increased energy I experienced shortly after beginning this literal life change prompted a greater amount of movement – be that standing, biking, and especially walking which I make sure to do every single day at a minimum of five miles.
Currently, I weigh 152 pounds, which is what I weighed in high school, and have more daily energy at the age of almost 66 than I did when I was 40. I cannot imagine what the state of my health (or life) would be right now had Susannah and I (and our sons) not embarked upon this whole food plant-based journey almost 13 years ago!
Josh and Zach
We knew as parents that our sons faced challenges in a society that sometimes does not accept persons with disabilities. We know the challenges they faced in school and social situations. As I mentioned before, healthy eating was always important to us as a family and when my sons were born, they were breastfed and when they did begin to eat solid food, I made my own baby food by simply steaming vegetables and pureeing them. Unfortunately, when they became older, we did go to the fast food restaurants in town once in a while for that typical and expected food that all the children liked. On those days all my sons would have extra vegetables on their dinner plates, although we found out from our middle son Chris, that the extra vegetables particularly his, often went to our dog Abbie.
Our two sons with disabilities still live with us and eat plant-based except on very few occasions when we go to a restaurant, and they may eat a beef burger or perhaps a pepperoni pizza. More often if there are vegan options, our sons are more likely to order plant-based food as they have plant-based meals at home, every day and have come to believe in the benefits of being plant-based. Most importantly, the plant-based meals we eat are varied, look delicious, and taste great.
We initially had to adjust some of the plant-based meals to respond to their sensory needs (tastes, textures, and smells of some of the new plant-based foods) which is part of their disability and was a bit difficult to get them to try foods that they were not used eating. Through the slow but systematic introduction of new plant-based foods which looked compelling and tasted similar to the non-plant based they were used to eating, we were able to modify their eating habits to a complete and more healthy plant-based diet.
Over the years they have been eating a plant-based diet their weight has stayed relatively stable and some of the behavioral symptoms related to their disability (anxiety, difficulty in dealing with changes in their routine, hyperactivity) have lessened significantly. This has contributed to their ability to participate in new activities, interact with others more successfully and become more active in their day-to-day lives (daily walks and riding bikes, hiking) as well as participating in more community-based activities with support staff.
While we can’t attribute all of these changes to being plant-based, we do fervently believe this diet has been instrumental in the changes we have seen in them.
Christopher (and Jasmine)
Our middle son and his wife both work in the restaurant business with Chris being a key person in setting up new kitchens, chefs, and menus for a relatively large restaurant corporation in the southern and lower mid-Atlantic states – and his wife Jasmine doing the same for the front staff (servers, hosts, bar staff) for the opening of the new restaurants. They also are itinerant supervisory staff who are sent to different locations to problem solve in open corporate restaurants that are having difficulties. This requires them to be on the road, staying in hotels for sometimes weeks at a time. What this means for their diet is that they have struggled to stay plant-based.
They have periods when they stick to a plant-based diet, and then may not have easy access to plant-based foods due to locations they are in or the times and hours they are traveling on the road. They both know and are keenly aware of the importance of being plant-based and are continuing to work on their consistency in keeping to a whole foods plant-based diet.
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