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The Shocking Discovery that Turned a Meat-Loving College Athlete Into a Plant-Based Chef

Written by Ali Donahue
The Shocking Discovery that Turned a Meat-Loving College Athlete Into a Plant-Based Chef

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.

In this special edition of Transformation Tuesday, we talked with none other than our own MamaSezz chef, Caroline DiNicola Fawley, who believe it or not, was once a meat-loving grill master before she became a plant-based chef!

What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet?

Being raised in a small artsy crunchy town in Southern Vermont, I was used to eating fresh from my garden. Cookie Crunch and Fruit-by-the-Foot were something I’d only seen on TV and non-dairy milk and flaxseed were always stocked in the refrigerator by my naturopathic-loving mother. She always opted for ginger juice over Tums and pineapple juice over cough syrup. We also ate hormone-free local organic meats, and a bus-load of Vermont cheddar cheese with almost every meal. 

I have a fast metabolism, and am rather thin, so I gravitated towards fatty foods. Cooking became my passion. In high school I started shopping and cooking frequently for my family. Once that started, I shifted gears towards lamb chops, garlic aioli, loaded burgers, butter, bacon and Vermont sharp cheddar cheese. The fattier, the greasier, the better. Always accompanied by fresh fruits and garden veggies, of course.

underweight and grilling

Nothing was off the table; there wasn’t meat I wouldn't experiment with. I’m talking fish eyes, pickled pig ear, boiled calf brain, rocky mountain oysters, and pig pancreas. 

Fried foods and fast food were a rarity, and never consumed in the house. There was always fresh fruit on the counter, and leafy greens in the fridge. Our family's diet was still considered extremely healthy and I felt amazing.

When I got to college, I discovered the 24/7 grill and was eating burgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I still felt great. I was a college athlete: slim, toned and energetic. I had clear skin, slept soundly, and felt amazing. I did suffer from seasonal allergies that had me popping Zyrtec during the changing of the seasons, and occasionally had restless legs at night. I would have never thought I needed a diet change because I loved vegetables, and my blood work was always golden. No problem, so why make a change right? 

What happened?

I studied at the University of the South Pacific in Samoa, during the Spring semester of 2015. Most of my meals on the island consisted of fried chicken, fatty cuts of meat like turkey tails and chicken backs (sent to Samoa as “aid” from Australia, the US, and New Zealand), processed high sodium foods and white bread. I stayed with my host family that declared upon meeting me, “don’t worry, we will fatten you up! The poor families eat from the sea and land, we will give you fried chicken so you don’t get sick.”

It wasn’t until I visited my friend's host family, who were much less well-off than mine, that I experienced fresh Samoan cuisine loaded with local fish and vegetables, coconut soups, and sliced taro root. Much of the population suffered from gout, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other non-communicable diseases. 

I decided to conduct my Senior Thesis on the dietary shift in Samoa, and interviewed a great deal of local physicians. One in particular stood out, Dr. Walter Vermilion who followed the Forks Over Knives diet.

He found that over 50 percent of his patients were able to stick to a plant based diet, and of those 50 percent, 100 percent were able to reduce their medications, or go off of them completely.

This was the first time I ever realized Type 2 diabetes and other related diseases were reversible with diet alone. 

When I got back to the states, my new tennis coach senior year just happened to be an advocate of the plant-based diet. It had reversed his IBS, and he said he felt better than ever when it came to endurance, muscle building, and recovery times.

While I cared about my health, and improving my game, I must admit, the main driving factor behind my transition was a course I took senior year. It was called, “Religion and Animals” and I thought, “Cute! A course about how religions incorporate animals and the natural world into their practices!” While there was mention of those practices, it essentially turned out to be a 101 on factory farming and it blew my mind. They aren’t lying when they say you don’t want to know how the sausage gets made…

So there I was, sitting in my dorm room watching a video on how they process baby chicks, my brain filled with a wealth of knowledge about how dangerous eating animal products can be for your health, WHILE eating a chicken salad. 

The cognitive dissonance was glaring, and almost comical. 

Finally, I put down my salad and had my “aha!” moment. If I wanted to thrive in my body, help the environment, and save needless suffering along the way… well, that was a win-win-win! 

My reservations about going plant-based were as follows: 

  1. I would lose weight (and I didn't have any extra to lose)

  2. Where would I get my protein? 

  3. I love to cook and eat. This will drastically restrict me. 

Luckily, my fears were baseless.

If I had been overweight, then yes, I would have lost weight. It turns out, being plant-based often just helps you level out to a healthy body weight. So for me, nothing really changed. 

The protein question is one that will nag at any vegan or plant-based dieter. My coach shut me down pretty quickly by saying, “how much protein do you need?” Having never counted micronutrients before, I had no idea. He told me to do some research, and as it turns out, plants are loaded with protein. Even more surprisingly, you don’t need as much as you think. High protein diets are actually linked to an increase in early mortality and disease. Marketing really had me going there for a minute. 

Lastly, I have found that I have more options that ever. Being plant based has broadened my horizons when it comes to the culinary arts. I’ve tried more ethnic and indigenous cuisines, I experiment with jackfruit and banana peels (yes… they make great pulled “pork”) and I realized that taking meat and dairy out of the picture didn’t have as dramatic of an impact as I had thought. And now I get to experiment with all this colorful abundance in my personal life and my career as the head chef at MamaSezz!

How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?

My entire life, I never restricted what I ate. My go-to at Subway was a footlong salami and bacon with two kinds of cheese, three mayo-based sauces, and all the veggies they could fit. Two Cinnabons? Heck yeah! Block of cheese for a snack? Why not! So I was naturally worried about having to put up some boundaries. I decided to start slow with my plant-based journey.

I knew all or nothing wasn’t going to happen, so I made sure to tell myself, “You can eat whatever you want to, but try to eat mostly plants” and that worked for me! 

During my first month eating plant-based, I probably had one non-vegan item a day (hey, I was going from three burgers a day…).

In my second month, I was only eating dairy when the opportunity for high quality cheese presented itself (the cheese in the dining hall never did it for me anyway).

After that, every now and again I’ll sample a bite of cheese or take a bite of my friend’s cupcake, but I haven’t touched meat in years.

Going 100 percent was never my vibe, so putting zero hard-line restrictions on myself makes the whole process fun and exciting rather than restrictive. 

The crazy part? I never crave meat, eggs or dairy. Seriously, I don’t. It took about six months to let go of the meat cravings, and about a year for cheese (although by “cravings” I just mean the notion that they taste good or look appetizing).

Even when I sample cheese now and again I’ll think, “Yum. One sliced did it for me. I don’t really want another.”

The smell of cooking meat still smells great, but for some reason, I just don’t want to put it in my mouth. I’m so removed from eating meat that the notion seems alien.

What is your life like now?

Health-wise, I was shocked. Before going plant-based I had always been in the last three of my team for the timed mile. Being “built like a runner” and having a father that still holds track and long-distance records at his college didn’t seem to give me much of an advantage. I was busting my butt in the gym trying to make it in the top three for months. But each week I came in last, sweating and huffing like I was about to throw up.

I even considered the fact that I might have asthma and that's what was holding me back. I gave up on my timed-mile training and figured I just wasn’t a runner. 

After just two weeks of being mostly plant-based, I easily joined my teammates in the top three. Boom. It was that simple. And I wasn’t even huffing and puffing like I usually did. Heck, I felt like I could take another lap.

After that day, I never had to go to the trainers for sore muscles or ice wraps again. Coincidence? I don't think so. Nutrition science shows us that inflammation can make athletic recovery more difficult (plant-foods are loaded with anti-inflammatories called antioxidants). It's why so many pro-athletes are changing up their diets. 

And that wasn’t all. Before, after three flights of stairs I was always out of breath – despite rigorous athletic training. Right around the time my mile-times decreased, I started to notice how out of breath my fellow athletes were from something as simple as stairs or walking uphill. It was not longer an issue for me and is now a rare occurrence. Turns out I didn’t need an inhaler after all… 

After a few months of being plant-based, my seasonal allergies got better. My morning ritual of sneezing twenty times in a row first thing after waking up, turned into two or three, and sometimes none at all.

My phlegm and congestion went way down, and my immune system is stronger than ever. Instead of getting sick two or three times a year, I will get sick maybe once, and my systems will level out to exhaustion at worst. I’ve only had one stomach ache in the last five years since going plant-based, and I’m never so full I feel sick, (which used to happen to me all that time) even when I stuff myself.

Restless legs are a thing of the past, and my moods have mellowed out (or so my friends and family have said… oops, sorry guys!).  

I am now 26 years old, and while my peers complain about joint pain, restlessness, weight gain, muscle stiffness and the beginnings of wrinkles, I am well behind the curve in those regards. I wake up feeling better than I did in my teens! My feet hit the ground and I’m ready to go. I don’t feel the need to sleep in on the weekends, and decaf coffee is enough caffeine for me. I’m naturally energized, happy, and now my morals match my actions. 

The best part of all of this, is knowing that I am setting myself up as best as I can for a healthy, happy future. My mother suffers from lupus, colitis, and several other autoimmune diseases that tend to run in my family. Reducing inflammation in my body puts me at the best advantage to prevent disease. This means a longer life, less time in-and-out of hospitals, and more time doing what I love. 

I especially enjoy hiking, camping, tennis, surfing, snowboarding, and adventuring… all of which involve pretty strenuous physical activity. 

Although I’m not invincible, I know that I’ve made a lifestyle choice that puts me at the best advantage to thrive. You only get one body in life, even if you’re young and healthy it's worth treating it with the most respect you can. Through research, science, anecdotal evidence, and statistics, I’ve concluded that a plant-based diet is the best for the human body, for the planet, and for the wellbeing of all life on earth. 

Just one simple diet change can accomplish all of that?! I’d have to be crazy NOT to continue this lifestyle. 

The only negative part of being plant-based, is being so aware that it’s frustrating to see friends and family harm themselves with an unhealthy lifestyle without even knowing it. It's hard to watch loved ones complain about reversible disease but refusing to make lifestyle changes. My advice for anyone starting out – and struggling with the same thing: you just have to remember that everyone has their own journey, and it’s best to be supportive instead of pushy. But I'm happy I'm not in the dark any longer. 

The best way to get friends and family on board? Cook them delicious plant-based meals that they will love! 

What is your favorite MamaSezz food/dish?

Right now, I’m loving Aunt Mary’s Chick’n Salad. I add a little buffalo sauce and throw it in a wrap or spread it on whole grain toast with pickles, avocado and red onion. 

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud that my morals and beliefs now match my actions. I can only now truly call myself an animal lover, and environmentalist, and a health-nut. 

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 to share your story.

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