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 edition of Transformation Tuesday, we talk with Sharon McRae, who suffered from chronic sinus infections that left her with no choice than to take antibiotics several times a year. But now, thanks to a plant-based diet, Sharon hasn’t had a single sinus infection in over eight years. Amazed by her own health transformation, Sharon encouraged her whole family to get on board with this way of life.
BONUS: Sharon was able to help her 84 year old father to change his diet, which resulted in health improvements that shocked his doctor after just three weeks.
What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet?
I had been moving towards a more health-promoting diet starting in my late teens, and it happened mostly because I was squeamish! I started to make the connection between the roast beef that was on my plate one evening and the cattle that were shown in the news story I was watching while eating dinner. I remember putting down my fork and vowing to never eat red meat again at that point.
I was still eating poultry up until I started college; I was a biology major and unfortunately had to participate in some dissections. I soon found myself dissecting the chicken and poultry that was on my plate and feeling a little queasier each time. I knew poultry had to be next to go.
Then in my thirties, when I had met and married my husband and we were planning to start a family, I became concerned about mercury and toxicity in the fish and seafood that were at that time a major part of my diet, so they went away next.
At that point, I was a vegetarian, relying heavily on dairy products, especially cheese, and egg whites, for over a decade.
When I was 46 and my mom was in the hospital dying of breast cancer, which had ultimately metastasized after she had battled it on and off for 26 years, I remember standing in the pantry — the food closet where they kept snacks like pudding, jello, ice cream, etc. for the patients — and hearing a voice inside my head. It very clearly and distinctly said “Stop eating animal protein.”
This was before I knew about Forks Over Knives, The China Study, or anything else, so it was very strange that the voice said those specific words. I remember bargaining with it (in silence, not out loud) and saying something about how vegan was too extreme; it was hard enough to be a vegetarian, and I didn’t want to commit to it. But I decided to give it a try quietly, without telling anyone, for two weeks.
My plan was that at the end of two weeks, if I missed my beloved cheese, I would go back to it and never say a word to anyone. I didn’t even tell my husband, and I remember him asking several times if I wanted pizza or an omelet and saying I was just going to have a salad. At the end of the two weeks, I knew I was never turning back.
I felt better, lighter, spiritually and in my body in general. I never had a weight problem, so it wasn’t that I lost weight; I just felt better in my skin overall, and I knew that my choices were finally in complete accordance with my beliefs. At that point, I “came out” as vegan to my husband and kids, and they were pretty upset, to put it mildly! I reassured them that this was my personal decision, and that I wouldn’t change anything about the way I fed them.
My kids were raised vegetarian from birth, with a heavy reliance on dairy (because the pediatrician told me they needed it for the protein and calcium, of course), and my husband ate the same way when we were together at home and in restaurants.
Fast forward a few months and I was pursuing certification as a health coach. Someone said to me one day when discussing my diet that I should read the book, “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell. By this time, my mother had passed away, so imagine my horror when I read that casein, the predominant protein in dairy, was one of the most powerful cancer promoters known to man?! I immediately sat my kids down…they were 10, 10 and 6 at the time…and told them they weren’t going to be eating anymore cheese, ice cream, eggs, etc. They cried as though I had taken away their favorite toys and their best friends all at one time. They were overwhelmed with fear because pizza, macaroni and cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc., were some of their favorite foods, and they were terrified that there would be nothing for them to eat.
I promised them that I would find ways to make food taste delicious for them, and that they would learn to like the new foods even more than the ones we were cutting out. This was going to be particularly challenging for me, because at the time, I hated to cook! I had worked as a lab technician in a microbiology lab for many years, and cooking felt too much like the weighing, measuring, stirring, etc. I was doing in the lab. Fortunately, it was shortly after that time that I attended a conference in Pennsylvania called Vegetarian Summerfest, and there, I met someone who is like my sister now, Chef AJ. Her cooking demo was amazing, and I came home from that conference with a copy of her book, “Unprocessed.”
I started making some of the delicious desserts like raw brownies and truffles first, then moved on to the savory recipes. And my family loved all of it! The more they enjoyed the food, the more I enjoyed cooking it, and the more adventurous I became. And today, I actually teach cooking classes for the PCRM Food for Life program!
Sharon's 3 children, and her father
Prior to changing my diet, I used to suffer horribly with recurrent sinus infections. My kids were young and constantly coming home with colds; I would get the cold, but it wouldn’t get better for me the way it did for them. Mine would get worse and worse, until I had extreme sinus congestion, facial pain, fatigue, and low-grade fever, and I was ultimately put on a course of antibiotics and nasal steroid sprays at least once or twice every year for several years. Some of the antibiotics had very unpleasant side effects, including digestive upset and even plantar fasciitis! I actually had four different ear/nose/throat specialists tell me that I needed sinus surgery to clear my sinuses once and for all and to prevent future infections. Not one time did any of them ask me about my diet.
Much to my surprise, once I cut out the dairy, I got maybe one or two mild colds that just went away after a few days…. I haven’t had a single sinus infection since that time, and I haven’t even been sick at all in over 8 years!
How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
It’s been a real journey for my family, and things really improved when the movie Forks Over Knives was released in 2011. My husband accompanied me to the premier in Washington DC, and Dr. Neal Barnard was there for a Q&A after the movie.
At the time, my husband had also given up all red meat and poultry, but he was holding on to his salmon for dear life because he was convinced he needed it for the Omega-3 fatty acids. I remember dragging him up to Dr. Barnard after the movie and asking Dr. Barnard to tell my husband about salmon….and that was the last time he ever ate fish!
Once my whole family was on board, we started attending various vegan events, like potlucks, conferences, and festivals, so we didn’t feel like we were alone on the journey. And eventually, I even started my own meetup group, the Columbia MD Forks Over Knives Meetup Group, later that same year. The group started with 14 members, and we met at a local vegan restaurant. The group kept growing, and then we moved to the community room in our local fire station. When we outgrew that, we moved to local churches, and finally landed on one that was Seventh Day Adventist, where a plant-based diet is what is taught, and we were embraced as ambassadors in the community. We now have over 2,200 members in the group, and prior to Covid, we were meeting monthly for potlucks where we would have anywhere from 60 to 100+ in attendance, as well as at local restaurants that would provide us with oil-free vegan menus once or twice monthly.
We’re now doing all of our events online, and I’ve set up Zoom calls with some great speakers where members can continue to learn and stay connected. My family was very involved with the potlucks, but they are not as much in the Zoom calls; we all hope to get back to in person events in the not-too-distant future.
What is your life like now?
Everyone in my family is in excellent health. My husband and I turned 59 this year, and neither of us is on any medication. My kids are now 22, 22, and 18, and also in excellent health.
We absolutely love the way we eat, and we especially enjoying trying out various ethnic dishes, especially Indian and Ethiopian. I’m very blessed to have met so many amazing people on this journey, including the other instructors at PCRM and especially, the wonderful people at MamaSezz! It’s been fantastic to be able to offer a healthy alternative to my coaching clients and students in my classes, as well as meetup members, who don’t like to or don’t have time to cook.
What is your favorite MamaSezz Dish?
My favorite MamaSezz dish is the Lentil Dal with Quinoa; I’ve always loved Indian food and the spices in this dish are perfect!
What are you most proud of?
(Grab a box of tissues for this one!)
I’m most proud of getting my now 84-year-old father to change his diet in his early 70s. He had a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gout, chronic back pain, kidney cancer (one remaining kidney), chronic headaches, and depression, as he had just lost my mom. He was telling me that he was losing his memory and it scared me.
I talked to Dr. Barnard, who had just written a book called Power Foods for the Brain at the time, and he told me that many of the medications my dad was on could cause memory loss. The only way to stop it was to get him to change his diet. My dad was a very stubborn meat and potatoes eater and he loved to eat out in restaurants with his friends. When I would talk to him about the health benefits of a whole food plant-based diet, he would tell me he had no faith in the studies because the sample size was too small…he was my biggest critic and thought what I was doing was a complete waste of time!
When I took him to see his doctor shortly after my mom had passed, the doctor asked me if I had any concerns about my dad. I told him everything, and he asked my dad how much meat he was eating. My Dad was honest and said he was eating red meat 4-5 times a week. His doctor looked alarmed and told him he needed to cut down. And my dad shocked me because on the way out of the office, he said he would make a bet with me…he would agree to give up the meat for three weeks, then go back for blood work. He said that when the doctor told him nothing had changed, I would have to drive him to Burger King, order him a Whopper, and watch him eat it! I took the bet.
Three weeks went by, and he promised he was keeping his word but said he didn’t feel any differently and was certain he was going to win the bet. I wasn’t in the exam room at the time, but his doctor asked him what he had changed, and my father kept saying he hadn’t done anything different. The doctor told him he had lost 9 pounds, his cholesterol had dropped about 20 points, and his blood pressure was down, too.
My father threw up his hands and said, “Great, I lost a bet!”
And today, he is off all of his medications (other than one for his prostate); he eats a 99.5% whole food plant-based diet, and he walks 5+ miles a day! His memory is much better than it was when he was on all of the medications and he knows now that the diet works.
He says he doesn’t even care what the studies show, now he knows the truth! He is proof that you are never too old to change, and I’ve had him share his story many times to inspire others.
Sharon's father volunteering at the Eat Well Stay Well 1 day immersion
UPDATE: On a visit to his doctor a few years ago, my dad’s doctor told him that the function in his one remaining kidney had actually IMPROVED. He said that almost never happens and that it’s usually the opposite. Then he told my father in these words, “your daughter saved your life.” When my Dad came home and told me that, we both cried....happy tears! I only wish that I had known the truth while my mother was alive.
Have Your Own Plant-Based Transformation?!
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