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 Sandra McClanahan, a foreign languages high school teacher who struggled with morbid obesity throughout her adult life. Since switching to a plant-based diet, she has lost 126 pounds, found food freedom (and confidence!), and serves up plenty of awesome advice for anyone interested in losing weight on a plant-based diet.
What was your life like before you changed your diet?
I used to lie in bed at night, and try to “smooth out” the folds of fat in my neck, in an attempt to sleep more comfortably.
I used to take a seat belt extender on every flight, just in case there was “too much belly at the end of the belt”.
I used to walk into a room knowing that everyone’s first thought was, “That is one fat woman” even before they met me.
I used to be invisible to men.
I used to wake up at 2:00am with a migraine, and have to finish out the night in the recliner with a wet washcloth on my forehead, because I could not lie horizontally with a migraine, and expect to get rid of it.
I used to get Charlie Horses out of the blue, like my Dad.
I used to avoid looking up at my reflection in the mirror in public bathrooms – especially when a slim woman was washing her hands next to me. Head down, wash hands, get the heck outta there.
I used to have unexplainable heart palpitations, even when sitting quietly in a chair, or lying in my bed.
I used to be told “Your iron is too low today to donate blood” half the times I tried to donate, even as a meat-eater.
I used to be teased by our coaches when they saw me filling six bottles of water from the dispenser to take back to my classroom for the day...but I was STILL ravenously thirsty all the time.
I used to reward myself at the end of the workday with four or five candy bars/bags of chips, then pass out in a sugar/salt/fat coma at my desk, then wake up and drag my butt home a few hours later.
I used to eat all of my own fund-raising band candy in high school, then have to pay for it myself with the money I had earned giving piano lessons.
I used to consider the highlight of my day as my trip through McDonald’s Drive-Thru for breakfast.
I used to be deathly afraid of folding chairs and rickety old church benches and theater seats... for fear that I would be the one to break them, and fall to the floor in front of everybody.
I used to always request a regular table in restaurants because I was afraid I wouldn’t fit into a booth (and sometimes, I did NOT fit into a booth... in front of everybody).
I used to be scared that *I* would be the one to crash a roller coaster from my extreme weight...when I even FIT into a roller coaster seat...sometimes, I did NOT fit, and I had to exit the ride.
I used to take a “sink bath” during my lunch break because I had sweated so much in the crevices during the morning that I literally STANK, and couldn’t go through the second half of the work day being so close to students in that condition. It was embarrassing. I would also change into clean panty hose/underwear, or jeans/underwear at lunch. I tried putting deodorant or powder in the critical areas below my waist every morning, but that didn’t help.
I used to dread the inevitable swelling of my hands and especially feet on long flights, after eating their salt-laden snacks and airport/airplane meals.
I used to have people ask me to my face, or I would hear them ask someone else behind my back, if I was pregnant when I was NOT.
I used to hold other people up while walking (on vacations, in tour groups, for example) when I would have to find a place to sit down, and pound on my right leg with my fist, to get the feeling to come back, so that I could try to get up and slowly walk some more.
I used to have scary high cholesterol numbers and borderline high blood pressure.
I used to have to turn a student desk around, and pull up a chair to the front of it, in order to sit and write anywhere in my classroom other than my teacher desk. I couldn’t fit even in the “big kid” desks that the linebackers could fit into.
Several members of my family have diabetes and high blood pressure. Cancer has not been a friend to my family...my father passed away from colon cancer in 2007, my mother passed away from the SAME cancer in 2020 (they had been divorced since the mid-90s), one grandmother passed away from multiple myeloma, and the other one passed away from lymphoma. Several aunts and uncles are cancer survivors, as well. One grandfather passed away from a stroke.
My name is Sandra Goodson McClanahan, and I am a Native Floridian. I was born (1961) and raised in Webster, Florida, and I teach foreign languages at the high school where I also attended. I have two adult sons and one young granddaughter.
Both images feature Sandra before her plant-based journey
I was always the chubby one growing up, but considered to be rather smart, out-going, and slightly musically talented, and I got along with everyone, being teased very little about my weight by other kids.
My connection with food was probably typical of almost everyone else in the South... my grandmothers were amazing cooks, each with her own specialties, and they both spent many hours cooking delicious Southern foods for our family.
It was only after I became an adult, started working, and had kids, that I became morbidly obese, with my highest known weight reaching 252 around 2012 (I am only 5’2”, and that was a BMI of 46.1). Today, I weigh 126, and I’ve lost half my body weight, so far. But, I’m not done! I am working toward the Fuhrman ideal!
At least three times in my adult past, I have lost substantial amounts of weight, then put it back on, and then some. The changes were never permanent on the outside because I never made changes on the INSIDE... in my head and heart.
I have avoided doctors as much as possible in my life, and avoided medications. I never took anything when I went through menopause, or even turned down pain meds after I had outpatient surgery for peri-rectal cyst removal. I think I even avoided the pain meds offered after both of my C-Sections. Therefore, the only documented conditions I have are my high blood pressure and inability to give blood due to borderline anemia.
I have always marveled at the fact that, with a brother and father who were diabetic (my brother is Type 1), and a mother who was hypoglycemic, I was NOT diabetic yet, even as a morbidly obese person. Then one day, I took a big swig of water in front of my class, opened my mouth to speak, and my entire mouth went cotton-dry in an instant. It scared the heck out of me! That was in mid-October, 2015. That night, I went home and started researching “diabetic diet” online. My plan was to try to start eating whatever diabetics are supposed to eat until I could get to a doctor and be tested.
What happened? Was there a defining moment that triggered change or did you have a gradual journey?
It was my great good fortune to find Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book, The End of Diabetes, right off the bat. But, upon further research, I found his other books, and decided to start with Eat to Live. I ordered it from Amazon, and was determined to give it a try, but thought I would read some Amazon reviews, as well.
I remember vividly, the very first review I read said something like, “Let me tell you right now...you will be eating a crapton of vegetables,” and I literally THREW my head onto the desk, saying “Nooooooooooooo!!!!!” I could have happily gone the REST OF MY LIFE without touching a single vegetable (except potatoes in the form of mashed and french fries). But I knew that I had to change that way of thinking.
I knew that I had to change EVERYTHING at the head/heart level — my insides — if I ever wanted to make it permanent. At that point, I had not done any reading on that topic. Of course, now, six years later, I have done a LOT of studying on that topic, but at that point, it was all just based on my own personal experiences. I now own all of his publications in all three forms, where available... print, Kindle, and Audible.
So, in the beginning, I was totally alone in my journey toward health. My family supported me, but no one else was doing anything about their own health/weight-loss. I didn’t know about any communities of like-minded individuals, either in real life, or online. Therefore, I listened to Dr. F’s Audible books night and day. In the shower, while eating meals, prepping food, driving to work, while falling asleep AND in my sleep, etc. After I lost some initial weight and started feeling better, I listened to his books while walking, as well.
I decided from the beginning to use my personal Facebook page as my “accountability partner," even though I didn’t really know that term yet. I just started posting about what I was going through, both the ups, and downs. I was honest, even when I screwed up...and I screwed up ROYALLY a lot! I remember my mom telling me one time, “You don’t need to post that!” But, I told her, “Yes, I do. It helps me to understand what happened and get back on track, and other people are telling me that my journey... both the good stuff and the bad... is helping to motivate THEM.”
Since I didn’t have a community, a “tribe” in the beginning, my motivation was fear for my health, and the rather rapid weight loss that I experienced those first few months.
How are/were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
After the first six weeks, I decided to add a cheat meal each week to my diet. Absolutely anything I wanted. I kept that until about April, 2017, but during my second year as a Nutritarian (a plant-based diet based on these principles), I noticed that the ONE cheat meal was sometimes turning into either TWO weekly cheat meals, or a full cheat DAY. Also, my weight started creeping back up from 175 to 185, and I knew that I had to change some things. I noticed that I was always dreaming and scheming about what I would have during my cheat meal. I discovered that I enjoyed those cheat meals the most when I was alone, and didn’t have to converse with others while consuming it. I frequently would drive 30 minutes out of my way to a Golden Corral, and just pig out all by myself, or, if I didn’t have time for that, I would make my favorite comfort food: grits heavily laden with cheddar cheese, salt, and real butter, and just eat it in front of the TV. Keeping the cheat foods just kept me on the hook to want them all the more.
When the scale had almost crept back up 10 pounds, I decided that I would just SEE what would happen if I went without my cheat meals. Dr. Fuhrman had promised in his books that my taste buds would eventually change, and that I would no longer crave SAD foods. I didn’t fully believe him, but I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt. I couldn’t believe that, after 6 weeks, I had not yet succumbed to a cheat meal, and that I was just fine! He was right! OMG!!!!! The weight began to come off again!
Since then, I’ve dealt not so much with cravings for Standard American Diet (SAD) foods anymore, but more with emotional eating. Even when not hungry, I’m desiring fat-rich foods, and fruit, because they are my go-to for emotional eating. I no longer crave, or even eat, any SAD foods, but I still sometimes have to fight the urge to soothe my soul with technically-compliant-but-should-be-limited foods, such as natural peanut butter, nuts, dates, bananas, oranges, etc.
I have learned to deal with eating in social situations, and while out-and-about for whole days (theme parks and field trips), or multi-days (work conferences and vacations without my car), through trial and error.
I have tried every way possible to deal with these situations, and have come up with my own workable solutions. I have eaten in advance of a restaurant trip or party/faculty dinner/church get-together. I have taken my own food. I have tried to just pick through whatever they offer. I have gone without entirely. I have tried everything at least once. I now feel that I can use whatever method will be best for a particular situation.
Sandra before and after plant-based lifestyle
As far as traveling is concerned, especially international travel (for example, my 9-day trip to Peru in 2018 with EF), I packed a pop-top can of unsalted beans for each day of the trip, and ate them with a plastic spoon on the bus each day, or in my hotel room each evening just before dinner, right out of the can, cold. I didn’t care that they weren’t as good as they would have been warmed up and seasoned. I was just determined that I wasn’t going to fall victim to any non-compliant foods while on vacation. I also packed 9 individual 1-oz. bags of mixed, raw, unsalted nuts, one LaraBar per day, 1 packet of plain instant oatmeal (which I ate from a paper bowl in my room each morning before going down to the Continental Breakfast and eating every kind of fruit they offered...I used warm water from the bathroom sink, or from the shower), and one serving per day of “Mary’s Gone Crackers” crackers, for emergencies.
I made a point of requesting only raw or steamed veggies and fruit at every restaurant, and bought fresh fruits at every produce stand our bus stopped at. I ended up coming home several pounds LIGHTER (thanks to due diligence and a lot of hiking/climbing ruins). Diligence and vigilance paid off. I acted similarly for my 2019 trips to Italy and the French Riviera... both with EF.
What is your life like now?
I have, either directly or indirectly, influenced a few other people to join me on this health journey. Various family members and friends. They've shared their successes with others, who have also begun improving their eating plans. In the past six years, several students have told me that I’ve inspired them to give up soft drinks, dairy, or whatnot. That really makes me feel good. When I pop up one of my “before” pics on the projector, their jaws drop. One class actually accused me of photo-shopping my “Christmas 2012” pic. They didn’t believe what they were seeing was really me! That left me with a feeling of elation! I’m not even recognizable as “that person” anymore!!!
Sandra (left) after beginning her plant-based journey
Like everyone else who is fully and successfully committed to a Nutrient-Dense, Plant-Rich lifestyle, I get the constant questions and comments, such as...
“Where do you get your protein?”
“I could NEVER live without (fill in the blank with a SAD food).”
“I need my bone broth for collagen.”
“I have to add salt, or I get faint.”
“You bought a Snapple and poured out the drink, just to get the glass bottle??????? Why would you WASTE a perfectly good drink like that?????”
One day, one of my students claimed, “Fruit is NOT sweet!” after I said that I satisfy my sweet-tooth with whole fresh or frozen fruits. That made me sad. She suggested that I just use Splenda, instead.
But honestly, the comment I get the most (that upsets me the most ) is “Honey, you need to stop losing weight RIGHT NOW! You’ve lost enough! If you lose any more, you will just wrinkle! And if you add weight back after that, it won’t come back where you want it to, to fill back in the wrinkles. Trust me. It happened to me!” I have lost 126 pounds so far, and have managed to escape the dreaded wrinkles on my face and neck, for the most part. I don’t think that a few more pounds are going to change my face a whole lot. Besides, I attribute my lack of a lot of facial wrinkles to the superior nutrition that I have taken in through these last six years. A “crapton” of raw and gently-cooked veggies, fruits, beans, raw nuts/seeds, and whole grains have contributed to my skin looking pretty darn GOOD! Yes, later down the road, I plan to consider loose-skin removal surgery on my tummy, under my arms, and maybe my thighs, but I’d like to see what a few more years as a Nutritarian will do to my overall skin situation before I address that issue.
I FEEL younger and healthier every single day.
The wrinkles on my face are of minimal concern, compared to my health.
What does a day of eating look like for you?
It seems to me that every Nutritarian’s food plan is different. While my sis-in-law loves roasted veggies, I love home-made stews. So once every two/three months, I give up an entire weekend to batch-cook and freeze many servings of veggie stews. All of the pots have the same veggies and simple seasonings in them (garlic powder, onion powder, and Italian Seasoning), but each separate pot has a different “main” seasoning, such as Garam Masala, Hot Madras Curry, Sweet Hungarian-Style Paprika, Jamaican Allspice, North African Heat, Bragg’s Organic Sprinkle, Thai Basil, Ancho Chile, Chipotle Chile, Ras El Hanout, Moroccan Harissa, Kirkland Organic No-Salt Seasoning, or any of the Mrs. Dash blends. I am always on the lookout for new salt-free/low-salt seasoning blends. The label that I put on the bowl is the special seasoning.
I eat very simply, and I eat one bowl of these stews every single day, along with a cup of home-made salt-free beans. I have literally NEVER gotten tired of these stews because, each day, I pull out a different flavor. I also batch-cook/freeze my whole grains in individual servings, and sometimes I add the serving to a stew, or I’ll heat it up separately, and put some fruit in it for breakfast. So simple and streamlined. I LOVE simple. Simple = Success for me, and I MUST do what is successful for me, if I want this to be sustainable and permanent.
I don’t do a lot of experimental cooking because, sometimes, it gets me into trouble, and I eat too much of what I cooked (like Nutritarian treats with a lot of cacao powder or medjool dates). But, let’s talk about my favorite Nutritarian recipes for a minute...
Have you tried Tofu Scramble? So good! I modify my version by adding mushrooms and celery.
Also, I love the Carrot and Red Lentil Soup on page 121 of Eat to Live Quick and Easy Cookbook. That is one of my all-time faves. The secret to this recipe is to use carrot juice... whether it's bottled, or you make it fresh.
My favorite dressing is Dr. Fuhrman’s Orange Sesame Dressing on page 62 of the Quick and Easy Cookbook. There is a typo, and it is missing the ¼ cup sesame seeds, but I saw Dr. F make it on one of his YouTube videos, and that is about what he added.
As for my own dressing inventions, I just like to take one whole peeled orange, a light vinegar (like Rice Vinegar), some fresh garlic cloves, Italian Seasoning, and onions or onion powder, blend the heck out of it, and make a dressing like that. Sometimes, I will add hemp hearts or sesame seeds to the blender, but sometimes, I just sprinkle raw nuts on top of the salad, and get my healthy fats that way.
How did a plant-based diet impact your health and life?
Six years in..I feel better and more energetic than I did in my 30s. I haven’t had a migraine in six years. No muscle cramps, like the Charlie Horses. No bloating/swelling of my feet/hands. No stiffness in my joints. One optometrist told me in 2014 that I had the beginnings of cataracts, but another optometrist in 2017 said, “What cataracts?” when I asked him how my cataracts were progressing. My vision, which had steadily gotten worse as I age, has not changed since I became a Nutritarian. My blood pressure is textbook normal now. My cholesterol is perfectly in the healthy range. My protein is perfect. Calcium. Blood sugar. I am no longer ravenously thirsty. I don’t suffer from toxic hunger (get the shakes, headaches, etc., which I used to get when I didn’t eat). I feel like I’m literally FLOATING around my classroom these days, rather than trudging around!
A few years ago, I had to chase a student down the sidewalk, and it felt GOOD to run, even at my age! Plus, I wasn’t embarrassed to be seen running by a large group of teenagers, who would have laughed at me running at 252 pounds. As long as I get seven hours of sleep, I have enough energy to make it through my entire, busy day, as well as keep up with my young granddaughter.
What would you say to someone wanting to make the change to a plant-rich diet?
What would I say to someone who is wanting to make the change? Well, no one said anything to me in the beginning, but what helped me the most was to “find my whys”, first and foremost.
I was highly motivated by thoughts of my worsening health. Then came the momentum of watching the scale drop every single week, since I had so much to lose, and was eating sooooo much better than I had ever eaten in my life.
Sandra with Dr. Furhman
Later, I found my “tribe” in the form of Dr. Fuhrman’s website, and a Facebook group called “Eat to Live Support Group”, as well as other like-minded groups. When I realized that I wasn’t all alone doing this, that totally changed my outlook! I finally found people who understood exactly what I was going through and trying to do!!!! They were going through it, too! “Your vibe creates your tribe.”
I also found Dr. Fuhrman on YouTube videos, as well as other Nutritarian bloggers, and that constant in-flow of motivational information has truly helped to keep me motivated.
I recommend a steady diet of books, videos, podcasts, and webinars on the subject. I also recommend an Accountability Partner. My APs, Ellen and Marlene, have been invaluable as the two people who I know totally understand, and will listen, and I think that they feel the same about me.And, last but not least...MANTRAS!!!!!Daily, hourly, minute-by-minute! Keep a small notebook full of your most powerful mantras, and read and repeat them constantly! Especially in the mornings (when you’re rested and ready to take on the day), in the evenings (when you’re exhausted, and need your mantras to take over and think FOR you), and anytime you are feeling stressed and want to just eat something not in your plan.
Start with Dr. F’s main principle. Make it a mantra: “Moderate caloric restriction in an environment of micronutrient density.” Then, add your own faves. Some that I have collected, or created...
“Face your stuff. Don’t stuff your face.”
“Nothing changes if nothing changes.”
“I didn’t get THIS (my slimmer, healthier body) by eating THAT (whatever SAD food is staring at me at the moment).”
“Nothing tastes as good as thin and healthy feels.”
“Fall forward.” (or) “Fail forward.” (In other words, learn from your slip-ups.)
“Feel-good foods made me feel BAD!”
“Keep the LONG perspective.”
“Be stronger than your excuse.”
“We don’t take a vacation from our lifestyle.”
“The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead.”
“The salad is the main dish.”
“Beans = Non-Elastic JEANS.”
“Just do it. Go through it.”
“Our BEST requires REST.”
“Your life does not get better by chance... it gets better by CHANGE.”
“How you GET there is how you’ll STAY there.”
“If at first you don’t succeed... you’re NORMAL.”
“Failure is not falling down. Failure is falling down, and not getting back up.”
“When you feel like quitting, think about why you started.”
“Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.”
“You can’t spell challenge without spelling change. If you’re going to rise to the challenge, you have to be prepared to change.”
“I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was last week.”
“One pound at a time.”
“Do it for the ‘HOLY CRAP, YOU GOT HOT!’”
I am deeply grateful to Dr. Fuhrman and his years of research dedicated to helping us live happier, healthier, longer, and more active lives.
I frequently feel that no longer being tempted by SAD foods is like a “secret weapon” that Weight Watchers folks, low-carb/high-fat folks, and Wheat-Belly folks will never have. It’s a comfort to be able to look at a Baby Ruth or a bag of Fritos BBQ Corn Chips, and not feel threatened by the temptation.
I read many experts now, but if there is a dispute on any particular issue, I always defer to Dr. Fuhrman’s advice because I trust his recommendations more than any of the other plant-based experts. I love his no-nonsense approach, and his lack of fear to tell it like it is, even if the advice is unpopular. I also love how he adjusts his advice based on his latest research (for example, what to do with raw onions). Sometimes, I feel like I’m a character in The Matrix. I’m Neo, Dr. F is Morpheus, and the SAD and all of its supporters are Agent Smith. The rest of the world doesn’t know...and they don’t even know that they don’t KNOW! That is very sad. I just do my best to be a positive example to everyone around who is watching me. I try to smile when I get all of those inane comments about my “radical diet,” just because I don’t eat chemicals, animal products, processed foods, oil, salt, or added sugar. Someday, we will be the NORM. :-)
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.