In this three part series, we see in real-time Chris' plant-based health transformation. Keep scrolling to see Chris' parts 1, 2 and 3 interviews!
Sports are Chris Brewer's life. The 27-year-old Vermont middle school math teacher was a varsity athlete in high school, then went on to play tennis for his college. Now he's often coaching two to three sports teams at a given time, from swimming and soccer to tennis. His love for education and athletics has driven his personal and career choices, but his recent health problems put a wrench in his plans.
Chris' doctor informed him he had dangerously high uric acid levels, which put him at risk for gout — and he was pre-diabetic. He's also been battling an ankle injury that caused so much inflammation he was on crutches for months, with periodic flares and bouts of pain. Because he could no longer exercise, it was difficult for Chris to maintain a healthy weight. On top of his injuries, Chris was feeling discouraged because he was no longer able to do what he loved: coach or play sports.
After a vegan co-worker (the trainer for Chris's teams) suggested ditching dairy and meat, Chris decided to give a plant-based diet a try for two weeks. Then, after watching The Game Changers documentary, he decided he couldn't look back.
After seeing immediate results from just ditching meat and dairy, Chris was enthusiastic about his new lifestyle. Lucky, Chris is close friends with MamaSezz Recipe Designer, Caroline DiNicola Fawley, and has played competitive tennis with Co-Founder, Meg Donahue. Caroline and Meg offered him a 4-week Whole Food Plant-Based Challenge with ready-made MamaSezz meals and Chris was eager to jump at the opportunity to continue improving his health.
Part I: Experimenting With a Vegan Diet
Chef Caroline sat down with Chris to ask about how ditching dairy and meat for two weeks has transformed his health, and about his goals for the challenge.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Currently I am a middle school math teacher. I teach 7th and 8th grade, I’m a soccer coach, I help out with the high school tennis team, and I’m a basketball coach.
So most of my days are school and then athletics. And that’s just what I love to do.
Growing up I played soccer from when I was like eight years old, through high school. I actually went off and played college tennis, and I’ve been playing my entire life. So that was really fun. Ever since I can remember I’ve been coaching a swim team in my town, and soccer. Since I’ve stopped truly competitive sports I’ve turned to coaching competitive sports.
What sparked your interest in athletics?
My dad and mom are a huge influence on what I do. My mom was a really big tennis player growing up. She played tennis throughout her whole life, her whole family did. So that’s how I got into tennis. And then my dad was a really big soccer player, but also growing up he became our soccer coach, so from a UA level he was coaching us, me and my brother, so that’s really why I love to do soccer and tennis.
Growing up, I actually lived across from a swimming pool and every summer until I was eight I could always see their team practicing, so when I turned eight I joined the team and I never looked back.
It sounds like recently you’ve been doing a lot of coaching. Do you still get to play sports competitively or with your friends?
During the summers, actually all throughout the year for soccer, down in Bernardston, there’s a soccer league that I play in. It’s indoors. One day a week I get a bunch of guys from town to go down and play. Over the summers there’s a league that plays at a local international college. So we go every Wednesday night, play an hour-long game. It’s really fun. I’m not involved in a tennis league right now but my brother and I both played in college, my parents both still play so, we definitely get out and hit whenever possible.
I haven’t been able to hit in while, or play soccer really for that matter because my ankle injuries have been really bad.Has it been hard not being able to play?
Yeah, it’s been absolutely brutal. I was supposed to go and coach at a camp down in North Carolina this summer for tennis, and because of COVID it got canceled, but I would have had a really hard time regardless, because I haven’t been able to walk. And then also I dislocated my shoulder so that really put a damper on things. It been one injury after the next. So that’s been really tough. But if been able to coach starting in June, so that keeps me going and involved in the sport.
What inspired you to change up your diet?
It actually came down to a few things. Most recently, because of my injuries I’ve been going to see my doctor a lot, and he’s been doing blood work.
And the initial blood work he took showed a really high level of uric acid. So he was worried about that, and in the same meeting I talked to him about wanting to lose weight, and change up my eating habits.
So we talked about different diets that we could possibly do, and it started out with the keto conversation, but he said, “when you start keto your uric acid levels spike, so I don’t know if you should do that” and I was like, “okay, well that was a wasted conversation.”
But then all I did was really just manage what I put into my body better than what I was doing at the time, and I ended up losing like 10 pounds without even doing anything — just being more conscious of what I’m doing. So then he was like “wow, let’s take more blood again and see what happens” and my uric acid levels went up! So it didn’t make any sense to me. Then my ankle injury hit again. My appetite was gone, I was in so much pain. It was so brutal that I didn’t stop eating, but I was limiting what I put in my body. I started drinking a ton of water, and I lost another ten pounds. It was insane, I was like “I’m not even really doing anything” and I went back cause he was like “this is awesome you lost weight” but they went up again, my uric acid levels went up again.
A third time, and it was an insanely high level, like a dangerous level. And he said, “usually when this level is happening, you’re going to get gout” and I was like, “I don’t want that” so that’s when I really thought long and hard: what am I doing wrong?
And so then that brings me to the other reason why I changed my diet. I’ve always grown up on healthy living. My mom was a nutritionist when she graduated, and she always taught those foundations. And so I never had a bad diet. So I’ve always thought about going vegetarian many times. Because the only meat I really eat is chicken, and I like fish so I did that. I had pork here and there. But the majority of my diet was like chicken if it was meat. So I always told myself that I preferred the “extras” like the vegetables and the beans, those were my “extras.” Then the meat was my “source” and I was like, “I actually don’t like that as much as the ‘extras.’”
One thing that’s really cool for me, is that in the town of Brattleboro (Vermont) there are so many options that you can go to. There’s an entire vegan store downtown. I’ve never even walked into that store before, but now I’m going to probably get meals there all the time. I’m excited, it’s going to bring me to places that I’ve never been to, which I think is so fun.
Besides me, have any other friends influenced your vegan transition?
So I had that conversation with our new athletic trainer at the high school and she — well it actually stemmed from when we decided to do a lobster bake three weeks ago, and I was like “this is so cool! I’ve never really cracked my own lobster, I’ve only done it once or twice before” so we all got together and got lobsters and did the whole experience. The entire time I was doing this I was cracking it and it was leaking juice, and I hated the destruction of what I was doing to the animal and I kept gagging and making miserable faces. I was like “this is awful”... you should have seen me react. And she was sitting right next to me watching me, she’s a vegan herself. But she was really easy to talk to about it. It would be great for the student athletes to know that this (Standard American Diet) isn’t the only way.
So the athletic trainer was like, “just try it for two weeks” and I was like, “Okay, I’m on board.” And I’m loving it. I’m on day 15 now and I’m loving it, and it was just an interesting way to transition. I wasn’t really thinking about it, but I had thought about it before, and then all of a sudden she had a conversation with me and we were at the grocery store 2 days later shopping for it.
Have you noticed any changes to your body or your health after going vegan?
With so many injuries — and my body was deteriorating — within three days of watching what I was eating and being fully plant-based, my ankles, all the inflammation had gone away. Like on day 4: gone.
My ankle is still thick just because it’s still injured. But before my ankles were fat, cankle sized, and now there is no inflammation in either of my ankles. And since that day I’ve been able to walk constantly. I wear both ankle braces because they are just weak regardless, but the strength I have in them is instantly higher. Within three days, it was the most insane thing. And I was skeptical. I was like, “I don’t know if it has to do with this (diet), it’s only been 3 days, maybe I’m just feeling better.” But no. What usually happens is when my ankles are feeling better I’ll do a little something and then they will feel bad again, and I have not felt that since. Then I was like, “it has to be that.”
Another thing that I’ve been feeling is that, the whole summer I haven’t really been working, because I couldn't do any of the jobs I usually have in the summer (because of injury) and school wasn’t in session, and I was just really tired and not motivated to do anything.
Within the last week and a half I have felt this resurgence of energy and I don’t mind getting up in the morning —I still like to sleep in — one of the biggest things after hitting the two week mark (of being vegan) I just feel strongly that my day has started and that I haven’t dwindled or faded. Constant energy.
Usually I’m nodding, my eyes are tired. And a natural habit of mind is taking my glasses off and rubbing my eyes because I think I’m tired. And I started to do that and was like, “I’m not tired, I don’t need to do that!”
What’s been the hardest part of going plant-based?
My mom works for a cheese factory, so the dairy part of it is challenging. I’m always thinking about the dairy. But instead of finding something else to use like non-dairy dairy products, I’ve just kind of not even touched it. I’m just going to make all of my meals without it, just to see how I do. So that’s been a little challenging.
And usually I don’t really have to think about what I eat, I’ll just open a can of tuna or take some yogurt out of the fridge, and I haven’t been able to do that. So it’s been a lot of planning. I am lucky because when I started I was still on summer break, so I did have extra time. So the first week and a half was pretty good, but when I started back at work I’m like, “Oh no, I should probably bring something to work… but it takes a long time for me to prep… I just won’t eat this lunch.” So I just need to plan more of my day around the meal I make. But I also think that with time it will be easier.
My roommate was like, “dude, aren’t you noticing that you’re spending way more time in the kitchen” and I was like, “I feel like I’m having fun with it!” My lifestyle is wake up at 7, go about my day, get back at 9 and then I just want to be in chill mode and go to bed within the hour. And I know I’m going to have to change my routine a little bit.
Some of the foods I’m using, I’ve never cooked with before. I’m trying to figure out tofu. I’ve had people prep it for me, but I’ve never prepped it myself. I tried it the other night. Such a fail. SUCH A FAIL! The first thing was I didn’t drain it enough, so when it got on the stove it started to bounce and sizzle and I’m like, "It’s alive!”
I bought cashews the other night, and I just need to commit to making cashew cream.
What are your goals?
I’m really excited about this opportunity! My biggest goal really ultimately is I want to lose pounds, I want to become better, I want to feel better about myself.
I know it’s important to have self love for whoever you are but I will say that I’ve dropped like 25 pounds and I just feel better about my days. It might not even really be about who I am, but I feel like I have more energy, I don’t know. It’s not a misconception when people say that people look at you differently. Like that is not a misconception. Hey, looking good is underrated.
So, definitely weight loss is my #1 goal. I would also say just being a better athlete. Just having better control of my body. I would love to be, like, able to just go and do a backflip!
But I think the third thing for me, that’s just really important is taking the information that I got my doctor about my uric acid levels, the possibility of gout, or higher risk of diabetes and work to fix that.
He even emailed me the other day and asked if I’d consider a plant based diet, or even plant based protein, and I was like, “if I’m going to do plant based protein I might as well do a plant based diet.”
Those are definitely my top three reasons why I want to make this transition and better my body. But I also watched the documentary “The Game Changers” the other day, so incredible! I know that in documentaries they can be a little far fetched, and so I tried to take it with a grain of salt, but my biggest takeaway was the environmental impact it has.
Sure, you might not enjoy being vegan at first if you’re a die hard meat eater, but when it comes down to saving our planet and helping in any way you can, that for me is a game changer. It’s a really important part of that, especially as an educator.
It’s actually interesting, I haven’t gone to my teams and said “I’m a vegan, you guys should be too!” but when I got to practice I was like, “Day 10 of my vegan diet” and a couple of them have actually messaged me and said, “tell me more about this, I’ve thought about it” and one of them is fully committed. He’s been a pescatarian so it’s been pretty easy for him to do that, so I was like “give two weeks a try” and he watched “The Game Changers” and after that we were texting and he’s like “I want to commit right now!”
It was so interesting because I went to practice and I was like, “Day 8!” or whatever day it was and one kid was like, “I could never do that. No way!” and another kid was like, “that’s cool, good for you” and that’s the only time I’ve ever mentioned it and I’ve already gotten like two or three kids that are like, “tell me more.”
I feel very fortunate that we are good friends. Since day 1 I’ve been texting you nonstop. It’s funny because normally someone like that would get annoyed but you’re just sending me novels. I’m so fortunate.
What are your fears or hesitations about going plant based?
I wouldn’t call them fears or anything like that, but as I said, the biggest thing for me is that my body is receiving everything I’m eating. Growing up I didn’t think twice in 27 years about it, it was never like “make sure you eat enough of this” I just grew up on a diet, my mom and dad would always cook. My body was good, my doctors never said anything and so I feel like this is not a drastic change, but it is a change.
Making sure my body gets what it needs is the most important thing for me. And I’ve already run into it several times, like going to family gatherings, hanging out with friends and going out to dinner. I read an article that was like “make sure you check the menu before you go.” For some people that would be a huge deal breaker for them. They would be like “I want to go anywhere and be able to order anything” but for me I’m like, I teach kids and I have to be willing to be flexible every single day. I get things thrown at me all the time and I’m just like “oh, that’s fine, let’s change this, let’s do this a little differently” and so for me that’s the same mentality I’m bringing to this whole thing. I can either get really upset about this and be like “absolutely not, I’ll see you later” or I can be like “let’s figure it out, let’s problem solve here.”
So my mom’s birthday was yesterday and I looked up the menu and was like, “hmm, nothing on there that’s vegan” and so I gave them a call and was like, “hey just so you know I’m vegan and I don’t see any menu items I can eat. Has this been a problem before?” And right away this woman was like, “we have this portobello mushroom burger” which, by the way I had and not a fan. Mushrooms going into it I knew they weren’t for me but let’s try it. But I called and she said “people have done this to this menu item before” and I was like, “perfect, that’s all I needed to know, see you tonight.” It took a little time out of my day, but who cares?
One thing that’s really cool for me, is that the town we live in, Brattbleboro, there are so many options that you can go to.
Chris Week 3 of the Challenge:
Had you had any plant-based food or MamaSezz meals before your Challenge?
It’s actually funny because I remember you were coming over for the Super Bowl and you said you were going to bring all this vegan food and we were like (sarcastically) “Oh… great!” But I feel like when your mindset isn’t in that mode, it’s harder to be open to those things. You just are not prepared for it. I was like “Ooooh, Caroline… no,” but now my mindset is totally changed, I’ve been thinking about it more, I’m engaged and I want to do it, so now when I try plant-based food I’m like, “wow, this is actually pretty good.” I’m so excited to get into eating MamaSezz meals. I always drive by the shop in West Brattleboro.
Are you nervous about the 4-Week WFPB Challenge? No oil, low salt, everything is structured for you?
Actually, I'm very excited about it! I'm ready to feel better. I gave you the parameters so I'm like, "let's go!" I might have a different opinion in like a week or two, but I don’t think I’m going to. I’m just excited about it.
For me, I'm so new to it so I don’t have recipes down, I don’t have dinner ideas that I need. So this is another opportunity for me to see ways that I can make food and recipes. And that for me is a big piece of it too. I’m not having to do it all on my own right away. I’m getting help from a company that is all about helping me.
And the other thing is I don’t know portion sizes. Like what’s enough for my body and what’s not. So that in itself will be awesome too. Someone is helping me answer all these questions I have.
I also was intermittent fasting a little. I would start eating at noon and then cut it off at 8 and I think that helped a lot. And I cut out alcohol for a month, which I think helped too. So when you asked, “would you go dry?” I was like… first of all, what’s that?! But I was like yeah, no problem, I just did it for a month.
Do you think you’ll continue after the four weeks, at least being vegan (as opposed to whole food plant based)?
100%. After I watched The Game Changers, in my mind I fully committed. I actually was thinking about committing, I hadn’t brought myself to it, and then that night I was like, “no, you need to do this.”
My body feels so good. And it helps that people keep telling me, “wow, you look really good.” I’m all about it.
I’m excited to test out all of your new products.
Part II: 3 Weeks Into the MamaSezz Challenge
After 3 weeks of the MamaSezz Challenge, Chris was noticing significant changes in his body, and he was starting to reach some of his goals. Chef Caroline sat down with him to get the details about his journey, and about what it's like to be a teacher during COVID-19. We all know change is difficult, especially in a time of heightened stress, so Caroline asked Chris to cover both the positive results, and the struggles of making a significant lifestyle change.
Week III: The Final Results
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