Sometime back , I was asked to speak at a local high school about plant-based nutrition. The class – Foods 1 – was studying vegetarian and vegan diets. Since their teacher knew I am a licensed Food for Life instructor with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, she asked if I would come talk with the students and do a quick live cooking demo.
Just the month before, I wrapped-up a commitment I had with another high school student, Sean Doyle, from the same school who asked me to donate 15 hours of mentoring for his senior project on plant-based nutrition. He is a top-ranked track and cross country runner that became interested in nutrition after watching the documentary “Fed Up.” We had a terrific time with his project and ended it with a plant-based meal feeding the school’s entire track team and coaches. I heard from Sean recently that he received a perfect score and many accolades from teachers and staff about his presentation and thorough knowledge of plant-based nutrition. I am very proud of his accomplishments and to have played a small part. I asked Sean to help me out with this class presentation, and he eagerly accepted. To read more about Sean, click on this link Mentoring a High School Cross Country Runner in Plant-Based Nutrition.
Though I teach nutrition and cooking classes regularly, up to this point, they have been geared towards adults, so I had to switch gears a bit to figure out how to maintain the interest of teenagers. Friends from Dr. McDougall’s forums were glad to pitch-in and offer suggestions and advice. After some consideration, I was able to come up with an outline and plan that turned out quite well. Here is a glimpse into the classroom and how these high school students responded.
After being introduced, I asked how many of the students were vegetarians or vegans – one young lady was. Then I questioned them about how many knew a vegetarian or vegan and 5 out of about 25 raised their hands.
I was encouraged that many of the students were familiar with the differences between vegetarians and vegans. We talked about the reasons some people change their diets such as for ethical and health reasons. It was fun interacting with them and finding out about their knowledge and thoughts about what ‘ethical’ means.
Sharing my personal story of how my daughter became vegetarian when she was sixteen and then vegan at seventeen for ethical reasons seemed to resonate with them. Years later, she asked me to watch the Forks Over Knives documentary when I was suffering with health issues including acne, some mild depression, low energy, weight gain, surgery for a thyroid nodule, sleep issues, and arthritis that had begun in my 30’s. The class seemed to have a personal understanding of many of these symptoms.
I explained that watching Forks Over Knives was the first time I had the slightest clue that plant-based nutrition could prevent and even reverse many of the diseases we deal with in the West. They were amazed to hear that my body was healed after changing my diet. So, while my daughter and I changed our diets for different reasons, we both are on the same team and share the benefits of plant-based lifestyles.
Switching gears, I asked the class if they knew what the top two causes of death are in the US, and surprisingly they did–heart disease and cancer. Then I told them that I had some bad news– research shows that up to 80% of them already have some coronary artery disease, with partially blocked and damaged arteries. I asked them to look to the person on their right, then to their left, then back at me, and told them that current statistics also say that one of the people they just looked at will likely develop cancer. One in two men, and one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetime; that is 1.5 million new cancer cases every year in the US. We are a very sick nation, and our young people are included.
During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, autopsies were done on hundreds of American and Asian soldiers. I asked students to guess what the average age was. They guessed 18-19, and I told them it was close at 22. I asked if they thought those soldiers were couch potatoes and overweight. One kid in all seriousness said yes. The other students corrected him and told him they were fighting a war and just came out of boot camp. I shared that nearly 80% of the American soldiers had ‘gross evidence of coronary artery disease.’ (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health). Then, I asked how many of the Asian soldiers they thought had CAD and shared that their arteries were ‘largely clean, without disease.’ We discussed that these American and Asian soldiers were the same average age and in the same physical shape, but the difference was their diets at that time– rice, veggies, and tofu versus meat, dairy, and eggs.
Certain diet patterns seem to have a major affect in preventing cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical issues. Countries where the diet is primarily plant-based have historically drastically lower disease rates. Over the last 20+ years, Asian countries have become sicker, and so I asked the students if they knew why their diets were changing. Surprisingly they said, “McDonald’s and Burger King.” They were definitely getting it!
Then Sean, the senior track runner I mentored this year, shared his thoughts and encouragement for them. I had a power point running the whole time behind us with twin girls teenage girls that cured their acne Nina and Randa Nelson, Germany’s strongest man Patrik Baboumian, ultra athlete and runner Rich Roll, NFL linebacker David Carter, a few other athletes, my before and after pictures, etc. Sean looked up and drew the students’ attention to the athletes and talked a little about protein and how his own track performance and recovery time had improved after switching to a meat and dairy free diet. He is now one of the top runners for his age and school division in NC. I was so proud of how well he did in sharing his story and journey with this classroom of peers.
Next, we played a Rip Esselstyn 15-minute TED talk Plant Strong & Healthy Living. I had sent it to their teacher ahead of time to review, and she approved it. She spoke with them the day before, letting them know that it briefly mentions ED. I also had a very recent 3-minute news clip about Dr. Dean Ornish’s program at a hospital in Indiana and their success. Man Off Heart Transplant List Thanks to a New Program . I thought that seeing doctors and specialists in white coats saying that plant-based nutrition works would help them visualize that there are doctors supporting nutrition for prevention and treatment of many diseases.
For the last portion of the class, we did a cooking demo for Mexican Kale Blue Corn Salad from Physicians Committee. Only one student in the entire class had ever eaten kale! They lined up for seconds as we did a Q&A session. Students thanked me over and over and said they loved the kale. Their teacher asked me to come back for the next two semesters to speak with new students, and I hope my schedule will allow me to do that.
I think it’s safe to say these high school students are interested in their health and how nutrition plays a huge roll in it. I am very excited to plant seeds and hopefully see some positive results in the near and distant future.
Plants FOR THE WIN!
UPDATE: Sean Doyle signs with Appalachian State track team!! Polk Sports Article
Polk County High School, NC
These are a few of the awesome students from the class