Esther Paine – Urbandale, Iowa: Entire Family Adopts WFPB Diet to Support Brother’s Leukemia Recovery

In 2012, Esther’s 22-year-old brother Nathan was diagnosed with leukemia and wasn’t responding well to treatment. “He was getting infections, needing frequent blood transfusions, and struggling to handle the amount of chemo needed to kill the cancer,” Esther recalls. Her entire family went into research mode, eager to help Nathan.

Esther’s parents Tom and Joni came across Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman, MD, and the documentary Forks Over Knives, both of which discuss the power of a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet in helping a body heal and maintain vibrant health. They urged Esther, her sister Amy, and Nathan to read and watch as well. “For me,” says Esther, “Eat to Live’s research, inspiring stories, and actionable steps were impressive.” Esther says what she learned inspired more research, and for her and her family, a complete switcheroo in how they eat.

“Wanting to support Nathan’s recovery as much as possible, we decided to make the change to plant-based diet together as a family.”  Never mind that Esther’s family was spread across two states and a few households – Esther, a Drake University grad in Iowa, the rest of her family in Nebraska (Tom is an Iowa native, Amy is a University of Iowa Law School grad) – the family supported one another in learning new dishes and habits as a team. They haven’t looked back. For Nathan, the diet eased his leukemia recovery. He’s been in remission for a few years now, and is living and working in Omaha.

Esther, now a schoolteacher and who’s been eating WFPB for near 7 years, describes her own experience with the diet. “During my college years, I took up recreational running. I also gained around 30 pounds. After I graduated, got a job, and added some weight lifting to my running, a few of the pounds dropped off. My sister was a vegetarian, so I gave that a try thinking it would help. I didn’t feel much healthier, and the extra weight wasn’t moving either.”  

Joni hugs Esther and Amy at the finish line of a 31-mile run.

Esther’s Results: “It wasn’t until I adopted a fully plant-based diet – dropping the eggs and dairy and focusing on adding more fruits and vegetables – that I started noticing important health benefits. I lost 25ish pounds, bringing me to a much healthier weight. I no longer have blood sugar highs and lows. I feel much more energetic and my running times have improved significantly.” To date, Esther has run 3 marathons, 18 half marathons, and she and her sister recently ran a 31-mile race together, checking off a major goal.

Esther intends to stay the course. “Eating whole-food, plant-based, I can maintain a healthy weight, recover faster from harder workouts. I can enjoy sitting down to really good food. And, I’ve also found my love for cooking.”

Shifting from vegetarian to whole-food, plant-based diet was easy because I was experiencing so many benefits – it’s very motivating – such as the weight drop, better running times, and more energy, – Esther Paine

Family: “Years later, my family is still going strong with their plant-based diet. Now my husband Andy, who’s always been supportive, is adjusting his diet to be more plant-based too. And, my sister Amy gets to say ‘I told you so’ about paying attention to what we eat.”

Funny: “When Amy was in high school, she read Howard Lyman’s Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth From The Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat, which inspired her to become a vegetarian,” describes Esther. “My mom discouraged her, thinking at the time that it wasn’t a healthy choice. (Which we all laugh about; Mom is now an enthusiastic plant-baser who gives copies of Eat to Live to anyone who’s interested!)  But Amy carried on, encouraging us to consider it for ourselves. And several years later, I went vegetarian too. It wasn’t until Nathan got sick that we all started reading and researching, then seeing how eating plant-based was helpful to him – that we all got on the same whole-food, plant-based diet page.”  

Transition: “Shifting from vegetarian to whole-food, plant-based diet was easy because I was experiencing so many benefits – it’s very motivating – such as the weight drop, better running times, and more energy. Eating this way does require a little more planning and cooking, but I enjoy that part of it. There are so many books and resources out there to help get a person started.”

Recipes in the back of that first book, Eat to Live, were Esther’s introduction to preparing plant-based food. “Now I get recipes from a variety of blogs. Hummusapien, Minimalist Baker, and Oh She Glows are favorites. I also love any cookbooks by Isa Chandra.”

Going Forward: “I wish there was more education across the community about the whole-food, plant-based diet and its benefits, so that more people could give it a try and experience how whole foods can transform the way they feel.”

“I’m eager for people to know that food can heal. It is amazing what your body can do for you if you fuel it kindly and give it the nutrients it needs.

Esther adds, “It’s important to understand that a whole-food, plant-based diet differs from a vegan or vegetarian style. With all the vegan and vegetarian processed convenience foods, it’s easy to be vegan or vegetarian yet still unhealthy. Eating food in its whole or near-whole form provides so much more health-promoting nutrition than processed food with its preservatives, stabilizers, leaveners and such.

“And like everyone else who eats WFPB, I love seeing restaurants come out with options that aren’t processed or saturated in oil but are fresh and healthy. We need more of them!”

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Esther’s story here is part of a just-getting-started roundup of Iowa’s Own Plant-Based Health Success Stories.  Feel free to post and share, stir the conversation! And if you have an Iowa plant-based success story or know of one, email me at [email protected] or on Facebook.

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