“The procedure was a success, but when your husband fell, it caused fairly extensive nerve damage,” the surgeon told Stefanie Ignoffo. “It’ll be six months before he can use his arm again.” The Illinois mom of three felt panic spread through her body. John, a self-employed mechanical engineer, needed his arm to work. This is our family’s ninth surgery this year with no insurance, she thought, her heart pounding. Six months with zero income means…we’ll lose our house. Stefanie — who’d carried up to 278 pounds on her five-foot-two frame — was in such bad shape, she was considering getting a walker and couldn’t even manage a part-time job. What were they going to do?
The day went by in a blur, but eventually reality hit Stefanie: There’s no money for the knee replacements the doctor says I need. But if I lose weight, everything might get better — my knees, the GI trouble, migraines, high blood pressure, fatigue. Then I could find work. Of course, she’d tried diet after diet her whole life. Why would this be different? Try something completely new, she thought. Her animal-loving daughter Hailie, 15, wanted to start a plant-based diet, and Stefanie had researched to see if it was safe. Studies suggested it might be the world’s healthiest diet. And I remember photos of women my age who lost hundreds of pounds, she recalled.
After John was discharged, they hit the drive-thru and headed home. Everyone was eating burgers and fries when Stefanie cued up a documentary she’d been meaning to watch. It was all about plant-based eating. By the end, Stefanie was stunned that even 18-year-old Zakary was on board.
How do plant-based meals with fiber help?
Stefanie hit the internet and found great resources, including Dr. Neal Barnard’s 21-Day Kickstart plan with family-friendly meal ideas like veggie-and-hummus wraps and chili. These look easy and they’re from a doctor. Perfect! she thought. She boxed up the family’s processed food, cheese and meat to give to friends. Is this crazy? she wondered. There was only one way to find out.
The Ignoffos’ first plant-based meal was pasta marinara and salad. “I read we should really fill up so we won’t be hungry later and start thinking about our old foods,” she said. Everyone dug in and seemed happy. As the week went on, she offered oatmeal, stir-fries, and rice and beans. Not everything was a hit. “Let’s hang in there until we find favorite new meals,” she said after a so-so veggie loaf. Her 13-year-old, Izabelle, chimed in: “Can you make us pancakes?” All the kids nodded. So Stefanie found a recipe, and it was all smiles at their next breakfast. Especially for Stefanie and John. Both felt less pain and were sleeping better. Stefanie was already down 12 pounds.
The family gently settled into their new habits. Once, Zak decided to get regular pizza with friends, “but I felt sick afterward,” he reported. As he said it, it occurred to Stefanie that her own constant tummy trouble — reflux, bloat, IBS — was gone. After years of urgent bathroom trips and meds that didn’t work, she was healed.
Why is fiber important?
Breakthrough research In a study by Dr. Barnard, a whole-foods, plant-based diet beat even the lauded Mediterranean diet for weight loss and overall health. One big reason: Plant-based eaters get far more fiber and a far greater variety of fiber, giving a huge boost to trillions of “good bacteria” in the GI tract. “These bacteria act as a powerful bonus organ that helps every part of you function optimally,” he says. Digestion, blood sugar, inflammation, brain function, and much more improve. And while 93 percent of us don’t get enough fiber, going plant-based reverses the problem immediately.
Further evidence suggests that plant-based eating improves gut bacteria in a way that targets the midsection. In one test, volunteers melted “up to seven measuring cups’ worth of belly fat in 16 weeks without limiting portions,” says the doc. “As plant-based eating makes your gut healthier, amazing things follow!”
What were the results?
Before long, Stefanie tried on a size-smaller pair of jeans. These are too big. Holy cow! she marveled. Down three sizes in three weeks, she talked to her doctor. “Is this normal?” she asked. The doctor laughed. “It’s better than normal,” he said. “You don’t need blood-pressure meds anymore!” By the six-week mark, John, noticeably leaner, had regained the use of his arm — four months ahead of schedule.
“After a while, I was bouncing off the walls with energy. I tried going for a walk,” Stefanie recalls. “I went a whole mile. My knees felt great, and I was so proud.” Soon, the whole Ignoffo family was hiking together. After 10 months, John had shed 45 pounds and Zak had lost 80. Stefanie dropped a whopping 102 pounds. “My husband and I are both off all medications. All my GI issues are gone. And I really feel in my heart I’ve set my kids up for the best life they can live,” she says. “Anyone out there looking for an inexpensive way to feel amazing, my advice is: Eat your plants off!”
To get results like Stefanie and her family, try Dr. Barnard’s 21-Day Kickstart. The gist: Build sittings around whole plant foods while avoiding added oil. Go for generous portions since the more fiber you get early on, the faster you’ll reboot your gut bacteria and begin to crave healthy foods. Always consult your doctor when trying a new plan.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.