Plant-Based Public Health 

with Karen Smith

This week, we invited Karen Smith to discuss plant-based nutrition in the clinical setting. Karen, RD, CDCES has over 16 years of experience as a registered dietitian in various settings including public health, community nutrition programming, and clinical practice. She enjoys empowering others to achieve their goals and realize their capabilities and potential.

What was food like for you when you were growing up?

My mom was working – she was a registered nurse for many years. Looking back now, I give her so much credit for working from 7-3:30, coming home, and getting dinner prepared for the family. I feel like I ate a rather healthy variety of foods; we always had fruits and vegetables. My parents have always grown a rather large vegetable garden in the summer. I have memories of going out there, picking tomatoes off the vine, and eating them.

I ate my fair share, especially dairy products. As an athlete, I made sure I drank my milk after practice. I also had terrible acne. I wonder now how big a role did the dairy play in my acne because it was awful, and I felt terrible about myself. 

When Did You go Plant-Based?

I had to deal with the stress in my life first to even be open to the idea of a plant-based diet. In hindsight, I am sure that I had been exposed to it; I had a sister-in-law who was eating a vegan diet. I never considered it for myself, and I think just because I had so much else going on it just seemed like one thing more that would need my attention.

One night after the kids were in bed, I heard Dr. Joel Fuhrman speak. I was flipping through the stations and turned to PBS. Joel Fuhrman was talking about Eat to Live, and I was like, “how do I not know this?” This makes perfect sense that humans should be eating plant foods. When we do that, conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes go away in many instances.

I just feel like it was presented to me at the right time in my life where my mind was open to it. I remember ordering his book as I’m watching and reading it really quickly. I jumped right in; there were a few foods that took a little bit more time for me to remove. The meat part, for me, was super easy because I had easy substitutes for that.

What kind of changes did you notice after you switched your diet?

At that point of my life, my acne was not so bad, but my skin still improved; it just looked healthier and better. I felt better from an energy perspective and from an emotional perspective. As someone who’s had anxiety as early on as I can remember, I feel like my nutrition now plays a huge role in helping me. I have strategies for managing it now, and the food helps for sure.

Having these boundaries on what I eat has really liberated the way that I think about food and how much time I spend thinking about it. I also spent quite a few of my teenage years always thinking about food; it just occupied a lot of brain space. There were periods of my life where I would binge eat and then compensate for that as an athlete. I had a coach in college who would make comments if you got caught on campus eating an ice cream cone. So I ate in private; I didn’t want people to know about it. This way of eating has given me this huge sense of freedom.

How Should You Introduce Others to a Plant-Based Diet?

People are so used to eating meat and dairy, especially if that is all they’ve known their whole life. I’ve just come to accept that I am not always going to be the one to change their mind; I’m not changing anyone unless they have even just the slightest curiosity or want to have the conversation about changing themselves. I would recommend taking a look at the four plant-based food groups on PCRM’s Power Plate (https://p.widencdn.net/ktho8u/Power-Plate-Brochure). Look at which foods you’re currently eating and what you can do to eat more of them. Ask yourself which of those foods do you want to include more of.

PCRM’s Power Plate: https://p.widencdn.net/ktho8u/Power-Plate-Brochure 

Karen’s website: https://karensmithrd.com/

To view Karen’s complete interview, click here.