Obesity, medication, pain: how a couple turned their health around
Renée Olson and her husband, Elijah, were looking for answers to their health problems. Both severely overweight, Elijah was taking medication for high blood pressure, and had a family history of heart disease, while Renée was prediabetic and suffering from fibromyalgia. “We just wanted to get better,” she says.
“Here, it’s all about pork, and all that kind of stuff,” she says. “I was putting on so much weight, I got up to 268 pounds. I could barely walk, I had edema, and my legs were swollen all the time.”
Time for “Big Changes”
It was on a trip to Washington, D.C., for the Fourth of July weekend that they finally hit a breaking point. After spending a day walking around the city, “the next day we were incapacitated,” Renée says, “we decided we needed to make some really big changes.”
The couple decided to go plant-based. In addition to wanting to eat for their health, they were also concerned about climate and the impacts of factory farming had on the water they drink and the air they breathe. “Every time we turn around, there’s an outbreak of salmonella or E.coli,” Renée says.
But the transition wasn’t easy. At first, they were still eating processed foods and ready-to-eat meals, and Renée was frustrated that she still wasn’t losing weight. “As long as the label said ‘vegan,’ it was a winner,” she says. “Well, Oreos are vegan — but they’re not good for you.”
Finally, Renée suggested they try Hungryroot, a meal kit delivery service. A shift happened as they prepared fresh, whole foods for the first time. “That was the beginning of real change,” she says.
"Every time we turn around, there’s an outbreak of salmonella or E.coli."
The couple started noticing that when they stayed away from processed foods, they felt better and began losing weight. Around the same time, Elijah was reading the books Eat to Live and The China Study, and was amazed at what he was learning about the connection between food and health.
Since eating a whole food plant-based diet, which includes giving up processed foods, as well as refined sugars and oil, Renée noticed that she had more energy, and even noticed an improvement in her memory and ability to focus. She had suffered from chronic anemia — even when she was eating meat — and had high cholesterol. At her last check up, her doctor told her she was no longer anemic, and her cholesterol levels were healthy. “My husband’s numbers are great,” she says. “He’d been told he would be on blood pressure medication for the rest of his life.”
To date, Renée has lost 128 pounds since March 2018, dropping from a size 22 to a 2. “I’m just letting my body do what it needs to do right now.”
“We Eat What We Want”
The couple tends to eat two full meals a day, and “graze” on healthy snacks when they feel hungry. Breakfast includes fruits like bananas, kiwi, cantaloupe, or whatever’s in season, plus chia seed pudding, or steel cut oats seasoned with dates in winter. Dinner could be Renée’s speciality, “garlicky sticky noodles,” made with piles of garlic, buckwheat noodles, and lots of broccoli and asparagus. For a treat or snack, they’ll munch on air-popped popcorn, or indulge in a few pieces of dark chocolate.
“People say ‘you’re dieting,’ but we’re not,” she says. “We eat what we want to eat, we just eat the right things.”
Renée acknowledges that their lifestyle is not always convenient. “When we’re going to the beach we don’t stop and eat along the way, we bring it all with us.”
But, she says, the biggest challenge has been watching their loved ones continue to struggle with the kinds of preventable health problems they’ve left behind. “It’s feeling absolutely helpless when we see our friends and family sharing pictures of the garbage they’re eating,” she says. “That’s one of the most frustrating things, seeing them suffer,” she says. “I have an aunt that just finished chemotherapy.”
And Renée, who turned 50 in February, has another, more personal goal. “On my birthday I said, ‘I want to have a kickboxer body by the time I’m 51,’” she says. The couple recently joined a gym. “That’s my goal: I want to be fit. I want to live in my own home until I die. I don’t want to live in a place where someone has to take care of me. I want to get up on my own, be able to sit down on the floor, and stand. I couldn’t do that before. Now I can jump up and down off the floor.”