“I Never Thought I’d Be Facing Chronic Disease in My Late ’30s”: How One Woman Transformed Her Health
Patricia Devaney remembers the year she spent in the United States when she was 9 years old. Born on a potato farm in Peru, her father was sent to Georgia on a temporary assignment for his work. Back home, she usually ate things like lentils and rice, with meat served sparingly as a garnish or side dish. Now she was eating corn dogs and hamburgers every day for lunch in the school cafeteria, and going out to eat at McDonald’s with her family.
“For the first time in my life, I was self-conscious about my body. I now had a belly and couldn’t see my knees,” she says. After moving home to Peru at the end of the year she shared, “the weight magically disappeared.”
Three decades later, Devaney started thinking about the story again, after she faced a life-changing medical diagnosis.
A Wake-Up Call
Now living in Alberta, Canada, with her Canadian husband and three young children, Devaney had been feeling worse and worse. She relied on packaged convenience foods and ready-made meals to feed her family much of the time, but tried to pick options that seemed relatively healthy. Still, she had gained weight, struggled with depression and felt tired all of the time. “The only thing that seemed to help was drinking lattes and constantly snacking,” she says. Doctors dismissed her concerns, told her that her challenges were normal for a parent of young children, and put her on pills for depression.
Then in 2016, on an extended trip back to Peru, Devaney decided to see a local doctor for a second opinion. “This is when I found that I was pre-diabetic,” she recalls. “I was completely shocked. I knew something wasn’t right, but I never thought I’d be facing a chronic disease in my late 30’s.”
The doctor put her on a keto diet, telling her to eat unprocessed, lean meat, greens and vegetables, and to avoid starchy vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits. Devaney lost 15 pounds in three months, but at her next doctor’s visit in Canada, she found her illness had progressed. She had Type 2 diabetes. “I was gutted,” she said. “It was a real wake-up call.”
A Time for Transformation
Devaney decided to take matters into her own hands, and began learning all she could about health and nutrition. She watched a TED Talk by Dr. John McDougal, who advocates a whole-food, plant-based diet based on complex starches like whole grains and potatoes. “I felt like a blindfold came off my eyes and I thought: ‘potatoes,’” Devaney says. “My grandparents had a potato farm, and they’re the longest-living people in my family. Maybe there’s some truth in this.”
She jumped in head first, switching immediately to a whole-food plant-based diet that eliminated all processed foods and animal products. Less than a year later, her doctor told her she was no longer diabetic. “I completely reversed my health situation,” she says. Her husband and children, then ages 3, 5 and 6, got on board, and started noticing other medical issues clearing up, like allergies and constipation.
And after hearing about her health transformation, a relative in Peru, who had been suffering from polycystic kidney disease, decided to try making changes. Although his disease has progressed too much to be reversed, every test he’s had since going to a whole-food, plant-based diet has showed further improvement in kidney function. “When I visited at Christmas, he said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done for me,’” she says. “‘You’re saving my life.’”
"As the family learned more about it, they became more and more passionate about the ethical and environmental benefits as well."
But the change hasn’t been without challenges. When Devaney tried to work with her children’s private Catholic school to make more plant-based options available for the kids, both the school and other parents pushed back. “Alberta is a pretty conservative place, with a lot of cattle ranches,” she says. “I encountered a lot of resistance — not just ‘no thank you,’ but ‘get out of here.’”
Devaney especially ruffled feathers by challenging the school’s policy of using pizza parties and junk food to reward and motivate students. While some friends urged her to focus on her own family and not push for changes at the school, she had a hard time letting it go. She kept thinking about that year she spent in America when she was 9 years old. “I had this warning before, and I never listened to it,” she says. “I don’t want my kids to have to go through this again with their own children. I want to shift the patterns for the future.”
The family ended up changing to a public school in a progressive neighborhood that was more supportive. “We can already see the difference,” she says.
A Higher Cause
While Devaney was originally inspired to go plant-based for her health, as the family learned more about it, they became more and more passionate about the ethical and environmental benefits as well. Ultimately, knowing that she was making a difference not just for herself, but for the planet, helped her stay motivated when she was facing exclusion and negativity for her choice.
“I made it simple and personal. I didn’t look at it like I was just one of 35 million votes and it didn’t make a difference. It did.”