Nalida Lacet Besson wasn't so concerned about weighing 240 pounds or passing the occasional painful gallstone. What got her attention in the summer of 2013 was a physical malaise so complete and overwhelming, she believed she was dying.
Everything hurt, including her skin. It was as if her body were saying, “I've had enough of this. Time to rest.”
Nalida lay in bed, thinking about how to say goodbye to her young son, when she suddenly decided to fight for her life. She prayed to God, asking forgiveness for how she had treated her body up to that point, and vowing to take care of it, if God would only show her what to do.
She turned her head, and saw on the nightstand a copy of Joel Fuhrman, MD's Eat to Live.
No, it didn't materialize out of thin air. The book had been there for a while, but Nalida hadn't up to that point shown any interest in taking it seriously.
This time, however, she saw the volume as an answered prayer. One that had been staring her in the face, but now she had take the first step toward doing her part in the healing process.
She got up and threw out every piece of junk food in the kitchen. And the healing began.
In our conversation, Nalida and I cover:
- transitioning to a plant-based diet
- taking responsibility for one's own health outcomes
- helping children make good food decisions
- navigating traditional food culture (in her case, Haitian)
- conquering the salt addiction, thanks to Chef AJ's guidance
- “abstinence is easier than moderation”
- amazing her doctor
- the importance of consistency
- placing her daughters' PCOS in remission through diet
- “the Year of No Excuses”
- “God, deliver me from wanting more”
- the health consequences of belly fat
- and much more…
Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.
HOWARD: One of the things that trips a lot of people up when they try to adopt a whole food plant-based diet, is their allegiance, their loyalty, to what they perceive to be their traditional culture. Whether that's a European tradition, an African tradition, Cajun, Central or South American -- it doesn't matter -- if you grow up with grandmothers, abuelitas, babas who feed you certain foods, and that food is seen as love, then there's a real difficulty in rejecting that food in order to be healthier.
So that's what I wanted to talk about with today's guest, Nalida Besson. And her story begins when, she wasn't so concerned with the fact that she weighed 240 pounds, or that she passed the occasional painful gallstone. What got her attention was the fact that for her, the summer of 2013 was this physical malaise -- this feeling BAD -- that was just so completely and overwhelming that she honestly believed she was dying. Just, everything hurt. Including her skin. It was as if her body was saying, "You know, I've had enough of this. Time to rest."
And she was laying in bed thinking about how to say good-bye to her young son -- I think he was eight at the time -- and she suddenly decided to fight for her life. And she prayed to God. Asked forgiveness for how she had treated her body up till that point. And vowed to take care of it, if only God would show her what to do. And at that moment, she turned her head and saw, on her nightstand, a copy of Joel Fuhrman's book, Eat To Live.
The book had been there -- it doesn't suddenly materialize of course -- but up till that point, Nalida hadn't shown any interest in taking it seriously. So the miracle was internal. She turned after making that prayer. Saw it there, and viewed it as an answer to her prayer -- one that had been staring her in the face all along, but now she had taken the first toward doing her part in the healing process.
Nalida had grown up in Haiti, and a large part of her journey was coming to peace with the traditional foods she had grown up with, and finding underneath those rich foods, a whole food plant based diet that was completely compliant, completely in concert with the food of Haiti, the agriculture of Haiti and the traditions and customs beneath the ones she had grown up with -- before the modernization. So I think you're going to be as impressed and inspired by Nalida as I have been, so let's get to the conversation. Without further ado:
HOWARD: Nalida Besson, welcome to the Plant Yourself Podcast.
NALIDA: Thank you, Howard. Thanks for having me.
HOWARD: So, tell us your story. I love what I know about it, and I'm so excited about digging in and finding out more.
NALIDA: OK, I'll start just by saying I'm a wife and a mother of three children -- I have two girls and a boy. And I guess where my story really begins in terms of my health journey is, my husband and children and I, in July 2013, went on a family vacation combined with going to a convention. My husband and children are legally blind and went to a blindness convention in Orlando. We took advantage of that and also went to Disney -- that's July 2013. When we came back to Boston, that's when I started not feeling well.
Before that, I had gallstones, and they would act up occasionally, and I would have gallstone bladder attacks, but nothing really that major. I was obese, I weighed over 240 pounds, by BMI was well over 36, so I wasn't in the best of shape, but I didn't have any serious health issues that I knew of, but when we came back from vacation that July, is when I started to feel achy and not well.
And I was off work at the time-- I'm a teacher, so I was on summer vacation -- but I just couldn't put my finger on what's going on. Everywhere, my body started to ache. Not only did I have a gall bladder attacks, but I also started having pain everywhere -- my joints hurt, my entire body hurt, and even my skin hurt. I had never experienced that. It scared me.
I was even afraid to go to the doctor, because I just thought, My goodness, if I go to the doctor, I don't know what they're going to say. Iit can't be good. Because every single thing in my body hurt, even my skin was hurting. So I kind of stayed that way for a while -- maybe several days, or a few weeks -- and I just didn't know what to do. I thought, Oh my goodness, am I going to die? And I seriously had those thoughts, that maybe with whatever's going to happen, that my kids are going to be without their mother.
And I just remember one evening, I was just lying in bed, because I wasn't feeling well. And my son. who was six at the time, came into the room and he came and sat on the bed and talked to me. So I remember talking to my son, kind of like I was preparing him in case something happened to me -- preparing him for the future.
And I thought to myself, What are you doing? You're young, you have young children, you can't just give up on your health and on your life. You have to be there for them. And I remember just praying at that time, and asking God to help me to heal my body that I'd abused with food and with lack of fitness.
And I said that prayer and I turned my head, and on my night stand, I looked and I saw the book -- Joel Fuhrman's Eat to Live. I had had that book, ironically, for years, sitting on my nightstand. I hadn't read it. I mean, I had perused it a little bit, looked through it, but I'd never picked up the book, read it and and followed it.
So after I said that prayer and had that epiphany, I said, OK, I'm going to read that book and I'm going to follow that book. So I picked it up, I started reading it and I said, OK, I have to make these changes. I talked to my husband and said, OK, you know I haven't been feeling well. He knew I was not well. And I said, I really have to make a drastic change, and it should be something for the family. I can't have, you know, junk in the house. And he agreed. He was a big guy, and he benefitted from the changes and he said, Go for it.
HOWARD: So how much did your husband know about how serious you felt it was. Did he just know that you weren't feeling well? Were you keeping it all inside, or were you transparent about how worried you were about your survival?
NALIDA: I started talking to him. I said, Michael, I have never felt this bad before. He said, Maybe you should go to the doctor. And I said, You know what? I'm kinda weary. [To Howard:] I was in between doctors then. And I said [to my husband], Whenever I was having issues, I was [at one time] having bad side effects, and I said, You know, I don't want to go through this whole cycle, of getting medications, and getting sicker, and having side effects. I just didn't know what to do.
So he knew that I had gallbladder attacks. Iif I ate anything greasy, then I would get the attacks. But this was the first time that I had been in so much pain that my skin was even hurting. Everywhere was aching. So I think he was worried and so when I said, I really want to make this change -- he had heard about Dr. Fuhrman also -- he said, Then I think you should do it. I think it would be helpful.
I was always a vegetarian. I'm a lifelong vegetarian. I was just a junk food vegetarian. And so my kids, they weren't eating meat. Michael was mostly vegetarian. He does have fish sometimes when he's out -- not in the house -- but he loves vegetables. And he knew that Dr. Fuhrman's plan meant eating a lot of vegetables. So he was glad that I would be buying more vegetables and cooking more vegetables.
So he agreed. And so, I just went into the kitchen, in the pantry, and I literally threw away every piece of junk food that was in the house. Chips. Cookies. Everything. I mean, my kids just couldn't believe it. They were like, Oh my goodness. Those oreos? Everything is GOING.
And literally, I just threw them all into the trash.
HOWARD: Yeah, I gotta ask you about that, because I know you know people who have similar health issues, who want to change and who try, but who don't necessarily succeed, or it takes them a long time, and what you're describing, from the language you're using -- talking about praying and turning your head -- kinda feels like an instantaneous conversion. You know. Like something Biblical. Like Saul on the road to Damascus. Is that how it felt to you? Like all of a sudden you just had an entirely new identity around food?
NALIDA: I think so. Even though it took me a while, I think that at that moment, I had a moment of epiphany, a moment of answered prayer. I said that prayer, I turned around, I saw the book. And it was just like, This has been your answer for so long, it's been sitting there and you haven't taken advantage of it. So when I saw I that I thought, "This is my answer. I have to do this." What did I have to lose? And I had everything to gain.
So it was a moment of epiphany, a moment of answered prayer, and it really launched my health journey.
HOWARD: So what was it doing on your night stand in the first place? When did you buy it and why?
NALIDA: Goodness, I had that book, I can't remember for how long. I had had that book for years. I bought it because I had heard about Dr. Fuhrman. I had wanted to lose weight in the past. In the past, I had lost some weight and gained it back, you know, a couple of times I had lost weight, but I hadn't made a full lifestyle change. I hadn't had a full mindset change. I would just do moderation, still have some things that were sweet, still have some things that were fried. I would try to moderate things, but still have some of those foods. Also exercising, But whenever I would slow down and not exercise anymore, and kind of let more foods that aren't the healthiest creep in, I'd be back to where I'd started. Or worse, sometimes.
So I had known about that book, I had bought that book at some point, saying, OK, this book looks like it's good. But I started thinking, Oh this book looks kind of drastic. I didn't really want to make that commitment. I wasn't ready. I was scared. And I hadn't taken the time, honestly, to read it through, and to learn about a nutrient-rich, whole food plant-based lifestyle. So, I just didn't do it, the book just sat there collecting dust.
HOWARD: This was in late summer 2013?
NALIDA: Yes, it was in late summer 2013. So I had had the book there for a couple years, literally just sitting there.
HOWARD: So I hear you say you're a lifelong vegetarian. Were you raised vegetarian?
NALIDA: I wasn't. My family's from Haiti, I'm the seventh out of twelve children, the first one who was born in the United States. And I have never liked meat for some reason. And my father said that he had an aunt who was that way -- it was like she had an aversion to it -- she just didn't eat meat. That's how I was, I just -- even as an infant or a toddler, my mother would say, she would feed it to me, and I would put it in my cheek. And as I got older, I still didn't like it, so I would give mine to my siblings. My mother would serve us our food -- rice and beans, and there'd usually be chicken or some other meat, and I would take my chicken or meat and give it to one of my siblings. They would all say, "Give it to me, give it to me". Eventually, my mother just stopped even serving it to me, because she realized I just didn't eat it. So I think I'm just what you'd call a natural vegetarian. It's just, meat never agreed with me.
HOWARD: So were you known as a picky eater?
NALIDA: No, just picky in terms of eating meat. I would eat all sorts of other things, I would eat mac and cheese, pizza, I would eat junk food. It was just the meat that I just could not digest. I just didn't like it -- the texture, the taste -- it just didn't appeal to me.
HOWARD: So I'm pretty ignorant about Haitian cuisine, in terms of a what a traditional, healthy Haitian diet would be, vs. the junk food version. What did you grow up eating? When we were emailing about this interview one of the things I wanted to cover was this idea of culture, and how do we honor our traditional culture without being killed by it?
NALIDA: Well, I grew up eating a lot of rice and beans -- Haitian people eat a lot of rice and a lot of beans. It's a lot of white rice, as opposed to brown rice. And the rice is normally cooked with a lot of oil, a lot of salt, plus some spices and seasonings. It's very flavorful food though. Usually, we'll have a sauce with it -- the sauce is generally a tomato-based sauce, usually with oil in it, often with onions In it too. There's vegetables in [many Haitian dishes], but the vegetables are, like, cooked to death -- they're soggy, they're just heavily cooked.
The food I grew up with tasted good. But it was very rich, in terms of being very oily, having lots of fat. And a lot of people love Haitian food. I live in Boston and there's a large Haitian population here, so also lot of Haitian restaurants. I remember growing up some of our neighbors would pay five bucks for a plate of my mother's food -- some of the neighborhood kids would do that. So the food tasted good.
HOWARD: And it kind of looks healthy, right? As I close my eyes and imagine a Haitian plate, with rice, tomato sauce, vegetables in it, beans -- I can kinda go, "Hey, that's a plant-based meal!"
NALIDA: I think there's a down side, which is that we never had brown rice, it was always white rice, or parboiled rice. And everything had oil -- you literally just poured the oil in. I loved the rice -- even people who aren't from the culture will go to Haitian restaurants will ask, "Oh can you make that Haitian rice?" -- it would be black rice, but it was actually white rice cooked with black mushrooms to give it a black color and flavor. So the food had potential to be more healthy, but with all the oils and the salt that was put in the food -- that made it more unhealthy. The vegetables that are cooked -- we have a dish called [XXX unclear] -- and it's cooked a lot, so a lot of nutrients get cooked out. And again, the food is very flavorful -- a lot of spices, herbs, scallions, onions -- but a lot of salt and a lot of oil.
Things that are fried -- fried plantains [for example], my grandmother used to make a fried plantain. She taught me how to make it, and I would make it, because that's a very special dish for Haitian people, and she showed me how to make it crispy [by frying it in oil]. On the healthier side, there are some people who will boil vegetables and will boil the plantains -- which is a healthier alternative. Even then, people sometimes will put oil in the water. But boiled plantains, boiled yams, are the healthier side of Haitian food.
What I'll sometimes do is, if I make a black rice dish, I'll use black and brown rice mixed together, or just black or just brown. And then I'll make a bean stew. No salt added, no oil added. And then if I put it over the rice, my kids'll be like, "Oh, this is a similar kind of thing [to what you used to make]." -- without the oil, without the salt, but with just the flavor. It took me a while to capture that flavor, and I think that's why it was tougher for me, and why the salt was the last thing for me to give up, because I didn't know how I was going to flavor my food, if I didn't use salt.
HOWARD: So how far back does cooking very, very rich food go in Haiti? Was oil always available, or was that something that came with westernization and more prosperity and processing?
NALIDA: I think oil goes far back. As far back as I know, it's been a part of Haitian cuisine. People as far as I know -- my grandmother, and even before her generation, I think it's always been a part of Haitian cuisine. Fried foods are considered almost a delicacy -- everything is fried -- fried plantains, fried meat, fried dough. It's just part of the whole culture of eating, that we use oils, and things are just fried.
HOWARD: So -- was there a sense at all, that you were giving up on your culture? Like, when you read Eat to Live and thought, I have to change. Did you have this thought, like, OK, now I need to not be Haitian anymore, and I need to become like a California vegan? Or like a Cambridge, Massachusetts yuppie?
NALIDA: No, I kind of thought of it like, I have to do things differently. Yes, I know, that's my heritage, but we knew eating that kind of food was not going to be helpful to us. We have to things a little differently. So I said, OK. We can still have rice, but let's make it brown rice. Or black rice. Or red rice.
And don't add the oil. We can still get the flavors. So really, having our taste buds adapt. You know, we go to my mother's house often, and she cooks, and my kids love her food. And sometimes, they'll eat there. And she's starting to change some things in the way she cooks, but sometimes she'll just cook the rice the same way [as we did growing up], and I can't eat it. I have to bring food with me, so that we can eat together, and I just say, "You know, because of my gallbladder" -- because that was always the main thing-- that I didn't want that [acting up] -- I couldn't have oily things.
I remember when I said to my husband, OK, we maybe have to give up the salt. And he said to me, Haitian people eat salt. And I said to him, Well, Haitian people also have a lot of high blood pressure. So we don't want to head down that road. And my husband suffers from high blood pressure. So I said to him, "I don't have high blood pressure, but you do. And a lot of people in my family do. And a lot of Haitian people that we know do. So it's just not good for us." I wasn't sure how to do it. I have [unclear] online, and she helped me with that, giving up the salt and [figuring out] ways to cook using tomatoes, spinach, other foods that have natural sodium, and using more spices and other seasoning.
And that really helped, because when I said to my husband and my kids, OK, I'm going to be chucking the salt. They were like, What?!!? No oil, and now no salt?!? So they weren't sure. But their taste buds adapted. I would just take vegetables, and roast them in the oven, plain. Put nothing on them. And they had a natural, sweet flavor.
So everyone in my house -- my husband, my kids -- they started getting used to the natural flavor of food. And when I made the bean stew, I added unsalted tomato paste most of the time as a base. Spices and seasonings in there, but no salt. And again, the flavors came through. They were like, OK, this is kind of like the rice and beans that we had [previously].
Also, I think because I'm not a meat-eater, and I haven't been a meat-eater, my siblings viewed the situation as, "Well, Nalida eats kind of strange anyways, she never liked meat." So it didn't really make a big impact on them.
And when people would say, "Oh, you're not going to eat THIS?", I mean, I really just made a commitment with myself, and I felt I had made a commitment with God, that I was not going to harm my body any more with food. So it didn't matter if someone said, "You're not going to eat this??" Or "This is a special occasional, and you can have it, just this time." I just decided that it was best for me not to indulge in those things.
Like, with sugar -- sugar was the toughest thing for me to give up. Even when I started to -- I started my health journey in July of 2013. And I started to lose weight, but then the holidays were coming, and I started eating some of those rich vegan desserts. I'd get them at Whole Foods or other places, or I'd make some myself. And there would be a lot of oil and sugar in those desserts, and I would feel my gallbladder acting up. I had some small incidences of gallbladder attacks, and [eventually] I said, I have to just drop the sugar.
I remember I was on Dr. Fuhrman's email list, and he would send out emails to everyone on the list saying, "Not one bite!" And [at first], I would get those emails and I would think I don't even want to look at it. It's the holidays, and I want to have my vegan dessert. So I would not listen to him. And I remember, it was December 27th, 2013 -- I said, "That's it. I'm going to go all the way. I'm done with the sugar." And I dropped the sugar.
And I have not have the sugar since December 27th, 2013. And I was surprised really, abstinence from it, was actually easier for me, than moderation had ever been. I didn't have to think about it -- I just knew that I don't eat that. And I can substittute with fruit. So if I make any kind of dessert, it's fruit-sweetened. I can use bananas, dates, apples -- and that's that.
HOWARD: So from July to December 27th, was sugar in a different zone in your mind, or was it just something you were failing at? How did you think about it during that time, because it sounds like the kitchen make-over was really stark.
NALIDA: It was. I didn't have it in the home, because when I threw away the junk food, I literally threw away all the sugars -- bags of sugar, bottles of oil, everything went. But I could still go to the grocery store or the health food store and buy a vegan dessert -- I knew they had them there.
I think I closed my eyes to it, or maybe didn't want to face that particular addiction to sugar. I kind of rationalized it in my mind, like, I'm losing weight, I'm feeling better, I don't have all this pain everywhere that I had, so I'm doing better, I'm feeling better, it's the holidays, so I can have some salt or sugar.
Really, I rationalized it in my mind, "I can have some" and "It's the holidays", but then one thing lead to another. So one bite lead to one more. Or I'd [eat one dessert and] go back and buy another one. Until it didn't work -- trying to moderate it did not work, so I had to make the decision that OK, I'm going to have to abstain, and just not have the sugar. And that's been one of the best decisions I've made.
HOWARD: So I know a lot of people who've made that decision, like, every two weeks. What was different about December 27th, or how you went about it, or how you thought about it. What made that time different from other times?
NALIDA: I think at that point, I had finally gotten to where enough was enough, for me. I made that final commitment, because I remember thinking "OK, I prayed and I asked God to help heal the body He gave me, that I abused with food. And here I am, back at it again. So that makes me a hypocrite." I had made a vow, and I wasn't keeping it.
So -- I kind of had that tough talk with myself where I said, "The sugar has to go. Here I am, starting to not feel well again, and I'm praying for relief and still trying to get back my health -- it doesn't make sense, I just have to stop." So I really just made that commitment -- "that's it; I'm not having it". And once I really made that commitment, and it wasn't just a maybe, it was "No, I'm not going to harm myself with sugar. I'm going to abstain." It made it easier for me, because I had made a decision that this was harming me, and I had made a vow not to harm myself with food.
And initially, I would go to different teachers' rooms -- I'm a teacher and I work with the visually impaired, so I travel from school to school -- and sometimes I'd go into teachers' rooms and they'd have cookies, they'd have cakes. And I'd look at it -- sometimes I smelled it -- but I kept that resolve that this is not what I eat. I'd even say to myself, "This is not even real food", because the ingredients that they were made out of, are all these processed things. So I would say, "This is not even real food." And over time, I just would see it, and I wouldn't want it. And if I wanted something as a treat, I would make something healthy for myself.
So I remember when -- when I was a teenager, II was known as the baker -- I would bake cakes, cookies. I actually had a baking business, and I would bake and sell things. And now I would say, OK, I'm going to make a healthy cake -- something fruit sweetened -- with bananas maybe, or unsweetened applesauce, with rolled oats, and maybe add some raisins in there.
The first time I said to my kids, "I'm making cookies" and my older daughter was like, Oh my goodness, cookies -- we're going to have a cookie again. I was like "You do know that this is fruit-sweetened cookie -- there's no sugar in there, there's no oil," but she was like, "I don't care what it is, as long as it's called COOKIES, that's what I want."
And so I learned to make things a different way, so if I had been seeing all of these cookies [and craving some], I would make some. I make desserts occasionally, like raw brownies with dates and a little bit of unsweetened cocoa powder. I do that in the food processor.
I learned different ways to cook, bake, or make a healthy dessert so that I'm not feeling like I'm going to be deprived or my kids are going to be deprived. I know that they're tempted at school, and sometimes they do eat it. They don't eat that way at home, but they get offered it at school.
I have a healthy exchange program with my kids. I tell them, if you're offered something at school, you can bring it home, and we can do a healthy exchange. So what we do for the healthy exchange is, I have Lara Bars I can give them in exchange, the ones that are only nuts and fruits, or nuts and dates. Or I'll make something and I'll say, "We can make a healthy exchange. [You give me the candy you brought home from school and in exchange], I can either make you a fruit-sweetened cookie or any of the fruit-sweetened desserts that I make, or you can have a Lara Bar." So if they come and they give me the candy from school, that goes into the trash. And they get the healthier dessert.
HOWARD: Wow, what do they think of that?
NALIDA: They like the healthy exchange program. I mean, I was having a conversation around the dinner table, and my kids were like OK, it's Valentine's Day, and all this candy's going to be given out. And I'd say, "Remember that we have the healthy exchange program for when you bring candy home" -- and they'd be like, "OK, I'm going to start thinking about what I want you to make -- is it going to be raw brownies? is it going to be oatmeal raisin cookies?"
Sometimes it's hard for them. One year -- I think it was a year and a half ago -- my two girls were at the same school, and they had pie die -- like Pi for math, 3.14. And the school turned it into Pie Day -- P.I.E., and gave the kids all these commercial, processed pies. So one of my daughters came home and she said, I admit, I could not resist, I ate that pie. I ate it. It wasn't the best thing for me, but I ate it. My other daughter had brought some pie home in her bag, and she was like, "I brought it to the exchange" -- so she ended up having two healthy desserts -- I said you can have one now, one for later, or if you're really hungry, you can have both -- you know, two of my desserts for that one pie she had exchanged.
HOWARD: Ha! It's like that classic Walter Mischel study with the marshmallows, right? With these four- and five-year-olds. If you could manage to not eat the marshmallow now, I'll give you two in fifteen minutes. To see who could delay gratification.
NALIDA: It works a lot of times, but sometimes they give in. And if they're not feeling well -- they have PCOS -- polycystic ovarian syndrome -- but, they don't have any symptoms, they don't have the classic things associated with it. They have a good diet. They're now exercising more. I tell them I'm not always going to be there [in every situation], but they have to watch out for themselves. I say, "You're healthy now, and you don't want to get any of those issues."
HOWARD: Hmm, that anticipated my next question, which was -- for you, you kind of had a brush with mortality, but for kids, who think of themselves as immortal -- what gets them to eat well? Avoiding pain -- and it sounds like that's the case -- or eating well for performance? Like, they just feel better and do better. So what do your kids think about healthy eating?
NALIDA: They watch me. And I think, they see how I was -- very overweight, very obese, not feeling well, not being able to do a lot of things. I didn't have a lot of energy. I mean, I just couldn't do the things I do now. I mean, now I can come home, and I can be up for hours, prepping, cooking, making anything from scratch. And my kids see me now, how I'm more active and slimmer. I went from wearing size 24 jeans, to size 6.
So, they've seen me, and so they're happier for that change, they know I feel better, they know I still love my food, and sometimes they say, "Did you log your food?" Because they see that it's kept me accountable to myself. And I always do it. So I think that helps them.
Also, they know that they feel better. If they've had things at school -- if they've had that muffin -- because sometimes they say, "I don't feel all that well" and I'll be like "What happened?" And it'll be like, "Oh, I kinda had that [muffin or whatever]" It's hard because the kids have never been overweight, they've always been at a good stable weight for their height, but I think not feeling well -- after eating a certain [healthy] way, and then if you let things that are not that healthy slip in, you don't feel that well.
So I think of them, it's learning how to communicate with their body, and how they feel, and then I'll talk to them, and just hoping and praying that they do the right thing, because like I tell them, I'm not with them all the time. But I say, "I'm trying to teach you these things, and you're there when I'm cooking. and we make things together" and I'm hoping it'll stick. And I think it will, because they see how other people eat, and sometimes kids eat these different things at school -- they know it's not healthy because they watch these documentary movies with me, and I rewatch it a lot of times with them so that it'll stick. So that's the hope that we have, is that it'll continue to stick.
HOWARD: What do you think they've learned from you, aside from the details of a healthy diet? What has your journey and your struggles and your successes and your strategies -- what do you hope and think that it may have taught them that will help them in their lives?
NALIDA: I think what they've learned is, consistency matters. And following through and making a commitment matters. Because kids watch what we're doing -- we can say whatever we want, but they watch what we're doing. So my kids have seen me wherever I go, and if we're out at a party, whatever the case may be, and saying, "OK, well, I'm going to bring a dish." And I'll bring a dish that I can share with other people, and I'm eating it [instead of the junk food being served].
If we're going to my mom's house, and she's making something that -- like we have a cornmeal dish that has beans in there, and my mother will make it and she's adapted some things a bit, so she'll say, "Oh, I've only put a little bit of oil, a little bit of salt" -- but I still won't have any of it at all, if it has any salt or oil in there. And they'll see me do this.
I'll bring my salad [to my mom's house], sometimes I'll have a salad in a jar that's already made -- I'll bring my sweet potato and cook it, but I'll always have my own salad dressing that I make. I have one that I like best that's based on cashews, and I'll bring it, and everyone'll be eating my mother's cooking -- we have a lot of Friday night dinners at my mother's -- and they'll just see me, I just take [my own food, my own salad dressing], and I start preparing my meal, and I start eating.
So they see that consistency, and begin to know that if you make a commitment, you have to be consistent. Also, not to just say, "Well, I'm going to try", but to DO it. I remember having a teacher in elementary school, when I was younger -- I actually started off in bilingual class even though I was born in Boston, because my family just came from Haiti --and I had a teacher named Mr. [XXX unclear], and he would say -- when I would say, "Oh I just can't do it" -- he would say, "Don't say can't, say you'll try", and I think I learned from that. And to bring it a step further, it's "Don't say you'll try, say you'll do." And then do it.
Because I had been saying for years, "Oh, I'm gonna try, I'm gonna try" and I would try, but didn't DO it. So, I think they've learned, when you have a goal, make the commitment and do it. If you need to get help, read books, watch [videos] -- you know, get what you need to be able to succeed. Plan to succeed. Just do it.
HOWARD: It's so interesting, when you make the distinction between "try" and "do", I'm coming back to the way we began this conversation, with you being really clear about what was your responsibility and what was God's responsibility. It feels like, you try to do things that are out of your hands. Like, if I want to write a best-selling book, "Well, I'll try to make it a best-seller". Or I'll try to win a marathon. Well, I'll try, but I can't control what happens outside of myself. But I can control whether I'm writing 5,000 words a week, whether I'm running hard in training, and it seems like you came up with a pretty good division of labor, between you and God, in terms of what was ultimately your responsibility.
NALIDA: Exactly. Because I think that we need to do our part. I see people who come onto my plant-based page on Facebook, and some people message me and say Pray for me, and I say yes, I'll pray for you, and I say, What I think is [also] important, is that you make that commitment, because yes we're asking God, but then, do your part as well. And I felt like, I have to do my part, because I can't expect just miraculously that God would come down, and I would be healthy. And for me to eat that [old] way, it would be a joke.
HOWARD: It reminds me a joke, actually. That this guy is praying to God every day, "Please, God, I want to win the lottery", "Help me win the lottery, help me win the lottery", and finally after four years, God says to him, "You know, it would help if you bought a ticket".
NALIDA: Exactly! Exactly! It would help to do our part, you know?
HOWARD: So let's go back to 2013. You said you wore size 24 jeans, you said you weighed like 240 pounds, ish?
NALIDA: I weighed over 240 pounds. By the time I had weighed myself once I had started, I was 241.5 pounds.
HOWARD: So what was your health trajectory? Did you ever go to a doctor and find out what was wrong? Or did you just eat yourself well?
NALIDA: I started eating myself well, and by the time I went to a doctor, it was about six months into my journey. I was still obese, but I had lost some weight and I didn't have all the pain. And I had switched to from my normal primary care doctor, to an integrative health center. And I said to my new doctor, that I was eating a whole food plant based diet now, I'm eating nutrient-rich food. And he asked how I was feeling. I said, well, I was feeling very poorly, but I'm now feeling well, losing weight.
And my blood work was good, so she was not worried about that. So things were looking good, and she said, "OK, so when you come again, we'll [re-]evaluate." So it was early in 2014 that I had seen her, and I went back two years later, in early 2016. And when I went back, I had lost most of the weight, and she just couldn't believe it. She said, "You lost all the weight that you said you were working on when I saw you last. That usually doesn't happen." She asked, "What did you do? Because most of the patients say they are going to do this and things'll get better, but it doesn't happen. So what did you do?"
And so I explained to her what I did, and she was just like, Well, keep doing it. It's impressive.
I had also been seeing a chiropractor and a trigger point doctor, because I had a history of a herniated disc, and I had had back injuries, so I had seen them, and she said just keep on, and see them periodically, just to keep up with any joint pains, any residual pains, but she said, "You're in excellent health", and that's what she wrote, was "Excellent health."
HOWARD: So, do you mind my asking how much you weigh now?
NALIDA: I'm in the 140s. I had gone down to the high 130s and then went back up. And I'm working on getting back down, because I felt better at the low weight, even though the 140s is still within my "range", you know, the standard "range". But my body just felt better and stronger at the lower weight. So right now, I'm ramping it up -- increasing my strength training also, and just really reducing a lot of the snacking I would do -- I mean, healthy snacking, but I'm just really being more mindful now, and just saying "Am I really hungry, or am I eating just to eat?" So I'm being more mindful of that, and that's helping me.
So I'm seeing my clothes get looser, which is good. And I'm feeling better, because I just feel better at a slimmer weight. There are people in my family who are like "Oh, don't lose any more weight! What's going on?!" or whatever. But I still have some of that belly fat, and it's a health issue, to have too much belly fat, and to have too many hormones, so it's not just for aesthetics and to look cute, it's really for the health. So this is the year that I'm calling the Year of No Excuses. And really pushing myself a little bit more. Even in working out -- pushing myself a little bit more than I used to, and being more serious around fitness.
HOWARD: You seem like you're educated on food and nutrition far beyond just Eat to Live. So where else have you gotten information for your journey?
NALIDA: Oh my goodness, watching documentaries. Also, not just Eat to Live, but Dr. Fuhrman's other books, like Eat for Health. And I will listen to them, even in my car as I'm traveling, on CDs. Also, I've read John McDougall's books. I've read Dr. Esselstyn's book. I've read Chef AJ's book, and been part of her group as well. I'm in different Eat to Live support groups on Facebook. And I've watched Forks Over Knives, just different documentaries, like Food Matters. Just different documentaries on Netflix and on Amazon Prime. I just listen to podcasts, hear about other people's journeys and get the information from them, and learn from them, the things that they've done. So I'm constantly watching different videos, and listening, and reading, to kind of keep myself motivated. And also to get myself more informed. You know, sometimes you hear something from someone else and it resonates with you. And that helps you to stick to what you're doing.
HOWARD: So you mentioned that you had a plant-based page on Facebook. When did you start turning around and offering others a helping hand?
NALIDA: I was on Facebook, and sometimes I would post things about my journey. And people would ask me questions and sometimes say, "You know, you should make a page and just talk about what you're doing". So I think it was maybe a year into my journey that I decided to start it, and really, it was a good way for me to document some of the things I'm doing, and to share information. Because sometimes people would ask me, and I would say, "Go to my page -- Plant Based God's Grace" -- and I would post information like what I'm eating, or some of my meals, or some of my workout techniques. And what I'm doing. And maybe some struggles. Information, like other pages -- I'd post information from other plant-based pages, or some fitness information. So just information that I could share -- because -- I mean, I got MY information from other people [when I was starting out]. So sometimes people would message me, and ask me more information, "What exactly are you doing? What exactly are you eating? I'm struggling" So this was kind of a way for people to reach out to me and for me to kind of reach back to them.
HOWARD: Say the name of your Facebook page again. You sort of cut out a bit as you were saying that.
NALIDA: It's Plant Based God's Grace, and then it says Nalida's journey to health and fitness, but it's "Plant Based God's Grace". And I called it that because I went fully nutrient-rich plant based, and it's by God's grace. Because I felt like where I was, how unwell I was, was [healed] by God's grace. I mean, by the time I started getting chiropractic care, the chiropractor was the only one who, was like My Goodness, it's like a fibromyalgic pain. I felt that that's what it was, because I had the classic pains, like behind the shoulder blades and all these other pains besides just the herniated disc that I had had.
So, I felt like, to be able to get on the treadmill and run -- I don't run now on the ground, because it puts a lot of pressure on my back -- so I'm just doing treadmill running and other exercises and strength training. But I just think it's God grace, because in the beginning, for me to even work out [was unthinkable because] I could barely walk. This is making me feel a little emotional just talking about it, but I started off just exercising in my living room and putting on DVDs, and I would do these walk videos, these Walk Away the Pounds videos, and initially couldn't even do the 15- or 20-minute one mile walks -- I was just so winded and out of shape and in pain -- so I couldn't do it.
And to see how changing my diet and lifestyle has helped me, for my body to just repair itself, and now I can get on that treadmill and -- I'm a technology person, I teach technology as well -- and I use different apps as well, I've done a couch-to-5K, and I'm now doing the 10K trainer app on the treadmill. But I'm come from barely being able to do a 15- or 20-minute walk video, to running on the treadmill -- I can run straight for 30 minutes, or do 55-minutes, with just one minute intervals in between -- it's by God's grace that I can do that, because I'm not an athlete, I've never been the athletic one, I was always the overweight kid in gym class dreading it.
But now I have the stamina and the strength and actually the DIET to move. So that's why the name is Plant Based God's Grace, because it's by God's grace that I'm here. Because, I'm not an athlete.
HOWARD: It's funny, because in the plant based community, there's lots of reasons and rationale that people come to this -- it's for health reasons, or some people are doing it for animal welfare and animal rights, or some people are drawn to the environmental aspect, and I don't hear a lot about theological reasons. But it sounds like it was God's grace that had you look up and see this book that you had been managing to ignore for years, but also that there was a deal that you made. Something like, You owed something back.
NALIDA: I feel like I made a vow. That's my belief, that God wants what's best for us. And we have free will. And unfortunately, some people use it for bad -- we make wrong choices and decisions -- but we have that free will. And I had a choice to make. Praying and asking God for help and then expecting a miracle to happen out of thin air. But I had a role. For once, I prayed and asked for that, and I felt that my prayer was answered when I turned and saw that book, Eat to Live. And then my body started to heal, so then I feel like I have a vow that I've made with God, and if I were to go back and abuse my body again, then I would be breaking that vow to God, that I'm going to do my part and take care of my body.
I always say, anything can happen. I mean, people say, 'Oh you can't take this healthy eating thing too far, because everyone's going to die." But I say, Well, that becomes an excuse for us to continue with our bad habits. I mean, of course, from the moment we're born, we know we're going to die at some point, but I say, I don't want to be the cause of my own demise. I can get taken from above, at any time, but I don't want to be the cause of my own demise. For my kids to look back and say, Oh my goodness, we were young and we needed help -- because my kids have special needs, and the need me more for a lot of things, but I didn't want them to look back and say "Oh, she died young because she didn't take care of herself".
I mean, my father died at 61 -- he had heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes -- and my children didn't get to know him. And my second-older brother died in his 40s -- complications from diabetes. He was in Haiti at the time, so that makes health care more difficult, but -- preventable diseases. So, yeah, I feel like I made a vow with God, and I can't go back on that. I just can't go back on that.
HOWARD: The way you named your page, and talk about your story -- you're able to speak to other people with a spiritual bent. They're now seeing their own choices in a different way?
NALIDA: I think so, and I would hope so, because I do have people who will come make comments and talk on my page, and even message me, and I feel like, OK, they say, "Well, I'm a believer also, and I believe in God, but I still feel stuck" and they say "pray for me" and I say I will, but just take this one step at a time and think about this way as honoring your body, because if our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, then we need to take care of that temple, we can't just say, "Oh, I'm going to pray to God and then not do anything". No, you have to care for that temple -- the body is that temple.
So I think that just seeing that perspective -- because a lot of times, people will just say, "Oh this person is sick, and let's pray for them", which is good, but let's do a little bit more also -- let's do our part to care for that temple. So I think for people who have their belief in God, and even some people who don't but who think in terms of us having a responsibility to care for ourselves --
HOWARD: Hey, I have a computer that I care for -- and it's replaceable! -- I mean, it cost me a couple thousand bucks, and if it breaks, I can get a new one, but I still take care of it.
NALIDA: Yes, and we have cars. A lot of people take care of cars better than we take care of ourselves. When the light goes on, "It's time for an oil change", or when it's time for a tune-up -- I mean, when my [check engine] light comes on, I get to the dealer, because I know I need that car to get to work, and to travel anywhere, so I go immediately to the dealer. So, if we can take care of our cars and all our other stuff, then we should take care of our bodies as well. It's part of our responsibility. I think that owning that responsibility -- just by getting into that mindset, something shifted. It was like, this is my responsibility -- God's done his part. We have this Haitian pastor, and we kind of think of it that way.
HOWARD: Beautiful. And this is the Year of No Excuses -- we can only imagine how far that goes, right?
NALIDA: This is the Year of No Excuses -- whatever happens. Working on better health -- you know, try to eliminate stresses, because that's also part of the journey. And I'll tell people to pray, or if they need to do counseling -- I mean, I've gone for counseling myself -- you can go to a faith-based counsellor. I say, whatever you need to do to help yourself, to get to where you need to get to, then do that.
HOWARD: I have one more question. When you were talking about the Christmas when you were eating all those sweets from Whole Foods and feeling like a hypocrite, I was listening for you to go into some language around guilt, or shame, or making yourself feel bad. And I feel like you got close to it, but you didn't go over the line into it.
And I feel like a lot of people I know -- a lot of students and clients of mine -- tend to get into this "Oh, I messed up, I binged, I ate something I shouldn't have" and they beat themselves up, and I'm wondering if you do that, or did that. And if not, if it's mitigated -- I'm wondering if part of that is being able to see yourself through God's eyes, you know what I'm saying?
NALIDA: You said it perfectly -- seeing yourself through God's eyes. And it takes a while to get there, I think [there were times when] I'd feel disappointed in myself. I wouldn't make myself feel that badly, but I would be disappointed, like, "You can do better, Nalida". I would be disappointed, and then I kind of ignored it, but then really, I started adopting this mindset of "This is what I'm going to do, and I'm determined to do it, but for some reason -- like if I had picked up the vegan pie at Whole Foods, or one of the vegan cakes after work -- I would start to think, "I have a new opportunity at every single meal" to make it right. People will say, "the next meal" -- OK, start with that meal -- eat more vegetables, get more fruit. The next meal, I'm going to do well at that next meal.
So it's not just that old diet mentality of "Oh now I've messed up so I may as well just binge for the rest of the day. Today's a washout." Because it's like, if you've got a flat tire, are you just going to go pop all the other ones because you've got one flat? No. You fix it. Or if you're not handy, like I'm not, you call AAA or whatever roadside service, and you get it fixed. So, in reading a lot and praying a lot and just contemplating and reflecting a lot, I've kind of [looked at] people who are naturally slim, and how they eat, and how they let things [like mistakes] go.
I know someone who's always been slim, and I'll watch her, how she eats. She always has a salad -- and she's not vegan or anything -- but she eats mostly a lot of vegetation. I mean, she'll have a salad, number one. She'll have something to eat, and then she'll mingle and talk more. And if she has any dessert, she'll have a little piece of this, a little bit of that. She'll have one piece, and she'll be like, "It's so good" -- but she's one of the people who can have that and not binge or go crazy or whatever.
And then she leaves it alone. She doesn't have that obsession with food, and with wanting more. So, I kind of watch those things, and I'll pray and say, "God, deliver me from my desire for more". Because if I don't need more, I want to be delivered from the desire for more. What is it that I'm trying to hold on to, or feel that I need? What [emotional need] do I feel that I want to get from food? Because I can't get it from food. That always ends bad, it doesn't end good. Trying to get some kind of comfort or something from food. Food is fuel. I've had to reflect on that a lot to get that embedded in my brain, because my brain was a food addict's brain, so I've really had to work to change that mindset. Food is fuel.
HOWARD: That's great. Well, Nalida Lacet Besson -- I hope I pronounced that right --
HOWARD: Thank you so much, this has been such an uplifting conversation for me, and I hope, for other people who have yet to figure out their own dance around struggle and temptation and faith and purpose. I think your story is wonderful for all of us.
NALIDA: Thank you so much, Howard. Thank you for having me on, and I hope that my story will resonate with someone on their journey, and to get them where they need to go. We're all on similar journeys. It's not like there's a destination, it's a constant journey, so I really hope it resonates. And thank you for the work that you do, because I know it has helped and will help a lot of people.
HOWARD: Oh, you're welcome. And it allows me to have conversations like this, which repays me a thousand fold. And if folks want to find out more, they can go to Facebook -- Plant Based God's Grace -- and they can follow you, and -- do you have any recipes? Haitian-inspired recipes? When you were talking about some of the dishes you were making, I was kind of drooling. Do you have any recipes for that stuff?
NALIDA: I do have some recipes. They're not necessarily Haitian recipes, but I consider all my bean stews and just the way that I flavor them -- using onions, scallions and leeks -- gives them those flavors, so I consider them Haitian-inspired, but a healthier version. I'll have to also put up the black rice recipe, so made with black dried mushrooms -- because it just gives a wonderful flavor to any rice. And I've tried it without the salt, but people can choose to put Bragg's Aminos on it for flavor -- I do spray some of that on -- but I do have some recipes that I'll post. I just posted one yesterday, not necessarily Haitian, but one that's with yams, which Haitians eat a lot of, but warming up the sweet potatoes, because my kids don't really like cold sweet potatoes, so I warm them up instead of a cold sweet potato salad like we would make in Haiti.
HOWARD: You're also in Boston, not Port-au-Prince.
NALIDA: Exactly. It's also something about the taste, so warm yams, you know, with hummus in there. And I just posted that last night. But you know, periodically, I'll post some things when will people will ask, "How do you make such-and-such?" So I post different ways to eat plant-based food. Like stuff that is usually fried, you can roast it or bake it, you don't need to fry it.
HOWARD: Well, we're about five weeks out from publication, so that's how long you have to get me your Black Rice with Mushrooms recipe.
NALIDA: Definitely, I'll work on getting that out. In the mean time, I'll be adding more -- Howard, especially for you, I'll be adding the Black Rice with the black dried mushrooms, because the flavor is so good.
HOWARD: Awesome, I'm pretty shameless in my requests. But I look forward to it. Nalida, thank you so much. It's been so great talking with you.
NALIDA: It's been great talking with you too, Howard.
Eat to Live, by Joel Fuhrman, MD
Nalida's Facebook Page: Plant-Based, God's Grace
Haitian Black Rice and Dried Mushrooms (Djon-djon) – recipe and pics
Nalida's video interview with Jason Cohen of Big Change The Film
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