Joanne Irwin: Reduces Cholesterol, Cures Arthritis, Helps Others

Updated April 24, 2013

joanne_irwin_01-9562862Picture the scene: a cocktail party, abundant appetizers, flourishing conversation; and then suddenly, whispers filter through the crowd as word spreads that the hostess has “gone vegan.”

“My goodness,” says an alarmed guest, “What will we eat?” Another comments, “I knew something was up—she looks thin.” Someone else interjects, “Those vegans are just leftover hippies from the sixties.” A few gather and laugh, “Yeah, supposedly they eat nothing but air; give me my statins and let me eat all the beef I want.”

Since my shift to a plant-based lifestyle a year and a half ago, I’ve heard it all. My journey toward excellent health has been akin to climbing Mt. Everest: overwhelming, frustrating, exhilarating, exciting, and wonderfully transforming. If anyone had ever told me that at age 59 I would totally abandon all animal foods, I would have suggested they have their heads examined.

Before changing my diet, I was health- and exercise-conscious, and was an aware shopper and cook. I ate fish and poultry but avoided saturated fats from red meat (save a twice-yearly fillet mignon). I believed that I was doing just fine. Then reality hit.

Redefining “health-conscious”

In July 2006 I met with a new physician who joined my Cape Cod medical group. Blood work showed my LDL (my bad cholesterol) had risen to 170 and my overall cholesterol to 246. Prior to this physical, these lipid numbers had been yo-yoing. In 2004 my cholesterol soared to 299 and then plunged in 2005 to 169. I attributed this drop to taking a “natural red yeast rice statin” in 2005. However, although it is natural, it still has the potential of adversely affecting the liver. So at one point I decided to discontinue it and see if my cholesterol could be maintained at a healthy level with just my “healthy” diet.

I felt baffled because I thought I exercised and ate well, and I also regularly read articles on health and nutrition. I saw the commonly advertised statins on my horizon—drugs like Lipitor and Crestor that keep people perennially chained to the pharmaceutical companies. I pondered if I would become a statistic who suddenly drops dead from a heart attack. Heart attacks are rampant on my father’s side of the family, but while he defied medical statistics (living to 93), I was not willing to take that gamble.

Fortunately for me, my physician advocates a plant-based diet. Citing current research, he asked me if I would consider giving up beef, pork, lamb and dairy (while keeping chicken and fish to a minimum), emphasizing their negative effects on health. Since I was willing to do anything to naturally lower my numbers and remain free of the pharmaceutical stranglehold, I agreed to give it a try.

My doctor suggested I attend one of his free monthly lectures. Detailing the relationship between nutrition and disease, his lectures filled me with new determination and conviction. About a month after my doctor visit, I read the masterful research project The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, and this led me to Dr. McDougall’s website, which led me to eating an entirely plant-based diet. My first new cookbook was The New McDougall Cookbook. The prophetic saying “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” rang true to me.

After digesting and grasping the true relationship between animal protein, dairy and disease, I bid total and unconditional farewell to the toxic Western diet—I could not, and would not, go back. While one door was closing, a new, far more exciting door was opening before me.

Turning the corner

I learned to cook in new ways; many recipes were tested, tasted and relished. Even my Irish husband admitted the food I was cooking was tasty (though he still keeps one foot in the Western diet world). New cookbooks began replacing my thirty-five-year cookbook collection, and I began absorbing as much research as possible. Dr. McDougall’s website has been a gift of knowledge and support toward my growing education.

Four months after my doctor suggested I change my diet (and three months after being on a totally plant-based diet), I returned to have my lipid numbers rechecked. I was astounded! My LDL decreased to 69 (from 170) and my overall cholesterol dropped to 174 (from 246). You should have been there to hear the hoots of joy in that office.

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In addition to having high cholesterol, since 1999 I’d been experiencing progressive pain and discomfort in my right wrist. I attributed this to years of computer usage from my social work days. Sometimes I’d awaken in the middle of the night with numbing pain. Then in 2003, while doing extensive computer work, my wrist froze. The pain was excruciating.

Alarmed, I feared I was headed for incapacitation: I visualized a neglected garden and hands unable to pick up my grandchildren. For a week I could not use my hand. I bought a brace and went to the natural food store to buy ointment and pain medication. A few friends tried to “comfort” me by telling me that arthritis is what happens to you when you get old, but I wasn’t buying it.

So, after my four months of not eating acidic animal foods, the arthritis seemed to magically disappear. I’d be working in the kitchen and suddenly realize that my wrist wasn’t hurting. I had no more pain waking me in the middle of the night and no more pain after driving long distances. I felt overjoyed! I celebrated by raking leaves for two days, painting my kitchen and shaking my wrist in complete abandon. For me it was another tangible affirmation that we are what we eat.

Some of these same friends, after seeing my recovery, are surprised and hopeful while others are still resistant and seem married to their pain medications. One friend, in his late sixties, suffers from arthritis and has very severe pain in his hands. I was quite surprised when he called me one evening to get some information about plant-based eating and to hear about my experiences. I’ve found that the majority of people are resistant to change until their health is greatly compromised. Then and only then might they be willing to examine what they’re eating and how it’s affecting their bodies.

And—for the sake of science—I’m thrilled to disclose that a chronic constipation problem I had since the mid 1980s also disappeared (I had tried everything!). At one point, a doctor told me that my muscles just didn’t work, while another urged patience, telling me that my condition would eventually improve (well, he was right. Farewell, Metamucil!).

Additionally, my energy level, which was always high, increased quite a few notches. I now feel light and healthy and am able to eat more without feeling full or bloated. Though never weighing more than 126 pounds, the little extra body fat I had seemed to dissolve, and my weight stabilized at 122 pounds. And, more than anything, I was discovering and delighting in meals that were not only nutritious and satisfying, but delicious to boot!

Student becomes teacher

joanne_irwin_03-1688226After having discovered great health for myself, I wanted to share what I had learned with my fellow Cape Codders. So I decided to invite a vegan chef from New York City to hold cooking classes in my town last summer. Unfortunately, no one registered. Shortly after, a woman called to register for the canceled class. I wound up chatting with her for over an hour, and when I explained that I would try the class again next summer, she admonished me: “Joanne, you don’t have to bring someone in from New York—I just learned so much from talking with you. Why don’t you teach the class yourself?”

There are moments in life when choice looms: you can respond to the presenting opportunity with a resounding “yes” or you can simply shut the door. I’m thankful to Dakota for motivating me to say “yes!” My passion for health and wellness proceeded to enter a new domain. As a former teacher and social worker, and a current Reiki practitioner, presenting plant-based cooking classes was a natural complement to my life’s passions.

As I considered this possibility and began organizing my own cooking class, a local newspaper reporter (who I had previously contacted to cover the story of the guest chef) called to say that she still wanted to do a story on me and my new way of eating. I also included information about the cooking class I was planning. The response to the article was incredible. I had hopes of filling one class but was delighted with a wait list for three more. It was heartening to discover that so many individuals desired to take better care of their health by transforming their cooking and eating habits.

Word is slowly spreading on Cape Cod, and names like Dr. McDougall and T. Colin Campbell are entering our public consciousness. To further this education, articles from Dr. McDougall’s website are given to class participants along with encouragement to sign up for the McDougall Newsletter.

My journey has been surprising and wonderful. At 61 I am active, walk vigorously five times a week, and work out with weights. But most importantly, I know I’m setting an example for my children and grandchildren. When my daughter calls to tell me that my seventeen-month-old grandson loves his black beans and kale, I just beam from ear to ear. When I serve him Mary McDougall’s French toast and he asks for more, I smile again. When my son, who is 33, tells me, “Mom, I eat to live, not live to eat,” I know something very right is happening.

I am thankful for Dr. McDougall, Mary McDougall, and my personal physician for passionately sharing the truth and their wisdom. May their work spread and transform our sick society to one of vigorous health and well-being.

Joanne Irwin
Dennis, MA
December 2007