Watching her parents suffer through diet-related diseases, Dawn Harlor made a radical change to what she eats in hopes of staying healthy as she ages.

“My parents both had strokes – my mom in her 80s and my dad in his 90s,” said Harlor, who lives in Camden and is in her 60s. “And I wanted to be proactive about my arteries. I’m hoping to avert the same fate.”

A year and a half ago, Harlor switched to eating a vegan diet. She’d heard that loading her plate with plant foods could have many positive health effects, but she admits she didn’t have a very good grasp of how to cook this way.

“I was not doing well with it,” Harlor said. “I was starving and hungry, and not doing it right. Then a friend told me about MiMi’s class.”

Called “Food for Life” and taught locally by MiMi McGee, the series of four classes is a program of the D.C.-based nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The next series of classes begins tomorrow night at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport and continues through Aug. 2.

The classes offer a combination of nutrition lectures from Dr. Neal D. Barnard delivered by video and vegan cooking demonstrations provided by McGee. The classes are geared toward people living with cancer or hoping to avoid it, but the issues and recipes offered in the course have value for people with a variety of lifestyle diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.

“Diet and disease are linked,” McGee said. “In many cases, 30 to 60 percent of certain cancers are very heavily linked to diet.”

All participants in the course receive a copy of “The Cancer Survivor’s Guide” cookbook. Written by Barnard and dietician Jennifer K. Reilly, the book begins with extensive scientific information illustrating the links between diet and health.

In the chapter titled “Replacing Meat,” the authors write: “When cancer researchers started to look for links between diet and cancer, one of the most noticeable findings was that people who avoided meat were less likely to develop the disease. Large studies in England and Germany showed that vegetarians were about 40 percent less likely to develop cancer compared to meat eaters.”

After laying out the medical case for eating a plant-based diet, the book serves up more than 130 recipes that range from tofu French toast and roasted sweet potato wedges to Latin seitan stew and tempeh broccoli saute.

McGee will show participants how to prepare recipes from the cookbook, along with other recipes approved by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

“The class was an awakening for me, even though I was on that track,” said Harlor. “I’ve lost 38 pounds and I have more energy. I’m feeling better than I have been my whole life. It’s been a huge and positive shift.”

After studying at Johnson & Wales, McGee worked in hotels where she cooked traditional meat and dairy-centric cuisine. About 20 years ago, McGee’s first husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“When he was sick, I always thought there was something I could feed him that would help,” McGee said. “But at the time, the doctors said there was no science linking cancer and food. That didn’t sit well with me.”

Ultimately, her husband passed away from the disease. But it wasn’t until McGee began working as a private chef that she began to learn her intuition had been correct.

“I started cooking for clients that had dietary concerns and that had been to Pritikin (Longevity Center in Florida) or out to Dr. John McDougall’s (Health & Medical Center in California),” McGee said. “As these people started educating me, I had an “aha” moment three or four years ago.”

She then read “The China Study” by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II. The book details Campbell’s decades of nutrition research revealing a strong connection between animal foods and disease. After reading the eye-opening book, McGee obtained a certificate in plant-based nutrition from a program Campbell runs through Cornell University. Soon after, she became a certified Food for Life instructor.

McGee has been teaching Food for Life classes in Maine since last spring.

“I was such a big fan of bread and wine and cheese,” McGee said. “But the dairy and cancer connection that Dr. Campbell makes in his study was amazing to me. I didn’t know that casein (found in dairy) is such a cancer-promoting protein.”

While McGee said “it took me 20 years before I realized that there was a connection,” she’s hoping the Food for Life classes can help others make the connection between diet and health much sooner.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila