For as long as she can remember, Linda Freedman has suffered from gastrointestinal distress. She’s dealt with acid reflux, stomach pain and other uncomfortable problems.

“I went to so many doctors and had so many tests and wasted so much money,” said Freedman, 65, of the quest she’s been on for three years to figure out what was making her sick. “I went to an acupuncturist and another alternative doctor.”

Her bevy of health-care practitioners ordered round after round of tests, including an invasive heart catheterization. But all the results came back normal.

Then Freedman was at the gym one day where she met health coach Kirsten Scarcelli. After talking with Scarcelli, she made an appointment, eventually scheduling three one-on-one meetings followed by three private cooking classes.

Before working with Scarcelli, Freedman described her diet as largely vegetarian with the occasional chicken dish. But, Freedman conceded, the vegetarian food she ate was centered around dairy products rather than vegetables. Scarcelli helped her move to a largely plant-based, vegan diet.

“She taught me the importance of leafy green vegetables,” Freedman said. “We talked a lot about fruits, vegetable and legumes.”

The result?

“I no longer have these gastrointestinal problems,” said Freedman, who lives with her husband in Cape Elizabeth. “My cholesterol dropped 100 points. My triglycerides improved. Eating this way has really been beneficial to me.”

In particular, Freedman credits upping her consumption of whole, plant foods with her health improvement.

“The plant-based is what changed everything,” Freedman said. “I don’t know why doctors don’t recommend it.”

Scarcelli, who was born and raised in Germany and moved to Maine to get married, specializes in helping her clients transition to plant-based diets.

“What I’m hoping people can take away from my programs is how to make the transition to a whole foods, plant-based diet easier,” Scarcelli said. “I give hands-on tips and recipes.”

Freedman said Scarcelli also answered all of her questions (and she had a lot of them) and later sent follow-up emails with links to additional resources and medical studies.

“Her lovely manner and non-judgmental way of presenting things made me really feel like I could do it,” Freedman said.

Scarcelli studied nutrition in Germany, yet ultimately graduated with a degree in design. Once she moved to Maine, she launched a knitwear company based in Hallowell and later worked in the women’s and home design departments at L.L. Bean.

But her interests kept circling around health and nutrition.

“I’d given up dairy 10 years ago and really liked that and I’ve been more or less a lifetime vegetarian, off and on, sometimes pescatarian,” Scarcelli said. “Then about 7 years ago I was in a position where I wanted to do something else. I wanted to explore health more and find how to be helpful to others.”

She enrolled at the New York City-based Institute for Integrative Nutrition in 2010 and became a certified holistic health coach. Once back in Maine, she set up a coaching practice called Nourish Yourself Now. Her offerings include cooking classes, pantry makeovers, one month kick-starts, a 90 day intensive and a six month in-depth program. Her prices range from $85 for a private cooking class to $900 for six months of one-on-one coaching and appointments.

“Usually there is an initial get-together and getting to know each other, that’s completely complimentary and lasts 30 to 40 minutes,” Scarcelli said. “I ask people to fill out a questionnaire to find out what their goals and challenges are. And we find out if we would work well together. From there, it depends on which way the client wants to go: one month, three months, six months or a cooking class.”

Her cooking classes cover everything from ingredients to recipes to knife skills. In all her interactions with clients, she encourages cooking from scratch.

“We’ve been sort of taught or influenced to get away from cooking or eating together as a family,” Scarcelli said. “We need to learn to get together and use food to nourish us.”

Noting that dairy processors invest heavily in ad campaigns, Scarcelli said “there’s some big myths out there (about food) such as the ones about dairy and calcium.”

One of the most familiar claims, she said, is that milk is necessary for strong bones, when the science shows consuming large amounts of dairy products actually leaches calcium from our bones and makes us more susceptible to breaks. Many vegetables and nuts contain significant amounts of calcium in a different form, which we can absorb more readily.

“I don’t think there’s a broccoli lobby out there yet,” Scarcelli joked.

Her easy-going and light-hearted approach to plant-based eating is one of the things most appreciated by clients like Freedman.

“Kirsten is just a lovely, warm women you can talk to so easily,” Freedman said. “She’s a great listener and she’s a great teacher. She really cares.” 

Avery Yale Kamila lives in Portland, where she enjoys plant-based eats and writes about health food. She can be reached at avery.kamila@gmail.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila