Jessica Leonard

One Teen’s Journey From Crippling Arthritis to Competing in Olympic-Style Weightlifting

By Jessica Leonard,

  • 22

There’s been a lot of drama in my life, but very little of it has to do with being a teenager. My 16 years of life have not been easy. I was around 2 when my parents first noticed something wasn’t right. I would cry through the night and scream in pain every morning when I got out of bed. I would crawl down the stairs on my elbows because my wrists, ankles, and knees hurt so badly. I would hold my sippy cup between my palms because I could not bend my swollen fingers.

Obviously, my parents knew something was wrong. And after visits to my pediatrician and a rheumatologist, blood work showed that my SED rate (the amount of inflammation in my body) was super high. I was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis. “Polyarticular” means that more than five joints are affected. In my case, every single joint in my body was affected, making me a severe case.

I was put on two different types of medication, which gave immediate pain relief, but it took months to curb the inflammation and swelling. As a very young child, the weekly shots were traumatic, and my mom was always worried about the many potential side effects from the meds. She asked the rheumatologist if there was a link between diet and arthritis, and the doctor said no. But my mom suspected otherwise and started her own research—eventually discovering the health benefits of a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet.

What You’re Eating = What’s Eating You

After first eliminating dairy from our family diet, my mother noticed marked health benefits for my two sisters; it cleared up the eczema of one and the chronic ear infections of the other. My improvements weren’t as pronounced, however, until we stopped eating all animal products. But even then, I still experienced ongoing flare-ups (my still aching joints would stiffen and swell), and the only thing that gave me temporary relief was painful steroid joint injections. These medications induced nausea, so I would throw up violently after each shot and be sick for hours.

At that time, I felt like my vegan diet was pretty healthy, with lots of fruits and veggies—but I also ate processed vegan food. I thought I was doing better—until I developed psoriasis. My turning point came when my mom and I heard the plant-based doctors talk about how refined oils and sugars in processed foods promote inflammation. Once I eliminated the oils, my psoriasis went away. And, with the elimination of all oils, refined sugars, and processed foods and eating a WFPB diet, my severe arthritic stiffness subsided. It wasn’t instant, but over the course of about a year, my body responded.

Giving up sugar and oil wasn’t easy. I had to experiment a lot in the kitchen to make it work, but I did. Now I follow Dr. John McDougall’s Starch Solution diet. We always have brown rice and beans cooking with steamed vegetables, and I love burrito bowls, baked fries, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and pancakes.

Still, being a teen on a plant-based diet can be hard sometimes. My closest friends know why I eat the way I do and respect it, but people I’m not as close to think it’s weird. Food isn’t the cure-all for me, however; extreme stress and lack of sleep can also affect my arthritis. But as long as my diet is good, I am happy, and I am sleeping well, my arthritis remains in remission.

Stopped Waiting for Life & Started Weightlifting

Strenuous physical activity, which until recently would have seemed impossible, also helps boost my well-being. In fact, I have been weightlifting for the last two years and competed in my first Olympic-style events this year. I lifted over 100 pounds in the snatch event and 140 in the clean and jerk. I never would have believed I could lift this much, especially given that I could barely hold an ice cream cone when I was 4 years old. For my training, starch, fruit, legumes, and vegetables are what keep me strong. And, unlike many athletes, I don’t need protein supplement bars or drinks since my diet fuels me perfectly.

If I had a message for those suffering from arthritis or other kinds of inflammatory disease, it would simply be this: You’ve tried the standard American diet, and it hasn’t made a difference. But you’ve never tried a plant-based diet, so how do you know it doesn’t work? You owe it to yourself to try this lifestyle.

Has a whole-food, plant-based diet impacted your life?

We would love to hear about it!


Free Download

Free 5-day meal plan!

Get a taste for healthy, fuss-free meal planning with this free five-day meal plan from Forks Meal Planner!

By providing your email address, you consent to receive newsletter emails from Forks Over Knives. We value your privacy and will keep your email address safe. You may unsubscribe from our emails at any time.

Placeholder image

Join our mailing list

Get free recipes and the latest info on living a happy, healthy plant-based lifestyle.

By providing your email address, you consent to receive newsletter emails from Forks Over Knives. We value your privacy and will keep your email address safe. You may unsubscribe from our emails at any time.