In 2018, Kiki Nelson left her doctor’s office in low spirits, with high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and a seemingly impossible task: “My doctor told me I needed to lose 40 pounds,” recalls Nelson. “I said, ‘Forty pounds is a lot!’ I’d had such a hard time losing five or 10 pounds, and anytime I’d get any amount of weight off, I couldn’t keep it off. It was super frustrating.” But not long afterward, Nelson ran into an old friend, who recommended looking into John McDougall, MD, “a doctor who helped people heal by eating potatoes.” It sounded far-fetched to Nelson, who had spent years operating on the assumption that low-carb, high-protein diets were healthiest. “I thought there was no way that I could eat potatoes, especially with my blood sugar being high,” Nelson says. “I ran to Barnes & Noble and got The Starch Solution and read it in a day. My mind was blown.”
She soon transitioned to a whole-food, plant-based diet and brought down her blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol to healthy levels while losing 70 pounds. “To get to this point without counting calories—it’s been absolutely life-changing for me,” Nelson says. She’s made it her mission to encourage others who are on similar journeys, sharing creative, crave-worthy recipes that showcase the abundance and ease of a plant-based diet on her website, Plantiful Kiki. Now, she’s compiled her favorite recipes and best advice into a book. Plantifully Lean, out April 11 from Simon & Schuster, is meant as an all-in-one resource for anyone curious about trying a plant-based diet for weight loss or better health. In addition to 125 recipes, it features a guide to getting started on a plant-based diet and practical tips for building self-esteem. “I wrote the manual that I wish I’d had,” Nelson says. “Everything that I’ve learned, all my trial and error, it’s all been fine-tuned and summed up in this book.” We spoke with Nelson about the book, the importance of positive self-talk, and the power of a daily affirmations practice.
In the book you emphasize the importance of knowing your “why.” Can you speak to that?
Kiki Nelson: If your goal is to change a body that you hate…that is very difficult, because you’re already in an adversarial position with yourself. If you hate your body, it’s hard to do things for your body. But that’s how most of us enter into diets: We hate the way we look and we want to change. The fact is that it’s absolutely OK and possible to love yourself while you work on the things that you want to change. Starting to shift your language around that is really important, and knowing your “why” is about finding the healthiest reason for changing—not focusing on the negative things that you want to change but the positive things that you want to bring into your life. For me, I’d always [equated] getting healthy with being skinny and felt uncomfortable in my own skin. But after having two babies and realizing what’s really important in life, I decided that I needed to change my relationship with myself, and to stop making my journey about being a certain size. So instead of focusing on weight loss, I focused on health.
How did you start a practice of daily affirmations?
KN: I looked back and realized that I’d been every size, and I’d hated my body at all of them. I knew that I needed to change how I talked to myself. So I wrote down the things that I could appreciate about my body, like the fact that I was able to carry two healthy babies full term. I also wrote a list of the things that I aspired to feel about myself, like, “I am beautiful,” “I am confident,” or “I am healthy.” These are all things that I didn’t feel at the time.
I would sit with my hand on my heart and read those two lists every single day, morning and night, before I started my day and before I ended my day. When you do this, it’s just a matter of time before you start respecting yourself a little bit more and you start catching those negative thoughts. You start saying, “No, I’m not going to talk down about myself.” And that self-respect will grow into a deep self-love. And I am a firm believer that true self-love really is what empowers long and lasting change in any area of your life.
You didn’t believe your affirmations in the beginning?
KN: No. I didn’t feel beautiful. I didn’t feel healthy. It’s interesting: When you start trying to change your belief systems, often that’s when you first become aware of what your current belief systems even are. One major belief that stuck out to me was that I was not a disciplined person, because I would always start things and not finish them. So I put the opposite on my list—“I am disciplined”—because I wanted to believe that. And now, if you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you that I’m one of the most disciplined people I know, not even a question. But yes, know that you’re not going to believe the affirmations at first. You’re going to feel like an imposter. It’s going to feel unnatural and uncomfortable, but you’ve just got to ride through that.
In the book, you talk about eating more to weigh less. Can you explain how that works?
KN: Before I came to a plant-based diet, I was always trying to eat less in order to weigh less. And I think we all know how that goes: Eating less food isn’t sustainable, because eventually your hunger drive takes over and you go back to where you started. Then I learned the principles of calorie density—that whole plant foods are naturally low in calories but huge in terms of volume, nutrients, fiber, and water. Fiber, water, and bulk are the major contributors to satiety (a sense of being full) in your brain. And so after filling my plate with those foods, I found that I was naturally satisfied while reducing my caloric intake, literally eating more [volume] than ever and losing weight.
Why was it important to you to minimize oil in these recipes?
KN: After reading Dr. McDougall’s book [The Starch Solution] and learning what a highly processed, devoid-of-nutrition product it is, I wanted to get oil out of my diet. When I was eating oil regularly, I didn’t realize how much fat I was taking in. I think that cutting oil was one of the biggest contributors to not only the weight loss but also to reducing inflammation in my body. Am I 100% oil-free? No. If I go on vacation or I go out to eat and there’s a little bit of oil in something, no big deal. But I don’t eat fried food. I don’t cook in oil. I use a light spray of oil if something’s going to stick. But I don’t use oil as an ingredient in my recipes, and that was foundational for me.
What are some of your go-to oil-free cooking hacks?
KN: I think a lot of people don’t realize—I know I didn’t—that if you have a good nonstick pan, you can cook without any oil and still get all of the flavor and caramelization. So number one, get a good nonstick pan that you feel comfortable using. Also, cooking things with balsamic vinegar is amazing, and adding some tamari or coconut aminos or low-sodium soy sauce, whatever you’re into, to help flavor things and to help them not stick to your pan is great. When it comes to baking, mashed bananas or applesauce can easily take the place of fat and eggs, and your baked goods still come out just as moist. It’s mind-blowing!
Try Kiki Nelson’s Onion Rings recipe, excerpted from the Plantifully Lean cookbook!