Becky Muldoon is a passionate plant-based health coach, science and health teacher, and mother who’s built a thriving career in helping people reach true health — whatever that may look like for them!
In this interview, Becky answers our questions about health coaching, plant-based eating, and approaching health and wellness with kindness and compassion!
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This is part of Nutrishatives’ Ask an Expert Series, where we chat with movers and shakers in health, wellness, nutrition and medicine about their careers, their current work and their expert opinions on… well… their area of expertise!
As is so often the case for those of us passionate about helping others overcome disease, your professional health coaching career has its roots in your own personal health struggles. Could you tell our audience a little bit about how your health journey inspired you to add a bustling health coaching practice on top of your career as a science teacher?
With plant-based eating came a new sense of freedom around food. I struggled with anorexia and bulimia in college, tried fad diets with coworkers, and generally held the belief that maintaining a lean build was about restriction. With plant-based eating, suddenly I was enjoying delicious, satisfying meals and losing weight in the process. I wasn’t even working to lose weight, so I was surprised and amazed that it could happen effortlessly – that was new to me.
I become curious about plant-based eating after a breast cancer scare. For the first time, I ate to improve my health from the inside out, and as I did, my entire perspective on what “healthy” meant began to shift. Eating became about abundance, energy, and pleasure, and I felt happier and more satisfied overall.
I remember being surprised that eating this way wasn’t more mainstream. It was hard; I saw friends struggling with high blood pressure and others navigating difficult diets, while I was discovering that healthy didn’t have to feel so hard. I wanted everyone to know there were simpler alternatives.
Just over a year later I transitioned from teaching science full-time to teaching health part-time and eventually built my coaching practice, Plantspired, LLC. I feel so fortunate for my backgrounds in science and education because these experiences add a unique dimension to my coaching practice.
You’ve mentioned that you were first introduced to the idea of plant-based eating by a doctor. Most of us, of course, take what our doctors say seriously, but it’s not always easy to take information our doctors give us and translate it into practical, everyday changes. How did you go about those very first transition steps? Did your doctor provide you with practical resources that helped? Or did you have to come up with a strategy on your own? How did you take what your doctor said and motivate yourself to make real, concrete changes to your diet?
That’s so true. In this case, after my health scare, I was eager for the information. My doctor, Ann, explained the basics of plant-based eating and wrote out a few resources on a prescription pad (neat idea, right?).
She listed the Forks Over Knives DVD and The China Study and both solidified the “why” for me. She also included the Happy Healthy Long Life blog, which was well-researched and packed with yummy recipes, which helped with the “how to.” I was lucky to discover Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet at my local library, explored a few more vegan cookbooks, and tried different things along the way.
My doctor got me started, then I tried different recipes to learn what fit with our family’s food preferences and time constraints.
My doctor is an OBGYN who I usually see once a year so there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for me to follow-up with her as we were making the switch. I’ve heard from several doctors that there just isn’t time during an office visit to adequately address lifestyle changes. I’ve partnered with two amazing female doctors in my area who are enthusiastic to offer my services to their patients.
Health coaches are beginning to play an integral role in patients’ healthcare teams, and I think this is exciting.
You’ve talked about how your transition to a plant-based diet was gradual and gentle. Your family eased your way into the new diet, making small swaps away from animal products and junk food to plant-based food over time. How long into the swapping process did you think to yourself, “You know what — I think this is working! We’re really feeling great!”
My husband was open to trying more plant-based foods, but we didn’t say anything to our kids in the beginning. They were 6 at the time (they’re twins!) so we made it a bit of a game at first. I’d make a subtle change and see if anyone noticed. For example, one of the first dishes I made was stuffed shells with tofu “ricotta” with regular parmesan sprinkled on top. It was a hit, and only afterward did I reveal the substitution.
We weren’t and still aren’t a big junk food family. My husband and I have always been active, so we know we feel best when we eat well. Even so, we noticed the positive effects of eating less meat and dairy quickly. I recall that changes happened within a couple months from starting because that surprised both my husband and me.
One of the things that stood out for me was that the painful breast cysts I’d experience each month as part of PMS disappeared almost immediately. Both my husband and I have become faster with running and cycling as a result, despite getting older. Also, none of us have suffered a sinus infection since!
While we are mostly plant-based at home, my family still loves to eat traditional pizza and burgers from time to time. Of course, we want our kids to experience the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, but we know too that balance and choice are essential. They’re adventurous eaters, always up for trying something new, which makes us happy. Each person needs the freedom to explore what’s right for them.
We think it’s amazing that you chose health coaching, specifically, as your way of helping others reach their health and wellness goals! Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to health coaching in particular? What does health coaching entail that other health and wellness jobs are missing for you?
I’ve had an unusual path to health coaching, and I’ve been lucky. My life’s resume may appear a bit disjointed, but I can see how each opportunity led me to where I am now, and I couldn’t be happier.
The first year I taught health, I attended a weekend training program where I met a few health coaches. It was the first time I had met real-life health coaches, and it was as if a light bulb went off! I was a bit envious because I realized that I wanted to do what they were doing. I went home and purchased a domain name, secretly hoping to launch my own practice someday.
My domain has changed, but I did become a health coach! I know a few talented personal trainers and yoga instructors, but it’s the holistic approach I crave. While helping people eat healthier is important to me, sleep, relaxation and movement are just as essential for all-around wellness. Coaching allows me to problem-solve and see the pieces come together. In many ways, it’s a lot like teaching.
We notice you are very specific about using the exact phrase “plant-based”, rather than the more colloquial terms “vegetarian” or “vegan”, when talking about the diet you promote in your practice. Is this as deliberate as it seems? Do you see a distinction between “plant-based” and “vegan” diets?
To me, and others see it differently, plant-based focuses on the idea of eating healthy plants while vegan is more about avoiding animal products. I don’t get caught up in the wording, but I know for some the distinction is critical and I respect that.
The term “plant-based” has stuck with me because it’s how I was introduced by my doctor and through Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s and Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s work, though there are differing opinions on what it means to be plant-based, just like there are different vegan camps.
I believe what these terms have in common is stronger than their differences. I was a vegetarian in my teens and early twenties, back then vegetarianism for me was about not eating meat rather than being healthy. I’d go out with my friends and order burger-less burgers and a milkshake.
The way I approached vegetarianism back them wasn’t very healthy, but others do follow healthy vegetarian diets. It’s more in the approach to eating than the terminology. The way I eat now is less about avoiding certain foods and more about enjoying what makes me feel good and promoting a kinder, cleaner world.
A term I love is “plant-plentiful”. Wouldn’t it be incredible if everyone’s diet, from vegan to meat-eater, included more plants than the Standard American Diet? As a world we’d be more fit, our planet would be healthier, and fewer animals would suffer.
People often present plant-based diets and low-carb/paleo diets as polar extremes of the diet spectrum. What is your take on this? Do you think the diets are incompatible? If so, what is your opinion of low-carb/paleo diets for health?
The Paleo-movement has helped many ditch sugars, refined foods, and dairy to eat more veggies, fruit, nuts, and seeds, which is obviously a healthier direction. Also, more traditional low-carb diets can help people make more nutritious, whole food choices.
Where I think these diets fall short is their emphasis on meat and limiting of beans, legumes, and whole grains. There’s a strong link between even eating meat once a week and increase in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and weight gain. Additionally, whole grains, beans, and legumes are nutrient powerhouses that happen to be more affordable and have a lighter impact on the planet than meats.
I worry about the long-term health risks of low-carb and Paleo diets. My aunt struggles with significant joint inflammation and has had to eliminate grains and legumes from her diet, so I understand diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Helping people discover individually how to be their healthiest self, rather than follow a general eating plan, is why I love to coach.
As a health coach, you help guide people through big health and lifestyle transitions in order to improve their physical health and mental wellbeing. What is one thing you wish people better understood about this process — both in terms of what the experience is like for most clients, but also what the experience is like for you?
I have two things.
Health is intensely personal and people can feel self-conscious about asking for help. I used to live in fear of being judged, so I get that. I’d like to let people know to: Come as you are! It’s a judgment-free zone. Working with clients who have the most significant gains to make is super rewarding for both coach and client. You’ve just got to take that first step.
Secondly, working with a coach is a smart investment. Partnering with the right coach will result in benefits beyond what you expected and set you up for long-term success. Plus, your family and friends might feel inspired by your efforts. And isn’t that what we want, for those we care about to be happy and healthy?
Everyone knows that making diet and lifestyle changes is hard! All of us could use a solid support system through big transitions, which could easily include a health coach! But is there any group of people that you would particularly recommend seek out health coaching help?
Working with a coach early on can help prevent many lifestyle diseases; however, if someone is facing a health crisis, looking for a coach cannot wait.
Sometimes we expect our blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar to rise as we age. Maybe the condition “runs in the family”. Or maybe our doc tells us she takes cholesterol-lowering medicines, too, leaving us with the impression that relying on them is inevitable.
In some cases, medication might be an essential first step. But I encourage people to ask their doctors about other options and keep inquiring. Diet and lifestyle changes will help manage and even reverse many chronic disease conditions.
I want people to feel empowered by this and be a partner in helping them take simple, clear steps towards improved wellness.
If you could get everyone in the world to adopt a single healthy lifestyle behavior today, what would it be and why?
That’s an easy one! Eat an abundant variety of veggies each day.
You don’t have to give up what you love. Simply start by adding in more veggies. You’ll find that you’re “crowding out” some of the other, less nutritious, stuff as a result. The more color, the better. Try new ones, have fun!
Last, but definitely not least, we’d like to know: what impact would you like to have on the world personally and/or professionally?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. If I had a magic wand, I would turn every community into its own unique Blue Zone where the local environment encourages healthy behaviors.
These communities would have access to healthy food (including LOTS of plants), everyday outdoor activity, and healthy social networks. There would be a sense of purpose and overall calm.
In the meantime, I will strive to make small changes in my home, work, and relationships that foster these principles and build on them.