Live Healthy Appalachia is partnering with the Esselstyn family to host a virtual plant-based diet mini course over six days.

The Esselstyn family is from Cleveland, OH, and is known worldwide for being leaders in the whole-food plant-based movement. Live Healthy Appalachia and the Esselstyn Family Foundation formed a partnership about a year ago, and they’d planned to have the mini-course in-person one day. COVID-19 precautions led them to switch the course into an online format, but spread out into six sessions so people are not staring at a screen for eight hours straight. 

The course will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. via Zoom from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5. 

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. spoke at the first session of the course. He is a physician at Cleveland Clinic and was one of the first to look at how plant-based diets reduce disease. His presentation highlighted how the American diet can take a toll on health and how plant-based diets can prevent and reverse disease. 

His daughter, Jane Esselstyn, spoke at the second session about books by Dr. Neal Barnard, Colin Campbell and even her father. She used props to give visual representations of the main messages of the books, which included diabetes, risks with overconsumption of animal protein and more.

At the third session, Jane and Caldwell’s wife Ann are going to be holding a cooking course to help educate people on how to cook with plant-based ingredients. The general foods used to cook plant-based meals are whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

“Here at Live Healthy Appalachia, we teach what’s called the Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP),” Heidi Fischer, executive director of Live Healthy Appalachia, said. “I am a registered dietician and I went through CHIP nine years ago. I never learned plant-based diets can prevent disease until the program. It was life-changing for not only me but everyone else in the class.”

Fischer said her blood pressure and glucose levels improved when she switched to a plant-based diet. She has been teaching CHIP classes for eight years and became the executive director last year. The CHIP courses have continued through the pandemic virtually. Plant-based diets have been proven to help prevent diseases such as heart disease, which is a fact that will be expanded upon at the Esselstyn course. 

“Some of the other benefits are that you have more energy when you’re not eating a lot of processed foods, you get better sleep — that’s a big benefit, and improved mental acuity,” Fischer said. “You just feel better. You feel happier. I’ve had a lot of participants say ‘I’m not grumpy anymore,’ or ‘I’m so much happier,’ and it’s so true. You’re just happier.” 

Fischer added that people do not have to be vegan to join any of Live Healthy Appalachia’s programs.

Amy Lipka, director of adult education at Live Healthy Appalachia, worked closely with Fischer in developing a relationship with the Esselstyn Family Foundation. Lipka oversees all health and wellness programming for adults, which includes many hands-on cooking classes.

“This is just one more opportunity to provide a program that could be the right fit for someone that other programs are not fit for,” Lipka said. “We do, with all our programs, focus on whole foods because that's what people need the most help with: how to increase that in a really supportive way. It's no secret we focus on those things in our workshops, but we also do it in a way that's supportive and nonjudgmental.”

Megan Gilfert, AmeriCorps VISTA member at Live Healthy Appalachia, has helped with the behind-the-scenes preparation for the mini-course such as social media posts, marketing and fundraising. She participated in an event hosted by one of the Esselstyn sons. She said she likes that the family has quirky personalities, and is working to put the information out there.

“I'm excited for the mini-course,” Gilfert said. “A few of the sessions are focused on cooking, recipes and shopping for ingredients. The Esselstyns provide lots of information, but this in particular is practical. It’s not trying to convince you. It’s just saying, ‘Let's get down to it and do more of the practical discussions.’”