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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- About three years ago, Russell and Dr. Irminne Van Dyken decided to try a whole foods, plant-based diet - taking their vegetarian diet to another level by cutting out eggs and dairy - to get more physically fit for a vacation in Hawaii.

“It’s basically a vegan diet,” Russell said.

He and Irminne had received a vegan cookbook as a gift.

“We said, ‘It’s not like we’re going to do this forever,’ ” he said. “Let’s try this and see how it goes.’

“The first recipe I tried was really, really good. I said, ‘If this is what being vegan is all about, I’m for it.’ ”

They noticed changes fairly soon.

“Just cutting out eggs and dairy made a huge difference,” Russell said. “We had a lot more energy and slept better.”

He lost 60 pounds in the first month before reaching a plateau, he said. “The fat just fell off. I never really gained (the weight) back; I gained muscle mass.”

Within a few weeks, the health benefits persuaded them to make the change permanent.  

“Changing my diet made me feel so good,” said Russell, who teaches yoga in Grand Forks. “You think more clearly. It really made a difference.”  

“We felt great,” Irminne said.

At that time, she was a resident physician in a surgery training program at the University of North Dakota, working long hours and relying on caffeine to remain alert.

By changing her diet, she said she was able to cut out all caffeine, including coffee and tea. She no longer needed to regularly take antacid tablets to combat reflux and heartburn.

“My family has a pretty strong history of heart disease,” which raised her awareness of the importance of healthy eating to preventing heart ailments, she said.

The vegan diet is 100 percent cholesterol-free, Russell said. “It’s great for cardiac patients.”

A plant-based, whole foods diet also reduces one’s risk of developing colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis, he said. “Most of what you see (in patients) at hospitals has to do with what you eat.

“It’s really that decision (about food) that lands people in the hospital prematurely,” he said. “People who eat a vegan or plant-based whole foods diet live longer and have higher quality of life until the end.”  

‘Fresh stuff’

The Grand Forks couple follow some simple guidelines.

“We minimize (consumption of) processed foods and eat a lot of fresh stuff,” Irminne said. “We like to say, ‘Anything that comes in a package, don’t eat it. And if it contains an ingredient your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, omit it.’ ”

Russell said, “Anything that has a ‘mom,’ you don’t eat it, or anything that comes from animals. For example, if you‘re a strict vegan, you don’t eat honey.”

Being vegan is not only a dietary philosophy, said Ashley Decker, general manager of Amazing Grains, a natural foods grocery store, deli and bakery in Grand Forks.

It means changing one’s lifestyle based on concerns about animal cruelty in the food production process - changes “like not wearing leather,” Decker said.

Some people advocate the vegan lifestyle to an extreme, Irminne said. But the Van Dykens don’t think of themselves as fanatics.

“We went completely vegan purely for health reasons,” she said. “We prefer to say we follow a ‘whole foods, plant-based diet.’ It’s a less-abrasive term.”

Adhering to such a diet does not guarantee that you’re eating a healthy diet, Irminne said. “You can be vegan or vegetarian and eat junk food and be very unhealthy.”


When they changed to a plant-based, whole foods diet, their meals consisted mostly of salads, greens and vegetables, but Russell was concerned about getting enough protein, he said.

“Every morning, I had cereal, almond milk and a glob of peanut butter. I wasn’t counting the protein I got from vegetables and salads.”

He uses nutritional yeast as a source of protein and B vitamins, he said. “It’s a complete protein. … We sprinkle it on everything.”

A “complete protein” source is one that provides all the essential amino acids, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I eat a lot of kale, mixed greens, baby greens, Swiss chard. Dark leafy greens are high in nutrients,” Russell said.        

“People think I eat nothing but salad, but there are so many things you can eat.”

Substitutions are becoming plentiful and accessible for those who crave foods such as meatballs, burgers and chicken nuggets, he said.

People transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet may want to try items like veggie burgers or “fake” chicken that “has the texture and consistency of chicken, but isn’t chicken,” he said.

He also recommends imitation cheese, such as Daiya cheese.     

“You can get vegan shortening and vegan butter,” Irminne said. She recommends using applesauce in place of milk and eggs “to keep baked products moist.”  

“For dessert I like frozen berries - they’re light, high in fiber and full of antioxidants,” she said. Antioxidants have been found to play a critical role in protecting health.


Eating healthier “takes a little time and planning,” Irminne said.

Russell, who does the cooking at home, said most meals take less than 30 minutes to prepare.

Anyone who’s considering a change in diet should allow a few weeks before making a decision on whether they want to continue.

“They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit,” she said. “You have to allow some time; there’s a little bit of detox(ification) and withdrawal” that accompanies such a change.

She and Russell do not feel deprived or have cravings for foods they ate before becoming vegetarians. “I miss the idea of it,” Russell said, “like the smell of a barbecue.”

Irminne said, “Food to me is tied to memories and emotions. It brings to mind other times in your life, but (with a whole foods, plant-based diet) you replace that pretty well.”

Not easy to change

Even though many health benefits have been documented by research studies, people generally are hesitant to alter their eating habits, she said.

“One of the biggest ones I hear people say is, ‘I can’t do it, so I’m not going to try,’ ” Russell said.

“I think change is hard no matter what,” Irminne said. “You hear people say, ‘I could never give up …’ and they’ll name something. I said I could never give up cheese.”

She now says, “Try it for a few weeks. If you don’t like it, go back.”

The Van Dykens have been “foodies” for a long time, they said. But since making the change, they have become even more interested in food.

Irminne has stumbled on a new “hobby,” making nut cheeses by fermenting cashews with probiotics, she said. One of her favorites is a sun-dried tomato and basil cheese that is amazing, she said.

“What we eat really makes a difference,” Russell said. A whole foods, plant-based diet “is a different way of thinking about eating.”

Vegan Ricotta Stuffed Shells with Arrabiata Sauce  

One package jumbo pasta shells, cooked according to directions.


1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic

1 14-ounce package extra-firm tofu, drained

3 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons freshly ground sea salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoon white miso paste

3 large leaves of Swiss chard (stems removed)

1 cup fresh basil


(Or, use a jar of store-bought marinara sauce)

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 teaspoon sea salt

1½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

¼ cup almond milk, unsweetened

FOR RICOTTA: Preheat oven to 400. Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until the mixture is almost smooth but still has some texture. FOR SAUCE: Place a large saucepan on medium heat. Add olive oil, garlic, Italian seasoning, red pepper, salt and pepper. Cook for a 2 to 4 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and almond milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Let simmer uncovered until sauce reduces, about 10 to 15 minutes. FOR SHELLS: Stuff each shell with Ricotta. Place in a large pan that has been coated with olive oil. Cover shells with arrabiata sauce. Then, cover with vegan mozzarella cheese (Daiya brand recommended). Bake about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and serve warm.

For more whole foods, plant-based recipes, visit VanDykenVeganKitchen on Pinterest.