Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview: Vegan health coach Rochelle Blank-Zimmer

Your Natural Choice owner Rochelle Blank-Zimmer is a health coach and counselor who's maintained a private practice in Central New Jersey for the last five and a half years. She earned her degree from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in 2006 and completed an additional certification in health coaching from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City the following year. Most recently, she completed the first of three courses for the T. Colin Campbell Foundation's Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition certificate offered through eCornell.

Earlier this year, I met Rochelle through my girlfriend Nicole, who'd attended one of her plant-based cooking classes at the Princeton, NJ Whole Foods and later signed up for private nutritional counseling sessions. I recently had the opportunity to find out more about her very important work.

New Vegan Age: Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions! How are you doing?

Rochelle Blank-Zimmer: I'm doing great.

NVA: While I'd already heard much about your knowledge and sincere desire to help people, I knew you were really cool when I found out you're a fellow dog person.

RB-Z: Yes! I'm a total dog person. I have a remarkable doggie daughter, a Cavalier King Charles named Samantha, who has really been my champion in so many respects.

NVA: How and why did you get into this field?

RB-Z: Because people are suffering, and overloaded with "facts" from popular fad diets, which have left them confused, frustrated, and sick. I wanted to help because I know that most of what ails folks are nutritionally-controllable conditions. I always had a passion and interest in health, wellness, and alternative healing. Through my own journey of healing myself and self-discovery, it became clear that I really wanted to help others reclaim their health, by improving their diet and lifestyle habits.

I knew food was a part of the picture, but nourishment—more specifically, how we nourish ourselves—was also a conversation I was having. When I discovered The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I knew we were a perfect fit. Today, I feel blessed that my knowledge of plant-based foods, nutrition, and nourishment, and ability to connect with people, has supported so many in making sustainable, life-enhancing changes.

NVA: What aspect of nutritional health counseling is most exciting for you these days?


RB-Z: Several things, actually. Teaching people about the life-saving preventive benefits of an unprocessed, plant-based diet is the most exciting. There is an abundance of solid scientific evidence that a plant-based diet is the best choice, not only for sustained wellness throughout one's life, but also to reverse and even cure disease including heart disease and cancer—the number one and two leading causes of death in this country—as well as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and strokes. Assisting folks in taking life-changing life savings steps is also very exciting.

Knowing that these and scores of common ailments are nutritionally controllable is very empowering, because it means that it isn't your genes that dictate your fate, but rather, what we are putting at the end of our forks. We live in a culture that tells us to take a drug for everything. The reality is that if we ate an unprocessed plant-based diet, and lived an active lifestyle, millions of people's health would skyrocket back to optimum. That is exciting.

What is also so exciting about nutritionial health counseling is that nutrition isn't just what you eat. Nutrition is about nourishment, how we nourish our whole selves. It includes how we speak to ourselves, our relationships, our careers and hobbies, our lifestyle, our exercise, our movement, and our spirituality. It is the dance we call our lives, how we move to our edges and find more space, more comfort, more joy. We practice nourishment everyday, because our lives are an adventure every day. So it starts with food, but then we see that there is so much more to our experiences which influence our choices.

There are so many colors, shapes, and textures to our experiences that affect what we eat and how we feel. Often I say that how we nourish ourselves is like a metaphoric yoga practice. Each day, we can choose to check out where we are are and what we can do. In that same way, we can choose to go to our nutritional edge each day and discover what is available to us, what adjustments we will make to allow more healthy nourishment in our lives.

NVA: That really resonates; it's a great reminder how we get so bogged down in the daily details of our lives that it often it takes a teacher or counselor to remind us to grow and stretch our boundaries. I imagine it's not always easy, however. What is most challenging about your work?

RB-Z: In terms of coaching, I would say that it's teaching the practice of taking care of one's self, of creating healthy habits, of slowing down, and of learning to know and give yourself what you need. Taking small, mindful steps every day, and leaning in the direction of wellness and optimal health, instead of huge giant steps and then petering out shortly thereafter. That thought process is challenging.

I teach people that they are creating an expanded lifestyle, adding new things into their life that reflect what they say they want for themselves. This allows for them to shed, let go, or crowd out the things that no longer support their goals, with them in charge. So keeping people committed to the process and taking consistent steps that will by-pass their resistance—and allow them to create new habits that are sustainable behaviors for them —is the biggest challenge.

In regard specifically to food, I would say that the biggest challenge is sorting out confusion around the do-ability of an unprocessed, plant-based diet/lifestyle. We are creatures of habits, and even though the science is there stating that a whole foods, plant-based diet is superior, that it can save your life, some people would rather have open heart surgery than give up their meat or processed foods. People are concerned that they won't get enough protein, which is a big myth, and that they can't possibly give up animal food, donuts, cakes, candy, soda, chips etc.

That thought process is very challenging, because as a health coach, I want to help my clients achieve optimal health. And in order to achieve that, big changes over time need to occur, which obviously includes rethinking one's diet. So the most challenging thing is to get folks to make tiny changes that will add up to big, sustainable changes over the long run, as well as having folks embrace these "changes" as an opportunity to discover their optimal health or an adventure into the greatest discovery of their life: Being a more healthy, vibrant person.

I also aim to help people understand that their health is not just personal, that it includes the health of all living creatures, and to introduce the benefits of plant-based food (while also educating about the plight of animals, in a way that doesn't turn off the client's journey for their optimal health).

NVA: It's interesting that you must be sensitive in your teaching not to turn people off. What do most people come to you and seek help with?

RB-Z: My clients come for weight loss, emotional eating, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and concern that worse is around the corner. Many of my clients are also unhappy with their overall health and or energy level, and really want to learn how to make honest, sustainable, healthy changes, but are frustrated about how to do that. My client is someone who is finally willing to put himself or herself first, and knows that he or she needs someone else's guidance, someone to coach in the same way that an athlete needs a coach for training. Without coaching, most of us will keep doing the same old, same old, and not see the big changes necessary for vibrant health.

NVA: Let's turn for a moment to veganism, specifically. What types of help do people want with partially or fully adopting a vegan diet?

RB-Z: The people I speak with want to understand what it is and isn't, and how they can transition into plant-based choices without feeling deprived. Most people believe that their need for protein can only be fulfilled from animals. They really don't know what else to eat if there isn't some type of meat or dairy on their plate. If they are eating vegetables it comprises only a small amount of their food intake. That being the case, they want to know how to add more vegetables and unprocessed foods into their diets.

They also don't know what to feed their families or what they can eat when they go to restaurants, etc. Going to an out-and-out all unprocessed plant-based diet and lifestyle is, for some, like saying "I want to learn Chinese in 4 days." It is not going to happen. My clients want support, education and encouragement so that they are empowered to make changes. My approach is less of a focus on vegan and more on getting my clients to adapt an unprocessed, whole foods, plant-based diet, because that is truly what will restore the imbalances showing up as excess weight, high blood pressure, diabetes etc.

I do this with a lot of encouragement, and lot of baby-step learning, which eventually manifests into big changes. I listen to what my clients say, what they are about, what they are willing to manage, and I meet them there. I am the guide, the one holding the map; my client is the warrior taking baby steps on a journey that has no end. It is really about evolving, which is what we are doing all the time anyway. It just becomes more of a conscious, deliberate activity with personal responsibility and empowerment.

NVA: Any amusing or poignant anecdotes about your interaction with clients over the years?

RB-Z: Recently, after coming home from food shopping before the impeding Hurricane Irene storm, a wonderful client said that, before she started working with me, she would have brought home ice cream and cookies, but as a result of working with me, she brought home quinoa and tofu, and was looking forward to making the recipes I had given her. I thought that was terrific.

Another client, who has been struggling with depression and weight loss for over two years, reached some profound "ah-ha" moments during our sessions a few months ago. She became aware of her constant, "I can't" negative self talk that was holding her back. That, coupled with a test result from her doctor stating that her cholesterol was in the high 200s, let her finally allow herself to commit to taking charge of her health. It was when she committed to her health instead of engaging in negative self talk that big changes started to happen. Now, she is losing weight and is almost unrecognizable in attitude and belief about what is possible for her!

That shows me that sticking to what you want (and leaning in the direction of what you want to achieve) can take on many forms (including self sabotage, a time-honored resistance technique that we all use), but if you continue every day to explore that which you desire, success is possible and inevitable. I am very proud of this client.

NVA: Congratulations to both of you! That's really inspiring. What are you planning these days? What are you most excited about?

RB-Z: Currently I'm enrolled in a fascinating Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition online course at eCornell with T.Colin Campbell, Professor at Cornell University and author of The China Study, and I'm taking a Raw Food Intensive program in New York City. I'm always excited about my ongoing workshops and cooking classes that I teach in the Princeton, NJ area. Onsen for All in Princeton is one of the many regular places where I give classes. My fall and winter schedule is being finalized this month, and will be available on my website, www.yournaturalchoice.net, as well as on Onsenforall.com. Additionally, I look forward to continuing hosting speakers on the subjects of health and wellness; the fall/winter schedule will be announced soon.

NVA: Anything interesting we haven't talked about yet?

RB-Z: I would like to talk about this quote from T. Colin Campbell:


There are no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better obtained from plant-based foods. The levels and types of proteins and fats in plant based foods are more effective in creating health in humans than are the proteins and fats (saturated) in animal-based foods. While both types of foods contain nutrients, the way they affect the human body is different, and that is what can contribute to a healthy or unhealthy body.


To expand, fat, an essential ingredient to good health, is delivered as a saturated fat from animal-based foods. Saturated fats are well known to promote diseases—heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes, for starters. As we know, animal-based foods also contain protein, and while protein is another key ingredient needed for health, it turns out that the protein from animals has been scientifically shown to promote serious diseases, most notably heart disease and cancer. Also not needed are the amounts of protein that animal eaters are getting from their animal-based diets, which are surely contributing to many serious diseases.


Plant-based foods are the perfect foods. They contain, for the most part, small amounts of fat, ample lean protein, a symphony of energy-producing complex carbohydrates, and lots of water. When consumed through plants, these nutrients can dramatically improve one's health.


Cholesterol is something our body manufactures naturally; we don't want or need any additional cholesterol. However, that is exactly what you get in large amounts of from animal food. By contrast, plant food doesn't contain any cholesterol and tends to decrease cholesterol levels in the body. Animal protein affects higher cholesterol rates, more so than even saturated fats. The very important China Study showed that high levels of cholesterol in the blood were directly related to heart disease and cancer. It also showed that low levels of cholesterol—150 or lower—are obtained from plant-based diets and were associated with almost a total disappearance of heart disease.

NVA: What else do plant-based foods offer?

RB-Z: Plant food contains fiber, while animal food does not. Fiber is fundamental to good health. Fiber is not digested, but remains in the intestines and acts as a broom, binding and sweeping out toxins and carcinogens from our system. It creates a feeling of being full, which in turn supports weight loss because a full stomach often means the stopping of eating. Fiber also aids our absorption of helpful nutrients by slowing the process down.

One of them is glucose, whose job it is to maintain our blood sugar levels and gets a smooth ride in our bloodstream with the aid of fiber being present. Plant foods contain antioxidants naturally derived from the sun, which are so important in fighting cancers and free radicals that occur in our bodies and can do major damage to our health. There are no natural antioxidants in animals (except sometimes a few, because they have just eaten plant food before they were slaughtered). These are some of the reasons that plant food is superior to animal food.

Something else that is controversial to talk about is educating folks on the facts about animal agriculture, helping them to understand that animals are sentient creatures, just like humans, and that they feel and understand the horrible pain inflicted on them before and during their slaughter at the factory farms. Most of us are horrified if dogs or cats are harmed, but think nothing of cows, pigs, chickens, etc. that are slaughtered.

We can't be truly healthy if we are knowingly causing harm and pain on others. Whether we are doing the slaughter or buying the product, we are contributing to the slaughter of beautiful, loving, intelligent, living, creatures. This is something that is hard for most people to even allow themselves to hear, because it is so unjust and so sickening. But I believe that if we are truly talking about holistic health, this conversation, consciousness and commitment to protect animals—all animals —must be had.

NVA: Agreed. And I can't think of a way to state it more directly and clearly than you just have. Thank you. How can people learn more about nutritional health counseling?

RB-Z: Anyone interested in health coaching can go to my website, www.yournaturalchoice.net, or or contact me directly via e-mail with any questions at rochelle@yournaturalchoice.net.

NVA: Are there other ways people can learn more about you and your work?

RB-Z: There are lots of testimonials on my website. The yournaturalchoiceblog.com website is also very helpful. My twitter account is @yourveganchoice, and I'm on Facebook under my name, and there are archives of my newspaper articles written for the Princeton Packet.

NVA: Any special upcoming events you'd like to mention?

RB-Z: Yes! Please check out Farm Sanctuary's Walk for Farm Animals.

NVA: I'm supporting that this year, too! Thank you, Rochelle. It's been a pleasure.

RB-Z: Thank you! All the best to you and your friends and family—may you enjoy a lovely, healthy, vibrant Autumn.