Growing up chubby, with pressure from her parents and the school doctor to get thin, paved the path for decades of diets, cravings, and binges. Karoline Mueller Ph.D., now 52, finally conquered a lifelong battle with food and yo-yo-ing weight by adopting a whole food plant-based diet. Here is her story:

I struggled as a chubby kid and gained more and more weight as an adult. After trying every diet, it was a whole food plant-based diet that stopped me from craving sugar, helped me lose 100 pounds and changed my life.

I Became Obsessed with Food as a Child

Even as a young child, I remember being obsessed with food: I always wanted more servings than I was given and would look for any opportunity to get more. I think my constant cravings were triggered by a series of illnesses that started when I was 3 months old. As an infant, I was underweight, and had stomach issues and couldn’t keep food down. As a toddler, I was constantly sick with colds and flus. Finally, at 3 years old, my tonsils were removed.  Over the next few years, I developed sinus polyps and they were surgically removed. A few years later I got stomach pains that led to an appendectomy at 11 years old. 

With each sickness and each surgery, there were periods where I couldn’t eat, despite being hungry. Before each operation, I had to fast to prepare for the anesthesia. After the appendectomy, I remember not even being allowed to drink. I think that the experience of wanting more food triggered my food obsession. The first food I ate after my tonsils were removed was ice cream: I remember the cold, smooth sensation and the immediate relief from the throat pain. I wanted more as soon as I was finished.

I grew up in Germany, and even though what we ate was not close to American-style portions, I managed to eat as many helpings as I could. I would try to get an extra bowl of cereal or buy candy whenever possible. So, I went from an underweight baby to a fat kid although, in retrospect, I was only chubby compared to how I felt. But for the times, I was considered fat and I was teased—not only at school but at home. I remember my uncle trying to pick me up, joking that I must be attached to the ground because he couldn’t lift me up. Once, my family went to a music camp organized by our church. As we sat and listened to this soprano with a beautiful voice my mother commented on how fat she was and warned that if I kept eating I would end up looking like her. As it turns out, I did. 

Going on the Atkins Diet at age 10

When I was 10, the school doctor told my mother I was overweight. My mom was very upset and talked it over with the family doctor who didn’t want me to diet, thinking it would be unhealthy to do as a child. But my mom insisted we do something. So the doctor reluctantly suggested that we try Atkins so I wouldn’t feel deprived. Atkins is supposed to be an ‘all you can eat’ diet (as long as you didn’t eat foods high in starch or sugar.) So, I ate mostly meat and cheese along with veggies. I lost around 15 pounds, but it didn’t take long to put 30 pounds back on. Once I started eating this way, my appendix became inflamed. A year later, after the appendectomy, I gained again an even more weight, reaching nearly 150 lbs at 5’4”.

When I was 13, my oldest brother who was 22, saw an alternative doctor and he got us to do a family lifestyle change. We started eating whole grains (like wheat, spelt, oats and barley) and more fruit and more raw vegetables. We even started a garden. We ate less pork and overall limited fresh meat to once a week, although we still kept eating processed meats like sausage and cold cuts every day. 

My weight slowly went down but I still felt terrible about my body. I liked to dance, but because I felt weighed down, I couldn't move like I wanted to and got negative comments.  That made me feel even more inhibited preventing me from moving in any way that might draw attention to my body.  I believed that I looked ridiculous and disgusting. I didn’t socialize much and kept to myself focusing on my music, studies, and outdoor activities with my family (hiking, skiing, biking).

From Foodie in France to Fasting the Weight Off

The summer before turning 17, I felt pretty good about myself. My weight had come down to 136 lbs., I was starting to plan for college and my future looked bright.  I did an exchange program with a French family in Paris who wined and dined me so I could get a feel for their culture with food that was more calorie-dense than what I had been eating. Even though I was only with them for 3 weeks, I became totally food-obsessed again by the time I returned to the US. 

Around this time, I was spending 4 hours a day practicing violin and piano to audition for a hard-to-get spot at a music conservatory. I would take a break every 30 minutes for a snack, often chocolate. This went on for months. Food made me feel better, especially the more calories and fat it contained.

I often had the sense that a ‘normal’ person was hidden away underneath the extra layers of my overweight body. On one hand, I felt too visible because my body felt too big, and on the other hand, I felt invisible because by being too big, since people could not see the person that I truly was.

As it turns out, I didn’t pass the music audition—this is very competitive in Germany. I became extremely depressed. I had also developed joint pain in my elbows from the hours of practicing. So, at 18 I headed to a spa known for fasting to help people heal. I drank carrot juice and vegetable broth for 6 weeks and lost 22 pounds. I felt great and came home ready to start prepping for college. 

Then we discovered that my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. She had surgery to remove some of her colon. She felt good for a while but kept eating processed meat. In those days not many people thought there was a connection between meat and colon cancer. The cancer came back and this time her abdomen was full of tumors.

This was a difficult time because as I tried to look after her, I had no one looking after me. She had lived for her children all of my life and suddenly she was in a cocoon of pain and became a different, very removed person because of her unbelievable suffering. I felt conflicted, on the one hand, I couldn’t help but feel rejected but I also felt sad and full of despair that she was in so much pain. I gained 44 pounds during this time.

New Adventures

After mom died, my weight struggles continued. I fasted on and off and watched my weight bounce around. When I was 21, I got together with my first boyfriend and started jogging and eating less. I dropped to 135 pounds. But it didn’t last and I gained it all back. And when I did, my boyfriend dumped me: He told me I was too fat. 

Over the next few years, I’d lose weight on juice fasts but regain twice as much once I stopped. At 28, I reached 187 pounds, I was only 5’4” but officially ‘obese’, according to the BMI. I had been in college for several years getting my bachelors and masters degrees in chemistry. I went to the US for a short visit as an exchange student. It was exciting to be in America, people at the University of Houston were encouraging and excited to meet me. I felt good about myself, so dieting with smaller portions and eating more salads felt easy. I lost 50 pounds again and felt great. I was admitted into the Ph.D. program at the UH and returned to the US after a brief stay in Germany. 

This time my visit didn’t feel like such a party. Unlike in Germany, for my Ph. D. I had to take more high-level and challenging chemistry exams. Plus I was still learning English  and my inability to convey emotional expression subtly impacted my thinking. Stress and doubt kicked in. And I was lonely in this big foreign city: I didn’t think that anyone would love me enough to want to be my partner. A depression set in for several years as I struggled through academia. I began to overeat again, especially ice cream and gained all the weight back that I had lost the last time.

When I was 32 I took a permaculture design class. This got me out to the country and in touch with gardening. I met some vegetarians and vegans. At the same time, I discovered NIA, a dance-based, group fitness class that emphasized feeling good about movement and your body. I loved it so much that I got certified to teach. I also became a vegetarian when I fell in love with a guy in the permaculture group who was one, too. When that love story turned into a heartbreak I found consolation in ice cream and ballooned back up to 240 pounds, my heaviest weight ever. 

My Turning Point

I finally started seeing a therapist who helped immensely. I discovered Dr. Dean Ornish’s book, Eat More, Weigh Less. I became vegan, although I didn’t truly understand how to eat healthfully. So, I kept eating a lot of sugar and fat and processed vegan foods. I discovered frozen Tofutti, a delicious vegan ice cream. That triggered me back to eating dairy ice cream. Even though I had been teaching NIA and taking yoga class, my weight hovered between 180 and 220 pounds.

I rarely went to the doctor so I don’t know what my health status was all those years. I had terrible PMS (cramping and increased depression) that would last for 2 weeks or more. I had chronic plantar fasciitis. My cholesterol was at least 220 mg/dl. I had pains and aches all over my body. 

I discovered Dr. McDougall online and signed up for one of his study courses. There, I heard the dietitian Jeff Novick RD and the psychologist Dr. Doug Lisle Ph.D. speak about calorie-density, food addiction, and cravings—and how fat was a trigger. 

This was life-changing information. Once I took the oil out of my foods, my tastes changed and weight loss became easy. Vegetables became more flavorful—they had a clearer and brighter flavor. Water suddenly had a creamy flavor to it. Within one year of eating this way, my weight dropped to 130 pounds and my depression disappeared. My foot pain and joint stiffness went away, as did my PMS. That was about 7 years ago.

Around this time, I met my husband, Jim, at a music event. When he asked me out, although he was a meat-eater, he made me a vegan meal. We married one year later. That’s when I discovered the PCRM Food for Life program and I became certified as an instructor. My husband was overweight when we first got together but as he learned more about WFPB and ate plant-based meals, he dropped 50 pounds. I became active leading a PlantPure Pod from Nelson Campbell’s program, a community-based potluck group to share this way of eating with others. 

Karoline's Husband Jim and his transformation

I still struggle with the temptation of calorie-dense foods. For me, the secret to controlling my cravings is to keep my diet low in fat. Even eating too many nuts does not work for me because the fat in them, even though it’s the healthy kind, seems to trigger my food addiction.

But I’ve learned how to turn healthy food into comfort food: I started to make ‘nice cream’ (frozen fruit and dates in a blender with no added fats or sugar.) I’ve realized I can eat large quantities and not gain weight as long as I stick to strictly whole foods. 

What I Eat Now: Plant-Based Whole Foods, Vegetables and Fruits

So, for breakfast, I will eat a porridge of oats with red lentils and fruit. Or I’ll make a green smoothie with flax, kale, banana, and strawberries. I limit bread and stick to more intact whole grains, cooked like rice. For dinners, I have legume-based dishes like a lentil-sweet potato curry, all with no oil. I make whole food desserts that may contain tofu, dates, and chocolate. 

Karoline and Jim in a recent photo

I think it helps to have rules to guide your choices. I identify things to eat as either ‘food’ or ‘food-like substances.’ This helps when making choices about what to eat in a time when more and more vegan junk food is becoming available. If this fails me, I also make a point not to eat anything with palm oil in it due to the environmental havoc that causes. So, when it comes to buying vegan products weighing them as 'food' vs. 'food-like substances' helps me to say no to many of the processed products.

My life went from sad to happy in so many ways once I started focusing on nutrition. I’m sad about the many years of my life spent on worrying about food, weight, and health. That’s why I feel so alive when I can inspire others to try this way of living.