“I Went Vegan to Beat My Addiction to Alcohol and It Worked,” Chef Elaine

|Updated Jul 20, 2020
Getty Images

Elaine Toner is a chef who used a plant-based diet to kick her addiction to alcohol. Here is her story. It's honest, inspiring, and reads like a novel. When they make the film we'd like to see Saoirse Ronan cast in the title role.

The Beet: How did your story start? Maybe the easiest thing is to just let you tell it.

Elaine: I am originally from Ireland and emigrated to Chicago when I was 21 years old. Before moving towards the world of culinary wellness, I worked in the hospitality industry for two decades. I spent time in culinary school, kitchens, service, management, as well as launching a food truck and catering business.

A career in the restaurant industry means you are constantly surrounded by booze with easy access to other desired cravings. Part of our continuing education was the participation in ongoing trainings to learn about craft beers, wines and spirits. We worked long, crazy hours. When our stressful shifts ended we were treated to beers and even shots from management. Then onto our local dive bar for late-night drinks. Days off were spent at the pub catching up with friends or family. Alcohol is an accepted part of my culture and working life. I created the worst possible environment for a person living with long term addiction. It was a disaster, and I loved it.

When did you go vegan / plant-based?

Elaine: In 2015 I worked as an AGM [Assistant General Manager] of a Chicago beer hall. We specialized in craft beers and bacon. Needless to say, my lifestyle was atrocious. I was living at rock bottom. Struggling with addiction, I had a dreadful diet. I worked crazy hours. And I basically never slept, due to chronic stress. I had become an extremely toxic person who could not figure out how to turn her life around. I was living on auto-pilot and lacked any control in the outcome of my life.

In February of that year, I found myself homesick with pneumonia. I came across Rich Roll and his book Finding Ultra. It was the lifeline I needed. Before finishing his book, I returned to a vegetarian diet and began a yoga practice. Then I started to develop a plan for a much-needed career change.

The Beet: So that was it? You read a book and it made you turn your life around?

Elaine: I had recently watched Forks Over Knives, the documentary.It's a catalyst for many folks' journey to a vegan diet. My take away was a little different. As a cook I was drawn to the work of Dr. Pulde and Dr. Lederman. I loved how they took the time to educate their patients about whole foods, and home-cooked meals. Doctors are busy people in general and could probably use the extra help when it comes to educating their patients on whole foods, batch cooking, and meal prep. So I decided on launching a plant-based personal chef service.

I went back to school to study Holistic Nutrition at Bauman College. Then I participated in Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s Plant-Based Nutrition Program in May of 2017. His course was amazing. I made the decision to cut all animal products from my life before the course finished. It has been three years since I became 100% vegan. I love it. Personally, I believe my plant-based lifestyle became the foundation for my path to sobriety.

The Beet: Was there a moment or spark? inspiration? One "I've had enough" moment?

Elaine: My inspiration for my path to recovery came from my plant-based lifestyle and habit change. If you want to develop new habits, you need to break them down into small achievable goals. For years I followed a vegetarian diet and the idea of becoming 100% plant-based seemed insane to me. Once I made the decision to cut all animal products from my life; I had to figure out a realistic and healthy plan for a sustainable vegan diet. Three years later I can’t imagine my life any other way.

The Beet: So you hit reset on your life, your food and your stress, and gave up alcohol?

Elaine: My process of embracing recovery started the same way. I created small booze-free challenges. The basis of each project was a holistic reset:

For 7 days my diet was filled with homemade plant-based meals filled with fresh veggies and fruit. I cut out alcohol, sugar and coffee. I drank tons of smoothies, juices, water and teas. I kept life very simple. I took naps when I needed to. I went for long walks each day. Learned how to manage my stress. I read a lot of brilliant books.

As I moved further along in each booze-free project, I allowed myself coffee and treats. Without the alcohol, I craved sugar a lot. As sobriety was my real goal at the end of the day, I started to lighten up. If I gained any weight in the process, I figured I’ll lose it at a later date once my recovery was in a good place. Each time I practiced a new challenge I extended the length of the project.

The Beet: What is your hardest challenge? What was hard to give up?

Elaine: In regards to becoming 100% plant-based. That was a pretty easy decision. I was never a big meat eater. I absolutely abhorred milk. Eggs took a little longer, as I loved Bi Bim Bap or rice and beans for breakfast. It was more out of habit as opposed to I couldn’t live without them.

Alcohol on the other hand was a very hard battle. The decision to quit was the easy part. However, the action itself was a very long road. I still worked in restaurants as a waitress while in school. I was surrounded by booze. Everyone was drunk all the time. It really was a rough couple of years. Especially as I chose to quit by myself, without a support group.

I researched the many roads to recovery. Personally, AA did not sound appealing to me and a treatment center was not in my budget. I’ve always loved the process of 30-day challenges for learning new habits. So I decided to quit by myself and break it down into small manageable tasks.

I reached 19 alcohol-free days on my first booze-free challenge. To me this was a massive success, as it was the first time in 16 years I went almost 3 weeks without consuming an alcoholic beverage. Sad, I know, however prior to this I drank every day for 16 years. I was not getting drunk daily. Perhaps a glass of wine with dinner, a beer after work, or a whiskey to end the evening. It was habitual drinking.

So 19 days’ booze-free was a small personal win. It may not have been my initial goal; however, I saw it as a stepping stone to one day, when I may be in full recovery. The funny thing is, my first attempt at a booze-free challenge was in March of 2015. It would take 3 more years of study, research, and many more sobriety challenges before I committed to a yearlong booze-free challenge for my 40th birthday.

In the end, a "365 days of no booze" project was my success story. I based it on a habit change project with my plant-based lifestyle as a foundation to build upon. I created A Nourishing Life Project as an accountability blog. It was not an easy year by any means. Life still happened, but this time  I have to get through it all without my boozy security blanket. I learned to toughen up, fast. This month I celebrate my 42nd birthday, followed by my anniversary of being two years in recovery a few weeks later. So I believe all the hard knocks and the tough work was worth it in the end.

The Beet. That is such an amazing story. I love it. What is your greatest triumph?

Elaine: After a lifetime of barely coping with an addiction, my recovery is my greatest win. I never knew such a path would be possible for me. I am currently training as a recovery coach. My goal is to work with women looking for support and accountability as they break from their addictions.

In regards to folks who struggle with addictions. I love that we live in a time when AA or an expensive treatment center are no longer our only options on the road to sobriety. Personally, I found my chosen path to be a very lonely process in recovery. However, in the long run, it worked for me and I wouldn’t change it. There is still a lot of stigma and shame attached to addiction and recovery, especially for women. I have chosen to recover out loud, so I may offer support and share resources with women in all stages of recovery.

If I can find peace and a positive mental attitude in sobriety. I believe it is possible for others to do so as well. It is not an easy road by any means. However, a life of healing, possibility, and healthy relationships on the other side makes it all worth it in the end.

The Beet: What advice do you have for someone who wants to change their life?

Elaine:  If anyone is struggling with addictions and concerned about starting over later in life, its ok to be scared, but do it anyway. We live in a wonderful time. There are so many resources and lovely folks online to connect with. My transition started with a great book and embracing a plant-based lifestyle.

Not every person that wants to change can go plant-based overnight. We all come from different cultures and traditions. You may initially question your decision to become 100% vegan. It is a process. Take it one meal or one day a time. If you are not a fan of cooking, dine out. There are so many brilliant restaurants specializing in plant-forward meals. Talk to the staff about their recommendations. Have fun with it.

The Beet: What was the moment that meant the most to you since you became sober?

Elaine: My recovery was the best 40th birthday present I could have ever gifted myself. Today my life is completely different from the rock bottom I experienced 5 years ago. I learned to make peace with getting older and going back to school. I still take classes and love it. I am a work in progress.

What would you recommend people to watch, read, or listen to for inspiration?

Elaine: If you like to cook, I love The Happy Pear. Identical twins Steve and Dave Flynn are Irish chefs from home. They have a fab YouTube channel and website. I recommend them to all my students starting out. They have great recipes and are a lot of fun. Wicked Healthy, Rebel Recipes, Hot For Food and Vegan Richa are fantastic resources and create awesome meals.

The Rich Roll Podcast was an absolute gem when it came to finding resources for learning more about a plant-based lifestyle and the recovery process. Through his interviews, I was introduced to Dr. Gabor Mate, David Goggins, Johann Hari, John Joseph McGowan, and Tommy Rosen. Rich’s conversation with Ryan Holiday led me to Ryan’s book The Obstacle is the Way and Stoicism. I read a lot when I was trying to figure out my path to recovery and found so many brilliant book recommendations from his shows.

I chose to create my own 30-day plus booze-free with a plant-based lifestyle as a foundation. One Year No Beer offers 28 Day, 90 Day, 365 Day challenges if you are looking for a more structured process. She Recovers is a remarkable international organization for women in all stages of recovery. I adored their Facebook Group. If you are having a tough time, you can reach out to someone in their Facebook group for support. They are private and really wonderful.

The Beet: What do you wish you had known then that you know now?

Elaine: I wish I had:

Stopped being so hard on myself. Especially in the early days. Practiced self-belief and forgiveness. I always had the ability to overcome great challenges. I just needed to accept the fact that it is all a process and will take time. It’s ok.

Listened to my intuition. I never paid attention to it before. Living with addictions I never trusted my judgment or had faith in my decisions. I never spoke up or fought my battles. Even when I knew I was right. I always cowered down. Presumed the other must know better. This is no longer the case. Now I fight for what I believe in and will always listen to my intuition.

The Beet: What do you eat in a day?

Beverages: I drink a ton of water throughout the day. Black coffee or green tea in the morning. Never after 12 pm. Some days I have a craving for sparkling water. Always chamomile or mint tea in the evening.

Breakfast: Oatmeal bowl. It is so quick and versatile first thing in the morning. Pop 1 banana, 1 cup mixed berries, ½ c of oats, 1 c almond milk, and 1 tbsp of flaxseeds in a blender. Blend and pour in a bowl. Top with chopped nuts, chia seeds, and gogi berries.

Snack: Prep a smoothie jar for the day. Maybe a fresh juice. Nuts or a trail mix with dark chocolate.

Lunch: My heartiest meal is usually at lunchtime in the form of a veggie bowl, soup, or a stew. I live on spicy food and curries. It’s usually a bean-based dish, with veggies and a grain.

Supper: I prefer to eat light in the evening. We either make a couple of salads or a small mezze plate with pita.

The Beet: Anything else you want to share.? A moment that mattered?

My recovery was the best 40th birthday present I could have ever gifted myself. Today my life is completely different from the rock bottom I experienced 5 years ago. I learned to make peace with getting older and going back to school. I still take classes and love it. I am a work in progress.

The Beet: That's amazing. Do you have a mantra? Words you live by?

Elaine: Honestly, I don’t really have a mantra. It is more of a daily gratitude practice. Prior to stepping into recovery, I was a very toxic person. I was angry, lost, and negative with a lot of selfish behaviors. On the other side of recovery, I practice a positive mental attitude. I am truly grateful for my sobriety and believe it is now my superpower. I am on a path I never knew would be possible for me. I love my new life. I have learned to be grateful for all the challenges and tough times as well as all the joy, love, and all the laughs.