Nichole Lewis admits she used to be the hamster on the wheel – unfulfilled with the results of countless diets she tried over the years to lose weight and hope to feel better. But none of them worked. She actually gained more weight, repeatedly falling back on bad habits, until she eventually found the right approach that worked for her, and ultimately it changed her life.

Lewis' first attempt to lose weight in her teens started with various low-carb diets that required calorie-restrictive eating – which brought her to her lowest point in life and the highest she ever weighed. She gained more than 100 pounds and continued to struggle with anxiety and depression, two conditions she's dealt with her entire life. "There's not a time where I can remember not feeling depressed or anxious, but now I'm a lot healthier and happier," she said.

The 26-year-old mom never imagined her life taking a 180-degree turn, and she credits switching to a vegan diet, which ultimately helped her lose 120 pounds. It also fixed her relationship with food and helped heal her mental health struggles. If there is one thing she wants people to know, it's that if she can do it, you can do it too. "I was just like everyone else who thinks they can't make a difference in their life until they can," Lewis told The Beet.

We spoke with Lewis about her life change from her home in Oklahoma where she lives with her three-year-old daughter. Now Lewis works as a kickboxing coach and enjoys cooking vegan food on her days off.

At 22 Years Old, Her Mental Health Struggled the Most

Weight was always a sore subject for Nichole Lewis, who remembers binge eating as a way of trying to soothe out-of-control anxiety and debilitating depression. She knew that her health was in danger.

"I used to eat so much meat and southern comfort food, like biscuits and gravy," staples of her unhealthy, pre-vegan diet. At 21 years old, she attended esthetician school, to pursue a career she always wanted to try. Life rarely goes as planned, however: One year into the course, a pregnancy test came back positive, and Lewis put her degree on hold.

When she dropped out of school, she spent most of her time eating everything in sight. She prepared to become a mom by watching parenting films and reading books. Browsing Netflix she came across What The Health, a film that sparked her interest. Lewis explained how watching this documentary was life-changing: "I witnessed [animal] babies getting taken away from their mothers, and learned how foods I eat during my pregnancy will affect my baby."

A Must-See Documentary That Changed Her Life

As a soon-to-be-mother, these moments made her take note. The thought of going vegan at that very moment lingered and she knew it would be something her family would have a hard time supporting. "Animal agriculture is everything to the people in Oklahoma," she said and said family and friends were "quick to judge" when she told them about her new diet. "Now four years into eating fully vegan, my daughter is the only other vegan I know," Lewis said.

A week after she watched the film, Lewis went to her family Thanksgiving dinner, looked at the turkey on the table, and she knew at that very moment she wanted to make the switch to vegan. She had no desire to go back and was right about one thing: Her family and friends didn't approve of this diet at first.

The following week she began experimenting in the kitchen to make the foods she loves to eat completely vegan. She created a recipe for her favorite foods, including macaroni and "cheese" without the dairy. She used cashew-based cheese and to make it creamy like her favorite dish, she mixed it with cashew milk. "I was totally satisfied,"  she says. "You have to take the meals you like to eat and figure out how to swap out the dairy and meat with something vegan," Lewis tells anyone who wants to eat more plant-based

Instantly, her diet transformed from biscuits and gravy and meat to dairy-free mac and cheese, beans, and all sorts of vegan foods, and even though she was halfway through her pregnancy, her weight gain slowed down. She realized it was losing the dairy and meat that made the difference. "I was still gaining health pregnancy weight," she explains, but not unhealthy fat.

Her Weight Loss Secrets

In 2018, Lewis gave birth to her healthy baby daughter, one of her happiest moments in life. With this joy came a new opportunity to fully embrace a healthy lifestyle and get her life in order, which meant getting her weight under control. "After my delivery, I really wanted to lose weight."

She wrote down her goals, and her actions seemed easier, including starting a fitness habit. "I started out trying yoga because that's really the only thing I could do. Then I tried kickboxing and liked it so much I started doing it a couple of times a week. Then I eventually got into weight lifting a few times a week."

One of Lewis' biggest inspirations was influencer @JordanShrinks who posted about her own struggles with food addiction and was "likely pre-diabetic," according to an Instagram caption. Jordan lost 130 pounds on a veggie-heavy diet combined with exercise.

During the weight loss journey, Lewis ate tofu scramble for breakfast every morning. "This is still my favorite thing to eat." For lunch, she loved bowls full of different vegetables and would switch out the type o complex carbs. "Sometimes I could have beans, seitan, or soy curls. Dinner was similar to lunch but sometimes she would turn the soy curls into a "tuna" salad or marinate them in a BBQ sauce with even more vegetables.

Eighteen months after Lewis gave birth, thanks to a steady diet of vegetables and complex carbs and a consistent workout schedule, she had lost 120 pounds. She never felt better.

Eating Vegan Gave Her More Energy and Clearer Thoughts

The results of eating vegan and exercising cleared up her mental health as well. "I have more energy, clearer thoughts, and my mental health is better. But I do want to say that I'm not perfect." Lewis mentioned that she still has bad days, which she realizes is normal, but when she eats meals full of veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds, she feels more energetic and calm– which helps her get through the harder times – whereas before, her old diet made her weak and tired.

Because of her stronger mental health, she can be a better friend, daughter, coach, and mother to her daughter. "This was one of my biggest breakthroughs," Lewis says. She shares a trick that helped her heal her fears, stress, and anxiety.

"Write down your affirmations and put them on sticky notes every morning," and post it where you can see it, like on a mirror or fridge. "Open up about how you're feeling with your loved ones," she advises. "Journaling really helps, but it's also helpful to talk it out with people who care about you," she added. One thing she reminds herself, every day: "Be the best role model for people."

Lewis is the Healthiest and Happiest She's Ever Been

Last year, Lewis made a career change to start over as a kickboxing coach and personal trainer. She credits her vegan diet for the motivation and inspiration that helped her make this move. Lewis has always loved helping others eat more plant-based by sharing her story with clients and anyone who takes her class. She's also turned her passion for eating plant-based into a blog and creates content to inspire others to eat healthier, and is the author of her e-book, The Ultimate Weight Loss Guide For Long Term Success.

Now, Lewis' daughter is 3-and-a-half years old and Lewis says she loves sharing vegan food and helping make healthy meals together, When they go out, their favorite restaurant is The Loaded Bowl, a vegan spot for soy curls with dairy-free ranch. Lewis loves to take people there who aren't vegan so they can have a full southern comfort food experience without the full-fat cheese and meat.

"A lot of people say they can't eat vegan, but I'm just like them – and if I can do it they can do it," said Lewis. "I like to lift people up and let them know I'm just like them."

Lewis says her mantra, which helps her stay positive, is one of the affirmations she repeats. "I tell myself: 'Let go and flow.' What that means is, I try to just let things go and let it be. I used to try to control things, but now I think: What is meant for me, will not pass me by."

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