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Autoimmune diagnosis leads scientist to whole-foods discovery

The Forager

Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago, nutrition expert Rebecca Stonor has become an advocate for a whole-foods, plant-based diet. She will share her insights as part of the Nature Festival next month.

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At 40-years-of-age and with two young children, Rebecca Stonor’s world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – an incurable disease whereby the immune system attacks the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal column.

Stonor began to lose vision in one eye and her prognosis was that she may be in a wheelchair within 10 years.

“Based on statistics, they estimate that if you do nothing – no medication or lifestyle changes – you would progress to disability,” says Stonor.

“It’s really hard to explain what it’s like to receive a diagnosis like that; it’s completely life-changing.”

Having studied marine biology and then worked as a plant scientist for 20 years, Rebecca dove into research and discovered studies that showed, like other autoimmune diseases, there is a possible link between MS and inflammatory foods, particularly saturated fat.

She also became certified in plant-based nutrition through an online university course.

“I changed my diet overnight,” she says.

“I dropped all animal products, adopted whole foods and incorporated a holistic approach with things like exercise and meditation, and now I’m doing really well.”

Stonor advocates for a diet that limits processed foods and animal products, which is different from a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Six years on since her diagnosis, her condition has stabilised, which she attributes to a range of lifestyle changes.

“I haven’t had any further relapses,” she says.

“The symptoms I first had – particularly optic neuritis whereby I couldn’t see out of one of my eyes – have completely resolved with time.

“Now when I visit the neurologist, I’m one of their few patients who can still walk into their clinic without a walking frame or wheelchair.”

The mother-of-two works as a health, safety and wellbeing officer with the University of Adelaide and in her spare time runs cooking classes and workplace seminars under her business Just Eat Plants.

As part of South Australia’s Nature Festival, Rebecca will host a cooking demonstration called Plant-based cooking for the planet on Friday, October 1, at The Joinery, Adelaide.

The Nature Festival runs from September 25 to October 4, with more than 200 events hosted by organisations, artists, and community members throughout South Australia.

In her workshop, Rebecca will demonstrate how to prepare okonomiyaki (a Japanese savoury pancake) with fresh oyster mushrooms, as well as sticky black rice with cashew cream dessert.

Stonor will discuss the environmental impact created by animal agriculture and the health benefits of whole foods.

For her cooking demonstration, she will source produce from West Side Mushies, Heart and Whole at Port Noarlunga and The Almond Farmer in the Riverland.

“I think that there are a lot of people who are interested in conservation and environmental issues but are still eating a meat-heavy diet,” she says.

“If we care about the environment, we need to be conscious of the impact of agriculture.

“The whole world can’t go on a plant-based diet, but even if a small percentage does, it’s going to make a massive difference.

“Everybody can change what they eat to make an impact and it’s one of the simplest things that we can do to be a part of that solution to climate change.”

Rebecca has noticed increased energy and mental clarity since changing her diet.

“People often go through life with a lot of brain fog,” she says.

She also points out the difference between a vegan diet to one that is specifically based on whole foods.

“I don’t label myself as vegan, I eat a whole-food, plant-based diet, because there is a difference,” she says.

“A plant-based diet can be unhealthy if it’s high in vegan junk food or processed foods.

“I’m definitely not depriving myself, I’m still eating amazing food and in large amounts because it’s really low in calorie density.”

Despite her medical condition, Rebecca is grateful for the journey she has been on over the past six years.

“Without this experience, I wouldn’t have changed. It’s been a blessing for me because it’s also flowed on to my husband and my kids,” she says.

“I definitely have a lot more hope since going on this journey and that’s what I want to show other people, that this diagnosis is not a death sentence.”

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