Meet MVP Leah Lizarondo

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We’re happy to introduce you to Leah Lizarondo—a Pittsburgh entrepreneur with a passion for educating others on the importance of eating whole and healthy. By adjusting her diet, Leah cured herself of the symptoms and pain she was suffering due to fibromyalgia. Not only is Leah extremely involved in the community, the foodie writer for Pittsburgh Magazine and an editor-at-Large at NEXT Pittsburgh, but she also created The Brazen Kitchen blog. Leah created her blog when she began transitioning to a more plant-based lifestyle to find and share delicious recipes that were actually good for you.

“I was looking for recipes online that were easy and had flavor. Now, there’s so many. Even four years ago it was hard,” she said. “I really wanted to talk about my own journey and what I make as a mom with three kids, who also works.”

Now, Leah loves to share the joy and benefits of eating healthy and works with people that want to transition to a healthier way of eating. She was even a speaker at Tedx Talk: Why the Farm is Not Getting to the Table (watch below!) in 2014. But don’t worry, despite all that she’s got going on, she still posts recipes online.

Leah’s doctor diagnosed her with fibromyalgia while she was still in her 20’s and prescribed her pills to treat the symptoms. “After a few years of taking those pills, I asked when I was going to be cured. He basically said that I won’t be. I’d have to take these pills forever,” Leah said. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that doctors call idiopathic, meaning no one has determined what exactly causes fibromyalgia.

When Leah found out she was pregnant with her first child, she knew she had to stop taking the pills. She said she didn’t want to be on prescription pills during and even after her pregnancy, so she began researching for a natural way to ease her fibromyalgia. That’s when Leah learned about how animal products cause inflammation and how she got the motivation to begin eliminating animal products. She said that she did eat largely plant-based during her pregnancy, aside from eating eggs to help boost the fat content in her diet.

“I went online. I read books. I liked The China Study a lot; I think that’s a really good book. After reading it, I would always steer people to be more plant-based but never push because that is often counterproductive. I like to meet people where they are and encourage building on good habits gradually. I think that as long as you keep the animal products to 10 to 20 percent of your diet, you will be less likely to get cancer and be healthier overall,” Leah said.

“I don’t have fibromyalgia anymore,” Leah said. But she said she still chooses to be careful with what she eats—staying healthy is what motivates her. “I don’t want to feel fatigued.”

“Breakfast for me? In the summer, I like avocado toast; or a banana or an apple with nut butter,” she said, adding that she makes grits with spinach and garlic in the winter. “I make chia pudding, as well, with chia seeds and lots of fruit on top. Sometimes I make a chocolate chia pudding and sometimes it’s just vanilla with coconut milk as a base. Or I’ll make my own nut milk in my blender. I’ll have a bagel with some tofu cream cheese if I’m craving something creamy; I make my own cream cheese base if I have time.”

The mother of two said that she tries to eat greens three times a day. “I’m a greens fanatic—I’m always chopping up greens. It always has to be in there somewhere. I like collards and kale,” Leah gushed. “When you don’t have those vegetables as an option, especially if you’re traveling, I feel crappy. I crave it. I’m looking for greens; I want greens. I can’t go a few days without having a volume of vegetables. I feel heavy.”

Leah said that she always tries to make a green smoothie full of fruit, kale, chocolate, cashew or nut butter, and whatever else she has in her pantry. “The trick is stocking your pantry so you’re always prepared. Because once you run out, what are you going to do?”

The Farm to Table advocate said she’ll read omnivore cookbooks to see if there’s anything vegetarian or vegan. Or, she said she’ll modify some of the ingredients to make it suitable to her tastes. Leah said, “I feel that things that taste good to me don’t taste good to others. I try to have flavors that are powerful to everyone.”

For fighting a cold, Leah swears on Manuka honey. “It has a lot of minerals that help with congestive issues. It works for me if I take my Manuka honey with raw garlic. My son is prone to chest congestion—I would make him toast and spread that on it and he will eat it without batting an eyelash,” she said.

Leah stressed that she doesn’t want people turned off to a plant-based diet. “Once you do eat mostly plant-based you become more aware and lean more towards that. I couldn’t imagine feeding my kids regular supermarket meat. I buy local pasteurized beef or chicken,” she said.

The Brazen Kitchen founder said that watching Food Inc. was life-changing. Leah said, “The way they treat the chickens and the pigs that are highly intelligent—they would try to escape…I couldn’t imagine putting that energy into my body or giving it to my kids. It’s like suffering and pain on a plate.”

Thinking back centuries ago, Leah said people most likely subsisted on one animal—dried and cured—for a long period of time and also heavily relied on gathering greens, seeds, nuts and fruits for food. “People eat so much of it; we’re killing for nothing. We don’t need it. Your body doesn’t need it. It’s not good for us nor the environment,” she said. Unlike most people, Leah said, she looks at meat as a side instead of vegetables.

“This is such a cliché nowadays…Try it for 30 days and see how you feel. You’ll be surprised. I do that with everyone I work with: just try it for 30 days. It’s not forever,” Leah said. “Try to stick with a fully plant-based diet for 30 days. Try not to eat fake cheese and stuff like that. Subsist on beans, rice, legumes, vegetables and whole foods, and keep bread to a minimum. I tell them to keep a calendar and X off days like they’re in prison. Most of them complain and they kick and they scream and they think it’s so hard. But after 30 days—first of all, they get more regular.”

Leah said she often hears from clients and non-clients alike that they don’t have time to cook a healthy meal at home. She responds by telling them what she cooks. “It’s not complicated food. It’s different iterations of beans and rice—lots of different flavors using the same base,” she said.

Leah said that she thinks most vegans are doing a great thing and making better eating choices, but feels as though following a strict no-meat diet can deter some people. “Doing what you can is always the best thing. Once you take one step, it’s easier to take the next and the next and the next. I would encourage anyone who wants to eat more plant-based to try it and see how it goes—and not feel they have to adhere to a label,” Leah said. She said that she feels being militant about eating a vegan diet makes people want to turn their ears off instead of listening.

“My work makes it hard because I do write about food—and not exclusively vegan food. There have been occasions where I’ve had to taste something I knew had meat or fish in it. My motivations are health-wise, less ethical,” Leah said that she isn’t a “purist,” meaning she eats plant-based the majority of the time, but occasionally eats meat or animal byproduct. “I don’t feel I’m against the cause,” she said.

Leah Lizarondo, photo credit to the Brazen Kitchen

Leah Lizarondo, photo credit to the Brazen Kitchen blog

“I really hate the words sometimes,” Leah admitted about being called a vegan—or a foodie. “I just want to tell people: this is the way you should eat for health. This is a lifestyle; this is a different way of looking at the world—looking at it from a lens that is both loving yourself and loving the world we live in. That sounds very hippie, but it’s true. Before you change the way you eat, you have to love yourself first. I always say love yourself first because it gives you the motivation to keep saying no to things that aren’t good for you.”

Leah said she likens people’s bad eating habits to being in an abusive relationship. “People who are co-dependent, or are not secure with themselves or have love for themselves, would stay in that relationship and depend on it for outside affirmation. It’s the same with food. We take in food that tastes good when we’re eating it, but in the long run it’s not good for us,” she explained. Leah said that while eating a doughnut once in a blue moon is fine, eating a doughnut daily is not respectful to her body.

If you live in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, Leah recommends Eden and Amazing Café. “The Amazing Café has the best raw carrot cake that I’m addicted to. The cream cheese is so buttery and tasty,” Leah said, adding that Asian restaurants are always good places to eat plant-based. She noted that most restaurants will have a vegetarian or vegan sign on the menu to make ordering easier.

Leah said that she had a hard time giving up pizza, but luckily she knows where to get a fix if need be. Spak Brothers and Mandy’s Pizza are perfect for herbivores and carnivores alike that are having a craving. She said of the two pizzerias, “They have pizza with Daiya cheese. The pizza’s hot; the crust is awesome. It satisfies my craving. Spak Brothers has seiten cheese steaks.”

However, Leah knows meat substitutes are unhealthy. “If I’m craving it, I’ll get raw milk from a farmer I know and make my own ice cream rather than having manufactured ice cream. Fake meat, for example, with soy extracted with hexane—I don’t think that’s a healthier option. There has to be a balance somewhere,” she said. “There are many things we have to balance with food: ourselves, the environment and other living things. Eating mindfully is a general rule.”

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