Black Vegetarian: Vanya Francis

Vanya Francis
Vanya Francis and Taraja

Meet Vanya Francis, yoga instructor and co-owner of Om Point Yoga, wellness coach, mompreneur, and mostly raw vegan. She offers great tips for parents, talks about wellness as a lifestyle and shares her advice for those transitioning to a vegetarian diet. 

Ama: How long have you been a vegetarian and how did you get to here?

Vanya: It was a slow progression for me, as it probably is for most people. I started by just eliminating different types of meat and eventually became a full vegetarian. That process actually started for me in college. During the first semester of my freshman year, I decided that I didn't want to experiment with the chicken in the cafeteria. By the end of the first semester I realized I hadn't eaten chicken all semester and didn't miss it. But let me back up because I gave up beef and pork in 6th grade during a summer dance program. I was never really big on meats anyway. My mom used to make pork chops and hamburgers and they never were good to me.

Ama: Was it on a taste basis that you gave it up?

Vanya: Yes, and in my summer dance program we learned about the benefits of having a plant-based diet and eliminating red meat from your diet. It started as a summer challenge with friends, but by the end of the summer we were like "Oh we're good with not doing this at all!" and I haven't had any of it since. And then in college, chicken went away.

I was still eating fish, and then by my senior year my roommate who is a good friend of mine, Chelsea and I decided we wanted to become raw vegans. And I'll never forget we were participating in this fashion show towards the end of the year and I would be in the kitchen prepping our raw meals to take with us to rehearsals. The raw veganism only lasted a short time. But as I went through the next few years I was still vegetarian.

There was a period shortly after having my daughter which was almost six years ago when I went back to eating fish. But then after doing that for a while, about four or five years, I started noticing how just even having fish in my system effected my elimination, my energy levels, and things like that, so I decided that is was time to let it go altogether. It was during my supervised juice fast last year with Opare Integrative Health Care that I hit the reset button and really embraced the raw vegan lifestyle.

Ama: What was the fast like for you?

Vanya: It was amazing! It was totally life changing as I always say. It was such a life changing experience for me that I have started offering juices for juice fasts to other people. The benefits I received from juice fasting included improved mental clarity and my energy level skyrocketed. As a single mom, and mompreneur energy is always something I'm after! I had to make myself go to bed at night. My complexion cleared up, my moods stabilized and I lost a total of 22 pounds. I was also in a really good place emotionally and spiritually. I definitely felt a deepened awareness and spiritual connection with my higher power during that time. It was just all around great.

Ama: Tell me about your juicing offerings.

Vanya: I offer 1, 3, 5 and 7 day juice cleanses based on the protocol I received from Opare Integrative Health Care. This includes a selection of citrus juice combinations, which I encourage people to enjoy in the morning. I have several different fresh fruit juice blends for the afternoon so you can burn the natural sugars throughout the day. And there are various vegetable juice combinations people can enjoy in the evenings. I may also add coconut water or herbal tea.

Ama: Do they pick it up daily?

Vanya: Yes or I deliver. The way it works is I never provide more than 48-72 hours of juices in advance. I deliver throughout the Atlanta metro area and the information is now up on our website. I haven't started actively promoting it yet because I am managing so many other parts of the business but I do have had some pretty consistent orders and I really enjoy being able to provide people with that convenience. What I've realized is a lot of people would like to juice but some people don't have the time, patience or desire to do it for themselves.

Ama: How do you eat now? You are vegan? and How much raw?

Vanya: Yes, I am vegan and its shifting, now that summer is here it's probably 60% raw and 40% cooked. Over the winter is was like 50/50. And that's just because I found my body craves more warming foods. But now that summer is here I'm enjoying seasonal fruits like berries and cherries.

Ama: What does a meal look like for you?

Vanya: A meal is some sort of fresh salad with avocado. Recently I have been into fermented foods. So I have been chopping up sauerkraut and kimchee really fine and sprinkling it on my salad. If I want something salty, I may add a few olives. I'm also into quick fixes so I might make couscous by soaking it, add veggies, and flavor it with different oils.

I've recently gotten into coconut oil. Initially I didn't care for it because I felt like it made everything taste like coconut but now I like it. So I'll drizzle it on my salad, chop up some sun-dried tomatoes and add it to my couscous. It tastes great and Taraja likes it. We also eat fruit, really, really fresh fruits. We just bought a bunch of cherries. I also picked up some organic granny smith apples. Those can be hard to find year round so I was happy to see them at the farmers market. In terms of protein, I've been experimenting with tempeh, another fermented food, so if I am cooking I may use that. And my daughter loves beans and rice so we'll do a little veg mexi meal with the beans and brown rice and guacamole and salsa.

I've learned that the key to being satisfied for me as a vegetarian is whole grains. I have been a rice girl for many years (mostly jasmine or basmati) and now enjoy brown, black and wild rice, quinoa and whole wheat couscous. Making sure I have healthy fats like avocados or coconut oil in my salad dressing or smoothies is helpful too.

Ama: So Taraja, your daughter has been vegan her whole life?

Vanya: Yes, she has been vegan her whole life and she really embraces it. I know I have shared with the Opare community in my post about raising a vegan child about her and her seaweed fix. And it was funny, we were actually out last night at a fundraising event and I packed up dinner and took it so she could have it when she got there. And of course after she ate she said "Mommy, I want seaweed." She was walking around with these big sheets of seaweed again and people were saying "That's amazing! How'd you get her to eat that?"

She has been vegan her whole life and she does very well with it. But we also try to give her the liberty of trying other things. For example, if she is at a birthday party and they don't have vegan cake, I'll let her try whatever is being served. Last week her teacher texted me and asked if she could have a little piece of cake if they scraped the icing off. I said OK because I want this girl to live a little and I don't want her running in the other direction because she has been so restricted. I received another text shortly after that asking if she could have a snow cone. And I said (very reluctantly while rolling my eyes) OK again. Literally within seconds, her teacher texted back and said she didn't like it. It was too sweet and she threw it in the trash can. I thought to myself, "Thank God!" That's exactly what I want for her. In talking to her about the benefits and importance of being vegan and why we're vegan, I really want her to understand it for herself. And do it because she wants to and not just because Mommy says so. So that to me was testament to the fact that she gets it. Even on some small level. Her body didn't want that.

Similarly, she has a very different palate than the average five-year old. Taraja actually enjoys a lot of fermented foods, and more importantly I think her body craves it. It's very satisfying for her. She likes sauerkraut, she likes kombucha, and things like hummus. I do try to present her with options because I know that if you tell someone they can't have something all the time they will more than likely want it.

Ama: Have you had any issues with visiting family or friends?

Vanya: No, I am so grateful because my parents have tried really hard to honor the way we've chosen to raise Taraja, even though their diet is different from ours. But I've also had a great influence on them. They have tried to make changes in their own lives and they are very, very respectful of my decision and Taraja's fathers decision to raise her as a vegan. So generally speaking we haven't had issues with them slipping her a strip of bacon or something like that on Sunday morning.

We also have like-minded friends and because she’s been vegan all of her life everyone is used to it. So that makes it a lot easier to maintain something like this.

We have had the occasional slip ups in school. School has probably been a bigger deal than anything. Especially in places where lunch is provided and I have opted to send Taraja's lunch or they attempt to modify and then they don't quite get it right.

Ama: Do you notice a difference in her that you attribute to her diet?

Vanya: Yes I do, and I do attribute it to her diet and to the lifestyle that we promote in our household. I definitely think that, and this is debatable, but I think for people who eat a primarily plant-based diet there is a little less aggression in terms of attitude. And I also noticed that, and this may be the way that we raised her, but Taraja really has a lot of compassion for just about everything. For example, she was really upset that I hadn't changed the water for her flowers the other day. I had promised that I would change the water and didn't. Or when someone litters, she'll say "Mommy, that's not being kind to the earth." I attribute that to the community we live in, the things she focuses on in school and what we teach her. Another difference is her complexion. She's always had very healthy skin and has never had different skin issues or allergies. I'd like to think it has to do with what she eats.

Ama: Has she been vaccinated?

Vanya: No we didn't do immunization at all. I looked into it for a long time and her doctor even offers naturopathic immunizations, and we even opted not to do those.

Ama: What snacks does your daughter eat?

Vanya: Recently, Taraja she has been into baby carrots. We'll do apple slices, oranges, or what ever is in season. She loves berries, seaweed, organic chips and salsa or guacamole and hummus, and nuts with dates or raisins. She likes smoothies, or cacao shakes using almond milk or a coconut Keefer base. She doesn't like to eat Keefer but when I put it in a smoothie it tastes really good.

Ama: What's the connection between your diet and yoga?

ompointyogaVanya: You know, I've been thinking a lot about that. Shavonna Sumlin and I are co-founders of Om Point Yoga and now we are calling ourselves a wellness company because once you really get into yoga it becomes a lifestyle. And I don't think that you can have one without the other. It all works together for me.

Physically speaking when you're on your mat and you've eaten a bunch of crap, it makes it difficult to do yoga. You feel really, really bad. Plus energy levels may be low. But you can't stop there with energy. There is a physical body and an energy/spiritual body. In one of the books that I learned about through your Conscience Vegan course, Conscious Eating, Gabriel Cousins talks a lot about how food has energy. If the goal of yoga is enlightenment and you are really trying to tap into your spiritual energy, one of the best ways to do that is through living foods. Living foods as opposed to cooked food offer the highest form of energy. Thus it's hard to be on this path of enlightenment, of being a yogi without having a complementary diet.

That is why the food and the wellness components have become so important for me because it's all part of the same deal. You can just do one or the other but then you only have half of the puzzle. That's why I have taken on both aspects, and try to share healthy eating with people in a way that's accessible. That's the way we approach our yoga too.

Healthy food can and should taste good! It can be really delicious. We know that from all of your lovely food, Ama. It also can be quick and simple. Some things you will have to acquire a taste for, and not everything that is good for you is going to taste good. Some foods are what they are, but you can learn to appreciate that too. But all-in-all, healthy eating can be good and affordable, which is another misnomer. So that's the intersection of yoga and food for me.

Ama: People sometimes talk about yoga as a religion. What do say about that. You just talked about enlightenment.

Vanya: Yoga is not a religion. The meaning of the word yoga is a union of the mind of the body. You want to get to a point where you can quiet the mind enough to be present in your body. That really is the whole point of yoga and the benefits are endless. Most people associate it with stress relief which is great but it also helps to tone and strengthen the body and helps with maintaining the flexibility in the ligaments and joints.

But to the point about it not being a religion. It's just an ancient spiritual practice but it is not assigned to any one faith. So you can still be Christian or whatever. It doesn't require that you believe in any other deity.

Ama: So you can bring your own faith tradition to your yoga mat?

Vanya: Absolutely! There are in fact Christian yoga classes. So if you are more comfortable doing yoga in that setting in that context then I encourage you to do that because the benefits for your body really outweighs anything else.

Ama: And now you are exploring Kemetic Yoga.

Vanya: Yes, I went through a 200-hour teacher's training last year and now offer Kemetic yoga classes at Om Point Yoga. As a relatively new Kemetic Yoga teacher, I've started what we call the Kemetic Yoga Community Practice. The purpose of the practice is three-fold. First, it gives certified teachers who have already trained the opportunity to practice teaching Kemetic Yoga. Two, it gives current teachers in training a place to apply the concepts and postures they learn in between training sessions, which are held once a month to help reinforce what they've learned. Third, it's designed to grow awareness and offer anyone who might be interested in learning about Kemetic Yoga an opportunity to practice.

Ama: You mentioned healthy food being affordable. How do you make it affordable?

Vanya: I suggest buying your produce at a local farmers market or here in Atlanta, we also have an International Farmers Market. That's the main way I keep costs down when buying organic, which you should try to do as often as possible. I make weekly trips to the farmers markets for my produce and then do a little grocery store hopping. I might frequent Whole Foods or one of the co-ops for specialty items I know I can only get there like some of my fermented products. I am very careful to only purchase those items in those spaces. And then I might make a third trip to a Kroger or Publix, which offer tons of organic items now. I always read labels and encourage other people to do the same because everything that says organic is not necessarily organic. Do a little research about that but there are tons of options now. And you can actually find many of them at regular grocery stores. You also have to be savvy. Look at the paper, find out what's on sale and budget accordingly. So those are my tips on making it affordable.

Ama: Do you do any gardening?

Vanya: No, and I just went to a spring gardening workshop. I wanted to start my garden this year but I just haven't had the time. As someone who juices and juices for other people, produce can get extremely expensive because you go through so much doing it. I did have the notion to start gardening earlier this year because it would be great to pick what I need out of my backyard. I am also big on eating seasonally and locally. So one of the ways that I could do that would be to grow my own food.

Ama: What advice do you have for veggie wanna be's to get started?

Vanya: I am studying to be a holistic health coach and there is a concept we talk a lot about, which is bio-individuality. And I believe strongly in that. I am a strong advocate of a plant-based diet but recognize that some people do better on a strictly plant-based diet than others.

So what I really encourage people to do is not focus so much on what you're not eating but focus on the good things that you are eating and try to incorporate more of those foods into your diet. That concept is called crowding out. Don't worry so much about eliminating beef and pork (even if you want to do that eventually). Think about adding in more fruits and more vegetables, and find creative ways to prepare them. The more you do that, the more you'll find you crowd out the other foods that don't serve you. As you eat more of the wholesome fruits and vegetables and start to pay attention to how you feel, you'll want less and less of the less nourishing foods.

In my opinion, that is one of the best ways to do it; do it gradually. Don't try to do it all at once because it then becomes an issue of deprivation, and you'll want it more because you told yourself you can't have it. And you don't need to add a lot of things to your food (i.e. seasoning, butter, etc) to make it taste good.

Growing up, most of my vegetables were overcooked and they just weren't tasty. My mom absolutely did the best that she could and I really appreciate that because we DID have vegetables and some people don't even have that. But once I got to an age when I was able to prepare my own food, I started sautéing broccoli and other vegetables, which leaves them crisp. One of my favorite, quick simple meals includes broccoli and brown rice pasta. During the last 3 minutes the pasta is cooking, I chop up broccoli and throw it in same pot. It blanches the broccoli, making it crisp and delicious. Then I toss it with tomato sauce or a little garlic, olive oil, sea salt , pepper and nutritional yeast to taste. That's it and it's delicious! To have vegetables like that is really, really satisfying.

So those are my suggestion for embarking on a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle: crowding out, doing things gradually and learning creative ways to prepare your vegetables. I also encourage you to acknowledge small accomplishments and small changes. There is this concept in yoga one of my teachers talks about; it's the 51% rule, which means if you're doing something 51% of the time, then you're doing it. Hopefully, that 51% will inch up until you're eventually full fledge with whatever you're doing. Just do it most of the time and then maybe eventually it will become all of the time.

Ama: What's your favorite recipe books?

Vanya: I get most of my recipes online, and I am usually looking for something specific. "How to prepare…" So I'll do a Google search for that. I honestly haven't found any books that I really love but I will say when it comes to raw vegan recipes, Ani Phyo is my girl. I love her because her recipes are simple and easy to prepare. She's my favorite author. I have three or four books by her. She, along with you Ama Opare, have been my guide into the raw food world. My life is such that I really can't do a lot, so the simple stuff for me is better.

Ama: What about your diet and spirituality?

Vanya: I think I touched on this a little bit when I talked about yoga. Maybe it's just the path that I'm on but I feel deeply connected to everyone and everything around me and my food has a lot to do with this. As a vegetarian, you make a conscious choice to eat better because you know it's better for you. And ultimately, when you feel better you're a better person for those around you. From a spiritual perspective, I feel deeply connected to my higher source, to God, my family and my friends. It informs my life. In my particular faith there is a deep, deep respect and reverence for nature where different aspects of nature are deified. So it's all one and the same thing.

Ama: Tell me about Wellness Wednesdays.

Vanya: Wellness Wednesdays is a weekly series I do on our Facebook page to introduce varies wellness concepts to the Om Point Yoga community. It's mostly food related but every now and then we might throw other things in there. It really speaks to the idea of yoga being a lifestyle. It's not just about your yoga practice but what you're doing off the mat to encourage conscious living. One of the ways we do that and I do that is through what we eat. It's something that I'm passionate about. So I though I would share some tips and different things I'm experimenting with. Right now I'm doing a series on fermented foods. It's a way for me to share simple recipes and get people to think about incorporating things into their diet they otherwise may not. I did a hemp protein shake a few weeks ago. Before that, I had pretty much given up on protein supplements because most have whey or other milk derivatives in them. I put a little in my smoothies and I love it. [Ama - why not just add the hemp seeds. That's what i use.] Yeah, why not?!

Ama: Why are you concerned about protein?

Vanya: I'm not, I am so not. I was approaching it as a super food. As Dr. Opare says you never hear of anyone being protein deficient and I agree we are overly concerned about protein in this society. Vegetables are a good sources of protein, kale being one of them.

Ama: Anything else you would like to say?

Vanya: It's worth it to change your life. If you really want to feel good, really really good and be in harmony with the world, as nature intended. I think its essential we move to a more plant-based, vegetarian diet in this lifetime. All of the evidence and research on cancer and chronic diseases supports this idea because the body really is an awesome miracle machine. It has the ability to heal itself, but it needs an ally. It needs help to heal as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Some people fast. Some people adopt a raw food diet. to heal from all sorts of illnesses because. When all else fails, when the medication fails, when the chemo fails, a plant-based diet is the way to go. [Ama - too bad they don't do that first] Yeah! exactly. This is it this is the key to a long healthy life.

Ama: Tell us about your wellness coaching.

Vanya: One of the other things I am excited about is my health coaching practice. I am currently studying to become a Holistic Health Coach with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I received my midway certification in April, which means I am able to practice now and will graduate in October.

The difference between a health coach and a nutritionist or dietitian is that as a health coach, I focus on bio-individuality, which I mentioned earlier. I look at the individual and tailor a program to his or her specific needs.

The second thing is we look at primary foods and secondary foods. Primary food includes your career, physical activity, relationships, and spirituality. If those things are in balance your food becomes secondary or secondary food. So I work with you one-on-one to develop a customized program that encompasses both your primary and secondary food.

During our initial consultation, we'll sit down and you'll complete a health history form. I'll ask you questions about  your diet as well as your job, your relationships, and your family. What most people don't realize is you can eat all of the right foods, exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day, ect. We all know what to do, but if you're stressed out on your job, if you're unhappy in your current relationship, or feel out of balance, what you eat may have little to no effect on your wellness goals for yourself. I look at all of these things to bring your life into balance. That's the integrative approach to health and wellness.

I currently offer a free 50-minute consultations too see if health coaching is something you might be interested in. If you decide you'd like to work with me, I offer a 6 month program you can participate in. Details about the program are on the Om Point Yoga website. Feel free to contact me to find out more about the consultation and program.

Ama: Who would be your ideal client?

Vanya: Much of my work revolves around women, particularly moms, who are trying to create and sustain work/life balance but I welcome women at just about any phase in life. The consultation is an opportunity to see if the program is right for you.

Ama - where can we find you and find out more about your business?

Our website is http://www.ompoinyoga.com, and we are on:
Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
And LinkedIn.

Thank you Vanya for sharing your story and your wisdom with the Food For The Soul community! 

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Ama Opare
Lifestyle Coach, CEO at Opare Institute
Supporting you by bringing you flavorful and satisfying vegan and raw vegan recipes, inspiration and online training and one-on-one coaching to help LOVE YOUR VEGAN LIFE! I am an educator and revolutionary who has teamed up with my physician/dietitian husband, Nana Kwaku Opare, MD, MPH, CA, to address the growing health problems in the Afrikan/Black community by building a Nation of Black Vegetarians and Vegans.

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