One afternoon, Caryn Dugan walked into her kitchen and promptly threw away every piece of food that was once an animal or contained an animal product. This wasn't about saving animals or being part of a movement. This was about never getting cancer again.
At the age of 33, Caryn was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Although the tumor was successfully removed, there was a high probability of recurrence. Having just lost her dad to cancer, Caryn went on a quest. She recalls, “I went to Dr. Google. I Googled how to build your immune system to beat cancer. I wanted to figure out how not to get cancer again.”
She found volumes of research with a common thread: a vegan diet. Caryn remembers thinking, “That can’t be right. Plants can’t help you get healthy. Certainly, plants can’t reverse any kind of detrimental health outcome.”
Researchers advised to “eat the rainbow” for a healthy immune system. “Growing up, food was never a focus for my family. There was never an awareness of nutrition. I knew the expressions 'eat your greens', and 'eat your vegetables'. But it didn't resonate because nobody explained why. Nobody talked about how antioxidants protect cells and build the immune system.”
Committed to completely overhauling the food choices for her and her husband, Tim, Caryn went back to Google and typed in vegan 101 recipes.
“I was a horrible cook. I remember Tim saying, after one of my attempts to make dinner, 'You keep cooking food like this you’re going to kill us both.'”
The next day, Tim booked a cooking class at Whole Foods and, ultimately, started the path that leads to straight to the door of The Center for Plant-Based Living.
“I didn’t think about taking a vegan cooking class. I wasn't interested in being vegan or cooking. I just didn’t want to die. But the instructor made cooking look effortless. She was inspiring and the food was delicious. I felt like I could do this.”
Unexpectedly, the instructor called the next day and offered Caryn a job as the class assistant. For the next two and ½ years, Caryn soaked in everything about plant-based nutrition and the deep connection between food and health.
In 2009, Caryn created the Twitter handle STL-VegGirl to follow plant-based nutrition thought-leaders. STL-VegGirl became a verified business two years later when Caryn took over as Whole Food's lead nutritional instructor.
"I didn’t have any training. I was in front of people who were a thousand times smarter than me. But a notion was burning in the back of my mind that said, 'I think I might have something to offer if I could get specific certifications.’"
Caryn applied and was accepted into the Food for Life Certification program at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington DC. Immediately after completing that intensive course, the Cancer Support Community in Des Peres hired her to teach nutrition to their community.
“That was my first full-circle moment. That community is so thirsty for knowledge because they're so scared. This was my chance to be the person that I needed when I had cancer."
Caryn became laser-focused about teaching. In addition to receiving additional certificates in nutrition, she became a Certified Health and Wellness Coach through Wellcoaches. She also created a multi-part community support program endorsed by Forks Over Knives.
As the plant-based movement gained more mainstream strength and speed, Caryn juggled teaching, being a personal chef, and running a prepared food delivery service all while having a full-time job. Finally, in 2014, Caryn left the corporate world to focus on educating the masses through social media, tv coverage and her work with the Plantrician Project™.
After a sold-out nutrition summit at Washington University, Caryn felt St. Louis was ready for a plant-based nutrition learning center. She called two industry leaders asking them to point her to an existing brick and mortar business that she could model. Both experts stated that no such business existed. Caryn declared, "I'm going to open that place."
"I saved for two years and on the anniversary of my dad’s passing, Tim and I opened the nation's first plant-based nutrition and culinary education center. Right in the middle of the country."
The Center for Plant-Based Living, located on 131 W. Jefferson in downtown Kirkwood, offers demonstration classes, hands-on cooking classes, and classes focused on foods that fight diabetes and cancer. "I’ve collaborated with Forks over Knives to create the only official in-person 6-week community program. It sells out every time."
Caryn is intentional about making students feel comfortable in class. "Tim built this kitchen. It is outfitted with residential grade equipment because I want people to leave with the confidence to create these recipes in their kitchen."
Coming here doesn’t mean that you have to be plant-based or vegan or vegetarian. Come in if you are simply curious about how to add more plants to your plate.