When people talk about plant-based foods, it’s easy to picture Impossible Burgers, crunchy green salads or BBQ tofu.
But for Brian Vandam, 44, who has cerebral palsy and lives on liquid formula, a careful switch to simpler, healthier ingredients has made all the difference.
As with many of the health challenges thrust onto people in 2020, Brian’s recent troubles began with COVID-19.
He lives at an adult care facility in West Michigan. As a person with cerebral palsy, he cannot speak and his developmental capabilities are limited.
When health care facilities began to tighten restrictions last year, Brian’s mother, Marla Vandam knew they’d have to make some changes.
“We knew we were going to either have to bring him home to live with us for a while or switch to window visits,” Marla said.
“Window visits would never have worked,” she said. “He’s a very gentle guy who depends on our hugs and kisses.”
So Marla and her husband, Dave, brought Brian to their home in Zeeland to ride out the sheltering-in-place period.
As they took on the five-times-a-day task of feeding him through a tube into his stomach, they could see he had considerable digestive problems.
They already knew he suffered from chronic sinus infections.
“He was always on one antibiotic or another, so we were always dealing with that cycle,” Marla said. “And his seizures were getting worse.”
They also knew his feedings had been problematic. He had grown increasingly uncomfortable after each meal.
“Until he was home with us, we didn’t notice how much misery he was in,” Marla said.
Marla started researching new formulas online and came across a website for Kate Farms, a company launched by parents who had grown frustrated at the quality of formula used to tube feed their daughter.
Next, she reached out to Angela Fobar, RDN, a registered dietitian at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital. “Angela really went to bat for us and led the way,” Marla said, starting Brian out with samples.
“We made changes gradually, switching out one carton at a time,” Fobar said. “Marla was so patient and so observant. And very early on she could see significant improvements.”
The new formula is entirely plant-based and organic. While most tube-feeding formulas have some dairy or soy, this doesn’t.
“It’s made from real food,” Marla said. “Including things like sunflower oil, broccoli and tomato.”
The feeding process itself became more manageable, too.
“It went down easier and he was less fussy,” Marla said. “His digestion was better. The sinus infections became less frequent. Before, we’d often see him try and bury his face in a pillow. He doesn’t do that anymore.”
“I’m not much of a crier,” Marla said. “But when I realized that after all this time looking for answers, that something as simple as changing his diet helped so much, I got weepy.”
The Vandams know Brian will always struggle with health issues. And they know nutrition alone is just one component.
But it’s a big component.
“He’s perkier and seems more comfortable,” Marla said.
Brian returned to his adult care home, she said, where he’s continuing to do well.
What Fobar loves about Brian’s story is that it’s based on the same kind of experimentation that can benefit many people.
“Often, people live with some level of discomfort and don’t make the connection between what they eat and how they feel,” she said.
Working with a registered dietitian can change that.
“I wish more people would understand that they can call on us for help,” Fobar said. “There are so many different possibilities and dietary changes that can have a major impact, making people feel much better.”