A little more than five years ago, New York health coach and natural food chef Mia Russo Stern was on vacation in Puerto Rico with her family when she noticed shooting pains and a lump in her breast. She made an appointment with her primary care doctor the following week and received a positive cancer diagnosis.
“I just remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe. You feel like you’re falling,” Stern recalls. “You really believe it’s a death sentence. You really believe you’re not going to survive.”
At the time, Stern was 42 years old with two young children. She had a double mastectomy, and she decided it was time to go back to school and learn everything should could about wellness and nutrition. Stern, who is now cancer-free, received her health coach certification through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, as well as Cornell University’s Plant-Based Nutrition certification. She has also studied with David Wolfe and Matthew Kenney.
“I changed everything that I was doing—the way that I was eating, the way that I was cooking, the ingredients that I was using. I was getting really into superfoods and supplements, all kinds of different modalities for healing,” Stern says. “I was feeling really amazing and losing weight, and waking up without an alarm clock, and feeling so grateful. I never thought being diagnosed with cancer would lead to being so excited to wake up the next morning and get to work.”
Pretty soon, people began to reach out to Stern, wanting to know what she was doing and eating to lose weight and feel great. Stern decided to start her first business, and she began putting everything down on paper, creating recipes and putting them up in PDF form online for others to download.
“They would download the PDFs, and I would lead them through a two-week clean-eating program that we all did together,” Stern says. “We’d have our shopping list, everybody would go food shopping, and then we’d reconvene in the group chat and people would share their photos. The group atmosphere really was just such a great propellant for people to feel excited and supported. And people were losing weight, and they were actually learning how to get into the kitchen.”
From cancer to plant-centric
Today, Stern is also a certified natural food chef through David Wolfe Nutrition, a certified raw food chef through Matthew Kenney Academy, a certified wellness counselor through AADP and a reiki master.
When asked what type of diet she subscribes to, Stern says she doesn’t like labels but concedes that if she had to call herself something, she’d go with plant-centric. “I’m focused on plants, but I’m not excluding anything else,” she says. “If my day were a plate, I’d want it to be full of 80 percent plants.”
She contributes the majority of her weight loss to this crucial shift. “I was consuming so many vegetables in one day and crowding out any room for any other junk,” she says.
Stern’s also very aware of what types of foods she’s eating for their nutritional powers. For her morning smoothie, she says that she’ll reach for frozen pineapple, coconut water, hempseeds for protein, spirulina, kale—because it has “sulfur content that has been studied to kill cancer cells”—and sometimes mushroom powder.
“There’s a lot of research being done on mushrooms and how amazing they are; they have so many medicinal benefits,” she explains. “One supplement I take is called AHCC. It’s a fermented mushroom compound that has been shown to prevent the metastasis of cancer and to kill tumor cells. Mushrooms are critical. So I’ll try to make sure I eat mushrooms as often as I can.”
A woman on a mission
Last year, Stern launched her second business, Brooklyn Culinary Arts, an online academy for those interested in learning the basic principles of nutrition and how to plan and cook healthy meals. At the end of the 12-module course, students will earn a certificate as a culinary wellness professional, as well as feel more comfortable in the kitchen making nutritious and delicious food.
Reflecting on her decision to go back to school in her 40s, Stern recognizes that her fear gave her the energy and power to change her life.
“It was really empowering and exciting,” she says. “I was able to use all that fear and that energy instead of just sitting around. It was a whole new direction that distracted me from what was going on, and it was making me feel like I could really play a part in what was happening to me.”
So what’s next for the entrepreneur and mom of two? “A huge cooking show on a major network—I’m going to take the Food Network by storm,” Stern proclaims. “The CEO wrote me and told me that healthy doesn’t sell. So it’s my mission to make it happen.”
And taking acting classes again, Stern adds. “Acting is my first love. I was a theater major [in college] and just can’t seem to let it go. When you get a cancer diagnosis, it forces you to examine your life and your decisions, and makes you tune into what’s important.”
In my kitchen, you’ll always find: Olive oil
Snacks I always have on hand: Nori chips
Ingredient that makes everything taste better: Garlic
Favorite cooking icons: Matthew Kenney, Alice Waters, Dan Buettner, Karen Page
Favorite food: Persian food
Food you love to eat that’s quick and easy: Pasta with homemade sauce
Best cooking-on-a-budget tip: Canned beans
Go-to healthy cocktail: A turmeric lemonade that you make with coconut water, turmeric in the juicer, lemons in the juicer, a little cayenne pepper. The coconut water sweetens it up, so you have this bright orange, gorgeous turmeric drink. You could even add a little sparkling water to give it a little effervescence.
Coffee, matcha or tea in the morning? Coffee
Wellness trend I love: Mindfulness. My favorite way of meditating is with Simple Habit.
Podcasts I love: Thich Nhat Hanh, Amy Porterfield, Brian Koppelman
I can’t travel without: I will take my vitamins and my supplements. I will sometimes take a green powder with me like Garden of Eden or Collagen Greens if I’m out and I’m on vacation and I can’t get a green smoothie. I will just mix it up with some water in a water bottle, shake it up, and I’ll just have that. I usually take something to ground me. So I might take some kind of uplifting book or something that’s grounding.
Healthy energy hack: Singing, dancing, music—instantly elevating to me. Being in nature.
Current mantra: Greet each morning with kindness and gratitude and the universe will give it right back to you.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Mia Russo Stern