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Meet the Cary-based hosts of 'The Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show'

Imagine white sauce lasagna, except instead of noodles with beef, butter, and cheese, picture a luscious casserole made from zucchini and mushrooms with a crusty oat and cashew topping. Now picture meatloaf coated with a date-sweetened tomato sauce. Instead of ground beef, it’s crafted with hardy buckwheat, quinoa, mushrooms, and beans.

Welcome to plant-based cooking. Jill and Jeffrey Dalton of The Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show are happy to be your guide. They are on a mission to help people eat their favorite comforts foods re-envisioned without meat, dairy, eggs, oil, sugar, salt, and excessively processed ingredients. Jeffery swears their carrot hots —literally a marinated baked carrot nestled in a bun— are so good they are a “gateway drug.”

The Daltons have achieved a level of success few content creators manage: an income from the burgeoning digital economy. In an ecosystem saturated with “fitspo” influencer monetizing their popularity by promoting laxative teas, the Daltons defy the norm. They rely mostly on a community of paying members and carefully vetted sponsorship deals to support them and their free content on YouTube channel and their website.

“We firmly believe going plant-based is the single most effective thing anyone can do for their own health and to directly tackle climate change,” Jill Dalton said.

A slow, long path

Both hailing from the American heartlands- rural Nebraska and upstate New York, respectively- neither grew up prioritizing their health. Drug and alcohol abuse even left Jeffrey Dalton temporarily homeless as a young adult.

In their early twenties, they both worked construction jobs, and after the birth of their first daughter, transitioned to less physically demanding jobs at the local Blockbuster store and movie theater respectively. Ragu sauce with pasta, and Dollar Tree saltine crackers made up many of their meals. The 2008 housing crisis cost them their house and brought them to a crossroad.

When they no longer had anything, including their huge mortgage, they moved to Hawaii. Their rented house at the end of a road on the Hamakua Coast- a region where taro paddies break up undisturbed ferns and grasses, all atop steep cliffs jetting into the Pacific’s turquoise water- was just 800-square-feet.

Now in paradise, the Daltons had a freedom of their own design: Jeffrey Dalton ran his own business as a web developer while Jill homeschooled their two young daughters. Still restless and seeking opportunities for their daughters, they moved to Maui and then, 2 ½ years after first settling in Hawaii, to New Zealand for another flavor of island living.

There on a 10-acre farm, the Daltons embraced the “back to the land” movement raising chickens and ducks for eggs and running their neighbors’ cattle in exchange for organic beef. Despite fueling themselves in a way they then thought was best- including drinking lots of raw milk- the Daltons saw their health deteriorating.

In 2014, Jill began suffering from heart palpitations and migraines. Jeffrey was in the ballpark of 270 pounds and prediabetic. The Daltons feared they would lose their business visas if they feel below New Zealand’s “acceptable standard of health” and qualified as a “burden on public health services.”

Having already run the diet gamut from Atkins to South Beach, the Daltons were becoming desperate when a friend of Jeffrey Dalton’s recommended Joel Fuhrman’s 2003 book “Eat to Live.”

Soon the couple became zealots of Fuhrman’s Nutritarian diet. The six-week plan he lays out in “Eat to Live” promises a 20-pound weight loss by eating the following daily: unlimited quantities of vegetables excluding potatoes, at least four fresh fruits, around a cup of beans and legumes, one cup or less of high-starch grains and vegetables like brown rice or potatoes, one ounce or less of raw nuts and seeds, and a tablespoon of ground flaxseed.

“It was just amazing. The changes were happening so quickly,” said Jill in her “transformation” video, now the most viewed video on their YouTube channel, currently hovering under 650,000 views.

In “Eat to Live,” Fuhrman permits reintroducing limited amounts of fat-free dairy, meat, fish, refined carbs, and olive oil into your diet after the first six weeks. After their initial success, the Dalton’s incorporated dairy and seafood back into their diets, along with more added salt, sugar, and oil. Their weight began to creep back up.

For the Daltons, this confirmed for themselves that whole foods plant-based eating is paramount for good health. Once back on track, Jill Dalton ultimately lost some 25 pounds. Jeffrey Dalton lost 70 pounds.

Spreading the word

Inspired by their own triumphs but discouraged by the deficit of delicious, whole food plant-based recipes, the Daltons embarked on sharing the recipes they developed and this lifestyle with others. They started by hosting dinners and potlucks from their New Zealand home via Meetup.com, a website where individuals organize groups and arrange events.

Welcoming strangers into their home seemed to invite too much mayhem. Once a man showed up at their door with a plate of raw fish, misunderstanding what the “raw” in “raw vegan” in the Meetup listing meant. (“Raw vegan” is actually a term that describes foods made from plants that are eaten either uncooked or heated to temperatures below 104-118 degrees Fahrenheit.)

The couple pivoted to teaching classes at the public library. Still, to them, those classes lacked the breadth of impact they sought. With Jeffrey’s background in web design, starting a YouTube channel seemed within reach. So, they bought $1,000 worth of equipment off New Zealand’s version of Craigslist and began shooting episodes.

Their cooking show, originally called the Nutritarian Cooking Show (and later changed because Furman holds the trademark to the term “Nutarian”), was born in early 2015. In its first few years, the show was truly a service project. Each of their three to four monthly shows took about 10 hours to produce and only raked in $0.60 most days and $3.00 on a good day, in YouTube ad revenue for the bulk of 2016. That year the Daltons also relocated stateside to North Carolina's Research Triangle to pursue a different culture than New Zealand had offered them, good weather, and beach access.

In July 2017, they found favor with the “mysterious YouTube algorithm gods” in Jill Dalton’s words, and their channel saw an influx of subscribers and viewers. They hit their first big milestone: 10,000 subscribers. Encouraged, they dipped into their savings again to launch a website to house more accessible and printable versions of their recipes.

In the summer of 2018, their growth stalled. They fielded complaints from their subscribers that YouTube was not notifying them of new uploads and spent hours sending emails and on the phone when their videos were demonetized over a mistaken case of music copyright violation.

Still, in October of 2018, they took another “leap of faith” and invested their ad revenue and more of their savings into new gear to make high-quality videos. Now filming from multiple camera angles and managing another platform, the shows began taking them both 14 to 30 hours to produce.

Even though the Daltons loved what they were doing, they needed to find a way to support themselves and protection from YouTube’s fickleness. So, they launched their “Plant Based Made Easy Membership,” a compromise that allows them to put food on their table while still making the content available for everyone who needs it.

Placing all their content behind a paywall simply did not align with their mission, explained Jill Dalton to their followers in a 2020 video about the membership platform. “We want to give our content away free because I feel like people have a human right to understand how to eat,” Jeffrey Dalton said.

Willing fans pay a subscription fee of $5 or $15 a month in exchange for access to an exclusive community page, where they can participate in monthly giveaways, vote on which recipes are posted next, and view even more content. The decision brought a lot of hate, but also a greater sense of security for the Daltons, allowing them to both work full time on the show from their home in the Triangle.

Despite their passion, the Daltons are clear that they do not give any medical advice, nor do they try to preach to people.

“We don't claim any medical knowledge. We just tell them who we listen to,” said Jeffery Dalton. Among those people are Fuhrman, T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional biochemist at Cornell University, Dr. Michael Greger, a general practitioner specializing in clinical nutrition and a founding member and fellow at the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and Dr. Michael Klaper, an acute care physician and founder of the Institute of Nutrition Education and Research.

These health professionals have come to the consensus that eating unprocessed plant foods will generally lead to a longer and healthier life. Although these professionals’ works have faced criticisms such as promoting a diet with micronutrient gaps or cherry-picking evidence, Jill and Jeffrey Dalton claim to have thrived on whole plant foods diet for six years now. Further, it is the style of recipes that their followers want.

Creating recipes

To create new recipes, Jill follows her stomach, browses Pinterest, explores the menus of local restaurants, and takes input from their membership community. She has developed expertise over the years for what ingredients work well together to replicate certain textures and flavors in traditional comfort food.

While most recipes require four rounds of testing, some, like her burger recipe, took years to perfect because she was not going to give their followers a mushy burger, she said.

Even after numerous attempts, Jill Dalton says she has still not mastered the light, airy texture of pineapple upside-down cake. Her recipes for Thin Mint cake, hummingbird cake, Double Stuffed Oreo cake, and others are all posted on their site, however.

While Jeffrey and Jill Dalton plan to continue The Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show as long as they can, it will continue to evolve to keep it interesting for themselves and their viewers, they said.

They have already launched a “Creative Projects” series with episodes including one where Jill Dalton demonstrates how she crocheted a poncho cardigan with rust, earthy teal, salmon, and beige stripes, and another in which Jeffrey Dalton explains how he created 10-foot chalk murals or Jimi Hendrix and the Buddha. The Daltons also intend to share more of their subscribers’ “transformations” on a whole-food plant-based diet to demonstrate the diet’s potential.

With the legalization of industrial hemp, the Daltons want to build from “plant-based eating made easy” to “plant-based housing made easy.” They hope to construct their own eco-friendly house of food-grade and fireproof hemp as an exploration of another avenue of greener living. They will, of course, document the project on their channel.

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