Finding Meaning in Facing Chronic Disease

with NGI Alum Ashley Madden

Ashley Madden is a graduate of the Chef’s Training Program at Natural Gourmet Institute. After being diagnosed with a chronic disease at a young age, she completely changed her diet, lifestyle and ultimately, her career. Read on to learn about Ashley's drive to fully embrace food as medicine in her own life and to help others do the same.

I’m reluctant to subscribe to the old adage “everything happens for a reason”; but in this situation, I have found a reason — or rather meaning — in being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 23. I had just begun my career as a clinical pharmacist but was consumed by my unwavering sense of unhappiness. I had worked so hard to get where I was but felt like something was missing. Dissatisfaction flipped to devastation when I was politely informed that I had MS, a chronic neurological disease, on Valentine’s Day of that year ... really.

The years that followed were difficult. MS is an unpredictable disease that leaves one with many “what ifs”. I felt powerless, depressed and confused: this was not the life I had imagined for myself. Eventually, as my emotions settled, I knew I had to have some say on how this diagnosis was going to affect my life. I wondered what I could do to stack the odds in my favor and questioned how diet and lifestyle might influence the progression of this disease.

When I discovered holistic nutrition, I instantly felt that it was something I had to pursue. Learning how food and daily habits influenced health motivated me to make major changes. I decided to take responsibility for my well-being and I overhauled my diet, lifestyle and, subsequently, my career. Like a reflex change in one prompted change in the other. As I felt this beckoning in my private life, I sensed a simultaneous distancing from my pharmacy career. But this was just the beginning. I found myself blissfully enthralled in the kitchen, spending hours experimenting with ingredients that I had never even heard of. I was (and still am) fervently determined to make tasty meals without traditional ingredients such as meat, cheese, oils, or other refined foods. I can’t even remember where I learned about the Natural Gourmet Institute but it crossed my path and caught my attention. After some quick reading and a few phone calls, I knew I had to learn more — New York City was my next stop.

The rest is history! My time in New York and as a student at NGI has been one of the best experiences of my life. At NGI, my relationship with the culinary arts matured into a full-on love affair. Learning the foundations of whole food cuisine was instrumental in creating my own approach to nutrition. I learned fundamental skills, including everything from pairing flavors, to food presentation, to how to work in a professional kitchen. Today I work as a pharmacist, holistic nutritionist and plant-based chef. I help others transition to a more health supportive, plant-based lifestyle; and teach how to remove processed, refined, and inflammatory foods from everyday meals. I endorse a whole-foods, crap-free diet and focus my teachings on clarifying the mixed nutritional messages that congest our social media feeds. I work with others through nutritional consulting as well as private and group plant-based cooking classes.

I also share my love of healthy food and nutritional tips on my blog Rise Shine Cook where I focus on gluten-free, vegan and oil-free recipes. I’ve recently added food photographer and freelance food/health writer to my resume and am beside myself excited to contribute to health outlets like Mind Body Green, Vegan Lifestyle Magazine and Forks Over Knives. I have a plant-based course in the works where I’ll teach small groups of people about the importance of a healthy plant-based diet and how to transition to this way of eating without feeling deprived or hungry! A cookbook is another ambition on my bucket list! My favorite recipes to share with my clients and on my blog are usually simple but always health inspired. There are two big misunderstandings that I like to deflate: first, that healthy food is complicated and/or boring; and second, that impressive meals require multiple-step recipes and long lists of ingredients. The truth is that healthy food can be delicious and exciting without being bland, boring, or overly complex.

This creamy kale chickpea pesto pasta is one of my go-to meals because it’s easy, fresh, and packed with flavor. Pesto is a traditional, familiar recipe to many, but I’ve turned this one a little upside down, as I like to do. It’s oil free, vegan, gluten-free, nutrient-dense, high in protein and fiber, and teeming with antioxidants. Toss this pesto with some freshly cooked pasta and roasted cherry tomatoes and dig into a luxurious, but definitely healthy, meal! And so this is the meaning I have found in facing chronic disease: it woke me up and changed the trajectory of my life. Unfortunately, my story of being diagnosed with a life-altering disease at a young age is becoming all too common. I want to show others how much power they have in deciding the course of their health, and how much power there is in food.


Creamy Kale & Chickpea Pesto Linguine with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Yields 4-6 servings


  • 3 cups cherry tomatoes
  • 1 cup cooked chickpeas
  • 2 cups packed kale (curly kale is best)
  • 1/2 avocado (~½ cup)
  • 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 to 1 teaspoon sea or Himalayan salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 pound whole wheat, brown rice, or quinoa linguine pasta


  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the cherry tomatoes out on the pan and bake for 30-40 minutes or until they start to brown and their skins begin to wrinkle.
  2. Meanwhile, make the pesto. Pulse the chickpeas in a food processor 5-7 times then add all other ingredients to the processor, except the pasta, and process until well combined but not completely smooth­ – you want to maintain some texture. Transfer the pesto to a glass bowl and set aside.
  3. When the tomatoes are just about done bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta according to directions. Drain the pasta, rinse under cool water and return to the pot.
  4. Add the roasted cherry tomatoes and half the pesto and mix. Add remaining pesto, mix well and re-season with salt and pepper. Divide among bowls, garnish with additional chickpeas, fresh basil, fresh tomatoes and/or nut Parmesan cheese.

Basic Nut "Parmesan Cheese"


  • 1 cup nuts (almond, cashew or brazil work great)
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt


  1. In a food processor, combine nuts, nutritional yeast, herbs and salt and process until a fine texture is achieved. Store in a glass container in the fridge.

This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.

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