Tabitha Brown on Why She's Feeding the Soul and the Stomach in Her New Book: 'Get Into It'

"I wanted to help people find their way back to some joy and some freedom and love and happiness," Tabitha Brown tells PEOPLE

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Photo: Marcus Owens

Anyone who's watched one of Tabitha Brown's videos knows she's not just skilled at making delicious, approachable vegan recipes of her favorite Southern dishes. She's also a master at feeding viewers' souls with her inspirational messages of hope and positive affirmations of self-love.

It should come at no surprise, then, that the social media breakout's first book is called Feeding the Soul (Because It's My Business). Out Sept. 28, the book is mostly a memoir, with some of her favorite recipes (without precise measurements, in her preferred style) sprinkled throughout.

"A lot of people discovered me during the pandemic. And during a time where a lot of people were struggling, I could see the soul needed to be fed more than our stomachs," Brown, 42, tells PEOPLE exclusively, in an interview to celebrate her selection as one of PEOPLE's 50 Food Faves. "I needed to share my stories with people on how I've gotten through the toughest times in life. I wanted to help people find their way back to some joy and some freedom and love and happiness."

"I call those recipes as well, but it's just a recipe for life," she adds, before dropping one of the signature lines that fans have come to love. "Get into it."

Tabitha Brown
The TikTok star. Phillip Faraone/FilmMagic

Brown — a North Carolina native and mother of two — found her way into vegan cooking back in 2016, when she switched to a plant-based diet while living in Los Angeles.

She had been experiencing chronic autoimmune pain and fatigue, and despite seeing a variety of doctors over the course of a year and a half, couldn't get a diagnosis to understand what was going on. She had a persistent headache in the back of her head, would sometimes fall when trying to walk, lost her vision for a day and developed severe panic attacks and depression as her illness went on and on.

"I was so scared," she says. "I felt like I was going to die because I didn't know what was wrong. And it put me in a really dark place. I lost a little bit of faith during that time."

Food helped her heal, opening her up to pursue her work as an actress and a comedian. But fame came in an unexpected place in 2017, when a Facebook video of her giving a review of Whole Foods' TTLA sandwich (tempeh bacon, tomato, lettuce, avocado) made her a viral star.

Within days, Brown got a call from Whole Foods and became a brand ambassador for the chain. Her Facebook following flourished; she scored acting gigs on Will & Grace and The Chi; and after joining TikTok during the pandemic, was named one of the social media site's top creators in 2020.

Looking back on it all, Brown says that it was actually during toughest years — when she was dealing with her own "sickness and darkness" — that she actually grew her positive outlook on life.

"I had made a promise to myself that if I got through that, I was going to always choose life, and I meant it," Brown says. "I had gotten through my own personal pandemic. And so every day, even with the world going through such a tough time, I was intentional about choosing joy and choosing happiness. I would remind myself, 'Honey, you've been through worse days.'"

Life advice like that is peppered on every page of Feeding the Soul. But the biggest lesson Brown is hoping readers take away? The importance of freedom.

"We are all meant to be free, in that when we're free — whether it be from holding ourselves hostage with secrets, or trying to be someone else that you're not — our life changes," Brown explains. "I wasn't free for a long time. I was trying to show up and be somebody else. 'Okay, let me see, this is how they dress? Let me dress like that. How they're talking? Let me talk like that. How they're wearing their hair? Let me wear my hair like that.' Honey, it's exhausting trying to wake up and be somebody else every day. That's not freedom. When you finally let go of all that; when you learn that being you is enough and you find yourself, that gives you freedom."

"I realized that when I allowed myself to be free again, I started to shine on the inside and outside," Brown adds. "That's when I found myself. And all this [success], it has lifted me and confirmed to me that you're right, Tab. You are enough just as you are. People love you just for you."

For more about Tabitha Brown, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.

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