January 28, 2013
Talk to my friend Neita about vegans and she'll paint you a picture of a scrawny, anemic, self-righteous, college-age hipster. That's what vegan says to her -- and to a lot of people, I imagine.
Last year, when I mentioned interviewing a cardiologist about the benefits of a plant-based diet -- and lightly hinted at the remote prospect of considering thinking about becoming a vegan -- my husband gave me a look that suggested he was observing a particularly distasteful form of insect and said, "I never imagined being married to vegan." (More on that later.)
While the trend of veganism -- that is a strictly plant-based diet with no meat or dairy -- is growing across the country, skepticism and ridicule remain downright rampant.
Mothers worry that their babies will become anemic wraiths. Husbands worry that wives will try to force-feed them foods that are -- gasp -- good for them. Friends try to persuade friends that just one greasy hamburger won't hurt.
But when I interviewed Dr. David Guarraia, a cardiologist with Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, Ore., last year, it started a few wheels turning. Guarraia was part of a panel at last year's Go Red for Women heart health event (this year's event starts Thursday, Jan. 31). They were discussing the merits of the documentary "Forks Over Knives."
If you haven't seen it, it's on Netflix streaming and definitely worth a look. It tells the story of two doctors, researchers at different universities, who developed bodies of evidence pointing to significant benefits in terms of cardiac health and cancer prevention from a plant-based diet.
I was intrigued after talking to Dr. Guarraia, but not enough to take any action at the time. I didn't even watch the documentary until last fall. But he planted a seed of interest. The health benefits of a plant-based diet aren't particularly new news, although the persuasiveness of the evidence related to disease control has new to me.
Even so, I'm an omnivore, darn it. I like those greasy hamburgers, almost anything with cheese on it, a good pork roast, you name it. I wasn't ready to give all that up, maybe just a little. One less cheeseburger, one more salad in a week, maybe.
Last fall, things began to get a little more real for me. I had lost and regained a substantial amount of weight over the previous year, eating all kinds of bad sugar- and salt- and fat-laden foods and sitting in front of the TV like a lump. I had reached the point where I was getting winded just walking down the block and my knees and ankles heart perpetually.
I began to feel that if I didn't change my life, I wouldn't be around long to enjoy it.
I started off with a little gentle water aerobics in the pool so I wouldn't have to deal with the pain of walking -- a small, positive step. But when it came to my diet, I was at a loss. That's when I stumbled on "Forks Over Knives" again and Dr. Guarraia's voice came back to me.
If it meant better health in the long-run, I had reached the point where I was willing to consider some significant changes. I did a little more research.
According to an article of WebMD Health News, people eating the standard American diet on average consume between two and two and a half times the recommended amount of protein, based on their calorie intake.
That's not good. Too much meat can overload your kidneys with urea, causing your kidneys to work harder. Other studies cite overconsumption of protein as a possible contributor to both prostate cancer and diabetes.
But your body needs protein to function, so I have to make sure the plant foods I eat can replace what I got from meat and dairy before. Even without the tofu that many vegans choose, but I really don't like, I had plenty of protein choices, including nuts and beans. I get at least one serving of each every day and often two.
I can't really call myself a vegan yet -- and maybe I never will. I like cheese too much to entirely let it go, at least not yet. And every once in a while I like to have a little meat. But about 95 percent of my diet is plant-based today. They now have an actual name for people like me. We're flexitarians -- people who most of the time follow a vegan eating plan while occasionally indulging in meat or dairy. That's me.
My husband, of course, and my daughter, still eat meat and cheese. And I'm not going to force them to change. I've seen too many sitcoms where the mom of the family plants a piece of celery and a grape on a plate and informs the husband the the doctor says he has to eat healthier now and the husband sneaks out by whatever means possible to chow down on ribs or a double bacon cheeseburger.
The bottom line: No one changes unless they are ready and wlling.
I have found a way to mesh our meals so they suit both our needs. I just cook the meat separately, even in recipes that call for the meat to be added to the sauce. Last night, for example, I made one of our favorites, red beans and rice, which typically calls for kielbasa and bacon. I cooked the meat separately and added part of the vegetarian sauce and beans to the meat for the carnivores in the family. I also made sure there was enough of the vegetarian option that all my family members could choose the healthier option. I can always hope, right?
Every once in a while, I'll stick a hearty vegetarian recipe into the mix for everyone. My hubby isn't such a traditionalist that he thinks every meal has to have meat, just most of them. The other night I made yummy noodles with peanut sauce filled with carrots and broccoli and topped with cashews for more protein. It was filling and flavorful and my family gobbled it up. The same is true of a simple white beans and tomatoes sauce over spaghetti, heavy on the garlic, another new family favorite that it takes about 15 minutes to make.
The bottom line is that I feel better eating like a vegan most of the time than when I don't. My blood pressure is lower. I have more energy. My back doesn't hurt as much (a side effect of too much urea in the kidneys). And I've lost almost 30 pounds since the first of November.
I've also developed quite a selection of tasty vegan recipes from which to draw. Where recipes are concerned, the Internet is a vast wonderland just waiting to be explored.
Kathy Ursprung is managing editor of The Dalles Chronicle. She also shares health-related posts as @katt775 on Twitter.com.