There's no time like the new year to make a change. I vowed that 2013 would be the year of living outside my comfort zone and to me, that means making a wholehearted commitment to goals that I tend to eschew by Jan. 5.
To say that I don't consume a healthy diet is an understatement my dietary habits have always been downright abysmal. I've guiltlessly subsisted for many years on Happy Meals, chicken fingers and beef on wecks. When asked what I'd like to have for dinner, it's not uncommon for me to request, "A meat and a side," which is what I've long considered a proper meal to be.
As I placed my long overdue goal to adopt a healthful eating plan on my list of new year's resolutions, my sister suggested that I try out a vegetarian or vegan diet for a week. She now rarely eats meat and can't stop raving about the benefits. I came to the realization that I've never gone a day without eating meat - that is, by choice. A bout with mono left me without an appetite for anything aside from Dole strawberry popsicles, and the flu typically renders me unable to entertain any carnivorous thoughts.
For our annual Health and Fitness section which I ordinarily assemble as I consume a heart-attack inducing snack I decided to go vegetarian for the week and learn everything I could about the lifestyle. I got in touch with members of the Chautauqua County Vegetarian-Vegan Society for some advice and in addition to attaining a wealth of knowledge on the subject, their experiences motivated me to make it through my meat-free week.
The club meets monthly, convening in Westfield and Jamestown to accommodate its vast membership, which includes the veggie-inclined from all parts of the county. According to co-coordinator Gail Erb of Mayville, anywhere from 20 to 60 people will attend a meeting. Defined in its mission statement, the club "is an information and supportive group for those individuals seeking to explore healthy eating through vegetarian, vegan or raw food lifestyles." At the meetings which anyone can attend a guest speaker presents a program on topics relating to food, health, the environment or healthy living. The group also shares a pot-luck dinner, including dishes that contain no eggs, dairy or animal products.
"In addition, for health reasons, we strive to use only whole unrefined ingredients," explained Co-coordinator Anne Watkins of Ashville. "We stress the importance of buying organic whenever possible."
Grace Grimes, a spry 95-year-old resident of Fredonia, consumes a primarily vegan diet (which excludes animal products or by-products) and attends the club's meetings whenever she can. Since she never ate much meat, she told me, so eight or 10 years ago, Grimes decided, "I might as well go without it."
Grimes said that on an average day, she'll have a large salad and a cooked vegetable, perhaps a vegan patty. As we chatted, she was cooking squash for supper.
In addition to her mostly-vegan diet, Grimes also exercises regularly with the Grape Belt Seniors. I asked Grimes what she thought the secret to longevity was.
"My parents were almost 90, so there's something, I think, in inheritance. And I think it's the way you eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables are important."
Studies have linked vegetarian diets to longer lifespan, and that's not the only selling point.
"Lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower risk of type II diabetes and lower weight!" enthused vegan and club member Joanne Zdrojewski of Jamestown. "I had problems with fatigue, joint pain, and diverticulitis in the past which have all seen tremendous improvement. A plant-based diet brings more energy and less pain."
Erb echoed both sentiments. In her teens and early-to-mid-20s, she had suffered from severe anxiety and took up yoga to help soothe her nerves. It was her first yoga instructor who suggested she try cutting meat out of her diet. In addition to finding relief from her anxiety, she noticed an increase in energy right away after she decided to go vegetarian at age 25. Even though she continued to practice yoga regularly, Erb was plagued by persistent aches and pains. When she decided to switch to a vegan diet years later, her discomfort completely subsided. In her 50s, and now in her early 60s, she feels healthier than she did in her youth.
"I hear the same stories from so many vegans. I still have my natural hair color, and people think I'm a lot younger than I am," Erb happily noted.
Could veganism be a veritable fountain of youth?
"Some of the lesser known perks of a vegan diet that I have found are; clearer skin, fading age spots, fewer colds and with milder symptoms," Zdrojewski said. "Not eating dairy means little to no mucous which makes the colds you do get much more bearable."
"One of the biggest benefits to a vegan diet is good health," Watkins, a vegan since 1980, added. "Animal products are very high in fat, and animal products are the only source of cholesterol in our diets. Vegetarian diets can clean out clogged arteries, reverse heart disease, and help reduce diabetes and high blood pressure. Vegan diets reduce cancer risk as well."
Two of the members I interviewed had experiences with cancer and both found that changing their diet to vegan was a key element in their recovery. The stories they shared underscore the findings in "The China Study," by T. Colin Campbell, which details the effect plant-based foods produce for treatment and prevention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments.
Zdrojewski had long ago significantly reduced the amount of meat that she served her family, but didn't become a vegan until three years ago. She was introduced to the Vegetarian-Vegan Society by her daughter; her son, Tom, a Dunkirk resident, has also decided to go meat-free. Zdrojewski heard George Eisman, nationally-renowned educator on vegetarian nutrition, speak at one of the club's meetings on the dangers of consuming dairy products and their role in women's cancers. She began to do her own research and what she found was frightening.
"I decided that I would not be one of the one in eight women in this country with breast cancer," she said. "I gave up all milk and cheese before I even gave up meat. Ironically, it was just a week later that I was told I already had uterine cancer."
By the time Zdrojewski had surgery, she was surprised to learn that the cancer, though already in the uterine wall, was no longer spreading.
"I was spared chemo and vowed never to eat dairy again!" she said. "As I began to pay more attention to the impact of the food we eat on our health I gave up all meat and, eventually, fish, too."
While brushing her teeth one night, Erb discovered a protuberance on her neck. A sonogram revealed a large lump on her thyroid gland. A specialist performed a biopsy and while results were inconclusive, they told her they couldn't rule out the possibility of cancer.
"She wanted me to let her take out the left half of my thyroid gland and biopsy that while I was still under anesthesia, and if she found cancer cells, go right back in and take out the entire right half of my thyroid gland, without knowing if there was cancer there or not," Erb said. "Then I would have to take radioactive iodine for three days."
Erb's first inclination was to seek second and third opinions from other doctors, but decided to consult some natural healers she was acquainted with instead. Their unanimous, emphatic recommendation: "Don't do it." Erb said that she felt, in her heart, that she should heed their collective warning. They advised her to go completely vegan, sticking to a raw plant food diet for awhile.
"In a month's time, I went from being told by a specialist that she was quite sure I had thyroid cancer to feeling better than I ever had in my entire life," Erb related.
As I collected information from the Vegetarian-Vegan Society, it was early in my vegetarian experiment. I asked the ladies for tips on making the switch, especially for someone like me who considered meat a crucial staple in her diet.
"I suggest thinking about what you already eat and making a list of things you love that are already vegan," Zdrojewski advised. "Add things like salads, coleslaw, baked beans, baked sweet potatoes, and good old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then when you eliminate the meat you'll have favorite comfort foods ready to take their place."
Watkins recommended meat substitutes, which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in grocery stores.
"There is also fake cheese," she said. "You might want to start out just having one or two meatless meals a week, like spaghetti and meatless sauce (they sell fake meatballs, too, I think - and I have a recipe for some I call 'veatballs'). You can also try vegetarian chili with brown rice, or bean burritos."
When going vegan, Zdrojewski and Erb found dairy especially cheese the most difficult item to give up.
"Try soy or rice if you are used to skim milk and try almond if you like the rich whole milk," Zdrojewski suggested.
The first day of my week without meat was a cinch as Zdrojewski prescribed, I made a list of some of my favorite foods that fell into the vegetarian category. (I knew that strict veganism was too ambitious for this trial). There was still plenty to choose from; I embarked on a much-needed grocery shopping excursion and loaded up my cart with my supplies for the week.
At first, I couldn't stop dreaming of roast beef sandwiches and burgers, but I found that by day five, I wasn't missing meat as much as I did in the days prior. I noticed, as Erb and Zdrojewski noted, that I felt significantly less sluggish. I even did some cooking (another one of my 2013 goals: overcoming my culinary ineptitude), and made a delectable veggie pizza and no-cream pasta primavera my proudest accomplishment in the kitchen to date. As I dined on flavorful penne, peppers and other veggies, a steak couldn't be further from my mind.
While I doubt that I'll be completely eliminating meat from my diet anytime soon, after successfully trying out vegetarianism and discovering how advantageous a plant-based diet can be, I'll be decreasing my intake considerably. Why not give it a try? It might help us live to 95!
For more information on the Vegetarian-Vegan Society, find the group on Facebook, or call 753-7761, 753-2205 or 782-4334.
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