Archive for Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Health, ethical reasons attract some residents to animal-free diet

November 20, 2002


Imagine a diet completely devoid of animal products and byproducts.

No meat of any kind, no dairy and no eggs.

Not even honey - sorry, it's made by bees.

Let's see, what's left over?

Fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts. The good news is you can have as much of these as you like.

And if that's all you ate, what you'd be is a vegan (pronounced vee-gan).

It might sound pretty extreme, but in Lawrence - home to legions of vegetarians, many of whom do eat dairy products and eggs - it's becoming a lifestyle choice more people are looking into.

Like Ann Wilson, an unlikely vegan if ever there was one.

"I was the biggest carnivore you could imagine. I ate meat like there was no tomorrow," said Wilson, 32. "I grew up in a central Kansas farming community, and we ate meat three to four times a day."

Not any more.

You won't find a scrap of food that came from an animal on Wilson's dinner plate. Or anywhere else in her diet, for that matter. Even Wilson is able to appreciate the irony.

"My dad raises cows now, that's the funny thing. If I could do it (become a vegan), anybody could," she said.

It doesn't take too much effort to find other vegans around town. Like John Momberg, 20. He's been a vegan for four years.

"I started hanging out with some friends who were vegetarian, and I kind of became a vegetarian by default," said Momberg, the frozen-foods buyer at the Community Mercantile Co-op (known as The Merc), 901 Iowa.

"One of the guys was vegan, and he had a lot of books on animal rights and medical studies done about people on diets with or without animal products."

Momberg soon made the transition to veganism for ethical reasons, a common motivation among vegans. He wanted to make certain that the diet he was eating was cruelty free.

Still, there are tastes he misses.

"Macaroni and cheese - Kraft, 49 cents per box. And pizza with cheese. It was easy to stop eating meat, but it was hard to stop eating cheese," he said.

More challenging way to eat

Is it even good for people to be vegans?

Sure, according to Nancy O'Connor, The Merc's longtime nutrition coordinator (and a vegetarian for 27 years).

"A vegan diet can most definitely be a healthy, balanced diet, but it does take more attention, particularly to nutrients like calcium," she said.

"You can get calcium easily, but with some thought. Almost all nonmilk beverages - soy-based, rice-based, nut-based - come in enriched varieties. The enrichment package matches the nutritional profile of milk."

Nutrients like protein that are found in animal products also can be derived from foods like tofu, which is made from soybeans.

"Another one is Vitamin B12. You don't need much of it, and your body stores it. If you're a vegan, you need to pay attention that you're getting enough. A lot of products are fortified; soy milks have B12 added," O'Connor said.

Contrary to what you'd expect, maintaining a vegetarian or even a vegan diet doesn't have to be limiting.

"It's nearly endless, all the dishes you could make in a lifetime. It's just a different way of thinking," O'Connor said.

It's actually liberating, in a sense.

"When people build a meal that includes meat, they build the meal around it. So when you take out meat, and you take out dairy and eggs, you have to rethink the way you approach putting meals together. It's very freeing - you can put them together any way you'd like."

Of course, it is a bit harder for vegans to order at restaurants. They have to scrutinize each dish on the menu, looking to see what's in it and exactly how its p'repared.

"It's more challenging," O'Connor said. "You have to ask more questions. In a lot of Asian cooking, for example, they use fish sauce. If you're a vegetarian or vegan, you care about that."

Vegetable-protein 'meat loaf'

Megen Duffy, who's been a vegan for about a year, is very careful about her diet.

"I'm a strict vegan, with the exception that, if I'm in a restaurant and there's a little honey as an ingredient in something, I'll eat it. But in my home, I'm totally vegan - no honey, nothing," said Duffy, 27.

That means eliminating even any trace of animal byproducts, such as: casein, a protein found in milk and cheese; gelatin, derived from boiled animal tissues; and whey, produced in making cheese.

Why did she decide to take the jump to veganism?

"I couldn't really see any good reason not to become vegan. I read Eric Schlosser's book, 'Fast Food Nation' ('Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal,' Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001). I started thinking it's better for my health and the environment, and I don't want to contribute to today's factory farming system. It seemed like a logical thing to do, and I haven't regretted it ever," she said.

So far, the transition hasn't been that difficult for Duffy.

"I was raised in a mostly vegetarian family, so I never developed much of a taste for meat. Instead of ice cream, I eat Soy Dream (an organic, nondairy frozen dessert). I love the mocha fudge flavor they have at The Merc and Hy-Vee. This is my last vice," she said.

Nor has veganism done much to change her habits in the kitchen.

"I cook a lot," she said. "I'm getting ready to put a 'meat loaf' in the oven. This particular recipe uses stuff called textured vegetable protein (TVP). I think it's really good. Mind you, I've never had a real meat loaf, so I don't know that it tastes like meat loaf."

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