Cheeseless and Loving It

Going Vegan has Never Been Easier

Sarah Florez traces her veganism to a life-altering experience at the age of seven. Florez visited a turkey farm four days before Thanksgiving. As she stood there with the rest of her Girl Scout Troop, eye to eye with the turkeys, something clicked. That night, she went home and put her foot down. "I said "I"m really sorry, Mom, but I just can’t do it. I can’t eat turkey this year.""

©LIsa Blackshear

Her well-meaning mother called a restaurant and arranged for this budding vegetarian to have a big slab of ham instead. But it was a start.

Today, Florez owns Three Little Figs, a vegan market in Boulder, Colorado. She’s famous for her indulgent dairy-free mac "n cheese and eggless chocolate chip cookie dough. Her store sells everything from spicy curry mix to soy cheese ravioli and creamy strawberry truffles.

For Florez, it’s all about the animals. She adopted a vegan lifestyle after an internship at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter for abused poultry and livestock in Watkins Glen, New York.

"I thought I could never live without cheese," she says. "But once I learned about the cruelty that goes on in the egg and dairy industry, it took no effort to give it up."

In fact, People for the Ethical Treat-ment of Animals (PETA) estimates you can save 100 farm animals by switching to a vegan diet. Florez calls it "voting for good with a sandwich."

A Big Commitment

It’s not clear how many Americans are vegans. A 2002 Time/CNN poll said 0.2 percent. A 2006 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group says 1.4 percent follow that diet. Chris Beckley, president of the Colorado Vegetarian Society, cites a one percent figure, and adds that more people are making the switch every day. Many are motivated by environmental concerns.

"It takes an enormous amount of water to make a pound of meat," Beckley says. "It’s extremely wasteful from a resource standpoint to eat any kind of animal products."

Give up meat, eggs and milk and you can do your part to prevent erosion, factory farm runoff, global warming and the overuse of antibiotics. Not to mention salmonella and E.coli outbreaks. Eating lower on the food chain also makes more room to feed hungry people in developing countries. And there’s an equally convincing reason to go vegan: better health. Studies show vegans have a lower rate of heart disease and diabetes because they eat less fat and more fruits, veggies and fiber. The National Cancer Institute is currently funding research into how vegan diets might help prevent brain and prostate cancer.

"Vegetarians tend to consume higher intakes of phytochemicals, which have anti-cancer activity," says Keri Gans, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Leafy greens and orange vegetables offer the strongest cancer prevention.

Meanwhile, PETA estimates vegans are nine times less likely to be obese. Vegans have an average cholesterol of 133, compared with 210 for meat eaters, PETA says. Eating less dairy also reduces nasal congestion, ear infections and sinus problems, according to the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Author John Robbins (The Food Revolution) claims vegans live an average of six to 10 years longer than meat eaters.

Meeting the Challenges

"Anybody who plans it well and thinks it out will do fine on it," says Janet M. Melton, assistant director of Inpatient Clinical Dietetics for Mayo Healthcare in Rochester, Minnesota.

New vegans worry about getting enough protein without eggs, milk or cheese. But Melton says we don’t need as much protein as people think. It’s about 50 grams per day for women and 60 grams per day for men, she estimates. Good vegan protein sources include tofu, tempeh, nut butters, soy or rice milk and cheese, nuts and seeds.

Calcium can be another concern, especially for women who are at higher risk for osteoporosis. Luckily, there are plenty of fortified soy milks and orange juice brands. Leafy greens, figs and almonds are other good sources of calcium. Calcium needs vary between about 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams per day, Melton says, increasing as you get older.

Vegans who don’t eat a varied diet can be at risk for anemia (lack of iron) or vitamin B12 deficiency. Severe fatigue is a symptom of both. Vegans should get 2.4 micrograms per day of B12, Melton says. Men and post-menopausal women need eight milligrams per day of iron, according to the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Women age 18 to 50 need 18 milligrams of iron per day. Iron-rich foods include dark leafy greens and beans. Eat these foods with vitamin C (in orange juice, lemon or tomatoes) for better absorption, Melton says.

Take it Seriously

Being a vegan is a responsibility, says Miami dietician Lisa Dorfman, nutrition advisor to the U.S. Olympic women’s sailing team and author of The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide. "You can’t be a poor-eating vegan," Dorfman says.

So what do experienced vegans eat? A tour around Whole Foods shows you can find vegan substitutes for nearly everything. They sell non-dairy ice cream bars, milkless American cheese slices, savory bean burritos and surprisingly tasty canned chili with seitan instead of ground beef.

"You’re seeing a lot of grocery stores going over to vegan and vegetarian entrées," says Beckley. "It’s definitely a growing trend."

Eaters new to veganism may find their stomachs rumbling late at night. Before you fill up on another bowl of Soy Delicious ice cream, Joanne Saltz-man (author of Intuitive Cooking) suggests rethinking your meal plan.

She recommends eating good fats, such as olive oil, avocado and nuts. "You need them to make you feel satisfied," she adds.

In her vegetarian cooking classes at the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado, Saltzman offers a simple strategy for creating vegan meals. Just pick a protein source (like beans or tofu), a whole grain (say, brown rice or cous cous) and some vegetables. Put them together with sauces and spices and you’ve got a well-rounded dinner.

MELISSA KNOPPER is a Denver-based science writer.