Shortly after giving up meat in 1995, Jessica Lindsey took a cross-country trip that gave her a taste of what eating out was going to be like. “Vegetarianism was still so fringe then that hardly anyone outside of California knew what it meant,” she says. “At one restaurant, the waitress told me that the soups were vegetarian. She said that the broth was from beef, and it contained chicken pieces, but no meat!”
Today Lindsey rarely has such strange encounters. Vegetarianism is steadily becoming more mainstream. Roughly 6 to 8 million Americans are vegetarians, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group–up from a half million to 2 million in 1994. And they have gotten smarter about their dining choices.
A generation ago, vegetarian meals were often built around leaden nut loaves or uninspired brown-rice casseroles. Today, many vegetarians consider themselves foodies and relish the challenge of finding recipes that showcase fresh vegetables as a delicious main course, flavored with herbs and spices. More than 50 vegan cookbooks are set to be published this year alone. “Vegetables are becoming culinary rock stars,” says Amanda Cohen, owner of the vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy in New York City.
As these four women show, there are many potential benefits to eating vegetarian. Read on…
The Organic Gardener
44, Hudson, NY
Job: Horse breeder
Status: Married (1 grown daughter)
Vegetarian: For 10 years; vegan for 6 months
At this time of year, all the vegetables I eat I grow myself in my large organic garden–heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, patty pan squash, carrots, basil, parsley, dill. Sure, it’s cheaper and more delicious than store-bought veggies, but that only partially explains why I’m out there watering at 7 AM. Growing your own food is so much better for your health and for the environment too.
It’s been a gradual process for me. I gave up meat ten years ago strictly for health reasons. I was concerned about the hormones used in beef. Then three or four years ago, my daughter Rachel, now twenty-one, began giving me books on the environment. A couple of points really made an impact on me–like the fact that producing meat requires up to fifty times more fossil fuels than growing veggies, or that it takes four times more farmland to feed a meat eater for a year. Thanks to those books, I eliminated eggs and milk from my diet too.
Now I’m purely vegan, and I eat more produce than I ever imagined possible. I’ll saute a big batch of veggies for the week. I freeze vegetables straight from my garden and can them, and I make my own salsa. Last year I even treated myself to a spiral slicer that helps me make noodle-like strands from summer squash. When mixed with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and a little nutritional yeast, it’s like heaven on a plate.
The Payoff: Before I started packing my diet with fruits and vegetables, I used to gain weight easily. Now my scale steadily reads 135 (I’m five-foot-nine), and, much to my surprise, my body shape has changed. I don’t have belly fat, and my hips and legs seem slimmer.
But I’m most thrilled with my improved energy level. In the past, when I ate a lot of meat, I used to feel like going to sleep right after a meal, or else I’d get a burst of energy but crash an hour later. Now my energy level is steady. I never feel depleted, even after running a couple of miles around the neighborhood.
The Heart Healer
45, San Francisco
Job: Collectibles dealer
Status: Married, 1 child
Vegetarian: For 16 years
My father rarely ate a healthy meal. He always had a big burger or a stack of saucy chicken wings. Still, when I got the call that he had passed away suddenly of a heart attack at age fifty-four (I was twenty-four), I couldn’t believe it. I knew that eating a lot of saturated fat caused heart trouble, but it never hit home before, even though both of my grandfathers had also died of heart attacks.
In the weeks after Dad’s funeral, I began to think about my own diet. The meats I loved–hot dogs, salami, bacon–were among the unhealthiest ones you could buy. I’d eat them with a side of starch–not whole grains, either–and I picked around any vegetables. Seriously, I ate like a three-year-old. I figured I was doomed unless I did something drastic.
That’s when I decided to give up beef and pork. At first, I did it all wrong, replacing my hot dogs with pasta, my bacon with muffins, and my salami with more pasta. Friends would joke that I was a “starchatarian.” But after my daughter Sasha was born in 2003, I vowed to learn to like veggies along with her. Mushrooms became a surprise favorite. At first, I’d just eat them on pizza, but then I began eating portobellos. Mmmm. I’ve also discovered that stir-frying cauliflower and bell peppers in olive oil and garlic does wonders for their flavor. It makes me feel good now when Sasha asks, “Can I have more carrots, Mom?”
The Payoff: Though my cholesterol isn’t as low as I’d like it to be (darn genes!), my doctor swears that if I’d kept my diet as it was, I’d be on medicine by now and a prime candidate for an early heart attack. Being vegetarian also helps me keep my weight steady. I’m five-foot-six and 132–about the same as twenty years ago.
The Animal Activist
Marsha Godzinski Hargreaves
57, Savannah, GA
Job: Registered nurse
Status: Married, no kids
Vegan: For 1 year
Ever since childhood, I’ve been an animal lover. But it was only four years ago that I finally made the connection between what was in my heart and what was going into my mouth. There was no specific event that led to it. It just dawned on me that if I cared for animals as much as I said, I should boot beef, pork, and poultry from my diet.
Then in January 2010, I became involved in the animal-rights movement. I participated in a protest outside a circus, and I saw a video of a baby elephant being taken from her mother by a trainer and tied to the ground. She was trembling. It upset me so much that I went home that night and threw out all the dairy, fish, and eggs in the fridge. I had no idea what to eat. I lived on vegan frozen dinners and protein bars for three months.
My husband, Jim, supported my decision, but he didn’t want any part of my new eating habits himself at first. He cooked his own food–we had separate cutting boards, utensils, and dishes. Then, as I learned more about vegan diets through cookbooks and blogs, I stopped buying processed products and started playing around in the kitchen again. One of the first vegan recipes I tried was lentil barley soup; Jim, who has always loved lentils, finished the leftovers before I could get to them. We have both enjoyed my homemade hummus and a whole wheat pasta dish with cabbage, peas, and beans. Interestingly, as I’ve backed off trying to get him to follow my diet, he’s shown more interest. The other day, my bacon-and-eggs husband asked me to make him a veggie smoothie for breakfast!
The Payoff: Within three months of adopting a vegan diet, my total cholesterol plummeted one hundred points. My doctor took me off my blood pressure medication about six months ago because she didn’t think I would need it anymore–and every time I have my blood pressure checked, it’s well within the normal range.
The Weight Loss Winner
Laura Wooster Baldwin
35, Arlington, VA
Job: Marketing consultant
Status: Married, no kids
Vegan: For 2 1/2 years
The year after I got married, my weight jumped from 120 to 135, and those fifteen pounds made a big difference on my five-foot-three frame. Although I wasn’t pigging out on junk food, I didn’t exactly have the healthiest diet–I rarely, if ever, ate vegetables. So I made a 2009 New Year’s resolution: I’d try the popular Blue Print Cleanse for four days (drinking only fruit and vegetable juices), then cut all animal products out of my diet for the next three months.
My British husband was not about to give up meat, but he was very supportive of my decision–so I cooked, and he ate. I made stews stuffed with chickpeas, tomatoes, and seitan (wheat gluten). I roasted onions, garlic, broccoli, peppers, and other veggies to bring out their sweetness. I found delicious soy-free vegan sausages, which I made with kale and polenta. I was loving the food–and the results. Three months passed, and I never looked back.
The Payoff: I was back at my old weight of 120 pounds before my three-month vegan trial ended–and I’ve held steady at 115 pounds for two and a half years. Before, I was a horrendous cook, but vegetables are a lot more forgiving than meats, so now I’m more confident in the kitchen. The best part is how I feel: Now that my meals consist of nutritious foods, I feel and look healthier all around.