Normally, I'm not a big fan of organized religion, but I'm an honorary Catholic this month.
My girlfriend has been known to escape my corrupting influence and show up for mass once in a while. So, in solidarity with her, I gave up meat for Lent this year. But – psssst – really, it was also an excuse to do a little experiment I'd been putting off since I first watched “Forks Over Knives.”
That's Lee Fulkerson's 2011 documentary based on the research of physician Caldwell Esselstyn and nutritional biochemist T. Colin Campbell. The gist of it is that there are tremendous health benefits to be gained from eating a diet consisting of plant-based, whole foods. “Whole foods” means grub that has been minimally processed or refined. It's about eating bananas and sweet potatoes instead of Aspartame-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup-packed protein bars and energy drinks.
The problem I've run into in the past, though, is that many vegan recipes are pretty bland, especially the ones in the book version of “Forks Over Knives.” And temptations are everywhere. I've remained vegetarian these last few weeks, but I went on a serious grilled cheese bender after I caught the Mono Men at the Green Frog in Bellingham. (That's all they had on the menu, and the aroma of free bacon they were handing out around midnight didn't help.)
So, recently, I turned to someone with more experience for advice. Kristina Brown is a local holistic health counselor who teaches vegan cooking through her company, Eating Skinny (www.eatingskinny.net). She's eaten a vegan diet since 2007.
“I had high cholesterol and I couldn't lose weight. It worked for me,” said Brown, 62.
But she warned against seeing eating vegan as a magic cure-all. “A lot of people are making very big claims about the vegan diet,” she said. “It is no guarantee that you will not get cancer or you will not get heart disease or you will not get diabetes. What it does is it increases your chances of not getting those diseases.”
She provided these tips for getting started:
Find a good cookbook and dive in: “The missing link to getting healthy, whether you're vegan or not, is you need to cook,” Brown said. “You need to fall in love with food.” (See sidebar for recommended reading.)
Ease into it: “I would do it in small increments because it can be very overwhelming.” You can start by eliminating dairy or committing to three vegan meals a week.
Transition with tofu: From soy milk to Tofurkey, there are plenty of vegan options for weaning yourself off of animal products. “I'm not a big fan of people using that long term,” said Brown, “because I think it's just processed food. But when you're transitioning, I think it's great.”
Emphasize the veggies: “This is the cornerstone of a healthy diet, vegan or otherwise. The green leafies - like kale, collards, spinach and swiss chard - are the most nutrient dense vegetables. So if you can have greens a couple of times a day that would be fantastic.”
Diversify your diet: “Your greatest safety and enjoyment will be in a variety of foods: sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots, eggplants. Eat on the color wheel so you're sure you're getting all of the micronutrients and minerals that you need.”
Bridge over with meat substitutes:
Learn to love legumes: “Beans and lentils need to become your best friends. They're one of the best sources of protein. They have something called resistant starch. So they're really good for people trying to lose weight.”
Join South Sound Vegans: This 240-plus member Meet Up group plans a variety of social events, from dinners at local restaurants to movie nights at the Grand Cinema. Brown insists you don't have to be vegan to join. Search for them on Meetup.com for a schedule of upcoming events.
Vegetarian cookbooks for beginners:
“Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero ($27.50, Da Capo Lifelong Books)
“Appetite for Reduction: 125 Fast and Filling Low-Fat Vegan Recipes” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz ($19.95, Da Capo Lifelong Books)
“Color Me Vegan” by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau ($19.99, Fair Winds Press)
“The Joy of Vegan Baking” by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau ($21.99, Fair Winds Press)
“Let Them Eat Vegan!” by Dreena Burton ($20, Da Capo Lifelong Books)
A few vegetarian or vegetarian friendly local restaurants:
Quickie Too: This Hilltop neighborhood cafe specializes in vegan soul food; 1324 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, (253) 572-4549 or http://www.plumbistro.com.
AmerRawCan Bistro: The “raw” in the name refers to this downtown restaurant's raw, organic cuisine; (253) 327-1962 or http://www.amerawcanbistro.com.
Infinite Soups: Gourmet soups rotate daily with plenty of vegetarian options. But don't do the “soup Nazi” joke. They've already heard it once or twice; 445 Tacoma Ave S., Tacoma, (253) 274-0232 or http://www.infinitesoups.com.
Tacoma Food Co-op: Find lots of fresh, homegrown ingredients for vegetarian recipes; 3002 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, (253) 627-3344 or http://www.tacomafoodcoop.com.