There once was a time when mentioning a dietary restriction may have garnered some strange looks – What do you mean you don’t eat meat? What is ‘gluten’ anyway? – but nowadays such a thing has become the norm. Paleo, primal, flexitarian, macrobiotic – if you eat a certain way, there’s a name for it.
No monikers, however, get quite the attention that two core, basic diets do: vegetarian and vegan. In an area often seen as “behind the curve,” we can proudly say this is one bend NEPA is certainly riding right along with, not only in the presence of establishments solely dedicated to such living, but in a local culture that grows bigger with time.
There are still concerns regarding those who have thrown certain foods to the wayside (“But what about the protein?!” being the most common), but there are also two sides to every story. The Weekender explored the local vegetarian/vegan scene in the hopes of educating those who are unfamiliar with it and letting those who are familiar know that they are certainly not alone.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
They sound so similar that it’s not hard to get them mixed up, so let’s lay down the basics, in the simplest way possible:
Vegetarian: A person who does not eat meat.
Vegan: A person who does not eat any food that comes from animals, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Both vegans and vegetarians may also abstain from other products (cosmetics, clothing) that have any sort of animal involvement or byproduct.
Within these broad areas are plenty of specific genres, and within each person who chooses such a genre are plenty of reasons: It’s ethical, it’s for health, it’s personal. Vegans and vegetarians come in all shapes and sizes.
Nucleus Raw Foods in Luzerne is the latest business to throw its hat in the proverbial food ring, a business that opened up in late February and has been booming ever since. At Nucleus, it’s all about serving up the unaltered.
“Raw, to us, is fresh fruits and vegetables. The magic number when it comes to raw is 118 degrees; anything dehydrated or prepared below that temperature is considered raw,” said owner Dan McGrogan. Foods that are prepared in any way at a temperature above said magic number begin to lose valuable nutrients.
McGrogan turned to raw foods in 2011 after being sick of living a life full of alcohol and the complications of being overweight. He has never looked back.
Nucleus serves up a bevy of raw food prepared in creative ways, from a house bread composed of buckwheat oats, flax seed, olive oil, salt, and carrots thrown in a food processor, then dehydrated, to a cashew “cheese” made of cashews, red bell pepper, lemon, salt, and water. No animal products, fish, or dairy can be found here – but nothing strange can be, either.
“We try and create menu items that are semi-familiar to people already so that when they walk in, they’re not all weirded out by it,” McGrogan noted.
A local staple in the vegan game is Eden A Vegan Cafe in Scranton, run by Christian Pilosi, a man who is very familiar with such food.
“Many people choose these lifestyles for a variety of reasons,” Pilosi said of why people choose to go vegan. “It can be personal, from a health aspect, from an environmental one, for ethical reasons. And then there are plenty of subsets; you have pescatarians (those who eat seafood but won’t eat other meat and animal flesh), lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who do not eat eggs but will consume dairy products).”
Pilosi’s reason is purely ethical; he does call the health perks a “fringe benefit.” He went vegan in 1997 after he was exposed to information about factory farming, giving up meat first, then dairy. He is an avid animal rights activist.
The House of Nutrition in Luzerne is not strictly vegan/vegetarian, but it’s certainly a good source for those who find themselves eating that way. The establishment serves up food that is organic and natural and caters to those with allergen- and gluten-free diets, with fresh food being made on the premises daily.
Chef Kristle Kalinowski came into this occupation due mainly to her lifestyle change. She became what she called a “junk food vegetarian” at the age of 15 (“I ate a lot of pierogies and boxed pizza,” she recalled of those days with a laugh), and then switched to being full-on vegan two years ago. Like Pilosi, it was all due to ethical reasons, coming after she visited For the Animals Sanctuary in Blairstown, New Jersey. Through her veganism, Kalinowski learned how to cook for herself, which led for a deep love of food and an eventual culinary job at the House.
A HEALTHFUL LIFE
There once was a time when the words “vegan” and “vegetarian” conjured up thoughts of someone of the “hippie” persuasion, but Pilosi and many other vegans and vegetarians think that time has long passed.
There is still one visual associated with the words that has stuck around, however – that of someone who is in very poor health.
“It’s weird in 2014 for me to be asked that question,” Pilosi said when prompted to speak on his possible lack of protein. “I think it’s lazy for people to keep asking that. ‘What about protein?’ You can put ‘protein’ into Google and you’ll get a list of 100 things, and less than 10 of them will be meat products.”
Proper protein intake is always a sticking point when it comes to veganism and vegetarianism. It’s true that a lack of protein can cause growth failure, muscle mass loss, decreased immunity, and weakening of the heart and respiratory system. But just what is considered the right amount of protein?
It’s a finicky thing for diets across the board, with the amount needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle widely debated. The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of eight grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. This would mean a woman of 130 pounds would need around 52 grams of protein, and a man of 180 pounds needs 72 grams. According to WebMD, “adults in the U.S. are encouraged to get 10 percent to 35 percent of their day’s calories from protein foods.” This shakes out to about 46 grams of protein for women and 56 grams for men. As you can see, the numbers are everywhere.
Protein intake also depends on lifestyle (How active is the person?), and the type of protein being consumed should also be considered. Some high-protein foods are packaged along with healthy or harmful fats, beneficial fiber, or hidden salt. A six-ounce broiled porterhouse steak has 40 grams of protein, but also 12 grams of saturated fat. Six ounces of wild salmon has 34 grams of protein, yet has only 1.7 grams of saturated fat. Alternatively, a cup of cooked lentils provides 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, and virtually no saturated fat or sodium.
Animal-based proteins are classified as higher quality because they come as a more complete amino acid package that closely resembles the amino acid profile our bodies need. Plant-based proteins are not considered such “complete” packages, but vegans and vegetarians battle that by eating a wide variety of them to ensure they’re getting all the proper nutrition. Vegans and vegetarians pull protein from a variety of sources: nuts, seeds, soy beans, lentils, hemp, protein powder, spirulina – any of them can rattle off a long list.
McGrogan makes a digestion argument against meat-based protein.
“When you eat a steak, it takes a massive amount of energy to take that steak, an animal’s protein, convert it into amino acids and then build it back into protein in your own body, whereas if I’m eating fruit, it’s so basic to break down, taking little time to go from amino acids built into protein.”
McGrogan is huge on bananas in particular; he consumes 20 a day. This is a move that he said has not affected his health in a negative way at all.
“I’m getting 27 grams of protein on just that alone. People were so concerned when I said I was going to do this, so I decided to start testing my blood sugar. I’d eat 10 bananas at a time and it had virtually zero impact on my blood sugar. Last time I did it, it was 89 before I ate and exercised. I’d eat 10 bananas, wait an hour, it’d go up to 91. I ate lunch, another 10 bananas, and it dropped to 86.”
Calcium is another point of contention.
“The dairy industry has that marketing down,” Pilosi said. “People think you need dairy for calcium but, my goodness, you go to the grocery store and there’s coconut milk, soy milk, plenty of choices with calcium.”
The vitamin B12 is generally found in all animal foods, so it may be something that vegans/vegetarians lack. Kalinowski takes a supplement to provide the essential vitamin which, if low in intake, can cause anemia and nervous system damage. Supplements are a good way to get this nutrition, as are foods fortified with it, such as plant milks and some soy products and breakfast cereals.
Overall, those we spoke with pointed to several perks that have come out of their way of eating: weight loss where needed, an increase in energy, greater endurance, and an overall feeling of healthful clarity.
“People think you can’t be athletic if you don’t eat meat, but that’s not true,” Pilosi said. “There are MMA fighters and endurance runners out there talking about training and being vegan.”
Mac Danzig and Jon Fitch are such fighters, with Scott Jurek being one such runner.
“All of my labs have come back perfect; I’ve never had issues you hear of with B12 or protein,” said Dawn Pilosi of Old Forge, who turned vegan in 1995 for ethical reasons. Dawn also raised her 11-year-old daughter from birth as a vegan, and the girl is a bouncing ball of health and energy.
“I just made good, varied food choices and added pregnancy vitamins and omegas/DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) from flax, walnuts, for good development. My daughter is in great health.”
Outside of these physical benefits, many vegans and vegetarians dial in to what may be considered an even bigger perk – a spiritual boost.
“You feel like you’re connected to everything,” McGrogan said. “It’s hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it, but I feel like there’s this one huge connection between people and nature, and all my interactions with people feel so much closer.”
CLEARING AWAY THE MYTHS
For all the good things going on for vegans and vegetarians, there are some things that are bad – or, really, just myths that many who know this dietary lifestyle would love to clear up outside of the health concerns.
For starters, it’s not as restrictive to living as one might think.
“I never looked at it as depriving myself of things,” Kalinowski said. “It was more like adding this plethora of grains and beans and seeds and even vegetables I didn’t have before.”
“Going out to eat was a major challenge, until I got creative with it,” said Plymouth resident Millie Miranda, who started vegan in 2006, switched to vegetarian, and now considers herself a pescatarian, all due to a lifelong battle with health issues dealing with the consumption of meat and pork.
“Most people think I’ll order a salad and call it a day, but I do get hungry too after just a salad. Most places I have gone to have side orders and appetizers that are vegetables. I create my own meals with those two listings and get full from the combination.”
Hell, as they say, “There’s an app for that!”
“There are apps out there that help lay out what restaurants have what for vegans,” said April Sposto, of Wilkes-Barre, who, along with her husband Joe, went vegetarian three months ago and is now working on being vegan. “I even have the Food Empowerment Project chocolate list on my phone so I know which chocolate I can have. That’s very important.”
It’s also not difficult to do, even if you’re lacking in culinary skills. There are plenty of ready-made options in the grocery store, and even if you want to cook for yourself, it’s not hard – and it’s cheaper.
Adding to that, no, vegan and vegetarian food is not boring.
“I basically bought a lot of tofu, chopped it up, and put it in a salad cold and I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to eat like this? This is terrible,’” Pilosi said with a laugh, thinking back to his beginning days. “It’s expansive in this world today. There are so many plant-based things out there I wouldn’t even know about if I weren’t vegan.”
“It’s amazing what you can do with spices to create a flavor that you’re used to,” Kalinowski added.
There is an almost forceful persona that many associate with vegans and vegetarians, one in which the person will push his or her agenda on others, relentlessly. While there certainly are those out there who operate that way, it was found through the Weekender’s research that locals simply were not like that at all, but respectful, well-educated individuals who would be willing to share what they know with others, without taking it too far.
“Positive representation of one’s self is crucial,” Dawn said. “Educating others on my viewpoints on food/nutrition/health benefits/where I shop/how to substitute usually in a friendly, non-militant way will answer most questions, change misconceptions, or provide some road map to get others started if they’re interested, for health or animal welfare reasons.”
“It’s respecting my decision, if I show respect for their decision,” Miranda said. “I was on a date with someone last year and all he talked about was, ‘All I need is to eat a hamburger,’ ‘I like cheeseburgers,’ and so on and so on. He thought what he did was humorous and later on apologized. I do run into these challenges, but not often. I can joke around and take a joke.”
In truth, what most vegans and vegetarians want is to see a healthier world around them.
“I notice some people have to crash with major health issues to change their ways,” Miranda observed. “‘Why wait?’ is my question. Everybody loves to listen, but I haven’t seen anyone take responsibility for a change. I know it takes education, repetition, dedication, and time, but it can be done.”