Healthy eating: vegan diet holds promise of healthier life

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 20, 2014 

Clarissa Mansfield says being a vegan isn't a sacrifice. She gave up meat when she was 14 and later gave up all animal products, including dairy and eggs. While her original decision wasn't about health, Mansfield says she knows she's healthier because of her diet.

More and more people are deciding to go vegan as a lifestyle change after a health crisis, such as a heart attack or a cancer diagnosis.

While seniors should check with their doctor if they want to eliminate meat and dairy from their diet, a 2009 study by the American Dietetic Association stated that well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes; illnesses that often occur late in life.

Mansfield has chronicled her path through veganism on the blog veganinbellingham.com - where she shares her latest kitchen pursuits and lists were she can find great vegan food in Bellingham, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. She says there are plenty of misconceptions about being a vegan - mainly that she's missing out.

FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN EAT

Mansfield says veganism isn't just about tofu and sprouts anymore. While she had Tofurky for Thanksgiving this year, there are plenty of newer meat-alternatives, including Gardein, a product made of soy, grains and vegetables with a texture close to real meat, and the Seattle-based Field Roast, with sausages made of grains, vegetables and spices.

Even if you're not interested in meat alternatives, there are plenty of ways to get your protein with legumes and protein-containing grains, such as quinoa.

If you need to recreate a comfort food, such as beef stew, fettuccine Alfredo or ice cream, there is always a way with vegan substitutes, Mansfield says.

"Focus on all the things you can eat," she says. "Vegans are some of the most food-obsessed people I know."

NO LONGER FRINGE

Many doctors and the mainstream medical community are now open to, and some even promote, a diet free of animal products. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2 percent of Americans eats vegetarian or vegan diets. And according to government agency, healthy vegetarian diets tend to have few calories, lower levels of saturated fat, and more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than other eating plans.

The closer people are to being vegetarian, according to NIH studies, the lower their risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and other health concerns that raise the risk of heart disease.

While most nutrients can be found in a vegan diet, the NIH does suggest that vegans look for B12 fortified cereals and grains or take a B12 supplement, because natural B12 is only found in animal products.

In addition, look for calcium-fortified orange juice or vegan milks, such as soy, almond or hemp, to ensure you are getting the bone-building mineral.

NO NEED TO CHANGE OVERNIGHT

Many people have started reducing meat in their diet with the simple Meatless Monday campaign - see meatlessmonday.com - that gives ideas for meat-free meals on just Monday nights.

Former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman has written a book, "Eat Vegan before 6:00," that promotes eating meat- and dairy-free for just breakfast, lunch and snacks.

Other people eat vegan except when they go out to eat, or try to eat vegan just on weekends. Others still allow fish in their diet. Basically, it's not all or nothing.

"You've got to do what feels right to you," Mansfield says. "You can't think of it as a chore."

VEGANISM IS A COMMUNITY

Both online and in Whatcom County, there are plenty of vegans who are more than happy to share ideas, menu inspirations and even a potluck meal. Mansfield says that since starting her blog, she has met many local vegans who inspire her with new recipes and have become great friends.

Online, she says there are Pinterest pages full of new recipes tested by posters, and says there are dozens of great blogs, including her own, to add new ideas to your daily menu.

Some of her favorite online sources include:

-- blog.fatfreevegan.com,

-- ohsheglows.com,

-- vegweb.com

- and happyherbivore.com/recipes.

BEEF-LESS RECIPE

For an easy meal, Mansfield mimics the taste of beef stew with meaty portobello mushrooms cooked all day in a sherry broth, with a meat substitute to add protein. It's a great transitional meal for people starting a vegan diet.

Slow Cooker Beef-less Stew

In 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sauté the following ingredients over low to medium heat for several minutes:

1 chopped large onion

2 cloves garlic

3 stalks sliced celery

3 carrots, chopped

Throw in some freshly chopped sage leaves, some parsley, a little sherry, a little salt and pepper, and then six small, chopped portobello mushrooms.

Cover the pan with a lid and let it cook a little longer, and then stir in one small can or jar of tomato paste. Cover again and remove from heat.

Peel and chop two large potatoes into big stew-size chunks and put them in a slow cooker with four cups vegetable broth. Pour the contents of your pan into the slow cooker on top of the potatoes and broth, and add about 3/4-cup red wine.

Turn the slow cooker on low and set for about six hours.

Stir in about half a bag of frozen peas and one bag of frozen Gardein beefless tips. Turn off the slow cooker or turn it on "warm" and let it sit for another hour for the flavors to blend.

Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.

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