One evening at dinner, my son, Evan, pushed his food around his plate instead of eating. His dad and I thought he wasn’t feeling well. When we asked what was wrong, he tearfully explained that he couldn’t eat meat anymore. He said that he cared about animals and didn’t feel comfortable eating them. We listened to him and provided support, but we both thought this would be a short-lived phase, and he would be back eating meat in no time.
While there are plenty of people like my son who forego meat because of their love for animals, there are also those who are embracing a plant-based diet in an effort to lower their cholesterol and blood pressure. This month we are talking with Hampton Roads families and a local dietitian about balance in meal planning and choosing a diet that can improve overall health.
Nancy Luong: Excited About Vegetarian Meals
Va. Beach Family Loves Friday Night Pizza
Virginia Beach resident Nancy Luong has been a vegetarian since 1999 when she was in college and her roommate’s meatless diet began to rub off on her. Today, Nancy, her husband, and their daughter, are vegetarians and strive to eat mostly vegan.
There was a time when Nancy wondered, “What will we eat?” and “What will I learn to cook?” Her family’s meal planning grew more complicated when their daughter became allergic to eggs and nuts, and they had to avoid those foods. Now she speaks about vegetarian meals with excitement. The family gets their protein through soy, black and kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, and some dairy products.
“We love making nachos and tacos,” she said. “We use soy crumbles cooked with taco seasoning, non-dairy cheese shreds, and of course tomatoes, beans, cilantro, and green onions.” When possible, Nancy’s daughter, who is almost eight, contributes to the process and helps prepare the beans and veggies that they use for meals. Many of those veggies are picked fresh from the family’s garden. Even throughout the winter months, they try to keep something growing. “Our winter garden has kale, mustard and turnips, cilantro, lettuce, and mizuna greens,” Nancy said. Soon she’ll set up some garden beds for the spring, as well as tomatoes, peppers, and squash.
Nancy and her family enjoy preparing meals at home—eating fresh foods and trying new recipes. In recent months, she has baked a lot of bread and is looking forward to making and decorating focaccia.
For families who want to try eating a meatless diet but are reluctant, Nancy suggests watching online videos. “There are a lot of YouTube videos that walk you through the cooking process and inspire new ideas along the way,” she said. Nancy also recommends starting with a recipe that the family already enjoys and swapping out the meat for a plant-based substitute.
Mary Jo Haney: CHKD Outpatient Pediatric Dietitian
Recommends Keeping Meals Balanced
Mary Jo Haney works as an outpatient pediatric dietitian with the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. Throughout the years, she has assisted patients who were referred to her for weight concerns and a variety of other diagnoses. She has also seen a lot of vegetarians throughout her career and has helped them navigate a healthy diet.
While a vegetarian diet can be healthier than one that includes animal protein, Mary Jo emphasizes the importance of looking at the diet as a whole. “It’s not just the protein source that matters,” she said. “But are whole grains being included? Is the individual eating a variety of fruits and vegetables?”
From a health standpoint, Mary Jo notes that there can certainly be an improvement when moving to a vegetarian diet, but balance, as in most things, is key. There should be a variety of foods from different food groups and a minimal amount of convenience foods. Even the vegetarian substitutes for hot dogs, burgers, and nuggets are processed foods that can be high in sodium and should be consumed in moderation.
When it comes to U.S. dietary guidelines, the daily protein recommendations are actually very small. “People often consume a lot more protein than they actually need,” Mary Jo said. “A 12-ounce steak could be two days’ worth of protein.”
There have been a few fad diets that recommended high amounts of protein and minimal carbohydrates. “Some people gravitate toward meat because they think carbs are bad. Really, the best thing to do is get back to the food groups. Pull from them and eat a variety of foods,” Mary Jo said. “And include only the recommended amount of protein, whether it’s animal or plant based.”
Xavier Bryan, Navy Veteran & Realtor
Says Small Changes Lead to Big Results
On July 5, 2017, Xavier Bryan, a Navy veteran and realtor with eXp Realty in Newport News, ate meat for the last time. His journey toward a vegan lifestyle began with a routine check-up and a high blood pressure diagnosis, a condition that runs in his family.
“Right out of the gate, the doctor prescribed five medications,” Xavier said. “I pushed back though. So, the doctor took a step back also and suggested I take some classes for high blood pressure and cholesterol, where I learned about the DASH diet and factors for controlling those dietary numbers.”
Determined not to take medications, Xavier started doing his own research and implemented lifestyle changes including, “Meatless Monday.” He also watched a documentary called “Forks Over Knives” and credits the film for encouraging his new lifestyle. “In the film, two doctors set out to help patients before they end up on the operating table,” he said. “It also features case studies of individuals who cured themselves when doctors switched them to a plant-based diet.”
Xavier then decided to attempt going thirty days without meat. His daughter, who was seventeen at the time, agreed to join her dad on his meatless venture. “My daughter and I love to cook and eat together, but neither of us was familiar with the ‘no meat’ lifestyle,” Xavier said. “Within a week, I was already sleeping better and feeling better. My acid reflux went away, and I experienced an overall improved well being.”
About forty days later, Xavier returned to the doctor for fasting blood work. His blood pressure was lower. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was lower. My cholesterol had also dropped from 260 to 195,” he said.
Xavier felt so good that he kept going. His previous concern of not enjoying food once he became a vegan was no longer an issue, and now his wife has joined in. They cook delicious meals of seasoned beans and rice, stuffed pasta shells with plant-based cheese substitutes, and chicken-less, buttermilk fried chicken. “I also make a great salad with chopped broccoli, avocado, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas. It’s so good and filling,” he said.
Today Xavier’s blood pressure and cholesterol are under control, and he feels great. Even though he is a big believer in the whole food, plant-based lifestyle, he doesn’t try to convince people to go vegan. “I just suggest taking a look at what you’re eating. Little steps can make a big difference,” he said.
It has now been almost four years since my son, Evan, has consumed any meat, and in this time, my family has made separate meals most nights. This year, we are planning to streamline dinners (and our budget) by incorporating a few plant-based protein items each week. We’re starting small—with soy crumbles in our tacos, but we are looking forward to being on the same page of the dinner menu.