Two little girls sit at a table eating dinner, their plates heaped with green stuff — and it isn’t artificial coloring. Green kale, green broccoli, green edamame, green dressing, all over brown rice.
There aren’t any of the squeals of protest you might imagine hearing from a 9- and 6-year old, just the silence that comes when people are really enjoying a meal.
This Winter Park family lives on vegetables. Anika, 9, and Ksenia Goel, 6, have been mostly vegan all of their lives. They and their dad do eat fish and eggs occasionally, but their mom, Gretchen Goel, hasn’t eaten any animal products in six years.
“I choose it because I choose to make conscious decisions, and I want to live in a planet that is clean, where animals are not being tortured and treated inhumanely and where people are healthy, and I think we can achieve all these goals,” Goel said.
There isn’t exact research on how many vegetarians there are in the U.S., but most polls and research place the number at about 3 percent of the population. That number hasn’t changed much, so vegetarian and vegan diets don’t seem to be a growing trend in the U.S., but it’s clear that more people are interested in the idea. There’s the Meatless Monday social media campaign, which is exactly what it sounds like, soy milk and veggie burgers can be found on almost any grocery store shelf, even fast food restaurants have jumped on board.
Winter Park and the Orlando area are hosts to many vegetarian and vegan restaurants and bakeries, including Café 118, Loving Hut and Dandelion Communitea Café.
“There’s been a huge change in offerings over the last five years,” said Kelly Shockley, owner of Ethos Vegan Kitchen in Orlando.
Shockley wouldn’t tell anyone when he went vegan in 2002 because people were rearing to argue about the lifestyle choice. It sounded crazy to some people then, but now his restaurant, which he opened in 2007 after finding no vegan choices in Orlando, is a popular place that serves a variety of customers — 70 percent of whom he says aren’t vegetarian or vegan.
“People are starting to open up to it,” he said.
A lot of that may be the positive research backing the choice; science is on the side of a plant-based diet. A vegetarian diet has been proven to lower the risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, lower blood pressure, and even reverse some of those diseases.
Amy Sindler, a registered dietician and licensed nutritionist who works at the Orlando VA Medical Center, couldn’t name one drawback to the diet. And for those who claim people were meant to eat meat, she disagrees.
“They weren’t,” she said. “We can meet our nutritional needs through a plant-based diet.”
Some have adapted a “flexitarian” diet, meaning they consciously choose to eat less meat for health reasons. A poll by market research firm Harris Interactive paid for by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 33 percent of the country is eating vegetarian meals a significant amount of the time and 16 percent enjoy meatless meals more than half the time.
Both Goel and Shockley said they just felt better after going vegan.
“You feel lighter, not only physically but mentally as well,” Shockley said.
Goel had high cholesterol (over 225) as far back as from when she was a teenager. When she went vegan six years ago, it dropped 75 points.
“I’ve felt a huge difference ever since,” she said.
Successful through education
But it’s not a cure-all, said Kaye-Ann Taylor, registered dietician and licensed nutritionist with a practice in Orlando offering nutritional counseling. While the diets have their benefits, there has to be balance and education. There are overweight vegetarians — some people fill in the meats with carbohydrates. Some don’t get the vitamins and minerals they need. For kids it can be even trickier because they’re developing.
“If I had a parent who was very cognizant of nutritional needs and what they’re doing, I would not have a problem,” Taylor said. “Because it’s a tough area to monitor and to ensure that children are meeting their nutritional needs, I don’t know that I would go and encourage it.”
Goel has that, though. She’s got a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University and uses that knowledge every day when she makes dinner for her family. Every meal is planned with nutritional value in mind.
“It’s a conscious diet,” she said.
And that’s what Taylor said can really matter, even if someone just thinks about adding a little more green into their lives.
“When people are taking a look at their nutritional habits and lifestyle habits, that alone has benefits because small changes are enough to make improvements,” she said.
For more information about vegetarianism, The Vegetarian Resource Group is a good start, www.vrg.org. To learn more about the health benefits of the diet, visit the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine site at www.pcrm.org. To connect with other vegetarians in the area, check out Vegetarians of Central Florida at www.vegcf.org