By Deah Berry Mitchell
Did you know there was a difference between a plant-based diet and a traditional vegan diet? Veganism is a lifestyle devoted to the protection of all animals. It encompasses politics, ethics, and most importantly diet whereas a person who practices a plant-based diet consumes fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, seeds but also eliminates ALL animal products including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy…
Carrots. A freaking carrot hot dog. Is this what my life had come to? I stared at Bugs Bunny’s power lunch nestled in between a hot dog bun and wondered if all of the bizarre recipes I had been scouring over the past few weeks had finally lead me astray. What would people say about me? Would they think I had lost my marbles? Would my brothers and sisters revoke my Black card? By the middle of the month, my journey into a temporary plant-based diet had hit an all-time high on the “weirdness” factor meter. June 2, I was scrolling through my IG feed when I noticed a friend’s post about her vegan challenge for the month of June. It sounded like a great idea. I had always dabbled in incorporating ways to eat healthier, so I decided to jump in – headfirst – without so much as one thought into the logistics of hows, whys, or whens. Would I succeed? I didn’t know; however, I knew I wanted to try. Would it be difficult? Most likely yes, because I could never entirely kick my pesky dairy dependency, or so I thought, but I felt I owed it to myself to try.
To know me is to also know just how fond I am of all things dairy. At any moment one can peer into my refrigerator and find all types of butter ranging from gourmet European salted brands to homemade compound whipped butters with added fragrant herbs and luscious fruits. I use heavy creams often in complex recipes for soup stocks and bases. My cheese collections are not for the faint of heart (pun intended) either; “authentic Dutch goudas only available for sale in the United States once per year” is the type of descriptor I relish in. Why would anyone who receives so much lusty pleasure from consuming dairy-based foods accept a challenge as strict as a plant-based vegan diet?
For me, it was a natural conclusion and one that I have been unwavering in thus far. I am a culinary instructor and also work fulltime for the American Heart Association. I read articles daily about the rising cholesterol and high blood pressure numbers of Americans, particularly those of us of African descent. However, it is also personal for me. Not only do I read these articles, but I have family members and friends whose health has been impacted in part, by the foods they have eaten daily. Every month I log onto Facebook, and I am greeted by glib “RIP” posts from people who have lost classmates to strokes, heart attacks or they are living with diabetes. Personally, I have suffered from acid reflux constantly. Every day I am conscious of all these things, and yet tomorrow I will get up and continue to eat red meats and consume fatty cheeses. I look at my own aging body in the mirror and often wonder, “Am I next?”
This is not an attempt to scare anyone into healthy living. I am hopeful that you would consult your physician and make decisions by researching what is best for YOU. This is, however, meant to highlight the disparities in health among multicultural communities and also serve as a journal into what obstacles I faced, both internal and external, throughout this month.
Often Americans are not aware of the widening gap in cardiovascular diseases and strokes as it relates to African-Americans. In 2009, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found that African-Americans suffer from heart failure at much higher rates than any other race. (Kam, 2012) To add insult to injury, we also develop these troubling diseases at much younger ages. Three-fourths of African-Americans who develop heart failure have high blood pressure by age 40. With statistics as staggering as these, you may find yourself wondering if there is hope. The good news is we can close this hole by acknowledging the very real social determinants of health and how they each work in tandem to affect the health of our communities. The five factors are our traditions and cultures, the neighborhoods we live in, the education we receive, economic stability and our access to healthcare.
The issue I will primarily focus on is how a significant portion of African-American traditions and culture embraces foods and dietary habits that can be detrimental to our health. Meals today are processed differently and have additives added that can sometimes change the composition of the foods we have been raised to love. In short, foods that we eat today are not the same foods our parents and grandparents thrived on. Even more troublesome is how much we rely on rich cheeses and dairy in our traditional dishes, despite the fact that according to the Food and Drug Administration, it is reported that an estimated 80% of African-Americans suffer from lactose intolerance (an inability to properly digest dairy products that result in gas, diarrhea, abdominal bloating and nausea). So, given these staggering facts, why isn’t there more of a willingness to consider plant-based veganism as a viable option to live healthy lives?
Those are the things that weighed on my conscious as I made the intentional choice to opt out of meats, dairy, and eggs temporarily, which ironically happens to be National Fruits and Veggie month for AHA. Here I am now, three weeks in and reconsidering the things I too once loved.
I’m happy to say this experiment has yielded incredible results. I have not had any problems with acid reflux or digestive issues. Also, although I have never considered myself a sluggish person, I am even more energetic and feel refreshed in the mornings. I am able to better concentrate during the day, and I have an overall feeling of being “lighter.” Because of my discerning palate and background in culinary arts, I feel comfortable planning my meals in advance and prepping creative and delicious snacks that are both filling and healthy. There have been considerable advancements in vegan substitutes such as meat, cheese and dairy products. I have enjoyed creating plant-based foods into meals that I am familiar with. I post to social media regularly not only to hold myself accountable but to journal my diet and encourage others who may be curious.
Yet, with all these benefits I have still suffered from external challenges. It’s perplexing to me, for example, that many meat-eaters have expressed anger towards my personal decision to eat healthier. I have been met with sarcasm daily and often combat an influx of direct messages from some who are irritated with my posts and a few who are curious. Meatless fajitas were bursting with flavor, my second-attempt at a “cheesecake” parfait was finally successful! And my vegan hot dogs using carrots. Yes, the same carrots I referenced earlier, really did have the same smell, consistency, and nostalgic taste as the yummy processed hybrid meat-like hotdogs I first fell in love with as a child. Although I am unsure where this vegan voyage will lead me, I am confident I will bid a bittersweet goodbye in my near future for foods that have long betrayed my body.
Kam, K. “Why Are African Americans at Greater Risk for Heart Disease?” WebMD. Retrieved June 20, 2018. https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/features/why-african-americans-greater-risk-heart-disease#1
Deah Mitchell is a freelance writer and culinary instructor who is publishing her first book entitled “Cornbread & Collard Greens: How West African Cuisine and Slavery Influenced Soul Food.” When she is not writing, she enjoys planning food-themed events, traveling, reading and spending time with her family and friends. Follow Deah on Instagram @whatdedesays