By Elen Jaffe Jones
I am 58 years old, and I have been a vegetarian for much of the past 30 years. The main reason I adopted a vegetarian diet was for health. As a child, I remember being so sick with upper respiratory infections that I would often be gasping for breath, with weeks on antibiotics and decongestants. Even into college, chronic bronchitis would flare up so much I would need antibiotic shots. My mom, my aunt and both sisters all had breast cancer. One sister had cancer three times. My aunt died of it in our home when I was five. So ever since then I’ve been focused on, how do I avoid that?
But it gets worse because my sister, both of my parents, and all of my grandparents had diabetes and major heart disease. My diabetic, heart-diseased sister went in for herniated disc surgery and got MRSA. This is a very dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and it can cause death. My sister almost died and became paralyzed, probably because of a compromised immune system that can happen with diabetics. My mother, grandmother and uncle had Alzheimer’s disease. Most women in my family had osteoporosis. Everyone had arthritis. Everyone was constipated. My dad almost died of diverticulitis and wound up with a colostomy, which meant he had to have part of his colon removed and for a while, his colon functions remained outside of his body.
I almost died of a colon blockage 30 years ago. It was the same year my sister got breast cancer for the second time. I was rushed to the hospital and doctors said they’d never seen a blockage that large in someone my age, and that I would need to be on medication the rest of my life.
It was at that point that I thought I was too young for that and so I ran to the health food store and read all 5 books on fiber. I immediately changed to a high-fiber plant-based diet, which is a vegetarian diet. Eventually, I adopted a vegan diet. After I switched my diet I never needed the medication for my colon.
For clarification’s sake, a vegetarian diet means no eating animals, but could include eating dairy or eggs. A vegan diet means no animal products at all. So a vegan diet means no eggs, no meat of any kind including fish, and no dairy or cheese. In short, nothing that had a face or a mother.
Around 20 years ago the Atkins Diet, which is a high meat, low vegetable diet, became quite popular. When I was a financial consultant during the late 1990’s, we had many mandatory catered meals with clients sponsored by insurance companies and money managers. And we also had mandatory working lunches, which included pizza, and more pizza, and the only option we had was to choose a topping. So it was difficult for me to control what I ate. I gained 25 pounds and my cholesterol soared. Dr. Atkins was on the Larry King show and on other news shows and I thought that if his diet was so popular, it had to be scientifically correct, right? So I tried it. And, I paid the price: my total cholesterol went from 135 in 1999 while on a vegetarian diet, to 203 in 2000 on the meat diet. I also found myself in the emergency room with hemorrhaging fibroid tumors. The ER docs told me I needed an immediate hysterectomy. Fortunately, my regular OB said, “Ellen, go back to that plant-based diet and call me in the morning.” A few weeks later, all symptoms of menopause had vanished, including my hot flashes. I was hooked. I’ve been eating a vegan diet ever since.
You may be wondering: Is a vegetarian or vegan diet healthy? And, where do I get my protein? Well, protein deficiency is rare in Western culture. When someone asks me about this I flex my bicep and I ask, “Do I look protein deficient?” I run and place in 5K races and occasionally do longer races like half and full marathons. It just hasn’t been an issue. My website and facebook pages have pictures of races I have done and I show off my well-defined muscles.
The reality is that we get plenty of protein on a plant-base diet when it includes a variety of vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds, and when it doesn’t include junk food. All plants have protein. Leafy greens, beans and nuts have lots of protein. Meaning, they have the amino acids required to create protein. Our standard American diet actually has too much protein in it, which causes the body to become acidic, and that causes all kinds of health problems.
The only thing I supplement is Vitamin B12, which is bacteria that used to be on our vegetables in previous generations, but is now not as prevalent in our soil as it used to be due to aggressive chemical agriculture.
I recommend what the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has been recommending for the many years I’ve taught cooking classes for them. This includes 2 or more servings per day of beans, 5 or more servings per day of whole grains, 4 or more servings per day of vegetables, and 3 or more servings per day of fruit.
It’s important to eat the colors of the rainbow. Nature provided a diverse range of colorful foods in the plant kingdom. If someone complains there isn’t enough variety in a vegan diet, I point out that there are 90 different fruit and vegetables and not nearly as many with meat varieties. So if you don’t like one, try another.
I wrote my book, Eat Vegan On $4 A Day, because I saw too many stories saying that we can’t eat well on a budget. One time, I was watching the evening news and a food stamp recipient was loading up her grocery cart with Twinkies and macaroni and cheese and said in her interview, “You just can’t eat well on a budget.” I decided to do some research to see if that is actually true, and to my amazement, I found that we all can eat fairly inexpensively. Here’s how we can do it: we want to eat whole foods from the produce section, substitute beans for meat, and avoid processed foods and dairy.
Of course, buying predominately whole foods also means learning how to prepare your own food, and so I offer dozens of healthy meal ideas in my book. You don’t need to spend a lot to eat well on a budget. My book includes my top 10 money-saving tips, lots of ways to stretch your food dollar and how to find the cheapest, healthiest foods on the planet. I give you all the tools you need to quickly learn how to cook fiber-rich beans and grains. There are nearly 100 recipes to help launch you and your family into new food financial planning. Many readers say they’ve earned back the money they spent on the book in the first two weeks after they bought it. I think you will too!