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Powered by Plants: New Year, new you – why not new plant-based diet?

An Original Impossible Burger and a Cali Burger from Umami Burger are shown in this photo in New York on May 3. A new era of meat alternatives is here, with Beyond Meat becoming the first vegan meat company to go public and Impossible Burger popping up on menus across the country. (Richard Drew / AP)
An Original Impossible Burger and a Cali Burger from Umami Burger are shown in this photo in New York on May 3. A new era of meat alternatives is here, with Beyond Meat becoming the first vegan meat company to go public and Impossible Burger popping up on menus across the country. (Richard Drew / AP)

The first question I hear when I tell people I’m vegan is usually “why” – and, yes, the stereotype is true. I tell everyone. Sometimes without prompt.

Why did you switch? Was it for ethical reasons? Environmental? Health?

The second is usually “how.” How did you give up cheese? Chocolate? Dairy? Eggs?

Followed closely by the dreaded, “So where do you get your protein?”

What I tell them is usually a canned response – I switched for the animals, was vegetarian for 10 years before that, and, yes, the change was difficult. Because it is.

But it doesn’t have to be. After all, it is a New Year. A new decade. A new you. And a vegan, plant-based or vegetarian diet could fit somewhere in the mix. Yes, even in Spokane.

Aside from being the life of every party you attend, there are loads of reasons to take the plant-based plunge. In general, a plant-based diet is better for Mother Earth, better for your health and better for the pigs, cows and chickens who no longer have to die for our enjoyment.

Done correctly, plant-based diets can provide every bit of nutrition found in an omnivore diet with the added benefit of more fiber and less saturated fat, said Pablo Monsivais, an associate professor and food scientist at Washington State University.

The problem is – and like any diet – it’s easy to make all the wrong decisions. Namely, according to Monsivais, plant-based people are notorious for eating highly processed foods like cookies and potato chips and loads of carbohydrates through breads and pastas.

But plant-based diets also can fill that meat void with plenty of mock replacements, not to mention clever workarounds for things like butter, fish sauce, eggs and milk.

Benefits of plant-based

First and foremost, a well-planned vegan diet is overall good for your health, said Monsivais. It’s abundant with vitamins B, C, folic acid and magnesium and low in cholesterol and saturated fats. The diet also can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

What’s more, the diet is packed full of protein, some of them complete. A simple mix of grains and beans can offer most of the protein an adult needs or instead from a single source like quinoa.

“If you’re older than 20, unless you’re an athlete or doing some sort of very physically demanding work where you have a lot of muscle repair required, protein is not an issue,” Monsivais said. “Most people consume far more protein than they need.”

However, Mosivais recommends anyone making the switch do their homework. Balanced nutrition is obviously important. A multivitamin might be necessary, as it’s impossible to get vitamin B-12 through a plant-based diet.

Another major benefit is environmental and ethical impact. In fact, a new report compiled by a group of 30 scientists studying food policy published in the British medical journal the Lancet recommends widespread adoption of mostly vegan eating if we’re to feed the world’s population by 2050.

Additionally, the report says greenhouse gas production from livestock farms would be drastically reduced if the farmland were instead converted to growing fruits and vegetables.

And then of course there’s the peace of mind: Nothing died or suffered for you to enjoy your food. That can’t be quantified, but its effect is real.

Tips for making

the switch

Becoming a vegetarian is easy. What I usually tell people is just take any of the foods you would normally eat, remove the meat, and dig in. Seriously. It works for just about anything.

Tacos? Eat beans instead, or use a fake meal alternative. Cheeseburgers? Black bean patty or a Beyond or Impossible burger.

How about a turkey dinner? Well, there’s a fake meat alternative for that, too. Macaroni and cheese? Just eat it. It’s fine.

And snacking, frozen meals and restaurants are especially easy, too. Most everything can be made without meat, and most everything offers a meatless alternative.

Where it gets tricky is ease of use sans animal products entirely. Being vegan means reading every nutritional label and checking every restaurant menu before heading to the car.

Luckily, there’s plenty of options, and they’re growing by the minute. Vegans can eat fast food like Taco Bell (the beans and rice are vegan, and you can order nearly anything without meat or cheese), junk food like potato chips, and there’s a meat alternative burger at Burger King and Carl’s Jr.

Junk food aside, there’s plenty of healthy ways to work around American cuisine and our love of animal products.

Need to make a hollandaise sauce? Use cashews and silken tofu. In the mood for chicken curry? Try cauliflower. Want to bake a cake? Emulate eggs with mashed bananas or coconut yogurt.

One of the best unintended consequences of going vegan is it forces you out of your comfort zone.

I’ve cooked more now than I ever have before, and I’ve tried new dishes semi-regularly.

I recommend buying a few cookbooks and diving in – for my money, you can’t go wrong with America’s Test Kitchen’s “Vegan for Everybody” and the verbally abusive but delicious “Thug Kitchen.”

I also recommend experimenting to see what works for your schedule and lifestyle. But do yourself a favor and steer clear of too much pasta and foods high in fiber, at least until your body has time to adjust.

And as for Spokane’s vegan restaurant offerings, Rut and Cascadia Public House fill that American food niche.

For Thai, I tend to lean toward Bangkok Thai and Thai Bamboo for their Pad Thai (it’s made without fish sauce).

For sushi, the Wave downtown. And for Mexican, you’d do yourself a favor by checking out the tofu tacos at El Que, a wonderful (literal) hole in the wall in Browne’s Addition.

There’s also plenty of vegan-friendly grocery stores like My Fresh Basket, Huckleberries Natural Market and Natural Grocers, and stores like Safeway, Fred Meyer and Target are constantly expanding their plant-based offerings.

See? Now you, too, can join the cult. Just please bring a dish to the monthly potluck.

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