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I Was a Teenage Vegan Who Ate Them Raw

by David Grotto, RD, LDN

Cutting Vegetables

Sounds like the latest title of a grisly slasher film — just in time for Halloween! Not the case here. Rather, the title aptly describes the dietary advice de jour I was following for a while when I was a teen. Scary or not, that is no longer true. I have become a middle-aged meat eater who eats things cooked (with obvious exceptions)!

To clarify, I was on the distal end of my “teenage” years when I started dabbling with my diet. I was overweight and didn’t feel as good as I should for someone so young. Not surprising, I was the typical teenager who sustained himself on anything that came off a grill or out of a deep fat fryer. I paid the price.

After I started working at a health food store I decided that something in my life needed to be changed. Many of my customers had suggested that I adopt some permutation of a vegetarian diet that was popular at the time: macrobiotics, natural hygiene diet, or even a raw foods diet. So, I took them up on their advice and started reading — then toting around — Francis Moore Lappé’s veggie-forward book, Diet for a Small Planet. I also was intrigued with the whole natural hygiene movement (Fit for Life) and Norman Walker’s books on juicing and immersed myself in their teachings and culture. So I decided to give up all animal products and pump up the volume on my veggie intake via raw juice, raw fruit, and veggies.

My health transformation was astounding. In a very short time, I trimmed my waistline down and my energy levels were boosted. I didn’t have cooking facilities at the store, so eating raw was quite appealing (pun intended)  and “easy breezy” but admittedly, boring. But I didn’t care because I felt great. That lasted for about a year until I attended a friend’s barbeque, tasted those sweet pork ribs, and rekindled my inner paleo — slowly animal products crept back into my life. I thought I was in trouble.

But I learned a valuable lesson from my teen years: veggies had to be front and center if I was to reintroduce meat back into my life. And the meat I ate needed to be lean and right sized. Yes, occasionally noshing on a small quantity of ribs continues to be part of my dietary M.O. But what I noticed is that when I struck a perfect balance, I still enjoyed great health and energy and found that, for me, my lifestyle was sustainable.

My purpose in recounting my dietary trials and tribulations is to illustrate that there are many paths to wellness: raw, vegan, Mediterranean, and DASH diets, to name a few. It’s a personal choice and what works for one may not work for another. But what is inescapable is that all of the aforementioned diets have plants as the main focus. The good news is card-carrying omnivores like me no longer have a dilemma — moderate amounts of animal products fit well into a healthy diet…period. A recent study that supports this premise was featured in the December issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study, entitled Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet (BOLD), looked at the effects of including lean beef in a low-saturated-fat diet. The results were on par with what you would see in other effective diets for lowering total and LDL cholesterol, such as the DASH diet.

“Even if you don’t want to be a complete vegetarian, you can gain benefits from eating a plant-based diet. By including more plant-based meals you can reduce your sat fat intake and increase your intake of nutrient- and fiber-rich foods linked with lower disease risk,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, author of The Plant-Powered Diet. Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet agrees. “You don’t need to go cold-turkey on meat to reap the benefits — you can get the health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle while still enjoying meaningful meat moments. There are three steps that I use for getting people to eat & enjoy more plants,” says Jackson Blatner. She offers these helpful tips.

  1. Reportion Your Plate. Downsize your meat and grain portions while pumping up the produce. Aim to have 25% of your plate meat/poultry/fish, 25% whole grains (such as brown rice or whole grain pasta), and 50% veggies
  2. Reinvent Old Favorites. Take your current favorite recipes and swap out the meat for fiber-rich beans. For every 1 ounce of meat substitute 1/4 cup beans instead.
  3. Refresh Your Recipe Repertoire. Challenge yourself to try a new vegetarian recipe each week. Ask friends for their favorites or look through vegetarian magazines, cookbooks and websites for one that catches your eye.

So, what’s a meat lover to do? One option is to chomp on faux meat wanna-bes that often leave meat-loving folks like me wanting. Neither Palmer nor Jackson Blatner are huge fans of faux meats. Instead, they recommend focusing on including dishes (many featured in their fantastic books) that offer meaty flavor, such as this recipe that Dawn suggests from her book.

Tempeh Tacos

Servings: Makes 8 tacos


Taco Seasoning

1 Tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon each: onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, oregano, cumin

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Dash cayenne pepper, to taste


1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 package (8 ounces) tempeh, crumbled to resemble ground beef

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup tomato paste

8 crunchy corn tortilla shells

Toppings such as: Shredded romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sliced black olives, chopped green onions, salsa, sliced avocado, chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges


1) Combine taco seasoning ingredients.

2) Sauté seasoning mix with olive oil for 1 minute to release flavor.

3) Add tempeh and sauté for 3 minutes.

4) Add water and tomato paste and sauté for another 5-6 minutes, until hot.

5) Serve tempeh “meat” in crunchy corn taco shells with toppings.

Nutrition Info (1/4 cup tempeh only):

90 calories, 4.5g total fat, 1g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 170mg sodium, 7g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 1g sugar, 6g protein, vitamin A 10%, vitamin C 2%, calcium 4%, iron 8%

Love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on a healthy omnivore diet! Meanwhile, enjoy your tacos and thanks to Dawn Jacks.

Photo: iStockphoto

The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


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