Seniors Getting Hip to Vegan Diet
By CASEY COMBS, Associated Press
Wesley Weaver, dressed for a day on the links in powder-blue pants and a canvas hat, smirks under his white mustache as he mutters the stereotype about vegetarians. "There are more non-hippies here than there are hippies," the 74-year-old retired accountant insisted between seminars at the 32nd World Vegetarian Congress.
Weaver and his wife, Anne, 75, drove from Winston-Salem, N.C., in August to spend a week with 700 other vegetarians in the Laurel Mountains about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. The Weavers were among a number of gray-haired, neatly dressed participants mingling with sandal-wearing baby boomers, young activists and guests from 19 countries. Saving the animals and the environment is nice, senior vegetarians say, but the best part is how healthy they feel. "We have lots of energy," Anne Weaver said. "We do a lot of volunteer things. We don't sit at home and rock in a rocking chair."
Fiber-based plant products are healthier than animal products, which typically include saturated fat and cholesterol that clog arteries and make people fat, vegetarians say. Many also worry they will be harmed by the hormones in meat and milk or by the pesticides animals often ingest.
The North American Vegetarian Society estimates that 10 million Americans consider themselves vegetarians, though about two-thirds of them sometimes eat meat. Little information is available on ages or backgrounds. "To find elderly folks who have changed their habits is very interesting because your diet is very culturally and socially ingrained," said Dr. Hollyjean Coward, director of geriatric medicine at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. "But this is sort of the first generation of older people who are very invested in their own health care. They ask a lot of questions" rather than blindly trusting a doctor, Coward said. Amie Hamlin, the founder of Club Veg in Binghamton, N.Y., said more than half of the people who attend her events are over 50 and starting to experience health problems.
Maintaining a vegetarian diet has become easier for regular folks as more health-food stores open and supermarkets set up special sections. "Where we're from, they just opened a 10,000-square-foot super natural health food store," Weaver said. "Fifteen years ago, I couldn't find anything to eat."
Most vegetarians, sometimes called "lacto-ovo," drop only meat from their diets. Others, called "vegans," eat no animal products, including dairy and eggs. Sylvia Escott-Stump, gerontology nutrition coordinator for the mid-Atlantic region of the American Dietetic Assn., does not recommend a vegetarian diet for her patients at Forbes Nursing Center in Pittsburgh. But she does not discourage it, either. Seniors who want to go vegan, she said, should ask a dietitian whether they are getting enough of four nutrients found in abundance in meat and milk: protein, calcium, vitamin B-12 and zinc. Protein and calcium are relatively easy to find in plant foods, but B-12 and zinc are not, so seniors need supplements for them, Escott-Stump said. She and Coward doubt diet is the sole reason senior vegans feel so great. "The folks who might be so motivated to change their diet are also going to be invested in other things that keep them healthy, like exercise," Coward said. "I bet they don't smoke." At the University of Pittsburgh's lodge-like campus in Johnstown, where the convention was held, no cigarettes were in sight. For the week, participants paid around $500, including a dorm room and meals such as mushroom-based burgers and tofu walnut pie. Besides food classes, the 200 topics included political activism, parenting and yoga.
Ethics also motivate many former meat-eaters to become vegetarians. Fourth-generation cattle rancher Howard Lyman, a speaker at the conference, sold his Montana operation in 1983 and became a vegetarian in disgust over slaughter. He now runs a campaign for the Humane Society called "Eating With Conscience." Lyman, a burly 58-year-old, said people should eat meat only "if you don't mind giving your money to the medical establishment and dying far before your time."
Vegans say hens and cows are abused in the process of making eggs and milk. They say cows and chickens live in abhorrent conditions before they are cruelly slaughtered. And they contend that cattle ranching depletes valuable grain stores, wastes water and contributes to pollution. The meat and dairy industries insist the animals are treated humanely, and they say lean meat and skim milk are healthy choices.
Margaret Childs Wetsel, 64, of Hot Springs Village, Ark., is a retired gas company worker with well-coiffed hair who wore a pink jogging suit at the conference. Her 73-year-old non-vegetarian husband feels better since he began eating her vegan meals, she said. Wetsel cut out meat about 10 years ago and became a vegan last year. Now she makes her own cheese out of beans, pimentos, yeast and other plant products. "It's not like a good piece of cheddar cheese," she said. "But it's good, and I feel better that I'm not contributing to cruelty to animals."