Health and ethical reasons draw locals to meet free diet

26CGary and Melissa LaKind are raising Shay, 4, as a vegan, he loves fruits and vegetables

Americans are paying more attention to their diets these days. With plentiful products on supermarket shelves, it’s easier to go gluten-free, dairy-free, carb-free and organic. Some are pursuing these diets for health, some for ethical reasons.

Going vegetarian or vegan often combines both rationales, and the lifestyle has captured many in Detroit’s Jewish community.

As newlyweds, Marisa and Dr. Gary LaKind of Bloomfield Hills were vegetarians. Today, they and their 4-year-old son, Shayah, are vegans.

“I decided to be a vegetarian while in medical school because I thought it would be hypocritical to tell patients to improve their health with a better lifestyle if I didn’t change mine,” Gary recalls.

“It was an easy decision for me because of my strong opposition to animal cruelty in th food industry.”

It was also an easy decision for Marisa, who never was a big fan of meat.

“Being vegetarian made keeping kosher very easy for us as a young couple because there never was meat or poultry in the house,” she says. “We only needed one set of dishes.”

A few years later, the LaKinds adopted a vegan lifestyle omitting fish and dairy products from their menu. This decision was based on medical data demonstrating that a plant-based diet is healthier and improves longevity. It was also an extension of their commitment to animal rights.

Interestingly, a major part of what Gary does in his work as medical director for Ford Motor Company is promoting preventive health.

“This often includes adding a vegetarian diet as an option for employees,” he says. “When someone is interested in becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, I recommend they work it out in stages, first eliminating meat, and then deciding how far they want to go.”

When Shayah was born Marisa nursed him for 3½ years.

“He had enough natural cholesterol to last him a lifetime,” Gary says. “He was raised on a vegan diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts plus fortified cereals with B-12 and a chewable multi-vitamin without any fish products. His growth has been very even, and he never needed a pacifier. Today he drinks soy and almond milk.”

Shayah attends Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills and brings his own lunch. It always contains a special treat that serves as an alternative to a cookie or cupcake that someone may offer him.

“When he’s offered something to eat, he always asks if the food is vegan,” Marisa says. “If it’s not or the person doesn’t know, he won’t touch it. We never gave him any rules. He’s simply learned to eat as a vegan and loves his vegetables.”

Gary says, “I admit our lifestyle would have been much more difficult to achieve 10-15 years ago. Today, markets carry a large variety of vegetarian products, many of which are produced locally.”

Varying Motivations

People are motivated to become vegetarians for multiple reasons.

Janet Gumenick of West Bloomfield became a vegetarian to achieve a health goal.

“Ten years ago, my doctor wanted to put me on medication because my cholesterol was high,” she says. “I told him I would lower the numbers by changing my diet rather than take medication.”

Gumenick changed her diet to a menu of vegetables, whole grains and salmon twice a week for the Omega-3. She also avoided processed foods and foods containing white flour and sugar. Her lipid numbers went down, and she does not take any cholesterol-lowering medications.

“I found that by keeping my food as close to its natural state as possible, I’m able to maintain my lifestyle and stay healthy,” she says.

Dr. Emily Levin of Southfield chose to adopt a meatless lifestyle for the ethical reason that she cared for animals and believed the food industry cruelly abuses them.

“Six years ago, I read an Oprah-recommended book, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and decided never to eat meat again,” says Levin, a general and cosmetic dermatologist who does eat fish and local organic dairy products on occasion. She later discovered that poultry and pigs raised for human consumption were treated even worse than cows.

“I feel very strongly that we don’t need to eat other living animals to survive because there are so many other ways to get nutrients,” she explains. “My husband, Peter, joined me on my vegetarian journey about three years ago, and we both feel very good about what we’re doing.”

Interestingly, many become vegetarian for one reason and later adopt additional reasons. It is also common for someone to start out as a vegetarian and then move to a more restrictive classification, such as vegan.

Vegetarian Diets

“It is easy to be confused when people say they are vegetarians because there are several classifications, each with their own guidelines,” says Julie Feldman, MPH (Master of Public Health) and RD (Registered Dietitian) in Farmington Hills.

According to Feldman, children can be well nourished on vegetarian diets, but parents need to be informed about nutrition and meals need to be well planned.

“Keep in mind that eliminating animal products doesn’t mean that a person won’t be making poor food choices, such as adding sugar, artificial sweeteners, white flour and processed food,” Feldman says.

“Moreover, sticking to a vegetarian diet doesn’t automatically result in losing weight,” she says. “It’s true that adults and children who follow a vegetarian diet are usually leaner than others, but this may be because a vegetarian diet includes less saturated fat and more fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins — foods that are filling and contain less calories.”

The point is you can gain weight on a vegetarian diet if your portions are too big or you eat too many high- caloric foods. Some foods marketed as vegetarian can be high in calories and fat, such as soy hot dogs, soy cheese, refried beans and snack bars. The basics of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight are the same for vegetarians as anyone else: Eat a healthy diet and balance calories eaten with calories burned.

Vegetarian Children

“I am wary when I see children who are vegetarians because they may lack adequate protein and iron sources,” says Ayesha Fatima, M.D., a pediatrician in Royal Oak. “They may also be insufficient in vitamin B-12, zinc and other minerals, which is why I often recommend nutritional counseling for vegetarian families. On the other hand, my vegetarian patients are at less risk for cardiovascular disease, childhood diabetes and obesity than my non-vegetarian pediatric patients.”

Fatima warns parents of adolescents to carefully watch their growth and development if they decide to become vegetarians.

“Becoming a vegetarian is a good way to camouflage an eating disorder,” she says.

Kelly Victor, Ph.D., a certified health coach, considers herself a flexitarian because she eats mostly plant-based food, but occasionally eats meat, poultry and fish.

“I tell my clients that one diet doesn’t fit everyone and that it’s important to find what makes them feel better,” Victor says. “For those with a family history of heart disease and other health challenges, I frequently recommend trying a vegetarian diet.”

Jewish Connection

Joel Kahn, M.D., a preventive cardiologist in Bloomfield Hills, also became a vegetarian while attending college.

“I grew up keeping kosher and becoming a vegetarian was my solution to remaining kosher,” Kahn says.

In 1987, he read Diet for a New America by John Robbins, an expose on connections between diet, physical health, animal cruelty and environmentalism that documented the impact of food choices.

“I read it in a day and stopped keeping chicken in the house,” he says.

Three years later, he read about Dr. Dean Ornish’s randomized controlled trial, Lifestyle Heart Trial, which demonstrated how lifestyle changes could not only stop the progress of coronary artery disease (CAD), but could actually reverse it. These changes included whole foods, a plant-based diet, smoking cessation, stress management, exercise and meditation.

“I started to practice this regimen and offered it as an option to my patients because the medical data shows people live longer and healthier lives with this lifestyle,” he says. “Clinical studies show that shifting to a vegan diet provides many health benefits compared to those eating traditional meals of meat and junk foods. A vegan diet that includes the right combinations of food to ensure the full spectrum of amino acids and B vitamins reduces cancer risks, diabetes and heart disease.

“Another motivating factor for me beyond the medical data was the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut and the Talmudic guideline to create a more compassionate humanity,” Kahn says. “Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (the suffering of living creatures) is a Talmudic law that prevents unnecessary cruelty to all animals including pets and livestock and imposes specific obligations for those caring for animals.”

The ethical treatment of animals is a core Jewish value. In general, Judaism permits the eating of meat provided the animal is a species permitted by the Torah and is ritually slaughtered. At the same time, the Torah stresses compassion for animals, such as not causing them pain and relieving an animal’s suffering.

Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi and founder/director of Kosher Michigan, has recently certified several local vegetarian restaurants as kosher, including Inn Season Cafe in Royal Oak, Try It Raw in Birmingham and Southern Nosh in Southfield.

“Meat is part of the Jewish culture, particularly on Jewish holidays such as Passover,” Miller says. “However, I believe strongly in the health benefit of not eating meat, and Jewish teachings value our health over all. My goal is to keep kosher and be healthy.”

Other reasons why people live as vegetarians are for religious or spiritual reasons. Jewish teachings, for example, continually emphasize that we should be careful about our bodies and health, and scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure and some cancers.

Still other reasons to consider a plant-based diet include a deep concern for the environment, world poverty and hunger, and a belief in nonviolence. Here, too, Judaism teaches bal tashchit, that we shouldn’t waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value or use more than is necessary to accomplish a purpose.

Yet meat production requires large amounts of land, water, labor, grain and energy. For instance, raising beef requires about 78 calories of non-renewable fossil fuel for each calorie of protein from factory-farmed beef, but only two calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans.

In the words of the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish writer and winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature: “This is my protest against the conduct of the world. To be a vegetarian is to disagree with the course of things today. Starvation, world hunger, cruelty, waste, wars — we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement. And I think it’s a strong one.” ■

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