Culinary journey leads to vegan lifestyle

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:42 p.m.

By Mary Constantine
Scripps Howard News Service
Cynthia Nielsen, a 51-year-old mother of three, has transformed her way of eating from a conventional diet to vegetarian to vegan.Nielsen grew up eating meat and vegetables like most children born in the early 1960s. But because she was born to a military family and moved often, she was exposed to a variety of flavors and ingredients.
"Whenever we would move, my mother would embrace the local flavors of that community, whether we were in Hawaii, Arizona or Biloxi, Miss.," said Nielsen, a cooking instructor in Knoxville.
Her father, a dentist, was a strong proponent of a healthful lifestyle.
However, she was in her mid-40s when she decided to give up meat.
"I watched the movie 'Food Inc.' and decided that I really didn't want to ingest all those chemicals and hormones that are pumped into the animals we eat, so I became responsible for my health," she said.
At first, she bought grass-fed meats and added more vegetables to her family's diet.
"Those meats are expensive, and I found that I began to cook less and less of them," she said. "At the beginning of every year, I take on something new to learn. That year I chose to learn to cook vegetarian -- not because I thought I would become a vegetarian but because I wanted to continue to incorporate healthier foods into my diet."
Gradually, she and her husband, Jan, embraced a completely vegetarian lifestyle, which she said they adapted with few problems.
Then the couple went to see "Forks Over Knives," a documentary that claims certain diseases can be prevented or controlled by eliminating animal-based and processed foods from the diet. The film follows the journey of Lee Fulkerson, who ate a plant-based, whole-food diet for six months, during which he lost weight, no longer needed cholesterol or blood pressure medications and had increased energy.
Nutrition studies done by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, authors of "The China Study," were instrumental in supporting the film's message.
The couple left the theater, bought a copy of "The China Study" and decided to go vegan, eliminating all animal products, including dairy, from their diet.
"I'm an advocate for eating a whole-food, plant-based, low-fat diet. That's a mouthful but I'd rather call it that than vegan," Nielsen said. "When you say vegan, people think you have to grow hair under your arms and live in a commune, and it's not that way."
Shifting to a vegetarian diet was not a problem for the Nielsens, but she said there was a lot of education involved when choosing the vegan lifestyle, especially when eating out.
"When you think of beans you automatically think they are OK, but go to a Mexican restaurant and most of the time they are refried in lard. Some Mexican restaurants also add sour cream to their guacamole, so you really have to be careful," she said.
Within a year of following a vegan diet, Nielsen lost 17 pounds and her cholesterol dropped 50 points.
Color and spices play a large part in how Nielsen prepares a vegan meal.
"I've found that instead of using teaspoons of spices in a dish that I wind up using tablespoons," Cynthia Nielsen said. "I also like to load up my plate according to color by including red, green and yellow vegetables."
Barbecue Mushroom and Lentil Tacos
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 pound button mushrooms, chopped
2 1/4 C. cooked lentils (recipe below)
1 C. Tasty Barbecue Sauce (recipe below)
12 soft corn tortillas, warmed
6 C. Dijon Cole slaw (recipe below)
Heat olive oil in medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and salt and cook 10 minutes, until onions are translucent and starting to brown.
Add mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, until tender and slightly browned. Add lentils and barbecue sauce, reduce heat and cook until warmed through.
To assemble each taco, place one-fourth cup lentil filling on a corn tortilla, top with a half-cup of coleslaw.
Yield: 4 servings.
Basic Lentils
1 C. dried brown lentils
Water to cover
1/2 tsp. salt
In small pot over high heat, cover lentils with 1 inch of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
Add salt and cook additional 5 minutes until lentils are tender but still hold their shape.
Yields 2 1/2 cups
Tasty Barbecue Sauce
15 ounces tomato sauce
1/2 C. apple cider vinegar
1/4 C. maple syrup
1/4 C. brown sugar
2 Tbs. tamari
1 tsp. Blackstrap molasses
1 Tbs. dry mustard
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. chipotle powder
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
In saucepan over medium-high heat, whisk together all ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until sauce reduces to desired thickness.
Yields: 2 cups
Dijon Coleslaw
1/2 C. olive oil
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. agave
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
6 C. green or red cabbage, cored and shredded
In large bowl whisk together olive oil, vinegar, mustard, agave, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss gently with cabbage.
Serves 4
Source: Veg News Magazine.
(Contact Mary Constantine of The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee at

Commenting is not allowed on this article.