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You known them as The College Greens — Engine 2's interns! I pulled Tara, Craig & Jenna away from kale just long enough to ask them a few questions about livin' the (plant-based) vida loca in college!
HH: So I have to ask, how did you find out about a plant-strong diet and then adopt it? I find most teens and college coeds I talk to are living on pizza, french fries, fast food and soda pop. (I know I did... *hangs head in shame*)
(Tara) I’d been health conscious for a while, but two summers ago was when I first contemplated the idea of veganism. I read the book Born to Run that summer, and ultramarathoner Scott Jurek talked about being vegan as a runner, which was a new concept to me (as an athlete, it was always “protein protein protein”— with protein being synonymous with animal-based protein) and that definitely had some sort of impact. I did a little research and was really interested in the information I read about health benefits of eating a vegan diet. The ethical and environmental benefits were also compelling, and it really seemed like a win-win on lots of grounds. I was training for an Olympic distance triathlon at the time though, so I decided to wait until after the race to try it out. (Little did I know, in the future, eating a plant-based diet would actually improve my athletic recovery time and performance!). So it was September 2011 that I “went vegan”. And I just did it cold turkey (hah). A few months later, I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives and the idea of a “whole foods plant-based diet” really resonated with me personally. I have always believed in the power of diet and lifestyle, and this took that belief to a whole new level. Being motivated primarily by health, I was never a “junk-food vegan,” and the idea of not only cutting out the bad but also, and even moreso, emphasizing the good, really hit home with my personal beliefs. After watching the documentary, I went out and bought the books. All of them, haha. The China Study, Engine 2 Diet, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, etc. I was, and still am, sure that this was what I wanted to do with my life. The more I read, the more passionate I became, and the more I wanted to learn; it became a cycle (which still continues today!). That was probably more than you wanted to hear, haha. Oops. Oh, and how I adopted it… it really wasn’t very hard for me, personally. I had already cut out “red meat” years ago, and because at one point we thought I was lactose intolerant, I had converted to being an almond milk lover already as well. I didn’t trust the meat at school, so I was mostly vegetarian my freshman year anyways. When the time came that I decided to make the switch to veganism, I wanted to do it. The motivation was there, so it wasn’t hard for me to cut out the few animal products I ate at the time (mainly eggs, lunchmeat, and yogurt).
(Jenna) Throughout high school I was very health conscious and interested in nutrition. I ate what I thought, at the time, was a very “healthy” diet (basically whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean meat (no red meat), and low-fat dairy — it makes me cringe that I used to believe that this was healthy; I definitely was poorly educated in nutrition). I first watched Food Inc. and became interested in the ethical and environmental aspects of vegetarianism/veganism. But I didn’t know enough about it and never made the change. The summer before I came to college, I started eating less and less meat and then after the first day at school I decided to stop eating meat all together and become a vegetarian. And it certainly wasn’t a whole foods plant-based diet at first. I didn’t have that many options in the campus dining hall and I still didn’t know enough about the nutrition of it all, but I made it work. Through online resources, I soon began to learn more about the health aspects of a plant-based diet and found the documentary Forks Over Knives. That documentary was really powerful and eye-opening and played a large role in me deciding to change to a whole foods plant-based diet last May. I started to read more information and the more I learned, the more I became excited about the profound and diverse benefits of a plant-based diet. I became so interested in it all and I decided that I wanted to do something with plant-based nutrition as a future career. Over last summer, I decided to become certified in plant-based nutrition through Dr. Campbell’s eCornell program. And I was fortunate enough to attend the Farms 2 Forks weekend immersion at the Esselstyns' family farm, along with Tara and Craig (and we got to see you there!!).
(Craig) I had been gradually trying to educate myself and improve my diet throughout high school and college. I was essentially vegetarian by the time I saw Forks Over Knives, which thankfully pointed me toward the growing body of knowledge about a whole foods, plant-based diet that helped me navigate what healthy nutrition actually is. But for me, there was never a defining moment when I declared myself plant-based. I just kept doing what I had been doing — learning about food and trying to form healthy habits, and then it wasn’t long before the only foods I wanted on my plate anymore were plants.
HH: Does your school cafeteria or campus provide vegan and/or plant-strong options?
(Tara) Yes, but it is somewhat limited. The vegan options are much more available than the plant-strong (because they tend to put oil in everything!! yeesh). It’s not ideal, but it’s definitely doable!! Bucknell is a small school, so there are only two dining options on campus. One is an all-you-can-eat style cafeteria, and the other is a pay-per-item style food-courtish thing (“The Bison”). Both places have a salad bar, which has an assortment of vegetables and usually at least one bean/legume or tofu. The cafeteria has brown rice available most weekdays, and baked potatoes on Mondays. The Bison just got a new station this year, which features a build-your-own-quinoa-salad bar on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and that has been really helpful.
(Jenna) Yes! The salad bar is full of fresh vegetables and beans for making large salads topped with balsamic vinegar. There’s lots of fresh fruit available too. Sometimes there is brown rice or whole-wheat pasta. The dining hall even has soy milk!
(Craig) There are usually one or two vegan options to choose from, which doesn’t sound like much, but I have to say that I appreciate that they make an effort. To get whole grain, oil-free meals is another story. That’s the reason I don’t venture too far from the salad bar.
HH: Are your friends and family supportive? Any teasing or mocking?
(Tara) I’m really lucky. I have wonderful friends who support and encourage me. And actually, since making the change myself, I’ve had a number of friends make similar changes. Plus Jenna and Craig are two of my best friends, and being able to share enthusiasm and passion for the lifestyle as well as just always having their support is really wonderful. My friends who aren’t plant-based definitely tease me sometimes, but it’s always in good fun and I usually end up laughing along with them. As for my family, I have been fortunate there as well. For the most part, my family has been really supportive, and I’m very grateful for that. My parents have been great. They support me not only in my plant-based lifestyle but also in my future aspirations in the field. My sister was against it at first, and that was really hard for me because we’re so close. But I understood why (I’d had food/eating issues in the past and she was concerned for me) so though it was rough at times, I didn’t blame her. In time, though, I think she’s seeing that it’s a positive thing; that it really is healthy for me both mentally and physically. She’s come to accept my lifestyle choice, and that means so much to me. Our relationship is still as strong as ever :) Of course, there are still times where I get comments or looks from them. For instance, I’ve recently started mixing greens into my morning oatmeal, and that was a little too weird for them at first. But eventually, with time, they get used to my weirdness. They have pretty much come to expect it now, and I know that they love me despite it. Anyways, I used to let little things like that get to me, but I don’t anymore. Now I just own it. Weird is the new awesome :)
(Jenna) My family has been very supportive of me. As I learned more about a whole foods vegan diet, I excitedly shared the information with my family. They were receptive and soon became more interested as well and now my parents are both vegan. Some of my friends at first joked around with me about things and every once in a while poke fun at me. And some friends have a lot of questions, every time we eat together. But overall I just try to be a positive influence.
(Craig) My friends are generally easy-going about whatever I choose to eat, and a few have been genuinely interested in learning more about why I eat the foods I do, which is great. With that being said, I definitely get a hard time about it from time to time, especially from my guy friends. If they’re not making fun of me outright, then they make sure to fixate on topics like bacon and cheeseburgers, as if I’m just suppressing all my urges to eat meat and they’ll crack me if they talk about it enough. I never get too upset about it though. I mean, it’s easy to laugh it off when you’re made fun of for eating a quinoa salad at table full of pizza and buffalo wings when you’ve got a scrumptious quinoa salad in front of you, right?
As for my family, I couldn’t ask for a better support system. To be able to go home and feel totally comfortable with the foods I’m eating, and the foods we cook together as a family — it’s no small thing. I’m really grateful for that.
HH: How do you deal with social situations like pizza parties and ice cream socials... or do they not have those at college anymore? (I'm dating myself!)
(Tara) Hahaha, pizza/ice cream parties are still alive and well! But they usually don’t cause any problems. In most cases, I’ll just eat before I go. I can still enjoy the company of the people present without eating the food.
(Jenna) Hahah well, sometimes social situations can be tricky, but generally I eat ahead of time or bring my own food. Eating out at restaurants, I have usually been able to find something on the menu. I don’t have access to a kitchen right now, but next year when I do, I hope to share lots of plant-strong vegan goodies with others! =)
(Craig) Hah, no no, you’re still in the loop! Those situations come up all the time. There are two things I do when they come up: join in on the excitement, and (if at all possible) plan ahead. If I’m with a group of people and everybody is excited to go out for ice cream, then I’m excited to go out for ice cream too. Even though I won’t order anything, and even if I wished my friends were excited about something other than ice cream, I know it’s not the occasion to put down a good vibe in order to take a stand against ice cream. On the flip side of that, I went out to eat with some friends the other day and got really excited that the vegetable of the day was asparagus, and they were excited that I was excited — that’s a good feeling. But planning ahead and packing something plant-strong can be a big help. Even if I’m munching on a baked potato or an apple while everyone else is licking their cone of mint chocolate chip, I’m more than content.
HH: What are some easy, plant-strong meals that can be made in a dorm room?
(Tara) There are lots of things that can be made in dorm rooms!! Things like oatmeal or baked potatoes (and/or sweet potatoes) can easily be made in the microwave. Fruits, veggies, beans, whole grain breads or tortillas, salsa, raw nuts/seeds, and hummus are other things that can be kept in dorm rooms and used to create delicious snacks or meals. Oh, and whole grain cereals and non-dairy milks too!! There really is a wide variety of plant-strong goodness that can be made within the confines of a dorm room :) And if, like Craig and I, you have access to a kitchen, or if you have a rice cooker like Jenna does, then your options are even greater :)
(Jenna) I don’t have access to a kitchen but I always eat breakfast in my dorm room. Overnight oats are my favorite (Mix one part oats with two parts nondairy milk of your choice. Add some cinnamon, hemp seeds/chia seeds, dried/fresh/frozen fruit. Put in a container in the fridge and they are ready to eat in the morning, no cooking necessary! Super easy and delicious!!). I also have a rice cooker that I cook grains in (buckwheat, quinoa, barley, brown/wild rice, and even lentils) for breakfast (and snacking at any time of the day!). I also have sweet potatoes for heating up in the microwave (or in the steam basket of the rice cooker) and snacking on/or having with a salad from the dining hall. Hummus and Engine 2 crackers and fresh veggies are also easy to keep in the dorm for enjoying!
(Craig) I can’t deny that preparing food in a dorm room can be a big pain the rear, but it’s absolutely doable. Most of our dorms on campus have a kitchen somewhere in the building, so what you can make is mostly limited by however many kitchen supplies and ingredients you’re willing to lug up and down the stairs to cook with, as well as how many other people are trying to use the kitchen (usually not many) and how big a mess the person who used the kitchen before you left for you to deal with. But even without a kitchen, it’s surprising how much you can make with only a small refrigerator and microwave in your dorm room. You can quickly warm up frozen vegetables and potatoes or sweet potatoes. They sell microwave-steamable bags of brown rice, or you can boil water to make quinoa or oats. Mix in some canned beans and top with spices, salsa, hot sauce, mustard, hummus, balsamic vinegar, maybe some fresh fruit, etc. and you’re set! It’s by no means a gourmet meal, but it’s plenty good enough to get by on day-to-day.
HH: I was so broke as a college student. How do you make it work? Most people think eating plant-based and healthy is expensive. Any tips? secrets?
(Tara) So here’s how I see it. For starters, whole animal-based foods (like meat and cheese) are more expensive than whole plant-based foods (like fruits, veggies, rice, and beans), so you’re saving money with that. That being said, eating a plant-strong diet is more expensive than eating a diet of mostly processed foods. So it’s true that the typical college student diet of ramen and easy mac is probably cheaper (which is a result of the ridiculous food subsidies in place). But I think it’s important to think about the real cost of this cheap food. These highly processed foods are packed with sodium but nearly void of nutrients. They are empty calories that not only wreak havoc on your body but then often leave you feeling unsatisfied to boot! Though eating a plant-based diet might be a little more expensive, your money goes a lot further. Plant-based foods are packed full of nutrients that benefit your body and fuel your brain. Personally, I feel that the slight increase in my grocery bill is totally worth the extremely enhanced quality of my meals. (Plus I don’t drink, and that saves me oodles of money in comparison to most college students).
(Jenna) The past two years I have been required to have a full meal plan, so I rely on the dinning hall for most of my food (especially lunch and dinner). That being said, I also do keep a good amount of food in my room. I buy oats and grains in bulk for breakfasts. I also keep frozen fruit on hand. And I go to the farmers' market when I can (unfortunately, it is not all year here). Simplicity is key — all you need is a whole grain, a bean and/or legume, and some veggies served on some greens with a little spices/salsa/balsamic vinegar/hummus/dijon mustard/etc. to have a delicious plant-strong meal!
(Craig) We were worried about the same thing, until we ran through the numbers and realized that we would only be saving money on the Standard American Diet by living on Ramen noodles and Chef Boyardee, and we knew all too well about the hidden, long-term costs associated with that kind of diet. As far as eating on one of the school meal plans or even following a supposedly “balanced” SAD, we were spending less money eating plant-strong. With that being said, I’m a big fan of my store bonus card and am always looking to stock up on the foods I buy whenever they’re on sale The farmer’s market has been a tremendous help too — to support local farmers and save so much money by doing so is such a wonderful thing!
HH: What motivated you to adopt a plant-based diet?
(Tara) I initially was motivated by the health benefits. But as time has gone on, I’ve become educated about the ethical and environmental benefits as well, and I’ve come to really feel strongly about these aspects as well. It’s such a beautiful thing that doing what’s best for your own personal health can have such far-reaching implications. Eating a plant-based diet has a trifecta effect :) It benefits myself, but also serves to benefit animals and the planet as well.
(Jenna) Really a combination of the benefits for animals, the environment, and our health. Even though I am young and don’t have any major health problems, I want to eat the healthiest diet possible — and not only for my physical health, but my overall well-being and the health of countless animals and the environment. I have really become so aware of the countless profound benefits of eating plants and it is definitely one of the best decisions I have ever made.
(Craig) For me, going plant-based was a matter of planning ahead. Around the time I started to figure out that I might actually be a kid forever, I came to the conclusion that life was pretty good, and I ought to do whatever I can to make it last. It felt like making an investment; if I started forming healthy habits now, those habits would accrue interest over the years and yield a greater payoff in the long run. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much going plant-based would benefit me in the present too. And that’s really the motivator for me nowadays. I don’t avoid the bag of potato chips because of how I would feel ten years after the bag of potato chips as much as how I would feel ten minutes after the bag of potato chips.
How long have you been following a plant-based diet?
(Tara) I’ve been following a plant-based diet since September 2011 :)
(Jenna) I have been whole foods plant-based since May 2012 (and I have been vegetarian since August 2011).
(Craig) It’s been at least sixteen months that I’ve been completely plant-based. Now it’s weird to think about ever having eaten otherwise though, ha ha. That feels like an awfully long time ago!
HH: Any advice for teens and coeds who are thinking about switching to a plant-based diet?
(Tara) DO IT! It’s awesome :) And some things that help you get started: First, educate yourself. Read The China Study and Engine 2 Diet, watch Forks Over Knives, and/or the TEDx talks from Dr. McDougall, Dr.Esselstyn, Rip, and Dr. Barnard, and/or some of Jeff Novick’s videos. If you understand why you’re doing it, you’ll be motivated. You’ll truly want to eat plant-based, so it will be much easier to stick to it and maintain your ways. Second, be confident in yourself. People might not be instantly supportive of your new lifestyle, but try not to let it get to you. As E2 Team Member Char says, "be a promoter, not a defender." Defending yourself usually gets you nowhere. Just let people know that you’re trying something new, and so far it seems to be working for you. Most people will let it go eventually. And most people will end up accepting it, AND a lot of people will end up changing their diets as well. Maybe not fully, but you’ll rub off on them in at least small ways :) Finally, I would say to find friends or some sort of support network. Plant-based diets are becoming more present in society, but they are nowhere near mainstream, and it is easy to feel like you are alone sometimes. If you make the lifestyle change with a friend, you have someone to talk to about things, compare food/meal ideas with, and not feel isolated in what you are doing. You can be one another’s cheerleaders :) And if you don’t have a friend who is willing to make the switch with you, social media has you covered. You can follow Happy Herbivore, Engine 2 Diet, and The College Greens (and anyone else in the plant-based field) on Facebook, interact with people on their blogs, etc. The entire plant-based community is really supportive of one another, and we’re all here to share in the adventure together :)!!
(Jenna) It is most definitely doable and so incredibly worth it!! There are so many wonderful resources both online and in books and documentaries that offer advice, support, and encouragement. A little planning ahead and thought at first, and soon it becomes second nature to eat this way. It really is so simple, delicious, and overall amazing. You’ll feel better, look better, have more energy, and be promoting compassion. And we’re always more than happy to answer any specific questions that anyone may have =)
(Craig) Whatever your reasons for considering making the switch are, there’s one you can add that most people don’t think about: Going plant-based is a lot of fun! It’s only natural to think about it in terms of all the foods you’re cutting out at first, but once you get into the swing of it, you’ll be much more preoccupied by a world of foods that you’ve yet to explore, and plenty of foods waiting to be rediscovered. It will certainly take some time and effort (and even some struggle) to reform old habits, but I have no doubt that you’ll get a new-found appreciation for the foods you eat and a lot of enjoyment out of it.
HH: If someone is a teen or coed and already plant-based, what are some things they can do to help educate and spread awareness to their peers and community? Should they try to create an event on campus? start a club? Bring a potluck dish to study group? What can they do?
(Tara) Just being a living example is, in and of itself, a huge thing :) By simply being yourself and doin’ yo plant-based thang, you’ll be making an impression on others around you. That being said, there are also more active actions that one can take. Creating an event on campus would be an awesome way to spread awareness! Perhaps hosting a showing of the documentary Forks Over Knives or joining/starting a health-related club could be beneficial. Cooking for people is almost always a hit! People are always so surprised that eating plant-based foods is so tasty! :) So bringing food to club meetings or bringing a dish to a pot-luck type event can be helpful. Even doing projects for class helps to spread awareness. Anytime that I get a chance to pick my own topic for a paper/project/presentation, I do something related to plant-based eating. My classmates are usually really interested, and I’ve sparked the interest of a few professors as well!
(Jenna) First and most simply, be yourself! Be a living example and a positive influence. Offer your knowledge, support, and encouragement to others. Invite friends to join you at the farmers market or on a grocery trip. Suggest going to a vegan restaurant if there is one available (or even go out for vegan sushi together!) If you have a kitchen, cook a meal together or bring along some plant-based goodness with you to share. Participate and be outspoken in clubs (I am in my school’s environmental club and advocate for a vegan diet) or start your own club!! Encourage others to watch Forks Over Knives or other documentaries or have a screening on your campus. Start a blog or use social media to connect with others. And don’t be afraid to talk to your school’s dining hall if they don’t have any plant-based options!
(Craig) We’re really big on being living examples. Just by eating the foods we love to eat, the message seems to get itself out there that eating a plant-based diet keeps us happy and healthy. It also brings on a lot of interrogation, whether from people trying to convince us that our diet is wrong, or from people who are trying to figure out why our diet is right. Either way, we just try to share what we know and share the foods we love without being judgmental or preachy about it. It would be great if we could throw a big, plant-based party and get heaps of people on board, but unless they’re already interested in it, calling your peers’ diets into question can be a big turn off. So we just do what keeps us happy and spread the word to anyone who seems willing to listen. It doesn’t seem like much, but it can be surprisingly proactive.
HH: Finally, tell us a little bit about what it's like to intern at Engine 2!
(Tara) It is seriously a dream come true. I don’t think I can even put into words how grateful I am to have had such an amazing opportunity, or how wonderful the entire experience so far has been. “Working” for Engine 2 is not work. It’s pure delight. I get to spend time researching, writing about, and interacting with people who share my biggest passion on a daily basis! It’s beautiful. Plus, everyone at Engine 2 has been nothing but kind and helpful to us, and on such a high level. We’ve worked most closely with Natala, and she is so wonderful. She puts so much time into her work, because she really cares about what she is doing and is so dedicated to Engine 2. Her story and dedication are so inspirational. She also makes us feel so appreciated and has presented us with so many incredible opportunities (like introducing us to you!!). So working for her is such a pleasure. And, of course, it’s been so much fun working together with Craig and Jenna on the blog posts and various projects. They are two of my very best friends in the whole world, and working together gives us an excuse to talk every week and share our plant-strong nerdiness together :)
(Jenna) It is absolutely amazing! I am so incredibly grateful for this wonderful opportunity. Working with Natala as our mentor has been a really great experience. It is exciting to work with such a great organization. Being able to help to make a difference in people’s lives is really so fulfilling.
(Craig) Interning with Engine 2 has been tremendous. To work in something we care so much about, and to work with such caring people, is just about all we could ask for. I’m just so grateful to be a part of the life-changing work that they do, and I can’t wait to see where it’s all heading!
Thanks, Greens! You're the best!