By Maria Koklanaris
Thursday, June 18, 1998
As a young teenager, Paula "Jeanie" Freeman ate what was put in front of her -- a diet heavy on meat and light on vegetables.
Until the day when, at age 14, she decided that people who love animals should not eat them. She turned vegetarian, and never looked back.
Not that she had time for nostalgia. There was too much to learn.
"I wasn't much of a vegetable eater before that," said Freeman, now 37 and a member of the Vegetarian Society of the District of Columbia, the nation's oldest vegetarian group. "My mother had served us mostly canned vegetables, which I detest. So I had to learn from scratch about vegetables."
Now Freeman, a computer analyst from Crofton, Md., is more intimately acquainted with vegetables, as are most of the society's 700 members. The group exists to support vegetarians and people interested in vegetarianism, as well as to spread the word about the lifestyle in any forum it can.
Members attend social functions, such as potluck dinners, picnics and restaurant visits. They speak out on behalf of animal rights and conservation. And they make sure there's a place to go for everyone who prefers not to spend Thanksgiving in the vicinity of a stuffed turkey.
"The big thing is the Thanksgiving dinner," said Merlene Vassall,
35, who has been a vegetarian for 10 years.
Instead of turkey and the trimmings, last year's Vegetarian Society meal featured such dishes as eggplant with roasted garlic and balsamic vinegar and whole wheat pasta with artichokes, olive oil, walnuts and garlic. The meal typically draws at least 300 people, said Vassall, a fund-raising consultant from Silver Spring.
The event has grown from a potluck supper held in church basements to a catered affair that takes place in a major hotel -- or one year, on a cruise ship. The group makes special provisions for vegetarian singles -- seating them together; for hearing-impaired guests -- hiring a sign-language interpreter; and for young families -- providing plenty of high chairs. Club members often bring their extended families along.
"Probably half the people at our Thanksgiving event are not vegetarians," said David Baquis, 36, of Cleveland Park, a program director at a nonprofit agency.
Baquis said the group strives to be welcoming, not coercive.
"We try not to make anybody feel uncomfortable, no matter where they are on the pathway to a plant-based diet," he said.
There are many reasons why a person would want to become a vegetarian, according
to informal surveys done by the Vegetarian Society's Board of Directors. Five
of the most common reasons are: a desire for improved health; religious beliefs;
concern for the environment; support of animal rights; and concern about world
But the term vegetarian means different things to different people. The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as someone whose diet is free of flesh, fish and fowl. It recognizes several varieties: lacto-ovo vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians and vegans.
The broadest vegetarian diet is followed by lacto-ovo vegetarians. They eat dairy products and eggs, in addition to fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains.
Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but no dairy. Vegans eat no animal products at all, including honey.
Many of the Vegetarian Society's members, including Freeman and Vassall, are vegans.
"Within a year of going vegetarian, I went over to vegan," said Allen Schubert, 42, of Columbia, Md.
Others, like Baquis, go back and forth between veganism and a less strict form of vegetarianism.
"I haven't been able to give up my addiction to pizza" with cheese on it, he said.
Schubert's strong support of animal rights prompted him to completely give up animal products, he said. But the Internet software piracy investigator admitted it took him some time to learn how to eat vegetarian cuisine that he found tasty and filling.
"If you do too much of the salad thing, you're going to be hungry," said Schubert, who soon discovered dishes made with whole grains or tofu, in addition to vegetables and fruits.
Ronit Klemens, a 40-something consultant from Takoma Park, might disagree with Schubert. Klemens eats a diet far more restrictive than that of most vegetarians. Klemens is a "raw vegan." Beyond abstaining from animal products, Klemens also does not eat any food that has been cooked or processed.
"We do raw fruits, raw vegetables, leaves and nuts," said Klemens, a single mother of two grown children.
"Yes, like lettuce," Klemens says with a chuckle. "We don't eat leaves from trees."
Klemens estimates that "less than 10" of the Vegetarian Society's members are raw vegans, although she said, "there are people who like to explore" the lifestyle. As coordinator of the group's Raw Vegan Focus Group, she hosts anyone interested in raw veganism each month for a potluck meal that might include freshly squeezed juices.
Klemens said she used to suffer from allergies, but said they have disappeared since she became a raw vegan about a year ago. She had been a vegetarian, "mostly vegan," since age 16.
"I'm never going back to cooked food," she said.
The American Dietetic Association, which maintains that whole grains are the foundation of a properly balanced diet, does not endorse raw veganism. However, the group does gives its blessing to other vegetarian diets, including vegan diets.
"Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in prevention and treatment of certain diseases, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers," the ADA says.
The dieticians' group also endorses the vegetarian diet for pregnant and breastfeeding women, but advises vegans who are pregnant or nursing to take special care to ensure they get enough calcium, Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin D.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend a vegan diet for children, because it believes most children would miss out on key nutrients if they ate no animal products whatsoever.
Among the ways the Vegetarian Society supports it members is by advising them on which non-animal foods include key minerals, such as calcium. The most common way to get calcium may be by eating dairy products, but vegans learn they can also get it from kale, broccoli, figs and some brands of corn tortillas.
Vassall said most vegetarians and vegans quickly find their tastes change soon after their minds change.
"I used to put cheese on practically everything," she said, "and now I don't even miss it."
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