Last week Caroline and I met with a friend of hers, Jennifer Kent, to learn more about her vegan lifestyle. The three of us enjoyed lunch at Ali Baba restaurant in Oakland, PA – a university town that is home to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. It was difficult to decide what to order—there were so many delicious options! I decided on the open-faced hummus pita pocket, yum! We were the first customers of the day, and the three of us sat in a cozy corner toward the back. Although it was quiet when we got there, the restaurant was buzzing with laughter and conversation by the time our interview with Jennifer was over.
Jennifer is a Pittsburgh vegan with a passion for fitness, healthy living – and lentils! Jennifer’s journey began in 2002 when her compassion for animals lead her to become a vegetarian. By 2010, her awareness of factory farming practices led her to adopt a vegan lifestyle. “The farm animals who have it the worst, in terms of how they’re cared for, are egg-laying hens and dairy producing cows,” Jennifer said. “That’s when I realized I had to become vegan to help animals and not support the animal industry.” Since switching from vegetarian to vegan, Jennifer has lost 35 lbs and feels better than ever. Her long-term perspective? “Keep on keepin’ on,” she said with a smile. “I’ve passed the point of no return. I can never imagine eating animal flesh again, and dairy makes me physically sick.”
There was no missing Jennifer’s enthusiasm for her vegan lifestyle and what it had done for her. As we enjoyed our lunches, she smiled and laughed and was happy to share any information, from what she ate for breakfast to her favorite restaurant tips. But was the transition difficult? To my surprise, Jennifer said her transition to a vegan diet was much easier than when she went vegetarian. “When I went from vegetarian to vegan I thought it was pretty easy,” she said. “At that point there was a huge online community of people supporting me, linking recipes, and recommending cookbooks. When I went vegetarian, I did it on my own. Going vegetarian, the hardest part was learning a whole new way to eat; it felt restrictive. But when I went vegan it opened up my world to new and better ways to eat.”
The vegan runner explained that before going vegan she had never eaten kale, or lentils, or many of the other foods she now loves. “I learned to cook when I went vegan. That’s why I say it opened up new opportunities because I never cooked before becoming vegan,” she said.
Even though transitioning from vegetarian to vegan was easy for Jennifer, there were, and still are, challenges with her family. “For the first six months I didn’t tell anyone,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t tell my husband, I didn’t tell my family. I just said things like, ‘No, I don’t want cheese,’ and no one noticed anything different.”
And how does her family react now, four years later? “My family still has a hard time with it. They just don’t understand vegan and they feel badly that they can’t make me any food. For the first few years they asked me questions like ‘So, you still eat hot dogs, right?‘” Jennifer said. “My mom still says, ‘I don’t know what to make you when you come here.’ I’ve given her examples, but she isn’t interested in learning to cook differently at this point,” the greyhound owner said. But Jennifer has seen progress. At least her family has stopped asking her if she eats hot dogs.
So what is in Jennifer’s diet? “When I think about what I need to eat to be healthy, I believe that every day I should have one or more servings of leafy greens. I should eat mushrooms and broccoli, and a variety of vegetables and fruits. Plus whole grains and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, or avocado. I don’t generally cook with oil,” Jennifer explained. Many people new to the idea seem to think a plant-based diet is unhealthy when in fact it’s quite the opposite. “I don’t get sick. Since becoming vegan I don’t think I’ve ever called off work,” she said. “I wake up in the morning feeling refreshed. I always have a lot of energy to get me through the day,” the Pittsburgh Northside resident said. She attributes her vegan diet to giving her the energy to more fully enjoy her fit lifestyle. “Fitness is my passion. This diet has given me more energy to pursue that passion.” What does she wish she knew during the transition to a vegetarian lifestyle? “I wish I’d known that this isn’t a restrictive diet. I can eat whatever I want. I don’t feel I ever have to limit myself.”
Jennifer was inspiring me! It made me wonder who inspires Jennifer? It turns out that Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president and co-founder, is a huge inspiration to her. “She has to be one of the most hated people, yet she does not give up on her philosophy and her outlook,” she said. Jennifer said she loves that Ingrid is on every animal’s side and she doesn’t let everyone get her down. “Say what you want about PETA, but they get attention for animals.”
Mark Bittman is another inspiration to her. “He’s brought the mentality that if vegan doesn’t fit into your lifestyle you don’t have to do it full-time. Even by doing it part-time, as in his ‘Vegan before 6’ philosophy, you’re still making a difference,” she said.
So what’s a favorite recipe that has helped her lose 35 lbs, stay healthy, and ramp up her fitness goals? Here’s one of Jennifer’s favorite recipes- Tofu-Kale Bowl, topped with Caesar Chavez Dressing and Basic Baked Tofu. “I picked this one because it has a combo of whole grain, veggie, and protein in one meal,” Jennifer said. “It’s not just healthy but very filling, which helps with weight loss/maintenance.” This recipe, including the Caesar Chavez Dressing and Basic Baked Tofu recipes, can be found in the cookbook Appetite for Reduction by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. View of all Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s cookbooks here. Enjoy the recipe below and be sure to check out the concluding segment of my interview with Jennifer when we talk about eating out. Jennifer even shares her restaurant tips! You won’t want to miss out!
Although this recipe is found in Appetite for Reduction, Jennifer made it her own by creating specific proportions for the ingredients, since Isa didn’t include amounts for the recipe. This recipe is great for lunch and can be eaten at room temperature. Makes 1 serving.
- ½ cup brown rice (or your favorite whole grain)
- 2-3 cups steamed kale (steamed until kale is very soft, about 20 minutes)
- Baked tofu (you can buy baked tofu at a store, or cube and sauté it in a pan with cooking spray for about 10 minutes)
- Caesar Chavez dressing (found in Appetite for Reduction)
- Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
- Serve at room temperature. Enjoy!