Ron Reid had not been feeling well for a while and knew something wasn’t right. A blood test confirmed what he feared: The Austin resident had diabetes.
His doctor put him on five medications, and he and his wife Serethea immediately adopted a vegetarian diet. Within a month, they decided to become vegans, cutting out eggs and all dairy, with the goal of getting Ron Reid off his medications.
It was a big change for Reid, who used to eat a lot of meat and starches. At first, he missed cheeseburgers and pizza. “I never liked vegetables, but now I love them. My whole taste for food has changed,” said Reid, 59, a software developer and IT consultant.
The solution was simple, Reid said. Start exercising and change his diet: No meat, no fish, no dairy, nothing that comes from an animal — and consume less sugar.
Within two months, Reid said his blood work went from “horrible” to normal, prompting his doctor to order another round of tests just to make sure what she was seeing was correct, Reid said. He got off all five of his medications.
The Reids are part of what some dietitians say is a small but growing number of African Americans adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, though some, like their friend Vivian Stewart Tyler, have been following such a diet for decades.
The retired CPS teacher became a vegetarian 47 years ago hoping to prevent asthma attacks. An allergist recommended eliminating certain foods from her diet.
“I had real bad allergies. They have almost dissipated. I don’t get as sick as I used to. I don’t get colds,” said the 78-year-old. “You feel better, you have more energy.”
Ann Miller-Jordan, a lawyer who lives a few blocks from the Reids on Chicago’s West Side, said a documentary persuaded her to give up meat; she was also concerned about the health of her family, including a nephew who was taking high blood pressure medication.
“It’s so much easier to be vegan now, compared to even four years ago,” Miller-Jordan said. Grocery stores carry vegan products, and there a number of restaurants that cater to vegans, she said.
Miller-Jordan’s diet consists mainly of fruits and vegetables, and her nephew, who also became a vegan, no longer needs his medication.
Improving health is one of the primary reasons people adopt such a diet, experts say.
“For some people, I think it’s a return to culture – being more plant-based. For some people, it’s religion. Some of it is a holistic life change, and for others it may be a health change,” said Angela Odoms-Young, an associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The key is being intentional about what you eat and what you don’t eat, Odoms-Young said.
“Do you have a healthy dietary pattern? Is it highly processed? Is it high in fruits and vegetables? … If you do follow a vegan diet, you have to be intentional. You have to do your research.”
Vegans need to make sure they get enough nutrients. For instance, a vegan diet contains no dairy, which for most people is their primary source of calcium. Vegans also need to make sure they get enough vitamin B12 since they’re not consuming any meat, fish or poultry, Odoms-Young said.
“We can’t say veganism is the only healthy lifestyle,” she said. “It’s one path to people being intentional and being healthier.”
About 3% to 6% of the world’s population follows a vegan diet, said Kristen Gradney, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
She and other experts say research shows there are many health benefits of consuming a diet that is mostly or entirely plant-based.
Gradney, a registered dietitian, became a vegetarian earlier this year during Lent. As a practicing Catholic, she wanted to do something that would help her spiritually. Gradney quickly realized her fruit and vegetable intake had not been high enough, something she soon corrected.
“I just feel lighter,” she said. “It’s good for my long-term health, and it’s a good example for my kids.”
Ron Reid didn’t have to persuade his daughter about the merits of adopting a meat-less diet. She’s been either a vegetarian or vegan since the 8th grade and was surprised when her father, who used to tease her about her diet, made such a switch. “Now she gives me a hard time about being late to the party,” Reid said.
He would like to get other relatives and friends to adopt the vegan lifestyle. It bothers him to see loved ones eating fried chicken and macaroni and cheese at family get-togethers.
“I’ve had so many friends and family members experience serious health challenges and even death from illnesses that are directly linked to poor diet and lack of physical activity that I’m deeply motivated to share such a simple solution … I have a fervor for this.”