Jennifer Lopez reckons she’s got loads more energy since opting for a plant-based diet. Glee’s Lea Michele, Jared Leto and Olivia Wilde are also converts. Here, popular vegan Instagrammer Jennifer Benisz from Adelaide provides her tips on taking the sloooow ride to ‘Vegan Town’.
Jen, how did you ‘slowly’ embrace the vegan lifestyle? Ever slipped up?
I ate the standard Australian diet my whole life. Then, at the start of 2011, I started slowly cutting out eating land animals for ethical reasons. However, I was still consuming fish, dairy and eggs at this time. The circumstances that led me to following a purely plant-based lifestyle was that I just wasn’t feeling great and was looking for ways to improve my health through diet.
I was doing full-time shift work [as a nurse], and was always exhausted, grumpy and emotional. I was slowly gaining weight, my immune system was very weak, I was regularly taking antibiotics for chest infections, and I never felt energetic or truly healthy.
At that time, I was looking through a book store and stumbled across The Beauty Detox Solution by Kimberly Snyder. That was the book that changed my life. She promotes drinking green smoothies and juices for breakfast, and a diet high in raw organic foods and wholefoods. It was a totally different way of eating for me, but within two days of implementing her recommendations, I felt like a new person.
Of course I occasionally slipped up in the first few months – there’s a lot to learn! But I think it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. It’s not what we eat occasionally that shapes our health but what we eat consistently.
Any vegan books or sites you’ve found particularly helpful?
There are so many wonderful resources, particularly on the internet, to support veganism and a plant-based lifestyle. Along with The Beauty Detox Solution, I also like Feel the Lean by Loni Jane. On Instagram, my favourite accounts are @lonijane, @anniejaffrey, @the_peachy_pear, and @cacaonuts. And my favourite vegan blogs are Oh She Glows and Deliciously Ella.
Many worry about missing out on protein and iron when eliminating animal products. Where can these be found in a plant-based diet?
It’s very easy to meet the recommendations for protein and iron as long as calorie intake is adequate and the diet is based around wholefoods and variety. Vegan sources for protein include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, peas, nuts and nut butters, seeds, soy milk, leafy greens, rice, quinoa, whole-wheat bread, potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, and corn.
Vegan sources for iron include spinach, beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, chickpeas, oatmeal, dried fruits, nuts, sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast, molasses, and grains such as quinoa and millet. Vitamin C helps increase iron absorption – so for optimal health benefits, consume foods that are rich in both nutrients such as dark green, leafy vegetables.
I actually suffered from iron-deficiency anaemia when I was eating red meat. I get annual blood tests and my results since changing my diet to a vegan one have been a phenomenal improvement, but more importantly, I feel better.
What does a typical ‘day on a plate’ look like for you?
For breakfast, I try to start the day with water and lemon juice. Then 30 minutes later, I have a green smoothie with some combination of banana, pear, apple, lettuce, spinach, kale and chia seeds, blended in filtered water. If a green smoothie is not an option, then I’ll have raw fruit or a fruit salad.
Morning tea is usually a green smoothie, fruit smoothie, or fresh fruit.
Lunch is a salad with some grains, such a quinoa or rice, and some pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds thrown in, with a delicious dressing on top.
If I want an afternoon snack, I’ll have a small handful of nuts, veggie sticks with salsa or guacamole, or corn thins with hummus and tomato.
For dinner, I try to start with a serve of salad to get more raw greens in and to aid digestion, but I don’t always follow that in the winter.
For the main event, my favourites are vegetable stir-fry with tofu, rice noodles and satay sauce; spaghetti with Napoletana sauce, adding in mushrooms, shredded carrots, zucchini and beans or lentils; sushi or cold rolls with vegetables; and vegetable stews and curries with rice or potatoes.
I still have my indulgences, too. I love fresh coffee, vegan chocolate (Pana Chocolate is my favourite), and occasionally eat hot chips or processed foods. On the whole, I try to eat as healthy and clean as possible, but allow myself the occasional treat.
Are there any foods people would be surprised to know are vegan
Oreos, Doritos (Original flavour), Kettle Chips (Sea Salt & Vinegar, Chilli, and Original), and soft drinks. Though, if you are very health-conscious, you probably would only eat those foods occasionally – if ever!
Are going to social events or cooking for a household harder when you have special dietary requirements? Is following the lifestyle also time-consuming?
When going to social events, I never expect people to bend over backwards for ‘that vegan friend’. I try to always bring a couple things if attending a barbecue, like some falafel, mixed nuts, fruit salad, veggie sticks with dip, veggie cold rolls, or even Oreos! If I’m going to a function where I can’t bring food, I’ll eat something before I leave the house and I generally have a snack or two stashed in my handbag at all times. These days, I find establishments and people to be extremely accommodating and accepting of different ways of eating, so eating out is not a problem at all.
I consider myself to be a busy person, so quick and healthy meals are essential to fit my lifestyle. Whipping up a green smoothie literally takes a couple minutes and is so packed full of nutritional value – it really doesn’t get easier than that.
Snacking is as easy as eating an apple, or celery sticks with dip. And dinners are straightforward for me, too: cook up some veggies and grains, then throw a salad together. It’s only complicated if you want to make it that way.
Celeb vegans you admire?
Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone, and Ellen DeGeneres.
Please share a vegan recipe of your own that you love…
Sure, here’s my recipe for ‘chocolate mousse’, using only four ingredients. It’s raw, vegan, and free from refined sugar. Enjoy!
1/4 cup cacao
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup of plant milk (almond or coconut milk works best)
Put all the ingredients in a food processor and whip them up. Makes one large or two small servings. Top with fresh strawberries, shredded coconut or cacao nibs.
Carla Caruso is an Adelaide romantic comedy author. A vegetarian heroine in her novel, Catch of the Day (Penguin), was inspired by Instagrammer Jennifer Benisz (before she went fully vegan). For more on Carla’s books, visit her website or click here