Fighting fast food: How vegans, raw foodists survive in South Texas


June 17, 2010 at 1:17 a.m.

Driving down Navarro Street, it's easy to see why a recent study put Victoria County at almost 80 percent obese.

On every block, there is a fast food restaurant, sometimes two or three. Chain restaurants with high fat fare dot the landscape with almost as much frequency. Grocery stores have aisles upon aisles filled with highly processed, pre-made and pre-packaged meals.

Welcome to South Texas, the land of the fried and home of the barbecued.

But just like it is across the rest of the country, there is a movement afoot in the area where people are battling increasing waistlines and decreasing health, not through fad diets, but instead through a complete lifestyle change.

A small, but growing, number of people are forgoing the current American diet of fast and cheap food by switching to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, joining the raw food movement and the gluten-free and organic movement and hitting up the farmer's markets on a regular basis.

Such is the case with Dr. Gulshan Minocha, who works at the Diagnostic Clinic of Victoria. Four years ago, Minocha went vegan after reading "The China Study" by longtime nutrition and health researcher Dr. T. Colin Campbell. The intensively researched book discussed how studies have shown that by switching from a mostly animal-based protein diet to a plant-based protein diet can ward off sickness and disease, including cancer.

"When I read how animal proteins are the cause of so many illnesses, I switched to vegan, which means no meat or dairy products," Minocha added. "After I did, I felt much better. I lost 28 pounds and my cholesterol, which was two times as high as it should be due to genetics, dropped by half."

One of the biggest problems Minocha has faced since he became a vegan is the lack of restaurant options in the area. While some restaurants may have one or two vegetarian dishes, many include cheese and other dairy products, he added.

"It is difficult in a place like Victoria and I don't see Victoria becoming more vegan-friendly. I've been watching for awhile and hoping that a restaurant with more options opens up, but it's disparaging. I can't ever find a place where I can order," he said. "The only thing that really survives in Victoria is fast food and Tex-Mex restaurants."

Although she's not a vegan, Sally Delgado-Francis knows all too well how Minocha feels. After going gluten-free last year after her doctor suspected she might have Celiac disease, the 54-year-old dropped 18 pounds without trying and had energy that she hadn't felt for years, she said. However, finding gluten-free food at restaurants and in grocery stores can be tricky.

"It is difficult to eat out since I've stopped eating wheat and food with gluten, particularly in Victoria. So I do a lot of cooking for myself," she added. "I do the majority of my shopping at Whole Foods in Houston."

Lucy Vazquez, 23, was living in Victoria when she picked up a copy of Victoria Boutenko's book "Green for Life" and decided to transition to a raw food lifestyle, which primarily consists of uncooked, unprocessed and often organic plant-based foods.

Vazquez's girlfriend, Katie Morris, also went raw and while both of them said they loved the way it positively affected their health, it was a difficult lifestyle to maintain in Victoria.

For Morris, the hardest part wasn't getting her hands on organic, raw food, but rather being a minority in the world of food consumption.

"Surprisingly, the most difficult part isn't driving two hours to get to Whole Foods. I frequent the H-E-B organic section and that's fine. The toughest part is social pressure; the combination of people ridiculing what I eat to not being able to emotionally bond over food," she said. "It's so much more a part of our culture than I ever knew before I was isolated because of it. People associate 'bad' food with good memories and get insulted if you make other choices."

While it can be a struggle trying to live an alternative eating lifestyle in South Texas, the idea that Americans can no longer go on eating the way they do is catching on and eating whole and unprocessed foods is becoming more popular.

The Farmer's Market in Victoria has been going on for a quarter of a century, but in recent years, market manager Noah Thompson said he's seen an increase of people coming to buy fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, people flock to the parking lot of the Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center, where the market is held.

"There's definitely been an increase in people wanting to eat local produce. It's happening not only here, but all over the nation," he added. "Our biggest trouble is raising enough stuff for them."

Mary Olivar, Southwest Region Healthy Eating Specialist for Whole Foods, agreed that people are definitely becoming more aware of their dietary choices that are affecting not only their immediate quality of life, but their long term health.

"People are wanting to know more about their food. They want to know where it comes from, where it was grown, and want cleaner food and not highly processed food. There is a whole trend of eating more local food," she said. "I think we can no longer pretend there's not an element of personal responsibility in these choices. People are embracing the opportunity to improve their lives and their health."

Even if someone is hesitant to become a full-on vegan, raw foodist or eat gluten-free, just making smaller changes can make a huge difference in overall health, Minocha said.

"The first question people ask when they found out I'm vegan is where do I get my protein? People have a hard time understanding that there is protein in plants. Not to mention, most people's perception of vegetables is steamed broccoli. But you can be creative with vegetables and other foods, such as rice, pasta, nuts and lentils," he said. "One of the biggest problems we're facing is that our health problems are growing as we eat more meat. I encourage all my patients to eat less meat."

Although local restaurants have yet to catch on to the growing interest of alternative and healthier eating lifestyles, for those looking to make a change, there is a simple solution, Olivar said.

"I advise people to learn how to cook at home and grow a garden. When you do go out, read labels and start paying attention," she said. "You can still have your traditional Southern food, but adapt it and get more beans and greens in there."



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