Book Review: It’s Never Too Late to Go Vegan
It’s Never Too Late to Go Vegan— The Over-50 Guide to Adopting and Thriving on a Plant-Based Diet
Reviewed By Dustin Garrett Rhodes
I was recently at a vegan dinner party when the conversation diverted to what many vegans would consider a cliché: We started talking about why and when we converted. But what set this conversation apart and, really, what inspired me was the fact that several of the people there were in their 60s and 70s, and were recent converts. At a time in life when many people are happy to live with the habits they’ve cultivated over a lifetime, I was being regaled by tales of people who’d made big changes at a later stage. And I was deeply moved by this.
I am ashamed to admit how often, at the semi-ripe age of 42, that the voice in my own head often admonishes, “You’re too old for that.” Whether it’s to learn a new language, try a new hobby, do something fun, impulsive, etc., I am my own worst enemy, and I suspect that we are all too intimate with the voice in our heads that tells us it’s too late to try something new.
When do we become “too old” for something, to give our lives new purpose and meaning? When do we become too old to make a difference? As I sat listening to these people sharing their stories of how adopting a plant-based lifestyle had dramatically changed their lives, I was struck by all the assumptions I’d clung to about the aging process itself. It occurred to me that I actually might not really know anything about aging and growing old—a word with so much cultural baggage.
It’s Never Too Late to Go Vegan—The Over-50 Guide to Adopting and Thriving on a Plant-Based Diet, by Carol Adams, Ginny Messina and Patti Breitman—is a book I highly recommend. It’s not just a book about becoming vegan; it’s ultimately a book about living a full life. Not only will you find all the reasons to adopt a plant-based diet, this book lays out a path: how to do it, what to watch out for, and how to get started in the kitchen. And more than that, this book turns the process of aging on its head, and artfully dispels myths about the process of aging. You might be surprised to find out that much of what we think of as inevitable is not at all.
Messina, a registered dietitian who’s an authority on vegan nutrition, was kind enough to discuss the book, aging and why plant-based diets inspire its adherents, young and old alike.
In many ways, It’s Never Too Late To Go Vegan is as much about healthy aging – and dispelling the myths of aging – as it is veganism.
What inspired the three of you to write on this topic?
We were inspired by the fact that there was this large group of people who were being overlooked in vegan advocacy. And there are some compelling advantages for older people in adopting a vegan diet and exploring a vegan ethic. Some of those are, of course, the advantages associated with eating more plant foods for healthy aging, so we naturally included information about that. Although the book is about veganism, it’s all placed within the general context of aging.
A lot of people believe that it does become “too late” to do something like become vegan; that it won’t help animals. But many people say it’s the best thing they ever did, regardless of age. What is it about a veggie-based diet that’s life changing?
I think one of the most important things we share in this book is that veganism is a way to feel empowered. And the reason that this is important is because aging brings perceptions of diminished influence and relevance. Veganism is a simple way to reclaim or reassert your influence and your power. It has an impact every single day and allows anyone to make a critical difference in the world.
What do you think some of the challenges are to becoming vegan? Do you think some are specific to people past a certain age?
There is a learning curve with veganism. You need to learn where to get calcium and protein and vitamin B12. And how to bake a cake without eggs and find a brand of plant milk that you like. That all takes time and a little bit of effort. But for many people, the most challenging part lies in social situations and family situations. And this may be a little bit more of a hurdle for people over 50. Older vegans may experience resistance from adult children and from grandchildren who are bewildered by changes in holiday meals. They may find that longtime friends are confused by and uncomfortable with this change. On the flip side, many over-50 vegans say that their dietary choices have positively influenced spouses and adult children.
There’s a lot of talk about “vitality” in the book – discussed in ways I’d never considered. What is it about removing animal products from your diet that lends itself to vitality and a positive aging process?
The dictionary defines vitality as the “capacity for survival or for the continuation of a meaningful or purposeful existence.” It’s often thought of as “energy,” and certainly adopting a healthy vegan diet may make you feel more energetic if it improves your health. But it’s really the second part of that definition that we were after. We referred to vitality as “the flame within.” Again, it’s about this feeling of empowerment and purpose. About doing something that feels vital—or necessary. Which is absolutely how veganism feels to many people who discover it later in life.
A lot of people think becoming vegan will make them a social pariah. What do you say to that?
It’s true that when you first go vegan some friends may feel discomfort about shared meals. It’s important to be proactive about that and to put any concerns to rest. Offering to bring food to social gatherings (and making sure it’s really good food that others will want to taste, too) relieves your host of any worries about what to feed you. Choosing restaurants that are likely to accommodate everyone’s needs can take some of the angst out of mixed dining experiences. The most important thing, though, is to let others know that yes, you are eating differently, but nothing in your relationship with them has actually changed.
What about the food aspect of veganism. How do you help people get past the belief that vegan food is weird or nutritionally incomplete?
My own work is devoted to helping people understand the (very simple) principles of vegan nutrition so that they will feel confident about the safety of vegan diets. The information on planning healthy vegan diets is available and we just have to make sure that people are directed to reliable sources. But it’s pretty hard to even contemplate veganism if you think the food is awful or that you have to give up all of your favorite dishes. We might be more successful as vegan activists if we feed people first and then talk to them about veganism. And maybe show them that there is a vegan version of everything in the world. That’s why the recipes in Never Too Late to Go Vegan include, in addition to healthier fare, mac ‘n cheese, artichoke dip, and chocolate cake.
Do you advocate for a cold Tofurkey approach to veganism or something more gradual?
It depends. My experience from years of dietary counseling is that many people do best with lifestyle change when they take it one manageable step at a time. And that’s a good approach for those who are feeling hesitant about going vegan. However, some people, when they realize the impact of dietary choices on animal suffering, feel an urgent need to go vegan right away. And this often works very well for them. So, I advocate whatever approach feels most manageable and necessary to an individual.
Are there certain dietary needs that older individuals need to watch out for when transitioning to a plant-based diet?
Older people may have higher protein needs, although the research on this isn’t clear. And since some older people see their calorie needs decline, they may need to choose more protein-dense diets. It’s not at all difficult to do this; it’s just a matter of boosting intake of legumes—beans, soy foods and peanut butter. Calcium needs increase as well, so it’s very important for older people, vegan or not, to identify good sources of calcium in their diets like fortified plant milks, certain leafy greens and calcium-set tofu.
Reading your book, and I intend this as the most sincere compliment, I was surprised how inspired I felt about the aging process itself. It’s something we’re culturally taught to fear. How has veganism affected your own life and your own process of aging?
Aging has its downside, that’s for sure. But it also has some perks. It’s an experience that really does yield wisdom and especially perspective. It can bring freedom from certain types of obligations or expectations. There is also the incredible sweetness of long-term friendships and other relationships and the joy of shared memories that stretch back for decades.
Would my own experience of growing older be different if I weren’t vegan? It’s hard to say because I’ve been vegan since my 30s. I don’t know how my non-vegan self would have experienced the aging process. I might be healthier than I would otherwise have been since vegans often have less heart disease and diabetes. But successful aging isn’t just about physical and social health. It requires that we feel useful and that we have contributed to leaving the world better than we found it. For me, making choices with the intention of causing the least harm is a way of expressing core values that remain a constant even as so many other things are changing.
Any last words of wisdom or advice for some considering eliminating animal products from their diets and lifestyle, especially someone consumed by that nagging voice in one’s head that says, “It’s too late for me!”?
Going vegan is a way to bring your actions in line with an ethic of compassion and with concerns about fairness and justice. And it seems like the older we are, the more likely we are to have a sense of urgency regarding this harmony between belief and action. Whatever time we have left in this life, we can use it to express our beliefs and to let go of habits that harm the environment and animals. It could not possibly ever be too late to do that!
Jan. 28, 2014
The Experiment, LLC