Ellen Jaffe Jones was 28 when she realized she needed to make a dramatic change if she was going to escape her family legacy. "So many people in my family were sick with cancer and heart disease, we joked that we had family reunions in the hospital, and I thought, 'How do I avoid this?' "
For Jones, now 58, the answer was an ultrahealthy lifestyle featuring a plant-based diet and plenty of exercise. Today, the former TV news reporter is an author and certified personal trainer known as the "Veg Coach" to her followers. She lives on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County and will speak next Saturday at Veg Fest in Tampa (see box).
Jones is the strictest type of vegetarian, a vegan who eats no meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy. It's a lifestyle that got a burst of publicity recently when former President Bill Clinton announced that after having quadruple bypass and stent surgeries, he has become a vegan on the advice of Dr. Dean Ornish.
Jones says going to a plant-based diet makes sense, particularly in this tough economy.
She was watching the news one day when she saw a grocery shopper talking about how hard it is to buy healthy food on a budget.
"I thought, 'That can't be,' " Jones said. She knew this from doing the family food shopping for years, but she set out to thoroughly document the prices and nutritional value of whole grains, nuts and vegetables, and compare them to those of animal-based foods.
The result is her new book, Eat Vegan on $4 a Day: A Game Plan for the Budget Conscious Cook ($14.95 at Amazon.com and at Jones' website, vegcoach.com).
"The book talks about the true savings of eating healthfully, first at the store and then by not getting sick enough to need medication, surgery or medical devices," said Jones, a distance runner who struggled with her weight before she changed her diet.
If you want to go vegetarian but no one else in your family will, Jones is proof you can go it alone. Neither her husband nor her three kids have followed her vegan example.
Here are some highlights from a recent conversation with Jones:
When did you decide to become a vegan?
I started to change my diet when I was 28, when my sister got breast cancer for the second time, also the year I almost died from a colon blockage from eating poorly and not drinking enough water. I started running, fluctuated between a vegan and vegetarian diet for many years and switched to full vegan diet seven years ago.
Tell me more about your interest in the cost of a plant-based diet.
People think it costs so much to eat vegetables. I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to crunch the numbers?" I spent several years writing down the prices of meats, beans and other protein sources, got a software program that calculated the price of ingredients in recipes and meals, and found that you can save money eating healthy foods. I thought people would be interested in reading about how well they could eat on a little money.
Give us an example.
Compare the cost of beans to meat. I focus on price per ounce. A serving of made-from-scratch beans, 4 ounces, costs about a dime. The cheapest hamburger meat, with 30 percent fat, is about 56 cents for a 4-ounce serving. A serving of tenderloin is about $3.40 for a 4-ounce serving. Even if you don't want to cook beans from scratch, from a can, it's roughly 12 to 15 cents for a 4-ounce serving.
But eating beans is not the same taste experience as eating beef tenderloin. How do you address that?
It takes three weeks to change your taste buds. I ask people, "Did you ever drink whole milk? What was it like switching to skim milk? How long did it take, about three weeks? Did you ever go back to whole milk?" Yes, they say, and it tasted thick, sludgy, disgusting. It's the same thing.
You lead workshops and coach people on losing weight, exercising and eating a healthier diet. Do most people need a health problem to make a change?
Generally the people I see want to get off blood pressure medicine because it affects their sex life, they want to lose weight or don't want to take cholesterol-lowering medications. The sex issue is a common problem. I tell them broccoli is the new Viagra. Clear up your heart, your blood vessel issues, and the others will clear up, too.
What's your advice for people who want to give vegetarian or vegan eating a try, but aren't ready to give up meat, eggs or dairy entirely?
Try it for just one meal. Then for a few meals a week. Use imitation ground meat in chili or pasta sauce. No one will know the difference. All grocery stores have those transitional foods like veggie burgers and tofurkey. They're in the produce department. Just try it for three weeks, and if it doesn't work for you go back to your old way of eating.
What about people who say they don't have time to prepare all those vegetables and cook beans for hours?
My book has menu plans, shopping and cooking strategy tips, like how to make beans quickly for the whole week. It's easy. It's not easy to have open-heart surgery or take insulin injections every day. Believe me, it's much easier to change your diet.
Your book wasn't out long before it went to a second printing. Did Clinton coming out as a vegan help?
Yes. All the publicity helped fuel my book. It was about a month old when he started doing interviews on being a vegan. He made the point that eating vegan was healthy eating; he made the change because he wanted to be around for his grandchildren. It's also the economy and people looking for ways to save money.
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected] com.