LET’S FACE IT—it’s going to be a long time before New Yorkers abandon their search for the best burger, their love for Peter Luger or their yen for Mister Softee on a hot summer day.
But lately, less meaty (and creamy) food options have been showing up all over town.
In the past six months, a vegan pop-up restaurant, Wildflower, opened for three days on the Lower East Side, and a vegan pop-up shop debuted in Williamsburg. Candle 79, the Upper East Side vegan mecca, launched a line of frozen foods to be sold at Whole Foods, and the Soft Serve Fruit Co. opened a Union Square location to peddle their vegan version of frozen yogurt.
And while vegans in New York are not a new phenomenon, this newest trend towards plant-based diets seems to be focused less on stopping the slaughter of animals and more on starting to pay attention to a major American issue— our health.
"It’s a concept whose time has come, and it feels like some big changes have been made in the past year," said Brian Wendel, the creator of Forks Over Knives, a feature documentary on the benefits of a plant-based diet, which played at Landmark Sunshine Cinemas on the Lower East Side this past May. "I foresee more coming in the near future."
Wendel said that he had been aware of the general benefits of a plant-based diet for years, but that after reading The China Study, he was shocked by how convincing and expansive the evidence for eliminating meat and dairy from diets really was.
"I just thought, ‘Enough is enough,’" he said. "We’re talking about a diet that can not only prevent, but can reverse many degenerative diseases."
The China Study, written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas M. Campbell, summarizes the results of the China Project, a survey focused primarily on research in rural China. The project cited more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between dietary factors and disease and is often called the
most comprehensive study of health and nutrition ever conducted.
Campbell’s main conclusion was that people who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic diseases. For example, he demonstrated that cancer growth could literally be "turned on" by animal protein.
Forks Over Knives relied heavily on information from The China Study, and on research done by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., a prominent researcher at the Cleveland Clinic who has shown that heart disease can be prevented, and sometimes reversed, by switching individuals from animal to plantbased diets.
Despite the amount of evidence on how much healthier a vegan diet can be, most nutritionists still advocate a balanced meal complete with animal protein. Last month, the USDA released new dietary guidelines in the form of a diagram called MyPlate. While the diagram does emphasize eating more fruits and vegetables, it features a separate section for both dairy and protein (protein from either meat or vegan sources, such as soy or legumes.)
And many people, including some nutritionists, do recommend meat and dairy as sources of nutrients such as calcium and protein.
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, the founder of Real Nutrition NYC near Madison Square Park, said that animal products are not at all necessary to maintain a healthy diet, but that in order to be a healthy vegan, you have to be more diligent about your diet.
"People say they’re going vegan, and they grab lots of carbs because it’s easy and cheap," she said. "But it takes a lot of work to make sure you’re getting the nutrients from the food you choose to eat."
For instance, Shapiro explained that Americans tend to think they need more protein than they really do, and it’s actually easy for vegans to get an adequate amount. They just need to know where to find it—in foods like tofu, seitan, beans, lentils and nuts.
"It’s a really dedicated lifestyle," Shapiro said. It may take more than a few pop-up shops and new vegan businesses for New Yorkers to consider committing.
Still, Wendel said that his Forks Over Knives is starting to change the minds of New Yorkers and people around the country little by little. It has had steady audience approval ratings of over 90 percent, and the movie’s Facebook wall is covered with the comments of recent viewers swearing off meat and dairy for all time.
"It’s going to be one of those things where we’re going to look back in 100 years and think that these behaviors [eating animal products] were bizarre," said Wendel. "We’ll say, ‘Wow! Back then, not only did they drink the milk of another species, but they went around convincing themselves that there were health benefits!’"