For Athens resident Jack Clarke, a book pushed him over the edge into a vegan diet. For Gloria O’Connor, it was a presentation, and for Judy Bradberry, it was a 40-day religious commitment that turned into a new lifestyle.
Though they all reached a plant-based diet in a different way, these three people have one thing in common: they made the switch to veganism when they were older than 60.
Only about 3 percent of American adults over age 65 are vegan, according to a 2018 Gallup Survey. People are making the switch for a number of reasons, from concern about animal welfare, to a desire to improve their health or reduce their environmental impact.Why It’s Newsworthy: Only about 3 percent of adults over 65 are vegan, but members of this age group choose a plant-based diet for many of the same reasons as younger people. This segment of the population has specific nutritional concerns when switching to veganism, but local resources offer support in the transition.
Eighty-year-old Clarke, a legal arbitrator and mediator, went vegan after the death of his wife in 2012. His wife had expressed a desire to switch to a plant-based lifestyle, and after she passed, Clarke read “The China Study,” one of the best-selling nutrition books in the U.S. The book convinced Clarke that a “non-meat diet would simply be much more healthy.”
Change Your Diet, Change Your Life
Clarke, now remarried, said his current wife is a whiz at whipping up vegan food, and he’s lost 60 to 70 pounds by following his new diet.
“Frankly, I just feel better,” Clarke said.
Bradberry, 68, a semi-retired nursing professor from Auburn, Georgia, also said her vegan diet had a positive impact on her health. Bradberry decided to make the switch after being a vegetarian for 29 years and going vegan for Lent.
“I sound like one of those crazy miracle stories, but I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia for about 20 years, and I had a lot of chronic pain,” Bradberry said. “About six months into being vegan, I realized I no longer had pain.”
Bradberry said her doctor pointed out her pain could have been worsened by the inflammatory properties of dairy products.
A lifelong cheese-lover, Bradberry said vegan dairy alternatives such as Follow Your Heart’s vegan cheese and Ben & Jerry’s dairy-free ice cream flavors made the transition from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle smoother. She also keeps a memento to remind her of her commitment.
“I purchased a small charm of a cow’s face, and I wore that every day, and every time I thought, ‘Oh my god, I have to have some pizza,’ I would touch that,” Bradberry said. “It was like a talisman, and I would remember that the cow doesn’t get a day off, so I don’t get a day off, either.”
Learning to Pick Your Battles
O’Connor, 62, had also been a vegetarian for about 40 years, and the main stimulus for her switch to veganism was concern for animal welfare.
I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” O’Connor said. “It’s very profoundly emotional for me, and the health aspects are a little bonus.”
Vegans tend to be the brunt of more than a few jokes, and there are plenty of stereotypes about vegans, including people thinking they’re “pushy” or “judgy.” But O’Connor said she gives little thought to family members who try to give her a hard time about her diet.
“Maybe if I was younger, in my 20s or 30s, I would have been a little more militant about it,” O’Connor said. “But at 60, you’re worn out. You got to pick your battles. If I make the right choices for myself, then I’m very happy. I don’t care what anyone says about anything that I do.”
O’Connor said she enjoys dining at vegan-friendly restaurants around town such as The Grit on Prince Avenue and The Table Bistro on Baxter Street. While neither restaurant is strictly vegan, vegans can find something on the menus of these restaurants that adheres to their diet.
But newly opened Eden’s Cafe on West Broad Street does offer completely vegan grab-and-go sandwiches, snacks, sweets, coffee and more.
Haley Hamblen, a barista at Eden’s, said the clientele is a mix of ages, from high school students and college students to older adults. Hamblen said she has exchanged contact information with a number of older adults looking for recommendations for vegan products they can eat at home.
“Everybody’s at a different point in their plant-based journey, but some people don’t know what to substitute things for, and it can be a learning curve,” Hamblen said. “What the mission is is showing people that it’s not that hard to be plant-based.”
Nutritional and Community Support
As with all age groups, older adults have specific nutritional requirements to maintain their health, and having to search for vegan substitutes can be an early obstacle in the journey to full veganism.
Susan Boekel, a nutritionist working with patients in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, said one of the main concerns for older vegans is ensuring adequate protein intake.
“Anybody over the age of 65, they need more protein per pound of body weight than a younger person would,” Boekel said.
Other nutrients older adults need to ensure they get enough of on a vegan diet are vitamin B12, vitamin D, potassium, calcium and magnesium, Boekel said. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, so Boekel recommends people following a vegan diet find “an appropriate B12 supplement.”
For those looking for guidance in other aspects of making the switch to a vegan lifestyle, such as meal planning ideas or social groups, there are plenty of resources near Athens and online to look to for advice. Facebook groups such as “Vegans of Athens, GA” and “Vegan Atlanta” can provide sources of ideas for vegan food substitutes and a sense of community with fellow vegans. The University of Georgia student organization Speak Out for Species hosts speakers, film series, volunteering opportunities and vegan group meals for those interested in the plant-based, anti-animal cruelty movement.
O’Connor said she’s enjoying the social aspects of the vegan community and is “having a really great time.”
“I can’t change the world, but I can only change in my little world what I eat,” O’Connor said.
Jordan Meaker is a senior majoring in journalism and international affairs at the University of Georgia.
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