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Vegging Out: ​Vegan and plant-based diets gaining popularity in the suburbs

  Enjoying their dining experience that included roasted
  tomato soup at La Voute bistro-bar in Homewood are,
  from left, Vivian Amos, Marie Jasica, Henry Jasica,
  Carl Boyens, Kathy Boyens and Darlene Obejda. 

  (Photo by Mary Compton/H-F Chronicle)

With obesity rates at an all-time high and heart-disease, diabetes and other health conditions on the rise, many Americans are seeking to make lifestyle changes, especially when it comes to diet.

The Benefits of plant-based eating
  Mary Ellen Pinzino of
  Homewood shows off a
  roasted vegetable sandwich
  that she enjoyed as part
  of the farm-to-table
  cuisine selections at La Voute
  Bistro + Bar in Homewood.

  (​Mary Compton/H-F Chronicle)

Mary Ellen Pinzino of Homewood decided to make a change to a plant-based diet about nine years ago and has been instrumental in organizing the Homewood-based group Vegging Out. She described it as a “community initiative for whole food, plant-based eating” and draws support for her choices from fellow members.

“I chose (this diet) primarily for health reasons. A plant-based diet has been proven through extensive research to prevent and reverse diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity. That’s my motivation,” said Pinzino. “Some come into it because it is beneficial for the environment, and others for their commitment to animals. But everyone who comes into it is improving their own health, and each of those avenues supports every one of the others.”
Pinzino explained that there are different progressions into the journey of eating better. Some people may first just quit eating red meat and later go vegetarian, eliminating all meat from their diets. Others ease into a vegan diet, which eliminates meats and dairy, but still allows for processed foods, sugars and oils. A whole food, plant-based diet has no animal or dairy products or processed foods, but also eliminates — or strongly limits — sugars and oils.
“A vegan diet includes prepared foods that can have a great deal of oil and sugar in it, so that even OREOs and cola are acceptable for vegan diets, but they would not be acceptable for a whole food, plant-based diet,” said Pinzino. 
  A staff member at LaVoute
  dishes out a bowl of roasted
  tomato soup.
  Compton/H-F Chronicle)

One misconception of vegan and whole-food, plant-based diets is that those who follow the diet are lacking in nutrition. 

“The question I most commonly get asked is ‘Where do you get your protein?’” said Pinzino. “This diet includes all the protein and fat a body needs. Only one nutrient is missing, and that is vitamin B12. You can get that from a meat product because animals get it from the ground through plants, but we humans don’t get it directly.”  Vegans and those on whole-food, plant-based diets use vitamin supplements for those nutrients.
Pinzino cited the research of Dr. T. Colin Campbell in supporting the cause for this healthier way of eating. 
Other common misconceptions that Pinzino often hears are that the food is bland and that you’ll always be hungry. Plant-based dishes have come a long way, partly because of the increase in cooking shows and the availability of recipes on the internet that give people the nudge to experiment more. 
“Even 15 years ago, it was all tofu and salads, but now there are so many ways to cook, and so many chefs are coming up with new dishes,” Pinzino said. “I’ve become a more creative cook than I ever was before.” 
Increased use of spices and better availability in recent years of more exotic ingredients and lesser-known produce items has widened the scope of possibilities in creating plant-based dishes that are full of flavor.
As far as concern over not feeling satisfied on the diet, Pinzino said the problem is more with portion size. In restaurants, she said, vegan dishes often don’t have enough food. 
“The calorie density of whole foods are so much lower than meat, dairy and processed food that you can eat a whole lot more,” she said. “Often restaurant portions for vegan dishes are not big enough.”
Leafy vegetables and fruits that are not all that filling can be combined with nuts, seeds and grains to provide a meal that satisfies. Pinzino noted that starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, help in that area. 
“People tend to think of potatoes as terrible for any kind of diet, but not for a plant-based diet. The problem isn’t the potato, but what people put on top of it,” she said.
A whole-food, plant-based diet is comprised of what has been designated as the “Fab Four”: greens, beans, berries and seeds.
Creating awareness and community
The Vegging Out group was started in September 2016 by Pinzino and Darlene Obejda of Homewood. The focus of the group is to educate those who are curious about plant-based diets and create a community in support of those who are considering this diet or have chosen to follow it.
Over the past two years, the group has held potlucks as well as luncheons and dinners at local restaurants. They’ve done community outreach through documentary screenings, library presentations and more. While the group has no formal meetings, its members stay informed through a monthly newsletter called “The Beet” and a Facebook page.
Three members of the group are now certified in plant-based education through the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell University, which has provided them with the tools and knowledge to give presentations through park districts, libraries, churches, schools and other organizations. Besides Pinzino, husband and wife Carl and Kathy Boyens of Homewood also completed the online courses.
Members share resources, their recent restaurant finds, educational opportunities and more. Justin and Gina DeAngelo and their son attended a recent luncheon at LaVoute Bistro in Homewood to get acquainted with the group. The family, including 15-month Salvatore, are vegans.
Gina became a vegetarian in her teens after reading a book about slaughterhouses that increased her concern for the treatment of animals. She was an asthmatic since age 10, and her symptoms became increasingly worse until she was in her late 20s, forcing her to take steroids and antibiotics and use her inhaler frequently. Then she came across a statistic that really surprised her. It stated that 70 percent of asthmatics who went vegan had their symptoms practically disappear. She figured the diet was worth a try and found it to be true in her case. 
“Now I hardly take medication at all. Maybe once or twice a year. I’m amazed at how much better I feel,” she said.
Gina’s husband, Justin, said that his main reason for going vegan stems from animal treatment. 
“For me, finding out about animal atrocities was the main reason for going vegan. I know there are health benefits, but it wasn’t my main reason. It’s a nice side effect and an added benefit that I’m aware of, but for me it was so much about being better to animals. 
“We really don’t need to eat them to nourish our bodies,” he said. “We’re full-fledged vegans, and our son is vegan and super healthy. He’s never had any problems, and he’s big and strong — the youngest vegan in Flossmoor.”
For Gina, the vegan diet has become a lifestyle, spurring visits to animal sanctuaries and being the focus of much of the material she writes about. Her website,, includes clips of her vegan family story-time channel on YouTube along with songs by the musician couple. Her vegan cookbook, called Cooking with Ramona, is available on, and she has a vegan-focused Instagram page (@littledipperink).
Although the millennial couple has embraced veganism, they haven’t opted to go to a full whole-food, plant-based diet. They enjoy some indulgences. “We still eat fries and pizza because they’re delicious and they’re animal-friendly,” Justin said.
Both Pinzino and Gina DeAngelo noted that there’s no shortage of information online for vegans to learn more about the diet and find recipes. 
“The research is out there, and this is a national and international movement. There are people on every level of the continuum, and they are there to provide support. You can find so much information online,” said Pinzino. “ is a website with support and recipes and a really active online community.”
“With the internet you can learn so much,” said DeAngelo. “You can learn about the how and why to go vegan. You can find recipes. It’s all there at your fingertips.”
Dining options
While the vegan and plant-based diets have been gaining steam, there is a long way to go for dining-out options in the area. Vegging Out is aiming to change that — either through encouraging staff awareness of menu items that can be easily adapted to be vegan, or by setting up events for the group and making specific requests. So, far they’ve had a good response.
Last fall The Cottage on Dixie in Homewood hosted the group for a custom three-course plant-based meal. The group was so impressed that a letter of commendation was sent to the restaurant on behalf of PlantPureCommunties, the national parent organization of Vegging Out.
“We had the group in, and it was just delightful. It was a fun dinner to prepare,” said Glenna Elvery, the restaurant’s owner. “It was a wonderful night, and they were so tickled that they submitted the recipes and we made them.”
However, Elvery said there hasn’t been enough demand for vegan dishes to add them to the regular menu. She did note that they have a vegetarian cauliflower fried rice dish on the lunch and dinner menus that they can adapt to be vegan upon request. The menu also includes an organic greens salad that is vegan-friendly, and a plate of roasted vegetables can be prepared upon request.
Each Monday The Cottage on Dixie offers a vegetarian dish, and Elvery encourages vegans to watch for those specials on the restaurant’s Facebook page. A recent dish was zoodles (zucchini noodles) and pesto with goat cheese sprinkled on top — an entree that could be made vegan by simply eliminating the cheese.
Recently the group met at LaVoute Bistro and Bar for a special menu prepared by Chef Dominique Tougne. He has children with food allergies and is experienced in adapting dishes to meet specific dietary requirements. He is open to accommodating different dietary needs in the restaurant.
Tougne’s menu for the Vegging Out dinner included three starters, four entrees and two desserts. Those who attended chose from a menu of roasted tomato soup with fresh thyme and white beans, a house salad of mixed greens and fresh fruits, an asparagus and baby spinach salad with cherry tomatoes and a creole salad with quinoa, dried cranberry, pineapple and shaved coconut, from among the starters. 
Entrees included a roasted vegetable sandwich on baguette, a quinoa provencal salad, an oven roasted vegetable plate and a vegetable cassoulet with white beans, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and yams. 
Dessert options were a yogurt parfait with seasonal fruit or a cup of seasonal berries with honey.
The group has also enjoyed plant-based meals at Redbird Cafe and has arranged for regular vegan nights at Cilantro restaurant.
To be added to the Vegging Out newsletter mailing list and to learn more about its restaurant research, send an email to [email protected]. Vegging Out also has a Facebook page.
  Sergio Fabian, left, a cook 
  at Cilantro Cocina, and 
  Rocio Garcia, the 
  restaurant owner, talk 
  about the vegan menu 
  items they’ve served to 
  the Vegging Out group. 

  (Photo by Eric Crump/
  H-F Chronicle)

Justin DeAngelo said that it can be a challenge to find restaurants in the area offering vegan options. He likes to cook and it’s more economical to eat at home, so he prepares most of the family’s meals. However, he finds that at most restaurants he can look at an item and ask them to skip the cheese or dressing so that he can enjoy it as a vegan version. The DeAngelos previously resided in Chicago where a lot of restaurants catered to vegan customers.

“It can be difficult finding places to go as a vegan, especially in the south suburbs where people were practically raised on Italian beef and sausage. It’s not like in California where it’s trendy,” he said. “But we’re finding more things are starting to happen, and the public is becoming more aware. There’s more of a demand, but it’s slow. Restaurants are starting to take notice.”
At a first birthday party for their son held at Tomato Bar in Schererville, Justin said that his non-vegan friends were impressed by the offerings. The restaurant has several vegan pizzas on the menu in addition to the option to customize ingredients. Locally, he said he enjoys pizza at Aurelio’s in Homewood and leaves off the cheese.
  From left, Robert Burt and Glenna Elvery of The Cottage
  listen as Mary Ellen Pinzino reads a letter of
  commendation for the restaurant’s service to
  vegan diners while Vegging Out  member Kathy
  Boyens looks on.
(Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)


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