By: Selina Bonilla, Brittanie Burke, Natalia Fonseca, Jorge Guerra, Corynn Wilson
Whether it’s for the animals, environment or health, vegetarian and vegan Texans are proud of their lifestyle and seek to educate the rest of one of the unhealthiest states in the nation.
The Texas Veg Foundation hosted its fourth annual Texas VegFest at Fiesta Gardens in Austin on Saturday. The group began in 2011 to “challenge the notion that Texas is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation,” according to their website. Over 110 companies and 5,000 people gathered to share and celebrate their dietary lifestyle with plant-based foods, booths and activities.
“We want to help provide resources and tools for [the community] to be able to see the environmental, health and animal welfare benefits of a plant-based diet,” said Adrienne Lusk, executive director of the festival.
The fest cites serious growth. The veggie enthusiasts have increased in numbers and range, though Austin has long been a home to many plant-eating people.
“We noticed that there is a large plant-based community in the city, but there was no event that was educating and celebrating about those types of communities together. So we wanted to create something like that,” Lusk said.
Lindsay Wilson, the registered dietitian of the Division of Housing and Food Services at the University of Texas, has also noticed the growth in popularity of plant-based diets.
“I would say that those numbers [of students with plant-based diets] have definitely increased each year,” she said. “I feel like with us being here in Austin, with the motto ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ …it’s fantastic with being open to alternative lifestyles and diets, and so plant-based diets are definitely more prevalent here than in some other cities.”
These diets are not simply defined by any means. “A vegetarian diet is an umbrella term,” Annie Mahon, dietitian of the UT University Health Services said. Pescatarian, lacto-ovo, vegan and more are ways people identify as opposed to vegetarian.
The Division of Housing and Food Services started a vegetarian focus group about 10 years ago to meet the needs of students on plant-based diets in the dining facilities. Since, menus have been developed to accommodate vegan and vegetarian options with each meal.
Austin does, in fact, host a healthier population than the rest of Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though over half of Austinites are overweight or obese, they beat the state’s rate by 30 percent.
However, Austin is not an exception to a grave national trend: not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Dietitian Mahon knows this firsthand.
“We have data that the UHS has collected specifically for the UT campus that shows only about 60 percent of the student body at UT only gets about one to two servings of both fruits and vegetables a day, and only about 6 percent get the recommended 5 or more servings per day,” she said. “So students have a lot of room for improvements in terms of trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, which needs to be a strong foundation for a generally healthy diet.”
CDC data shows that 93.6 percent of adults in Texas are overweight, over 30 percent higher than the national average. Texas teens are also more overweight or obese, at 30.1 percent compared to 20.5 percent across the U.S.
UT dietitian Wilson says a balanced diet, not necessarily plant-based, that is sustainable long-term is the best way to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.
“In general, any diet that excludes any whole food group isn’t necessarily something that I would vouch for or recommend to people,” she said. At monthly meetings with the vegetarian focus group, she has been educating students about potential deficiencies in plant-based diets and what foods contain the nutrients they may be lacking.
Mahon has seen the dangers of deficiencies through restrictive dieting. “I’ve had students come in and speak with me and say they are vegetarians, but they don’t like vegetables. That is a challenge because they are eliminating a food group that is essential to that diet,” she said.
Rich Goldman, CEO of the Natural Epicurean Academy of the Culinary Arts, believes firmly that plant-based diets are healthier than others. “It’s just healthier. You know, we don’t damage the planet by using real excesses of water and environmental resources. And eating more plants is just healthier. The science is really solid, the more plants you eat, the healthier you are.”
Like environmental impact, combatting big business or a particular biological outlook, countless causes can lead one to a plant-based diet. The Texas VegFest indiscriminately demonstrated the wide variety of participants in plant-based lifestyles, and then some.
“I’m not a vegetarian, it’s just that the food is really good,” festival-goer Rebekah Parker said. “I enjoy carnivorous foods and I also enjoy a lot of the plant-based proteins and a lot of the meat substitutes as well though. They just taste good.”