Vegan, plant-based diets more mainstream in Naples, Fort Myers; what a chef, nutrition experts have to say

Vegan, plant-based diets more mainstream in Naples, Fort Myers; what a chef, nutrition experts have to say

ames Aspey, a well known Australian animal rights activist, speaks during the third annual Southwest Florida Veg Fest in Bonita Springs on Sunday, February 24. Alex Driehaus, Naples Daily NewsCONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE

You can find quinoa burgers at True Food Kitchen in Naples. 

Meatless corndogs and tacos filled with ginger, tamari and walnuts were served at the annual SWFL Veg Fest in Bonita Springs last month. 

Healthy fruits and veggies and eco-friendly household supplies at Food & Thought and Whole Foods Market. 

Vegan nights at local breweries such as Millennial Brewing Co. in Fort Myers. 

And a handful of vegan-focused nutrition experts who help residents achieve optimal health.

Every day, the local food and wellness scenes cater more and more to vegans, vegetarians and omnivores, all aspiring to live a healthier lifestyle.

Fruits and veggies

Fruits and veggies (Photo: Getty Images)

Why?

Southwest Floridians are becoming more health-conscious, says Mike Young, founder of the SWFL Veg Fest, which took place in late February. The educational event, in its third year, attracted thousands to Bonita Springs. Its goal: to promote a plant-based lifestyle, compassion for animals and environmental conservation. 

That goal is shared by a new generation looking to incorporate more vegan and plant-based food into their daily lives. 

Young, 49, credits local health initiatives like the Blue Zones Project for instilling that mindset in the community. 

“The people here are intelligent and want to live longer,” Young said. 

As plant-based lifestyles are becoming more mainstream, it’s gradually changing the local foodie landscape, which a Fort Myers chef and area nutrition experts agree is for the better.

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Manny Dine cuts a hole in a coconut during the third annual SWFL Veg Fest at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.

Manny Dine cuts a hole in a coconut during the third annual SWFL Veg Fest at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. (Photo: Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

Veganism versus plant-based diet

Veganism is a lifestyle choice that’s not just about eating a healthy whole foods diet. Vegans exclude all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals and the environment, according to The Vegan Society. There are many ways to embrace the vegan lifestyle. One thing all vegans have in common is a diet avoiding all animal products, including fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs and honey —as well as products like leather and any tested on animals.

Whereas veganism is more a lifestyle, the whole food, plant-based diet emphasizes eating whole fruits and veggies, whole grains, and staying away from or reducing the intake of animal products and processed foods.

Technically speaking, vegans can consume Oreos for every meal of the day and still call themselves as such since the cookies don’t include animal products. For obvious reasons, Tampa-based vegan nutritionist and physical trainer Marcus Watts doesn’t recommend doing so.

The quintessential vegan diet doesn’t consist solely of tofu and bean sprouts. There’s a long list of fruits and veggies perfect for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All it takes is an education and some creativity. 

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Watts, 35, works with clients from Tampa to Miami to help get them in shape through exercise and diet. He frequents Southwest Florida on a weekly basis. He’s one of the many wellness experts based in and around the area.

“Some people think it’s a hippie thing,” said Watts about veganism. But people from all walks of life can incorporate a plant-based, vegan or vegetarian diet. Even those hardcore meat eaters looking to minimize their meat consumption and eat more whole foods. 

“Why am I vegan? I know too much. I don’t want to harm anything and I want to make less of a footprint on the environment,” he said. 

Trish Smith, right, and her mother, Kathy Reynaert, lead a vegan cooking demonstration during the third annual SWFL Veg Fest at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. Smith and Reynaert work with CHIP, the Complete Health Improvement Program, and Food For Life to educate people about the food they eat.

Trish Smith, right, and her mother, Kathy Reynaert, lead a vegan cooking demonstration during the third annual SWFL Veg Fest at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. Smith and Reynaert work with CHIP, the Complete Health Improvement Program, and Food For Life to educate people about the food they eat. (Photo: Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

What it means to go vegan or adopt a healthier lifestyle

It can also be beneficial to one’s health.

Watts saw the benefits of a plant-based diet firsthand.

His meals used to revolve around fried chicken until doctors in 2013 discovered blood clots in his left arm and collar bone, which then led to a pulmonary embolism, a condition where one or more arteries in the lungs become blocked by a blood clot. He was a former overseas professional basketball player then. 

Watts turned to food for medicine. He adopted a plant-based diet. Over time, he was able to turn his health around. Two years ago he went vegan.

“Because of the diet change, I started lifting more weights and running faster. It was a very eye-opening experience,” he said. The benefits weren’t just physical but also psychological.

Tampa-based nutrition expert Marcus Watts works with clients to help them live a healthier lifestyle not just through exercise but diet. 
"If I had my way, everyone would just consume plants," Watts said. As a vegan, he's a firm believer in consuming whole fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. He also sees more people are willing now more than ever to live that lifestyle.

Tampa-based nutrition expert Marcus Watts works with clients to help them live a healthier lifestyle not just through exercise but diet. “If I had my way, everyone would just consume plants,” Watts said. As a vegan, he’s a firm believer in consuming whole fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. He also sees more people are willing now more than ever to live that lifestyle. (Photo: Josue Cardosa)

Watts said he’s not alone in his thinking. Over the years, he said, he’s seen a gradual shift in the way Americans see food — as fuel rather than just taste. Especially in places like Southwest Florida where there’s a plethora of farmers markets, wellness centers and nutrition experts.

“There are so many more healthy and vegan options now. New York City has become the holy grail then there’s Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. 

“Why is there a shift? I think it comes down to news reports and documentaries showing animal brutality and the environmental impact of the foods we eat. There are also many celebrities on social media promoting healthy lifestyles.”

On Instagram alone, searching hashtags like #vegan and #healthy food pulls up hundreds upon hundreds of photos of visually-appealing nutritious meals and snacks.  

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How is it shaping the food culture in Southwest Florida

Chef Brooke Wagenheim, of Chef Brooke’s Natural Cafe in Fort Myers, understood the importance of nutrition at an early age.

She’d forage the northeast wilderness for berries and plants to help her grandma in the kitchen cook Sunday dinners.

She was taught the value of organic and vegan cooking as a young chef. She moved from New York to Minneapolis before settling in Florida. She’s specialized in vegan cuisine for the past 25 years. 

“We’re not just granola and sprouts.”Chef Brooke Wagenheim of Chef Brooke’s Natural Cafe

While veganism has been around a long time, Wagenheim, who caters to the many long-time vegans in the area, said she’s noticed new customers come in, some newly vegan and others interested in its health benefits. 

“I’ve found that the newer vegans are more apt to be excited about a place that offers more vegan options,” Wagenheim said.

She’s owned her Fort Myers cafe — near South Cleveland Avenue off Boy Scout Drive — for the past 10 years.

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Don’t be fooled by her restaurant’s name.

“We’re not just about granola and sprouts,” Wagenheim said.

The organic cafe offers an extensive menu of health-focused smoothies and juices, breakfast and bakery items, salads, sandwiches and wraps. You can add protein to any platter, everything from tofu to tempeh, and for meat eaters, beef and wild salmon. The options are endless when it comes to implementing healthy whole foods to your diet, she said.

But as vegan and plant-based diets have become more mainstream, there are those new products out there catering to meat eaters.

Gone are the days of just tofu

Artisan Eatery’s Impossible Burger.

Artisan Eatery’s Impossible Burger. (Photo: Artisan Eatery)

There’s dairy alternatives to milk — wrung from almonds, coconuts and oats.

Meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger.

What makes a burger impossible? Using a vegan, plant-based patty that sizzles and “bleeds” like real meat and even tastes like it too. Heme, made directly from plants, is what gives the burger its meaty flavor, according to Impossible Foods. Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 with a goal to eliminate the need to use animals to make food. Instead, making meat, dairy and fish directly from plants.

Wagenheim said she isn’t a fan. She says products like the Impossible Burger are genetically modified and, in the long run, not the best nutritionally, although it is better on the environment than beef. She prefers whole foods like fruits and vegetables. 

Watts said these types of products go against old-school veganism. But there are plenty of vegan burger options such as those made of black beans and lentils.

He does say that beefy-tasting products like the Impossible Burger can help introduce meat eaters to a healthier diet. 

“If a product is similar to what they know it can help open their mind and get them to try it. Then maybe they’ll say, ‘OK I tried that, so maybe I’ll try tofu,'” Watts said. 

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