Many vegans and vegetarians will attest that cheese is one of the hardest foods to eliminate when transitioning to a compassionate, plant-based diet. In America, Cheese has almost become a form of meat. If you order a salad without meat, you can expect a nice sprinkling of cheddar, or a few hunks of feta. It’s difficult to impossible to find a restaurant menu item without cheese. Starting in our formative years, we are taught that protein is the mother of all macronutrients. If our diet lacks protein, we are told our health will suffer and some awful, unknown, indescribable thing will happen to us. Hence, the #1 response vegans get when telling others about their lifestyle choice – “How do you get your protein?!” As if not consuming animal protein is some new radical ideology! Well, it’s not! Cultures have been thriving for years in the absence of animal protein. The The Protein Myth is something I try to mention to anyone who asks me about protein and veganism. I highly recommend you check out this link and do your own research on how much (and what types of) protein we actually need, not just to live, but to thrive.
I recently listened to a wonderful book, The Blue Zones Solution by Dan Buettner on audiotape. I highly recommend it, even if you have no plans or intention to become a vegan. The Blue Zones are regions of the world where people live the longest, healthiest, happiest lives. Dan and his team of researchers found that the centenarian inhabitants of these Blue Zones had 9 characteristics in common – the Power 9:
1. Move naturally – no need to run marathons or lift heavy weights; take a walk, move around the house or garden, go on a leisurely bike ride, walk while on the phone or during meetings.
2. Know your purpose – have a reason for waking up every morning, for being an inhabitant of this Earth.
3. Kick back – learn how to manage stress, either through meditation, faith and praying, taking a daily nap, or being with friends and family.
4. Eat less – stop eating when you are 80% full.
5. Eat less meat – most centenarians eat lots of legumes, and very little to no meat.
6. Drink in moderation – most centenarians drink 1-2 servings of alcohol per day, with the exception of the Seventh-day Adventists.
7. Have faith – whether you practice an organized religion, or find your own spirituality or Sangha (community), attending some sort of faith or spiritual-based service 4 times a month is a common theme among the Blue Zones inhabitants.
8. Power of love – making time for family, committing to a life partner, and staying close to your elders.
9. Stay social – Blue Zones centenarians have large social networks. They build Sangha, or community that supports healthy behaviors, and stay within this community for most of their lives.
What does this mean for cheese? It means we don’t need it. While some of the Blue Zones centenarians did include varieties of aged cheese in their diets, they did so in great moderation – sprinkled on a salad, or over warm roasted vegetables. There is no such thing as a large cheese pizza or a big bowl of mac ‘n cheese for the people of Nicoya, Costa Rica. Further, the people of the Blue Zones give us clear proof that eating animal protein is NOT a key element of living a long, healthy life. In fact, most centenarians eat little to no animal protein. For example, the Nicoyans have a diet rich in legumes, rice, tropical fruits, and vegetables, with almost no animal protein. Inhabitants of Okinawa, Japan have a life expectancy of some of the highest in the world. The Okinawan diet consists of vegetables, grains, fish, and purple Okinawan sweet potato, their preferred starch. Local, fresh caught fish is one of the only animal proteins consumed.
And finally, my public service announcement to vegetarians ’round the world: YOU CAN STOP EATING CHEESE AND YOU WILL STILL GET PLENTY OF PROTEIN! The best way to get adequate amounts of healthy protein is to eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet with lots of variety – lentils, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and greens.
Removing cheese from the diet of an American is easier said than done. As a cheese lover myself, I’ve found the best way to do this successfully is to find creative, plant-based replacements for all of your favorite cheesy meals. My cheesy crutch is macaroni and cheese. Yes, I used to be a Kraft-lover…yes, I know that’s gross. Then I switched to the Annie’s bunny-shaped organic pasta and felt better about myself. Then I realized Annie’s still contained cheese and milk from the abused, suffering dairy cows of American diary farms. I don’t want to support these practices, so now I make my own mac ‘n cheese and it’s better than any box out there and only takes about 30 minutes to prepare. This dish will leave your tastebuds completely blown away, and your belly will thank you for nurturing it with fiber-rich butternut squash and the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric.
Better than Boxed Butternut Squash Mac ‘n Cheese
Time: 30 minutes
What you’ll need: a pasta pot, a high-powered blender, Vita-Mix or similar
- 1-16 oz package macaroni, spiral, or tube shaped pasta of your liking (I use brown-rice quinoa fusilli, penne, or Orecchiette)
- 1 cup pre-peeled and diced butter nut squash (I buy a 16 oz bag and put the remainder in the freezer so it doesn’t go bad by the time I make mac ‘n cheese again)
- 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes (If you have a Vita-Mix or powerful blender, you can actually skip this step and get the same result)
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup plain almond milk
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast (adds the cheese flavor)
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard (adds tang)
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric (adds color)
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (activates the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric)
- salt to taste
- Place cashews in 1 cup warm water to soak
- Start boiling 8 cups water in a medium-large pot
- Place butternut squash, almond milk, dijon, turmeric, black pepper, and nutritional yeast in your blender
- Add pasta to boiling water
- When pasta is almost done, add the cashews (not the soaking water) to your blender and pulverize on high – the sauce should be creamy and yellow. Taste it – add more of any ingredient you think is lacking in taste (i.e. nutritional yeast for cheese, dijon for tang, salt for salt, squash for sweet)
- Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot.
- Add cheese mixture to the pot, turn heat on low and mix slowly. As you stir, the sauce thickens. Add any more salt or black pepper to your liking.
- Enjoy with a nice glass of wine and pat yourself on the back for making such a classy, delicious vegan meal!