Do you remember back in the ’80s when they used to use the term “health” food?
Yes, we had pushed ourselves to such depraved depths from an eating standpoint, that they had to re-brand food—you know, the thing that keeps us alive—as something that could be good for you.
Today, the age of the vegan, what was once a specialty food market is increasing in diversity, and a local surge in vegan-friendly offerings shows that those folks from the ’80s were right. (Well, not about cocaine.)
Sure, there are myriad reasons why people are drawn to this dietary lifestyle. No longer are people attracted to veganism just for compassionate purposes (although that still remains one of its most compelling arguments). Now, research has indicated health benefits related to ditching game for greens.
Enter Portia Yiamouyiannis, owner of the eponymous Clintonville cafe, who was one of the few restaurants in Columbus that catered primarily to the raw, vegan crowd when she started in 2013. During a time when veganism was synonymous with hummus and tofu, Yiamouyiannis made it a priority to create an inventive creative menu that served a wide range of sensibilities. Translation: she recognized that “good for you” wasn’t good enough to hook new converts.
That would explain why her “cheezecake” stands at the top with many of its fatty, non-vegan counterparts.
Savvy, yes. But she isn’t just a businesswoman. At a place where they won’t serve you ice water—because even that can be bad for you—Portia actually cares. And it’s the long term benefits of eating mostly plants that fuels her passion for making veganism accessible to a wider audience.
That’s because, like any good sales pitch, she can vouch for the benefits personally.
For Yiamouyiannis, the benefits of eating only plants became apparent when she became a vegan seven years after becoming a vegetarian. Her heart issues cleared up, her skin had never looked better, and her energy improved—she was hooked. The vegan offerings were sparse so Yiamouyiannis began experimenting in the kitchen, selling ready-to-eat salads and dips at her natural foods store.
“Back then, it was mostly older women in their fifties,” she reflects. But in the years since she’s opened Portia’s Cafe, the clientele has shifted. “I still have the same kind of customers from earlier, but now people I never expected are showing up for health reasons.”
She attributes this to the radical transformations she’s witnessed over the last four years in her long-standing customers. With the rising cost of healthcare at the forefront of conversation, wellness has taken on a whole new meaning as consumers actively look for preventative ways to avoid the high cost of prescription drugs and visits to the doctor’s office.
“It’s super cool to see their weight dropping; their diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol go away. But seems even more so, their outlook on life changes so much. They’re so happy and excited about living again.”
Beth Perera, Columbus-based certified Food For Life Instructor, found herself drawn to a whole food plant-based diet after experiencing painful arthritic symptoms in her feet. She began by eliminating dairy, an inflammation trigger according to Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine.
“After six months, my feet were fine,” she recalls.
Like Yiamouyiannis, her success inspired not only a personal lifestyle change, but also sparked a passion for advocacy. After immersing herself in the teachings of Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the The China Study (2005) and Dr. John McDougall, author of The Starch Solution (2011), Perera passionately pursued plant-based nutrition certifications, educating others about the merits of eating only plants with workshops, classes, and film screenings.
“There’s an optimal diet for each animal, and when you eat that diet, it doesn’t trigger disease,” she said. “We can eat anything we want, but the things that feed our immune systems are whole food plants.”
How much does Perera believe in the power of plants?
She’s cutting the cord on her health insurance.
Sounds crazy to some, but in a time where healthcare is under constant financial strain, she sees this as an opportunity to pose important societal questions: if health insurance as we knew it went away, what would you do to stay healthy? How would you eat? What would you do differently?
Like Yiamouyiannis, Perera has also noticed a more inclusive shift in demographics as plant-based and vegan dietary lifestyles become more mainstream. Much of this she credits to the availability of documentaries, like Cowspiracy (2014) and Forks Over Knives (2011), and an increased awareness of the environmental benefits of moving away from meat.
Locally, the trends are finally catching up with the early adopters.
Chad Goodwin, Sebastian Kovach, and Alex Raabe are opening Eden Burger, a new vegan fast food burger joint that will replace Daredevil Dogs in the Short North.
They espouse the same mission as their forebearers: delicious plant-based food that breaks the mold of pre-conceived notions in an attempt to bring more awareness to life without meat, dairy, or eggs. Like Yiamouyiannis and Perera, Goodwin, Kovach, and Raabe are not only passionate about the food, but also the outcomes of a life lived as an herbivore. (And fries—they’re very passionate about fries, too.)
For Perera, access to food that helps promote positive dietary changes means we can take our health into our own hands.
“We don’t have to wait for legislation, new technology, or our physicians to eat this way,” she said. “Our next bite, our next meal—it’s a decision. You can decide that I’m only going to eat foods that help me, not hurt me.” •
For more about Portia’s (4428 Indianola Ave.) visit portiascafe.com. To learn more about plant-based prep and Food for Life, visit positivelyplants.com. Eden Burger can be found at facebook.com/EdenBurgerNFries.