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Why More Central Illinoisans Are Choosing Plant-Centric Diets

5% of U.S. adults said there were vegetarian in a 2018 Gallup poll - and plant-based diets are only becoming more widespread- especially in younger generations.

Many local plant-based diet adopters - a mix of vegetarians, vegans and those who emphasize eating plants while occasionally consuming meat or dairy - say it’s important to be conscious of what you’re putting into your body...and the global impact your food may have.

Jam Rohr, owner of Up Beet Jams Whole Foods and Vegan Preparation Service in Peoria, says she decided to go vegan two years ago after suffering from endometriosis.

Since then, she's noticed a significant difference in her physical energy levels and her mental health. She's hoping to make plant-based meals more accessible and approachable to the masses in the Peoria area.

“I think if people just focus on not necessarily omitting everything they’re already eating but just replacing one thing at a time – it’s really incredible how much just changing your diet even a little bit more regularly will significantly improve your overall wellbeing.”

Others also attest to the overall feeling of being more physically healthy and having a healthier mental and emotional relationship with food.

Ryan Paluczak, a customer of Up Beet Jams and a plant-based consumer, says oftentimes veganism or plant-based diets are seen as extremist. To him, it’s anything but extremist, and the focus is on integrity and equity in relation to what we consume.

“It is interesting to unlearn how we’ve been trained to eat as a society in a consumerist culture and relearn healthy habits and connecting with food sources that we’ve been eating for millennia that we’ve only gotten away from really in the last 100 or 150 years.”

Owner of 309 Cultures Joe Zich is a raw vegan, and he dedicates his life to creating organic fermented foods naturally preserved with probiotics for all diets.

“Putting it in terms of the microbiome, we are all 90% microbes. The other ten percent is mammal. That’s vegans, carnivores, everyone. So, the number one factor in the health of the gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in the diet.”

Zich says he believes as more people realize the power in their own individual choices on what to consume, that combined might can alter the present food habits and expectations in our world.

Some individuals say they choose a plant-based lifestyle over a traditional diet because of the animal rights issues and the environmental damage.

Ann Schreifels grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and one of the factors that persuaded her decision to eliminate meat from her diet was the realization that the horses and cows have the same quality of life as one another – yet culturally it is acceptable to eat cows but not horses.

“The agriculture industry has really changed. Ninety to 95% of all the meat products, whether it’s beef or chicken or pork, are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, and those are just devastating from the animals’ perspective, from an environmental perspective.”

Schreifels says the traditional American diet isn’t sustainable in the long run, and the largest challenge is the process of becoming plant based. Once you eliminate meat and dairy, Schreifels says it becomes an easy reality to live.

“Every choice that we make has consequences that’re either positive or negative. With the vegan or plant-based lifestyle, the consequences are entirely positive. It’s an environmental benefit, it’s a health benefit, it’s a societal benefit and of course for the animals, it’s an ethical or cruelty free benefit.”

While the debate on whether a plant-based diet is restrictive exists, numerous people say that it does require a mindset change, but they find the pros outweigh the cons with choosing plant based foods.

“My biggest concern at the beginning was ‘how am I going to find something to eat?’ Doing some research, finding different recipes and also being creative was an opportunity for me to learn that our diet doesn’t have to be solely based on chicken and fish and beef. I actually find that way of eating a little more restrictive," said Aloysia Mitchell, another central Illinois plant-based consumer.

She says that a plant-based diet allows her to be more creative when cooking and feel overall better about her choices in food.”

Whether one becomes fully vegan or simply decides to increase their consumption of vegetables and plants instead of meat and dairy, these Central Illinoisans say the message of long-term health effects and the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet is spreading.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.