Interview With Monique N. Gilbert

Tell us a little bit about yourself and give our readers an introduction to your unique vegetarian lifestyle.

I am a vegetarian, health advocate, animal rights advocate, environmentalist, artist, author, freelance writer, and recipe developer. I love to cook and create wonderful dishes that are healthy, tasty and free of any animal products. I was born, raised and educated in the South Florida area. My mother and grandmother exposed me to a diverse collection of cuisines from the very start. They always cooked extraordinary, culinary delights from scratch, using all natural ingredients. In the mid-1970’s, I began eating a low fat, whole grain, vegetable rich diet. This introduced me to a healthier way of eating at an early age, and became the foundation of my dietary choices as an adult.

In 1988, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and Finance. However, my heart was not in this field and I began to search for my true passion in life. In 1989, I became a Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Counselor. This increased my knowledge about health and fitness, and my understanding of the important role diet plays in a person’s strength, vitality and longevity. My husband and I have always been concerned about animal welfare, environmental preservation, health and nutrition. We decided to put our beliefs into practice and became full fledged vegetarians on Earth Day 1990 (April 20, 1990).

Giving up meat, fish and fowl (and any products from these animals) began our process of relearning how to cook. We wanted to ensure that we provided ourselves with complete and balanced nourishment in our diet. The search for proper vegetarian nutrition and good vegetable protein sources lead to our exploration of soy. This journey resulted in the writing of Virtues of Soy: A Practical Health Guide and Cookbook in the year 2000.

Currently, my husband and I actively advocate a vegetarian diet and lifestyle by writing articles for magazines, websites, newsletters and other publication. We feel our purpose in life is to enlighten everyone about the benefits of healthy eating and living.

What led you to a vegetarian diet and lifestyle?

Being an animal rights advocate, I joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They sent me literature about the cruel factory farming techniques used in providing meat to the masses, and the benefits of vegetarianism. After reading this information I could not, with a clear conscious, eat another animal or animal product again. I was appalled at the unconscionable methods used in slaughterhouses and at the disgusting living conditions that these animals had to live in. All the hormones and antibiotics that animals are given to fatten them up for market were another factor in the equation. The only way I could protest this barbaric way of food production was to put my money where my mouth is and stop eating meat, fish and fowl. So I did, and along the way I became a better and more compassionate person for doing so.

What does the word vegetarian mean to you, in three words?

Compassion, commitment and devotion.

Are people surprised when you tell them you do not eat meat, fish or eggs?

Not completely, anyone who knows me well knows that I have always eaten a healthy diet. Even as a child, I would bring to school cucumber and pumpernickel sandwiches for lunch. However, they are curious as to how I can eat such a strict diet. The first question out of most people’s mouth is usually “How do you get enough protein?” Americans, on the whole, like meat and get very defensive against anyone who is against eating meat and dairy. I think most Americans and Europeans eat by tradition instead of nutrition. They are familiar with the typical Western diet, and vegetarianism is something unfamiliar. It goes against the way many people are brought up. Once I begin to tell people about the bountiful array of cuisines that encompass vegetarianism; they start to understand that food can be a vehicle to health and a better world.

Have you found that the vegetarian diet has helped you in your service to the world, and in becoming a better person?

Absolutely! For several years now I have been promoting the benefits of healthy vegetarian eating and living to prevent disease and enhance life on earth. I believe that preventive medicine begins with what you put into your body, whether it is food, herbs, beverages or pills (from vitamins to pharmaceuticals). Most people don’t think of their health until they lose it. I try to encourage people to keep their body functioning optimally without disease or abnormalities by eating a balanced, vegetable-based, nutrient-rich diet. I try to get people to look at their diet as a way to health and fitness and not merely a way to get thin. Most people look at food as something that fills you up when you get hungry. I encourage people to begin to think of food as having the potential to enhance your overall health; prevent illness and disease; and promote a connection to the world around you. By thinking of the source of the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the water we drink and the activities we partake in; you naturally become aware that we are all interrelated. We need to honor life in all its forms, and live wholesomely and with enlightenment.

Who or what influenced you to eat vegetarian?

I always felt that the animals that I lived with (cats, dogs, rabbits, turtles, hamsters, birds and fish) had their own distinct personalities. They displayed happiness and joy as well as sadness and fear. I never thought of them as pets that I owned, but as companions that I adopted and lived with. They were a part of my family, like a brother or sister. After I read what PETA sent me, I immediately knew in my heart that eating animals was wrong; that I did not need to participate in the killing of living beings in order to nourish myself; that a vegetarian diet would allow me to live with a clear conscience because I would no longer be contributing to the death of millions of animals, who are at our mercy.

How do your family and friends feel about your eating habits and lifestyle?

My husband and I are the only vegetarians in both our families, and among all our friends. My parents try to eat healthy and incorporate a lot of vegetables in their diet, but they think our way of eating is fanatical. My husband comes from a devout “meat and potatoes” type of family who can’t believe that he actually likes being a vegetarian! In fact, before he began eating my cooking, he never tasted squash, rutabagas, turnip greens, beets, pumpkin, endive, romaine lettuce or fresh asparagus. His family’s idea of a vegetable was canned peas, green beans and iceberg lettuce. We notice that our family and friends seem uncomfortable eating with us, they make up excuses as to why they have to have their meat. We never lecture anyone about his or her eating habits. We only inform people about the vegetarian way of living when they are open and receptive to the message.

Do you find yourself positively influencing others by being a vegetarian?

Yes, I believe that my vegetarian lifestyle is the best example for those around me to live a more positive and peaceful life. Action speaks louder than words.

How do you approach situations where people are hostile or condemning of your food and lifestyle choices?

I try not to butt heads with hostile people anymore. I used to when I first became a vegetarian; however, I found that it was counterproductive. I drained my own energy levels, the person I debated with held firm in their own beliefs, and those around us would feel most uncomfortable. I now state when I encounter such people that we all have a right to our own belief system, and I move along. Only when a person is ready and receptive will they become enlightened. Now I try to promote understanding and avoid confrontation.

What is your approach to staying healthy and fit with a vegetarian diet?

I do not go on any “quick weight loss programs” because they lead to yo-yo dieting and have an adverse effect on my metabolism. I have adopted practical exercising and eating habits, only eating in moderation, and not eating any particular food in excess. I advocate a health promoting diet that includes a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, soy and other legumes, grains, pasta, seeds, nuts, and nutritional yeast. I believe in eating balanced, nutritionally dense foods to gain optimum health and sensible exercising to promote strength and vitality.

I have made long-term lifestyle and dietary changes that allow me to maintain good health and fitness. I do weight bearing exercises, like squats, pushups and strength training to build my muscle mass (muscles are what burns calories). I do endurance exercises like aerobics, walking, and bicycling to increase my metabolism (the body’s calorie burning regulator). I am also a strong believer in stretching exercises like yoga to increase and maintain my balance and flexibility.

I make sure that I drink at least eight cups of water a day. A good habit that I have gotten into is to drink a cup of water before every meal. This helps me get enough water throughout the day. In addition to water, I mostly drink homemade iced tea and juice. I try to avoid sodas and alcohol as much as possible because they deplete the body of vital nutrients; however, I still drink coffee in the morning.

Tell us a little bit about your diet and getting sufficient protein and calcium (something many people are very concerned about).

Being a strict vegetarian does not mean I am malnourished in any way. I like to eat a variety of high vegetable protein and high fiber foods like tempeh, textured soy protein, seitan, edamame, soynuts, walnuts, beans and legumes. However, I am partial to soy because it is the only vegetable that by itself offers a complete protein profile. Soy protein is of the highest quality, equal to that of meat and dairy products, but without the cholesterol and saturated fat. It can be the sole source of protein, without causing any nutritional imbalance. Our body breaks down protein into individual amino acids, which form helpful antibodies and enzymes for our bodies. Amino acids are necessary for proper growth, development, health and maintenance. Of the twenty-two amino acids we require, our body produces only fourteen. The remaining eight are called essential amino acids, which must come from the foods we eat. Soy protein provides all eight of these amino acids, making it a complete protein. Besides having a higher quality protein, soybeans also have a higher amount of protein than other beans. Soybeans have 35 to 38 percent of total calories coming from protein, while other beans only have about 20 to 30 percent. However, not all soy foods contain the same amount of protein. Extra firm and firm tofu, for instance, have more protein than soft or silken tofu because they contain less water. I always read the Nutrition Facts label on soy foods to determine the protein content.

The amount and type of protein in the diet both have an important impact on calcium absorption and excretion. Even if a person takes in enough calcium, more calcium might be lost when eating high amounts of animal-protein. Researchers believe that the sulfur amino acids, cysteine and methionine, increase acid loads, which leads to increased calcium loss in an animal-protein diet. Eating plant-based proteins, like that found in soy, adds calcium, magnesium and potassium to the diet that the body can more readily absorb.

The protein in soy also contains a high concentration of the phytochemical compound called isoflavones. Soy isoflavones possess a myriad of biological properties that can benefit the body. Scientists have attributed most of soy’s positive health effects to its unique combination of protein and isoflavones. By eating a balanced vegetarian diet containing a variety of foods, I am able to obtain and completely absorb all the protein and other essential nutrients my body requires.

What vegetarian foods give you the most energy? How about your favorite vegetarian foods?

This answer can be broken down into three categories: immediate energy, short-term energy and long-term energy. For an immediate pick-me-up, I like to drink fruit and vegetable juices. The nutrients in these are quickly absorbed and assimilated. For quick energy but with a longer life, I like salads and soups. These are like having a vitamin in a bowl. They are light for digestion, but are packed with easy-to-use nutrients. For more sustainable energy, I like eating beans and grains in various forms.

Some of my favorite vegetarian foods are seitan (wheat gluten), edamame (young, green and sweet soybeans), pasta, and beans of all kinds.

When you were transitioning to a meat free diet, how did you work with the challenges of cravings for meat?

I just look into the eyes of my animal companions and my cravings would go away. I would ask myself “How can anyone eat a best friend? How could I even think of taking another life to satisfy a craving?” I used logic and emotions to overcome temporary desires, knowing deep in my soul that I was making the right decision. I then would go and make the most mouth-watering dishes I could muster up — full of flavor and with a wonderful aroma. I would feel satisfied both physically and morally with my scrumptious creations. Now, I do not have meat cravings anymore because my cooking is so delicious that I do not feel deprived in any way. I do not even like to go out to eat at restaurants because they do not spice their food as well as I do. The most wonderful thing about being a good creative cook is that you can make any dish to your exact liking. Flavor is the true key to overcome cravings.

Do you find that you share more common ground with more people now that you are vegetarian?

That depends upon where the people are. I have found that being a vegetarian has hindered my socializing with my old meat-eating friends. I do not like to go out and watch people eat flesh. Nor I do not want to smell meat, fish or fowl. It makes me feel sad and my meat-eating friends and family members feel somewhat guilty and uncomfortable eating these foods in front of me. While I believe that vegetarianism has brought me closer with the universe and nature, it has to a certain extent distanced me from other human beings that live around me; however, with the popularity of the Internet, I have found my people. So even though I may not live with many vegetarians in my physical world, I can now connect with thousands of vegetarians and vegans with the push of a button and a click of my mouse. Technology has allowed me to create friendships with like-minded people and has inspired me to let others know about the wonderful world of vegetarianism.

If you could convince the world of the importance of the vegetarian lifestyle in one sentence, what would that sentence be?

Life is sacred; we are not above any other life form on this Earth; all creatures have the right to exist and to live a life that is free to the end, without fear.

Monique, thank you so much for your time, and for sharing the joys of vegetarianism and a compassionate lifestyle with “Common Ground,” and I hope your work in encouraging others in transitioning to a vegetarian diet continues to be successful.

Being a strict vegetarian does not mean I am malnourished in any way. I like to eat a variety of high vegetable protein and high fiber foods like tempeh, textured soy protein, seitan, edamame, soynuts, walnuts, beans and legumes.

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