These Japanese sesame-crusted “chicken bites” served at Native Foods Cafe are totally meatless. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

When you’re trying to eliminate milk and dairy from your diet to become a vegan, the usual metaphor for quitting becomes problematic, to say the least.

You’re not going cold turkey.

“Cold Tofurky,” says Jane Velez-Mitchell, gently correcting a reporter’s misstep.

Cold Tofurky isn’t easy. That’s why VegUp, the support group that Velez-Mitchell founded, is gathered on a recent Thursday evening at Native Foods Cafe, a vegan restaurant on Connecticut Avenue: to talk about why people slip up.

“I’m Alka, and I’m a recovering meat and dairy eater,” says Alka Chandna, laboratory oversight director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, modifying the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous greeting.

The group of six is sharing a plate of vegan nachos and stories about their experiences quitting meat, and then dairy, and finally foods with trace elements of animal products, such as whey.

“I’m ashamed to say I transitioned to a cheese pizza every night” when first giving up meat, Grace Hogan says. She has been a vegan for 14 years, but like others at the gathering, she comes to meetings for the friendship and to show support for animal rights causes. “Giving up cheese is hard.”

Chandna says she was raised vegetarian. “But then when I was in high school, my friends would go to McDonald’s and I went with them,” she says. “I hated being different.”

They share war stories — of going to a beachside bachelorette party and having to grill waiters about the ingredients in a dish, feeling embarrassed as everyone else looked on.

Of checking out a menu and realizing that, once again, a salad with iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes is the only thing they can order.

Of family members who don’t get it — especially at Thanksgiving, when the entire day centers on the traditional consumption of a “whole dead body,” says Stephanie Jaffa, a PETA employee.

Of going to a tapas restaurant, ordering the three vegan dishes on the menu and sharing them with the rest of the guests, who order more expensive meat dishes that you can’t eat, and then being expected to split the bill equally. “I suck it up,” says Ryan Wick, a dog-walker and actor. “I don’t want to be the jerk, especially if you’re the ambassador to being vegetarian.”

Of dealing with cravings: “I would think of veal,” Chandna says. “Nothing I wanted for my palate would justify that level of cruelty and abuse.”

Sheila Mahadevan, who quit dairy about six months ago, is the most recent convert. “I owe my successful veganism to this group,” she says.


VegUp members share stories about the tribulations of going vegan in a meat-eating world. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)
‘Liquid meat’

Velez-Mitchell, a former HLN news anchor who now works as an independent journalist, lives in New York and couldn’t make it to this meeting. But over the phone, she tells her story: a mostly vegetarian childhood in New York, going cold Tofurky 19 years ago when, as a reporter in Los Angeles, she was working on a segment about abuses in the meat industry. A publicist approached her afterward, hearing that she was a vegetarian who still ate cheese and eggs.

“She looked at me, and she pointed her finger, and she said, ‘Liquid meat.’ That hit me. I had a psychic shift,” Velez-Mitchell says.

She has never knowingly eaten dairy since. While she was able to quit butter, cheese and milk at the drop of a hat, it was her experience with alcoholism and nicotine addiction that led to the inspiration for VegUp.

“I started seeing the parallels between alcoholic cravings and meat and dairy cravings,” she says. She has been sober for 20 years and no longer smokes.

In the beginning, the group was called Meat and Dairy Eaters Anonymous, in the vein of traditional 12-step addiction programs. (It has also gone by the name Aspiring Veg-Heads.) But it was hard to stick to the complex 12-step formula, and members wanted to get the word out, not be anonymous, so the group decided to “loosen it up and make it a support group,” Velez-Mitchell says.

She plans to take VegUp nationwide and is working on chapters in Atlanta and Los Angeles. The next D.C. chapter meeting is Sept. 10 at Native Foods, where it will continue to meet at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month.

Recruitment is important, not only to VegUp but also to the group’s broader cause of animal rights. The discussion at this meeting focuses a lot on a study by the animal rights data group Faunalytics, analyzing why vegetarians and vegans lapse back into eating meat. According to Faunalytics, 10 percent of Americans 17 and older are former vegetarians and 84 percent of all people who try a vegetarian or vegan diet go back to eating meat. Those who transition quickly into the diet are found to be the most likely to quit.

“I equate it to a fitness plan or going to the gym,” says Wick, who took three years to transition. “You can go in there as a New Year’s resolution and say, ‘I’m going to change everything about myself,’ and then get flustered and frustrated.” He calls himself a “promiscuous vegan,” meaning that he tries his best to adhere to the diet, but if he accidentally eats something with milk or butter in it, hey, “it’s not the end of the world.”


Sheila Mahadevan, 33, of Washington, DC, talks about the social difficulties of being vegan. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)
Just like smoking?

Though none of the group’s members report any recent slip-ups — they’re all about progress, not perfection. Perfect is the enemy of the good. Returning to the addiction metaphor: “Maybe you smoked a cigarette,” Hogan says. “You don’t just say, ‘That’s it, five packs a day.’ ”

Adam Fine also works for PETA. “I don’t think at the time I realized I was addicted” to meat and dairy, he says. “I think after stopping it, I realized how addicted to it I used to be.”

So, is cheese really addictive? Yes, group members say, pointing to literature by Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who found dairy to contain morphine-like substances, theoretically giving it addictive qualities. However, a paper by the American Council on Science and Health refuted those claims, pointing out that the same substances are found in plant-based foods and that Barnard’s study hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal. PCRM’s mission aligns with PETA’s in that both organizations advocate vegan diets and oppose animal testing and abuse.

“Nothing shows that meat or dairy products are addictive substrates, where an individual builds up a tolerance so they need increasing amounts to achieve some beneficial effect,” says Stuart Gitlow, past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and executive director of the Annenberg Physician Training Program in Addictive Disease.

Still, if you’re trying to quit a bad habit or behavior, “finding the support of other like-minded individuals who will be there for you during the times when you feel weak — that can always be helpful,” he says.

Like those times when, ahem, someone reminds you of the decadent pleasures of a perfectly melted grilled cheese sandwich or a gooey, rich fettuccine Alfredo. Or maybe a ripe Camembert on a crusty baguette. Or a BLT with crispy, thick-cut bacon and Duke’s mayonnaise, or fro-yo, mmm, yes, fro-yo, or — okay, so just because meat and cheese aren’t scientifically considered addictive, that doesn’t make it any easier.

And temptation is everywhere.

“We have advertising campaigns that subliminally associate meat and dairy consumption with everything from sex appeal to patriotism,” Velez-Mitchell says. “We’re being culturally conditioned to consume this stuff.” It is, she says, “just like smoking.”

The key, group members say, is to replace meat and dairy with something just as good, if not better. That’s easier now that there are much improved meat and dairy substitutes getting more real estate on grocery shelves.

“I love chocolates and pastries and ice cream, but there are vegan versions of all those things,” Mahadevan says.

In Washington, vegans can dine just as well as omnivores at restaurants such as the upscale Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, or José Andres’s veggie fast-food restaurant, Beefsteak. At Native Foods Cafe, VegUp members opt for shareable comfort food: vegan buffalo wings and Japanese sesame-crusted “chicken bites,” both made of soy, wheat and pea protein.

“This is not a sacrifice,” Velez-Mitchell says. “It’s an ad­ven­ture.”

But to vegans dealing with parents who concern-troll by insisting that they drink milk for their health, or co-workers who perceive them as difficult because of their special requests at business lunches, it may not always feel that way.

And that’s why VegUp is here: to get them back in the cruelty-free, faux-leather saddle.

“I was at Target this morning, and I don’t know why, but to me, shredded cheese still looks so delicious,” Mahadevan says. “Even though there were gross hot dogs on the other side. I just looked at them and I was like: ‘They don’t sell Daiya [vegan cheese] here. Step out of the aisle.’ ”