The Vegan Diet and the Fast-Paced New Yorker

By Devi Nampiaparampil, MD, MS (“Doctor Devi”)

New Yorkers, commuters, and tourists from all walks of life hustle in and out of the new trendy The Pennsy food hall, recently constructed on West 33rd street. Cinnamon Snail, nestled at the center of the festive scene, is the vegan establishment whose first incarnation was as a colorful food truck. Transformed into brick-and-mortar, Cinnamon Snail has made vegan dishes more accessible to New Yorkers — particularly commuters — traveling through bustling Penn Station.

“The whole point of why I had a food truck was to expose veganism to people who normally would not have been familiar with it,” Chef Adam Sobel explained. “Now [Madison Square Garden] itself draws out a rotating set of different demographics, various sports crowds who are getting exposed to veganism for the first time.”

Evidence suggests at least two percent of Americans are vegan. But is this fashionable diet healthy — or just a fad? People choose to be vegan for health, environmental, or ethical concerns. Vegans, like vegetarians, do not consume meat, fish or poultry. In addition, vegans also avoid animal products like eggs and dairy.

Advocating for the humane treatment of animals, many vegans also avoid wearing fur, silk, leather and wool, as well as using certain soaps and cosmetics developed through animal testing.

Vegan diets often incorporate legumes, which are high in dietary fiber and aid in digestion. Fiber also stabilizes blood sugars and lowers cholesterol, which can improve heart health. Citrus fruits rich in vitamin C, which bolsters the immune system and helps it fight infections are a common feature. Vitamin C also helps the gut absorb iron, a building block for various proteins including hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all the organs and tissues. Green leafy vegetables, loaded with folic acid, are a staple of healthy vegan diets. Folic acid plays a key role in cell repair and development. This is why pregnant women are often encouraged to take folate supplements early on.

Although a varied and carefully planned vegan diet can include protein, calcium, and B12, these nutrients are found in greater quantities in meat and dairy products; therefore, vegans may need to take supplements. In general, evidence suggests that a healthy vegan diet can be good for your heart and your overall health. But as Chef Adam Sobel noted, “You could have a terrible diet — of French fries and canned soup — and call yourself a vegan.” This is the trigger that started Sobel on his path. “Basically, I fell in love with this girl when I was a teenager and she later became my wife,” he recalled. “She was the first person I was close to who was a vegan. She was vegan for ethical and environmental reasons. But she was an unhealthy vegan. In order to know how to make food for this girl, I started working in a restaurant to learn cooking techniques.”

Sobel put himself in the place of the animals. “The more and more I watched the preparation of animal-based foods, it really turned me off. I was a vegetarian, and then after my daughter was born I started thinking about how cows and chickens feel about their child. The inhumanity became really evident. I became totally vegan.”

Sobel’s flavors appeal to vegans and meat-eaters alike. Although ‘healthy’ may not be the right word to describe them, the vanilla bourbon crème brulee donuts are delicious. Sobel noted, “We are serving a much higher number of people who happen to be waiting for their train. Random people.”

Cinnamon Snail’s location in a high-end food hall enables vegans and non-vegans to socialize and dine together, a common challenge for mixed groups. “The people putting Pennsy together — Mario Batali, Pat La Frieda—were looking for attractive food concepts, not the usual cast of characters,” Sobel explained.

“When I initially launched the food truck, the menu was so different from what it evolved to. It was just before food trucks blew up as a trend. All the items were meticulously plated vegan entrees. I wanted an architectural look,” Sobel says then pauses with a laugh. “It was the not the type of food people want to eat on a paper plate during the lunchtime they have for half an hour.” He added, “Not to diminish the complexity or the flavor of the dishes, but they’re now more cost-effective for the customer.”

Irrespective of food philosophy, there are cardiovascular benefits to incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet and lowering your overall consumption of red meat. Sobel’s recipe book Street Vegan outlines how to prepare some of his signature dishes.

For Sobel, however, veganism is about more than just health. “It’s 2016. Our whole civilization is gravitating towards non-violence, both in the preparation of our food and in the way we live. I’m hoping other restaurants—others on the production side—take notice.”

Devi E. Nampiaparampil, MD, MS
Director, Metropolis Pain Medicine PLLC
Clinical Associate Professor, NYU School of Medicine
Medical Contributor, Fox 5 NY