Mark Sutton, author of Heart Healthy Pizza, shares his journey to a vegan diet with no added oils, his passion for all things pizza and tips for those transitioning to plant-based eating.

QV: How long have you been following a plant-based/vegan diet, and what first got you started?

MS: I was a vegetarian for about 20 years, and a vegan for the past 10.  My mother’s death from breast cancer when I was 14 provided the primary stimulus to investigate diet and nutrition as a possible cause of cancer.  In the process, while studying Agni and Raja Yoga, I became intrigued by the impact vegetarianism had on the consciousness of many philosophers and sages of antiquity.  My experiment with that diet became a permanent lifestyle due to how great on so many levels I felt from not eating meat.  I gave it all up over a three month period.

Veganism was a logic next step and it was easy to give up eggs, but I was in no hurry to give up dairy.  Dairy, particularly cheese, was the hardest step. I wasn’t big into milk other than as a creamer for coffee or tea.  Even having worked with different vegan organizations and knowing many vegans (animal issues weren’t as obvious back then without the Internet), I rationalized cheese as a non-problem.

It was a seminal column by Robert Cohen, aka the NotMilkMan, that compelled me to give up dairy.  He wrote about U.S. statistics that showed the allowable amount of pus cells per liter of milk in each state.  At that time, all states were over that limit.  “Pus cells in milk? Concentrated in cheese?”  That did it for me.  No more dairy.

QV: How did you get interested in the health benefits of a low oil/no oil diet?

MS: Dean Ornish’s work in the mid-80s had influence on me, as did the Fatfree.com group (in 1995!!).  In February 2007, as editor of the Mad Cowboy Newsletter, I interviewed Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn about his new book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.  It was quite a tussle, but his arguments and logic convinced me to give “no added fat” vegan a try.  Within three or so months I’d totally lost my taste addiction or craving for any kind of added oil.  It’s been easy to be no-fat vegan for four years now.

QV: You clearly have a passion for pizza.  What sparked your interest?

MS: As for most children, pizza was a “worship word” (to quote Star Trek, the first series).  I also worked in two pizza restaurants out of high school (graduated early) before college.  One manager in particular taught me a lot about the aesthetics of laying out the ingredients properly, such that no one ingredient overwhelmed the others.

Many years later at a dinner party, the scientist host made pizzas on the spot for his guests.  I decided then I wanted to be able to do the same in a “non-restaurant” environment.  It seemed so simple and tasty.  Learning how to make reliable dough took the most time and experimentation.

QV: What inspired you to put together Heart Healthy Pizza?

MS: After leaving NASA, I worked on an organic farm for exactly a year, to learn how “not to kill plants.” Shortly thereafter I had the opportunity to caretake a large property where we were going to build a humongous vegetable garden.  With a chance to grow my own food during the day, and do my work with a high-speed line and computers at night, I thought I’d have time for a new project.

My thought was the biggest thing I could contribute to the growing vegan movement was to help show vegetarians, primarily, that it’s possible to make a great pizza without dairy (the faux cheeses then had nowhere near the melting quality of those of today).  I set out to experiment, learn, and document making a wide variety of “non-cheese” sauces.  I started out mainly with various combinations of tofu, nuts, oil(!), rice, and millet.

Soon after, I did the aforementioned interview with Dr. Esselstyn, and realizing the incredibly high fat (added oil) content of most of the current faux cheeses (indeed, many as fatty as whole milk mozzarella), I needed to re-think my recipes without too many nuts and with no oil.  This turned into a boon as I was forced to expand the types of ingredients I used and get more creative in the process to compensate for the lack of oil and not using a lot of nuts.

QV: What was the most difficult thing about writing the book?

MS: Creating the recipes was the fun part, but the actual writing was very tough.  Deciding what recipes to use was difficult as I have so many (and thought up even more while writing the book) was also hard.  My time was limited in that I couldn’t continue writing the book without working indefinitely, so many recipes (they hadn’t been tested independently) needed to be left out.  Perhaps for a sequel? (QV Note: Yes please!)

But I’d have to say using an open source layout package (LibreOffice) that had a Microsoft mindset was probably the most maddening part of creating the book.  I’m a long-term Mac consultant and many assumptions I made in the layout process were antithetical to how LibreOffice was designed.  A tough learning curve, and even a small error in indexing meant having to manually re-edit the entire book.

QV: What’s your favorite recipe in the book?

MS: I keep getting asked this question and truthfully, I don’t have a favorite.  If I didn’t like a recipe, it wouldn’t be in the book!  Conceptually, I dig the recipes using quinoa and barley a lot (very unique).  Incorporating salsa, corn, sweet potatoes, artichokes, or cauliflower, as examples, into “non-cheese” sauces was cool.  A couple of the gluten-free recipes aren’t so much a favorite, but very satisfying in that a lot of experimentation finally paid off.

QV: What do you hope people will take away from Heart Healthy Pizza?

A feeling of satisfaction that they can make truly healthy and tasty pizzas, a creativity in realizing how many other ways they can use the myriad of “non-cheese” sauces, and an enjoyment in experimenting with my recipes to suit their own tastes and needs.

QV: Do you have any recommendations for people first starting out with plant-based/vegan eating?

MS: Educate yourself and interact with other vegans on websites, groups, blogs, and with social media.  Take advantage of the Internet for researching new recipes as well as getting advice (including YouTube videos).  Nouveaux vegans of today have a tremendous advantage many of us didn’t have in earlier years to exchange ideas and help others via the World Wide Web.  I’ve listed a few URLs of note below. (QV Note: Check them out!)

There are also many great vegan cookbooks available (too many to list, but any book by Bryanna Clark Grogan or Robin Robertson is a good start).  If you need to, take advantage of your local library to borrow them.

Social media is a fine place to get periodic bursts of new information or recipes people post.  Both work well for this purpose for different reasons.

Finally, consider defining yourself not by what you can’t eat, but what you can!  Explore the incredible mind-blowing array of whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes available to you.  Eat a diverse diet and a rainbow of color for all the phytochemicals, antioxidants, and disease-fighting nutrition not available in meat, eggs, or dairy.  Don’t view your transition to a plant-based diet as a challenge but rather as a wonderful opportunity to explore new foods, increase your health, meet new friends of like mind, and know that your your diet is sustainable, environmentally sound, and animal-friendly.

Mark’s Links of Note:

Further reading:
Robert Cohen’s NotMilk Column on “Pus Cells in Milk:”
http://www.notmilk.com/lawbreakers.html

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease:”
http://www.heartattackproof.com

The Mad Cowboy Interview with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn:
http://www.madcowboy.com/02_MCIview05.000.html

Blogs, recipes & support for a plant-based diet:
The Blissful Chef:
http://theblissfulchef.com/

Bryanna Clark Grogan:
http://veganfeastkitchen.blogspot.com/

FatFreeVegan:
http://blog.fatfreevegan.com/

Fat Free Vegan Yahoo Group:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/fatfree_vegan/

Nava Atlas:
http://www.vegkitchen.com/

Robin Robertson:
http://veganplanet.blogspot.com/

VegWeb:
http://www.vegweb.com/