The I-Can't-Chew Vegan Diet

By Yvonne Martel

One question that I'm frequently asked, as are all vegans I know, is whether it is hard to follow such a "restrictive" diet. My answer is, of course — certainly not! As all committed vegans know, a plant-based diet opens up whole new culinary possibilities for those of us who love to cook, and restaurants are becoming ever more responsive to our needs. (Even my Southern barbecue-loving city recently premiered a dairy- and egg-free bakery and a vegan restaurant!) However, several years ago, I faced a personal challenge when my vegan diet collided with the challenges of a medical condition.

At the time, I was 33 years old, in great shape, and never had a serious health scare. That's why I sat in a state of minor shock in the TMJ specialist's office while she patiently explained my MRI results. The grayish images revealed significantly damaged cartilage in my jaw joints — the reason why I had recently been suffering from dental pain. I would need major jaw surgery.

Navigating the medical establishment as a vegan takes patience and persistence. Facing the prospect of my jaw wired shut for the first few days and then a total restriction on chewing for another three months, I had to prepare for some major food challenges. I tried to take it one step at a time. While registering with the hospital by phone, I made sure to tell the kind admissions staffer about my vegan diet. She promised to pass the information along but also advised me to bring some of my own food — just in case. The day before surgery, my doctor talked to me in general terms about how I would need to eat afterwards. However, unfortunately, he was not able to suggest a good vegan alternative to the canned, dairy-based nutritional liquids. His staff gave me a copy of I-Can't-Chew Cookbook, which had maybe one or two accidentally vegan recipes. While he thought better of pressing me too much on the issue, I'm sure he wished he could tell this stubborn patient to loosen up just this once and drink the regular nutritional formulas already! Nevertheless, I had been vegan for years and thought I would manage just fine without much guidance.

The surgery went without a hitch. However, despite informing the hospital of my dietary needs, the food sent to my room included gelatins, cream of mushroom soup, and those milk-based nutritional drinks I had earlier refused. While glad I had heeded the admissions staffer's recommendation to bring my own food, post-surgical nausea made it impossible to keep anything down. I tried to deal with my nausea on my own — by drinking thin liquids such as sports drinks and ginger ale — to no avail. (Those drinks help you recover from a stomach bug, not surgery, as I learned.) So after waking up the next morning feeling tired and dehydrated, I was relieved to see the hospital's dietitian pay a visit to my room, thinking that she must have some specific advice for relieving the nausea and structuring my diet. However, she had only a small booklet of general no-chew recipes which she said I may be able to modify.

Being persistent at engaging with the medical staff and helping them to understand my needs finally paid off, though. My doctor and I had a productive discussion. Even though he did not know what vegan foods to recommend, he emphasized that I needed to take in a healthy mix of fats, protein, and carbohydrates to restart my digestive system (not just thin, sugary drinks). Finally, things clicked for me, and I started to think about what foods I could consume in order to get a blend of different nutrients. My nausea abated once I learned to make drinks full of nutritious ingredients like soymilk, coconut milk, hemp protein powder, nut butters, and fruits. This was my diet for the first few days.

After five days, my surgeon de-wired my jaw and instructed me to follow a strict no-chew diet for the next several months. For sure, it would be an improvement over the liquid diet, since I could not imagine drinking nothing but smoothies for months. Still, I had some concerns about staying healthy while avoiding monotony. One friend even suggested I eat jars of baby food, but I just could not stomach the thought! Googling "vegan no-chew diet" turned up very little. I discovered just one blog about a poor vegan guy who broke his jaw after a biking accident. While I laughed along sympathetically with his plight, the entry about eating a whole can of refried beans for dinner left me uninspired. I may not be a gourmet cook, I thought, but surely I can do a little better! Left to my own devices, I started paging through the recipes in my cookbooks one by one and started to experiment.

My first realization was that, although you can swallow almost anything without chewing it if you cut it up into small enough pieces, you will not necessarily taste much of it. I got more pleasure out of meals made with creamy textures and thick liquids. Eating sauces, dips, puddings, soups, and broths — basically anything that dissolves on the tongue — prevented taste bud boredom. Canned soups and frozen dinners were nice timesavers, since the soft contents could be swallowed easily. However, even the 'healthy' brands of convenience foods are often full of sodium, and I quickly got tired of the bland flavors. Though lack of time sometimes got in the way, home cooking mostly saved me from getting completely exasperated with my condition. One silver lining from this whole experience is that I have learned how some foods that taste absolutely wonderful when prepared from scratch really do not require that much effort — like applesauce, hummus, and puréed soups. (Homemade applesauce, by the way, is amazing as compared to the stuff from a jar — like eating your grandmother's apple pie without the crust!)

Pastas and Mexican foods made delicious soft, easy- -to-swallow casseroles. The ingredients for a burrito without the tortilla are soft and smooth — including rice, refried beans, salsa, guacamole, vegan cheese and sour cream, and even quinoa. I also learned to stuff pasta shells or manicotti with tofu filling and top it with pesto, marinara sauce, or a 'cheesy' sauce. Although my doctor had seemed worried about me getting enough protein in my diet, I found protein-rich foods easy to incorporate. Crumbled silken tofu, mashed legumes, and nut butters provided plenty of variety. Wilting thin strips of cooked spinach in pasta sauce provided a great source of leafy green vegetables. As for side dishes, mashed root vegetables and potatoes never got old, and puréed sweet potatoes paired wonderfully with refried black beans. Although I toyed with the idea of buying an expensive juicer at first, I ended up managing well enough with a standard blender and an immersion blender. The immersion blender made the prospect of making a puréed soup much less daunting. Even traditional cookbooks tend to have a few recipes for cream of [insert any vegetable] soup, and soy or cashew milk make good substitutions for any dairy ingredients. The blender also proved useful for making fruit compotes which, along with a bit of maple syrup or molasses, usually topped my bowl of oatmeal in the morning. Vegan yogurts have also come a long way recently, and they made a tasty accompaniment to breakfast.

I also enjoyed experimenting with raw foods, even though my interest in them had been limited in the past. A natural foods store nearby has a well-stocked deli where I discovered hummus and dips made from nuts and seeds. At first I had to think about what to pair with them, since bread was unfortunately off-limits. (The only way I could think to eat it was to swallow it down in small pieces with a big gulp of water, and that wasn't much fun.) However, these smooth, creamy nut- and seed-based concoctions still tasted wonderful when paired with whole-wheat couscous or other grains. I found that surrounding the small grains with the creamy textures made them slide down my throat easily without getting stuck. I also discovered melt-in-your-mouth desserts made from cashew cream, coconut cream, and avocados. Though a little on the expensive side when purchased from the prepared foods case, some items turned out to be very easy to make at home. I used to think raw food preparation was too intimidating to even attempt, but making a luscious pudding dessert is as easy as throwing a perfectly ripe avocado, cocoa powder, and agave syrup into a blender.

Speaking of desserts, fortunately for my sweet tooth I did not have to deprive myself of all sugar. I prepared cream pies sans crust with fillings of silken tofu, sweetener, chocolate, peanut butter, and fruits. Coconut and hemp milk ice cream and popsicles made delicious summer treats. And as the weather cooled down, I enjoyed warm apple cider or hot cocoa made of almond or soy milk. I was excited to discover that adding my favorite vegan marshmallows was not a problem, since they melted on my tongue. And thankfully, chocolate bars were not off-limits either, for the same reason!

It took awhile to get the hang of things, but after months of practice, I did learn how to seamlessly incorporate a variety of foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and soy products — into my no-chew diet. My recovery has been a long journey, and I hope to never experience anything like it ever again! Now that I am back to eating all kinds of solid foods, it is exciting to eat crunchy vegetables, firm tempeh, chewy pizza crust, and other treats I missed. However, the experience opened my mind to even more delicious ways of eating, like raw cuisine and preparing more foods from scratch.

As veganism grows in popularity, I do look forward to a time when hospitals and the medical community will know more about vegan diets and expand the options available to us. But until there is an I-Can't-Chew Vegan Cookbook, I hope that reading about my experiences may help any other vegans out there facing a no-chew diet. Though it is a challenge, I have learned that it is surmountable with patience, creativity, and an open mind (and taste buds).