Men leave their own mark on veganism | Kathleen Pierce | 03/24/10

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For most of his life Joe McCain subsisted on pepperoni and sausage pizza, steak bomb subs, and anything "fried, fried, or fried.'' In other words, says the Somerville police detective with a shaved head, snowy beard, and tattoos cascading up his arms, chest, and neck, "I ate like an American.''

When McCain reached his mid-40s the party ended. Topping the scales at 257 pounds and bulging out of his clothes, the stout father of three was fat, unhappy, and "terribly uncomfortable.'' On the advice of his childhood friend Brian Rothwell, a yoga instructor and lifelong vegan, McCain cut meat, dairy, eggs, chicken, and fish from his diet and added power vinyasa yoga, which helped him shed 60 pounds in eight months. "I feel like a million bucks. And if anything, I don't look like a slob anymore,'' says McCain.

Three years later, sipping a yerba mate latte at the Sherman Cafe in Union Square, the buff and bright-eyed McCain is the new face of veganism: men in their 40s and 50s embracing a restrictive lifestyle to look better, rectify a gluttonous past, or cheat death. They are hegans. They are healthy. And they are here to stay. While no one was looking, guys were stepping up to the wheatgrass bar. Famous hegans include "Spider-Man'' Tobey Maguire and singer Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was vegan for a few years but now eats seafood and chicken on occasion.

Perhaps the ultimate hegan is Rip Esselstyn, a veteran firefighter and triathlete in Austin, Texas. He helped the men in his department lower their cholesterol in 28 days by shunning animal protein and then turned his efforts into the best-selling "The Engine 2 Diet'' (Wellness Central). Though not billed as a vegan diet per se, Esselstyn's "plant-strong'' lifestyle helps lower cholesterol by going meat-, egg-, and dairy-free, he says. "Sure there is a stigma attached to it, that it's for yuppie, tree-hugging, emaciated weaklings,'' he says. "That is far from the truth. I like to say that real men eat plants.''

Eric Faulkner, a professional in high tech, is baking a batch of vegan cookies in his Lowell loft. He minces few words to explain why he became a vegan. "I'm scared to death of cancer,'' says the lanky 42-year-old. After reading "The China Study'' (Benbella Books), which purports that animal protein can accelerate the growth of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, Faulkner ate his last cheeseburger.

For the past eight months meals in his household have been healthy remakes of meaty standbys. "I make a great avocado Reuben sandwich, a faux meat loaf, roasted butternut squash soup, and lots of pasta,'' says Faulkner, whose wife and 8-year-old daughter have also converted.

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