From honey to ham, not one animal product has passed through Harlan Dubansky’s lips for the past 12 years.
After a life full of eating and selling meat, the 74-year-old credits his vegan lifestyle with his happy, active retirement.
While vegans — who eat only foods derived from plants — often describe themselves as “weird,” Dubansky is conventional, a gregarious businessman from the Iowa heartland. He has found in veganism a way to maintain a healthy weight and demonstrate his love of animals.
The diet signaled an abrupt lifestyle change for Dubansky, who moved to Oro Valley with his wife, Shirley, in 1995.
But it sprang from several ingredients stewing throughout his childhood and career. A struggle with obesity, a World War II Victory Garden, a dog named Pal, and 40 years as a grocer seasoned Dubansky’s decision to become a vegan.
Dubansky’s weight shot up 30 pounds, to 310, when he quit smoking as a young man. The 30 pounds came off, but the 6-footer teetered between 250 and 280 pounds throughout adulthood — though he jogged three miles daily and participated in an annual seven-day bike ride across Iowa. (At that weight, he says, the high-impact aerobics damaged his joint cartilage, and he needed a hip replacement.)
Following a trip to Lithuania 12 years ago to see the village where his father grew up, “something clicked,” relates Dubansky, who now is a shade under 200 pounds. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life having trouble getting around due to his girth. He and Shirley enrolled in a weeklong on-site weight-loss program.
After the program and the sale of his last business in 1995 — he had come to own four grocery stores and four convenience stores in eight small towns near Ames — Dubansky decided vegetarianism might help him shed pounds. He avoided meat but ate eggs and milk products. After six months, he hadn’t lost weight.
“I still had my ice cream and chocolate malts,” he says.
He did away with the eggs and dairy. The pounds began to melt; further, Dubansky found that because vegetables have few calories for their bulk, he left the table feeling satisfied.
The first months on the plants-only diet were challenging, but, Dubansky says, “now I would not depart from a vegan diet for even a second.”
Fortunately, he loves vegetables, partly due to Victory Gardens.
Dubansky was a boy during World War II when citizens were urged to plant Victory Gardens to help free commercial agriculture to feed American troops. His father hired a farmer to plow up the family’s entire backyard in Des Moines, and put the youngest of his three children, 9-year-old Harlan, in charge of it.
“At first I hated every minute, pulling weeds with a hand spade in that huge garden,” Dubansky says. “But after the first year, I became addicted to it.”
A passion for both gardening and fresh vegetables stuck with Dubansky. Because raising vegetables in Tucson’s desert soils isn’t easy, he gardens in tubs.
The first question people ask him is, “How do you get enough protein?” Dubansky relates.
“People think they have to eat half a cow a day to get enough protein, but it’s surprising how much protein is in vegetables,” he says.
Upon becoming a vegan, Dubansky consulted a dietitian, who instructed him on combining plant foods to obtain the amino acids needed to build body protein. She advised him to take a daily supplement of vitamin B-12.
Dubansky has yearly check-ups to make sure his restricted diet isn’t contributing to any health problems. So far so good. “They test me for everything and proclaim me healthy,” he says. He continues to exercise, biking 28 to 30 miles three times weekly, and working out with weights.
Dubansky’s love of animals also contributes to his dedication to veganism. As a boy, his beloved dog Pal, shot by a neighbor, bled to death in his arms.
During his four decades as a grocer, Dubansky bought his own meat, which took him into many livestock and butcher operations. He often didn’t like what he saw — “chickens stuffed in cages, their beaks cut off with tools so they wouldn’t peck one another,” for example.
Dubansky says that having sold “hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat” throughout the years, he was part of a system he believes is cruel to animals.
He typically starts his day with oatmeal with almond milk and fresh fruit. Lunch is often soup, leftover veggies, and whole-grain bread. Dinner may consist of a grilled portobello, beans with salsa — for convenience, he heats canned beans—and a salad.
Dubansky snacks on fruit, which is sweeter than vegetables. “It’s hard to eat a stalk of celery and feel as though you’ve had a good snack,” he says with a laugh. His greatest temptation is dark chocolate chips, and he’ll sometimes buy a 12-ounce bag to nibble on. Often he ends up throwing away part of the package, preferring to waste the money than having the calories go to waist. “I just have to battle it and battle it, this struggle to keep my weight down; there’s no magic solution.”
Dubansky and his wife mostly prepare their own foods, due to his veganism and because Shirley developed celiac sprue several years ago. This genetic disorder in which the body doesn’t digest gluten — the proteins of grains — runs in her family. Either Harlan or Shirley often prepares a base food, such as vegetable soup, to which Shirley may add meat, and Harlan, grains.
Dubansky finds recipes on the Internet. He’ll enter a key ingredient, such as Swiss chard, and see what comes up. Or he’ll look through the fridge and improvise a meal around what he finds — ” quicker and easier than spending a lot of time pondering recipes,” he says.
An extrovert, Dubansky has found ways to entertain and socialize without his diet becoming an impediment. He’ll grill steaks for friends, along with portobellos for himself and others who want them, and serve plenty of vegetable side dishes. When invited to friends’ homes, Dubansky takes a large salad to share and his own entree. “That’s the easiest way to maintain comfortable friendships,” he says.
Emily Will, Arizona Star