Person of interest: Mike Elliot, Pittsburgh Vegan Meetup organizer

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About a decade ago, Mike Elliot woke up, stepped on the scale and stared at the number: 280 pounds.

"My feet hurt, my back hurt. I was bordering on being hypertensive," says Mr. Elliot, who is 5-foot-6. "I just needed a change."

And change he did. The Penn Township resident gave up sugar and in a few months had dropped 50 pounds -- just from eliminating that one ingredient.

Describing himself as a recovering food addict, Mr. Elliot, 49, has been vegan for nine years (meaning he avoids using or consuming animal products) and has lost 150 pounds. But it's not so much about the weight he's lost but how well he feels that keeps him motivated.

He's the only vegan in his family, but because he does most of the cooking and grocery shopping, his wife and grown son eat what he prepares. "They're very supportive," he says.

In 2008, he took over as organizer of the Pittsburgh Vegan Meetup and has seen the group grow from 20-30 people to almost 1,000. "It's taken on a life of its own."

Several members have organized a monthly $10 Pierogi Night vs. (soup, taco, falafel, pizza, pie, etc.) dinners at the Stephen Foster Community Center in Lawrenceville that are drawing droves of enthusiasts. They're usually held 6 to 9 p.m. the fourth Saturday of each month. In addition, the Meetup compiles a list of vegan-friendly restaurants in the region and provides other vegan-related support, friendship and activities. (See details at

"Meat still smells good," acknowledged Mr. Elliot, a longtime software engineer who is also a full-time graduate student at Carlow University in professional counseling. "But I have no interest in it."

What one piece of advice would you give to someone considering a vegan lifestyle? Don't get caught up with trying to replicate the meat and dairy dishes you used to enjoy. It can be done to a certain extent, but it becomes more about chemistry and overly processed foods than about nutrition. There are a plethora of dishes that are appropriate for vegans in cuisines from all over the world that are both delicious and nutritious. Some of my favorites are from Italy, India, Ethiopia and Thailand.

The hardest food to give up to become vegan was ... Believe it or not, I did not have a hard time giving up any particular foods. A large piece of this is because I have not given anything up. I can eat whatever I want. It is just that I no longer want to eat foods that contribute to the suffering of sentient beings. The other piece of this is that I have always loved to cook and explore new cuisines. Switching to this lifestyle has encouraged me to try things I probably would not have otherwise. The range of different foods I eat today is much more diverse now than anything I ate before becoming vegan.

My perfect weekend ... would involve reading a book with our cat on my lap, laughing with my wife, Diane, about something only her and I would find funny, and having friends over for dinner and good conversation.

I'm surprisingly good at ... being a therapist. For the past 25 years I have worked quite successfully as a software engineer and thought I had more of an affinity for computers than people. A few years ago, after recovering from an eating disorder, I decided I wanted to help others who are suffering from eating disorders and entered the master's programming in professional counseling at Carlow University. I will be graduating this December. My education at Carlow is really helping me to become a very good therapist, and I truly love it. I am quite excited about this new adventure.

My emergency dinner consists of ... Roasted sweet potatoes, French lentils and broccoli. The whole meal takes only an hour to cook and about 5 minutes of prep time.

On my last vacation, I ... drove across Ireland with my beautiful wife, Diane, to attend a friend's wedding. The Irish are some of the friendliest people we have ever encountered. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people. I was also quite amazed at how vegan friendly Ireland was.

Pet peeve about Pittsburgh: Aside from the Cultural District, there is very little to do Downtown after 5 p.m.

My favorite spot in the 'Burgh: Panther Hollow in Schenley Park. I wandered into it accidently during my undergrad years at Pitt and have an inexplicable affinity for it.

Three things always in my refrigerator: Brown rice, at least one kind of cooked beans and raw cashews.

Someday I'd like to ... travel to India and Thailand.

The accomplishment I'm most proud of is ... I have been maintaining a 150-pound weight loss for 51/2 years and more importantly I am vibrantly healthy. I have lots of energy and my body is able to do the things that I want to do. I feel alive!

The best advice I've ever gotten: Don't believe everything you think.

food - lifestyle


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