EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a seven-part series about what it is like to be a vegetarian in Maine today.

Sam Moore never knew any vegans until he went vegan himself two years ago.

“Veganism is a very new idea to a lot of people, including me,” said Moore, 35.

The Maine native, who now lives in North Conway, New Hampshire, took the vegan plunge after watching YouTube videos of cooks preparing raw food.

“I tried to do some of the things they were doing, but it was cumbersome and difficult,” Moore said.

Then he discovered the growing number of physicians prescribing a plant-based, vegan diet to improve health. Moore learned that “instead of buying 10 bags of kale, I could just eat some oatmeal.”

He continues to eat raw fruit one meal a day, but today Moore sees himself as “less of a raw foodist” and more of a vegan.

Moore’s exploration of vegan eating reveals something many non-vegans don’t realize: The diet has a lot of variations.

In general, a vegan diet means no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy or food containing other animal products (such as gelatin or white sugar processed using animal bones). But that’s where the similarities end.

50 SHADES OF VEGAN

Raw-food vegans, like those Moore found on YouTube, aim to eat food that hasn’t been cooked above a certain temperature, typically around 110 degrees F. In contrast, macrobiotic vegans center their diets on cooked whole grains and beans and eat only small amounts of raw food.

Another common variation is referred to as oil-free, plant-based veganism. Stefani Berkey of Brewer is a former full-time chef (and one-time butcher) who adopted this style a year ago.

“I don’t eat any oil, and I don’t eat anything processed, like Tofurky,” said Berkey, who trained in Europe and is a graduate of the culinary program at Case Western Reserve University. “I eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables. I do eat tofu occasionally.”

Berkey, 59, uses substitutes such as water to stir fry and parchment paper for baking (no need to grease the pan).

At the opposite end of the vegan spectrum is the so-called “junk food vegan.” It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Junk food vegans eat fast food, potato chips, vegan doughnuts and milk-free candy bars without restraint. In my experience, these vegans tend to be young and lack cooking skills.

But most new vegans fall somewhere in between – they eat whole foods and from-scratch cooked meals, but they also eat vegan grocery items like packaged meat analogs, nondairy cream cheese, tofu mayonnaise, soy ice cream and coconut milk yogurt. Many take a mix and match approach.

WHY VEGAN?

Lisa Whited of Portland has been a vegan for more than a year. “I’m not a purist,” she says. “I eat 98 percent good vegan food. My downfall is sweetness.”

Whited’s desire to go vegan came after attending a lecture Dr. Neal Barnard gave in Portland on Oct. 14, 2013 (she still remembers the exact date) called “Power Foods for the Brain.”

“Up until that point, I’d never considered a vegetarian – let alone a vegan – diet,” Whited, 52, said. “He made the connection between animal protein and incidents of dementia.”

During the lecture, Barnard asked the audience to imagine “if you couldn’t remember who your family members are,” Whited recalled. That resonated with the mother of three who has seen relatives stricken by dementia. She decided then and there to go vegan.

Moore followed a similar path. Older relatives suffered from cancer and heart disease; he learned that both conditions can be linked to a meat-based diet, so he decided to give vegan eating a try.

“I’d seen patterns in my family’s history, and I did not want to repeat them,” Moore said.

But Elizabeth Meade of Waldoboro wasn’t thinking about her health when she decided to become a vegetarian. She stumbled on a video about factory farming while doing a high school project on cholesterol. “It was really eye-opening and heart-breaking,” Meade, now 24, said.

That decision set her on a course to become a vegan eight years later. Over the years, Meade gradually learned more about the egg and dairy industries, and she didn’t like what she found out. She gave up cheese, and with the cheese temptation out of the way, Meade said the transition to vegan eating was easy – thanks in no small part to the fact that her dad does all the cooking.

FINDING STORES AND RESTAURANTS

Bill Meade, her dad, is also a former vegetarian who became vegan at the same time his daughter did.

He said his ability to cook made the switch easy. He learned to substitute nuts for cheese and figured out how to replace eggs in baking with applesauce or ground flaxseed mixed with water.

“It’s not that complicated,” said Meade, 53. “My cooking hasn’t changed a whole lot. I eat basically the same kind of foods without chicken or beef.”

But Meade laments that his rural community in the midcoast has no vegan-friendly grocery stores or restaurants “for miles.”

Berkey, who lives in Bangor and avoids cooking oils, has it even tougher.

“Going out to eat, oil is the biggest issue,” Berkey said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in Portland, Bangor, Boston or New York,” requesting an oil-free dish still stumps most chefs.

But Whited, living in Maine’s restaurant capital, “was surprised by how easy it is, even going out to eat.” Before going out in Portland, Whited studies menus online to figure out her options. Often, she can piece together an entrée from a handful of appetizers.

If the restaurant offers no vegan dishes, Whited has found some chefs are willing to make her one from the ingredients they have on hand.

“I’m a foodie,” Whited said. “We go to eat at good restaurants. People are very accommodating.”

During her recent stay at a Maine Huts & Trails cabin, she added, the staff prepared all vegan food for her, including shepherd’s pie with lentils.

And whether they are eating curries at home or dining out on the town, Mainers who’ve recently stepped onto the plant-based path may discover an unexpected side effect.

“It’s expanded my consciousness,” Moore said of his move to vegan eating. “I know that sounds hippie-ish, but I’m aware of a lot more than I was before. I didn’t go vegan to help animals or save animals. But now I see things that our society does differently.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland, she can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila