We’ve all met them – the Vegans with emaciated bodies, hollowed out eyes, intense stares. Hardly a picture of health. On the flip side, neither is a bulbous abdomen, rough patchy skin, problematic acne, red face or smell of the carnivore (not to be confused with an omnivore). But for some reason we all screw up our nose at the Vegans and get the dire urge to shove some red meat down their throat, but never in the reverse for the carnivores (substitute red meat for green leafy vegetables). At least the Vegans have made a conscious decision to eat this way; abstaining from animal products for either ethical, environmental and/or health reasons. The automatic-pilot behaviour of the 7-day-a-week meat eater hardly has any of these very real issues in mind. Usually it’s a case of “this is how it’s meant to be” aided by biased commercials funded by the Meat and Livestock associations. Yeah, like they’ve got our health primarily in mind.
For those who are unsure of the definition of vegan, it is a plant-based diet that abstains from any animal based products including flesh, milk, eggs, and honey. Vegetarians will eat animal products that haven’t involved the death of the animal. Pescatarians are those who will fish. The way I like to look at these diets are not what you can’t have, but what you can have. To quote Moby “becoming vegan has opened me up to experience foods I wouldn’t normally have tried and has made me more discerning about the foods I do eat.”
The 30 Day Vegan Easy Challenge is on right now (1 – 30 March), so It’s quite fitting then that I dedicate a post to discussing the virtues and vices of Veganism. Coincidentally, Melbourne’s The Age Epicure this week was a special Vegetarian edition. However it was disappointing the lack of variety and insight presented. I’m most aggrevated by the insulting nature of the feature article by Larissa Dubecki “To Abstinence and Back”. What the? This is a vegetarian edition, not the How-I-once-had-morals-then-sold-out-because-I-became-a-food-writer edition. To me this highlights the lack of awareness and understanding out there in mainstream media surrounding vegetarianism and veganism.
Let me just get this straight though. I’m not a vegan. I’m what I like to call an 80/20. 80% of my diet is plant based, 20% is animal based. I’ve written about this before, I’ve gone Vegan for about 5 months and while my diet was full of variety and organics I just didn’t feel it was for me.
I remain intrigued by veganism for all the regular reasons, but also about the creativity involved to come up with delicious, nutritious, exciting, pleasuring vegan food. If you’re like me and didn’t grow up vegan (hey I grew up on a sheep and cattle farm), it’s not innately built into our repertoire to cook this way and with only plant based ingredients. All the conventional recipes have to be converted and then there’s the trap of substituting tofu for everything animal-based in your previous diet. My guru restaurant, Dirt Candy in NYC quotes “Anybody can cook a hamburger, but leave the vegetables to the professionals.” As much as I love this quote, I would like to see more people empowered to cook vegan and enjoy it.
Historically, it’s only since post WW2 that meat consumption escalated in direct correlation to industrialised farming practices and the formation of large agri-boards. Back in the day, meat and dairy was a luxury that people couldn’t afford to eat several times a week. There were smaller farm operations and cleaner farming practices, so animal husbandry wasn’t the animal rights issue like it is today. When I think of ‘back in the day’ I think of rolling green pastures a-la Anne of Greengables. It seemed like such a lovely uncomplicated time….sure there was no refrigeration, medicine was primative (I shudder at the thought of blood-letting) and conforming to social pressures would have suffocated a person of my disposition. But the animals were healthy, the produce tasted real, families actually sat down to a meal together and nature was revered and respected. Now we just barge on through growing lettuce in the winter, eat tomatoes all year round and crack the shits when we can’t get decent priced bananas grown in a region that has just been hit by a horrendous cyclone. The China Study presents the idea that we now suffer diseases of affluence as a result of eating like kings and queens every day of the week.
What about protein and iron?
I’ve heard the protein and iron debate a tonne of times – it seems to be the only fallback argument carnivores have. It’s not necessary to consume meat on the level we do today to get adequate nutrition. Moreover, we have everything we want at our fingertips, so our consumption of everything has multiplied to gluttonous proportions but studies are finding that obese people are suffering from malnutrition. So you have to stop and wonder why?
A few points to consider about nutrition from plant based sources:
- Many plant based sources contain more bio-available nutrients than meat and dairy
- Getting our required nutrients from a variety of sources (a la the hunter gather) outweighs singluar sources for required nutrients
- Fiber is now a known component to preventing colon disease, absorbing nutrients and promoting beneficial intestinal flora. There is no fiber contained in meat or dairy. Healing with Wholefoods says “even though taking (fiber supplements) can have therapeutic results, the most balanced approach is to eat a variety of different types of fiber in the form of whole vegetal foods.”
- Unlike animal protein, plant-based protein doesn’t have the same acid-inducing result. High intakes of animal protein increases the acidity levels in the body. To maintain a neutral pH, the body will combat the acidic environment by drawing calcium (an alkaline substance) from the bones. The loss of calcium weakens the bones putting them at greater risk of fracture. Recent studies supports this, showing that there is a direct correlation between countries with high dairy intake and incidences of osteoporosis (see The China Study for an in depth presentation on this topic).
“Protein means civilisation”
In our society, meat and protein are synonymous. The stigma of protein has come about from campaigns stemming as far back as the early 1900’s. Carl Voit was a prominent German scientist with a staunch opinion on protein. He found that humans only needed 48.5 grams of protein per day but nonetheless recommended 118 grams per day – more than two times the amount because at the time the perception of eating meat was symbolic of civilisation. These ideas were aided by research conducted on rats where they thrived on protein supplements with amino acid profile similar to that found in animal products. It was assumed then that those same patterns would be required for humans, thus a standard was developed for humans and assumptions made that plant based protein is inferior. Since then, advanced studies have proven that complex carbohydrates have an amino acid profile adequate for human protein needs. Ten of the 20 known amino acids are called essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from the diet. Humans need only eight essential amino acids of which can be found in virtually every unrefined food from the vegetable kingdom.
We have since learned that too much protein puts one in great risk for bone loss and kidney failure in addition to heart disease and cancer becoming more likely, especially with the protein/saturated fat combination of animal based protein. The protein hysteria has led to too much of a good thing, and often a common mistake in dietary therapy.
What is the recommended amounts of protein?
Healing with Whole Foods recommends that 55 – 85 grams of animal protein (prepared) per day is adequate, if not ideal. This is almost half a McDonalds quarter pounder meat patty. Cheese on the side. Plant protein is 113 – 170 grams (prepared) per day (less for nuts, seeds, micro algae and sea veg) and easily attainable from the variety of legumes, vegetables, fruits, grains and soy products available to us, while maintaining calcium absorption.
With what we know about proteins now we can obtain adequate protein needs by choosing a grain and a legume in a ratio of 2 to 1. Using seeds or nuts with grains also increases the amino acid spectrum. In most cases those that benefit best from higher protein profiled vegetables are pregnant and lactating women, children, hypoglycemics, those under psychological or physical stress (anxiety, infections, surgery), recovering alcoholics, recent vegetarians and those with protein deficiency. For those that find it difficult to digest grains and legumes in the same meal you can alternate grains with one meal, legumes in another.
“Iron helps us play”
Easily one of my favourite quotes from The Simpsons.
Iron forms part of the haemoglobin molecule found in red blood cells and responsible for carrying oxygen around the body, keeping us healthy and clean on the inside. In Chinese Medicine we talk about blood deficiency which is most closely translated to iron deficiency in alopathic medicine. The concept of blood in Chinese Medicine includes the inherent energy of blood. Blood is created in part from nutrients extracted from digestion and is combined with the Kidney essence known as jing, our constitutional energy. Much of the body’s jing is stored in the bone marrow, correlating to alopathic medicine’s knowledge of red blood cells being generated in the marrow. Signs of blood deficiency are pale lips, nailbeds, tongue and complexion in general; physical thinness; spots in the field of vision; unusual hair loss; premature graying; thinning hair; dry skin and and trembling and numbness of arms and hands; nervousness and anxiety; lower back pain; headache and painful or nonexistent periods.
Chinese Medicine talks about nutrition as a major factor in blood building. But we have to look at nutrition in two parts; support and strengthen the digestive function for maximum nutrition absorption. You can have the best diet in the world but if your diegestion isn’t working to capacity, then you may as well be eating cardboard. I have previously written about strengthening the digestive function in this post here, in fact, it is the main thing I harp on about and just as important as what nutrients we consume. Which brings me to the second factor, being the intake of specific foods that generate healthy blood. To generate blood we need adequate levels of Vitamin B12, iron and folic acid. To absorb iron we need adequate copper, B vitamins and vitamin C while manganese has properties beneficial to the formation of blood. In nature we often find that the presence of catalyst nutrients coexist together and that is why the wholefoods movement stresses consuming foods in their whole and unrefined state. It is only when extreme deficiencies exist is it necessary to use animal products such as royal jelly, gelatin, carp soup, mussles, oysters, liver of beef, lamb or chicken.
Plant-based foods that contain these blood building nutrients include:
- Iron: micro algae, seaweeds, sprouts, leafy green vegetables (all high in chlorophyll that has a molecular structure nearly identical to the haemoglobin forming pigment called hemin), legumes (such as soy beans, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans) most vegetables (especially the green leafys, potatoes), whole grains, tofu, tempeh, blackstrap molasses, prune juice, seeds (especially sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds), nuts (especially cashews), fruit (figs, apricots, banana, avocado). Surprisingly, clams outweigh sirloin steak iron levels by eight to one.
- Folic Acid: sprouts, green leafys and chlorophyll rich foods in general. Take note that folic acid is easliy lost in prolonged cooking, so raw or lightly steam your greens or sprouts.
- Vitamin C: cabbage, capsicum, broccoli, sprouts, parsley, rose hit tea, nearly all fresh fruit and vegetables.
- B vitamins:
B12 = Nutritional yeast which is a nutritional supplement that gives vegan food a nice cheesy flavour, Brewers yeast, yeast extracts, textured vegetable protein, soy milk
B group = unpeeled mushrooms, wholegrains, capsicum (red and yellow), legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, wheatgerm, strawberries, molasses, fenugreek (fenugreek seed known as Hu Lu Ba in the TCM materia medica)
- Copper: Nuts (especially Brazil nuts, almonds, hazlenuts, walnuts, pecans, coconuts), legumes (split peas, peanuts), buckwheat, sunflower oil, butter, grains (such as rye, barley, millet, whole wheat), olive oil, vegetables (turnips, green peas), roots (ginger, garlic), molasses, fruit (papaya, apple)
- Manganese: Nuts (especially the ones named above), grains (barley, rye, buckwheat, whole wheat, oats, corn meal, millet), legumes (peanuts, split peas), vegetables (fresh spinach, turnip greens, rhubarb, beet greens, brussel sprouts, carrots, broccoli)
- Blood building foods: certain green and grain blood-builders have a long history of use. the Japanese combine pounded sweet rice (mochi) with the herb mugwort (a common herb known as Ai Ye in TCM). A pre-prepared version is available in many parts of the US or easily made yourself. If mugwort is not available, the common herb, nettles can be substituted.
3 c. sweet rice
5 c. water
1/2 tsp sea salt
3 – 9g dried mugwort (found in Chinese Medicine clinics or supermarkets as Ai Ye)
- Simmer rice in salted water for 2 – 3 hrs, or pressure cook for 20 minutes.
- In the last 5 – 10 minutes of cooking add the dried mugwort
- Place in a large sturdy stainless steel bowl and pound with a wooden pestle (available from Asian supermarkets) until all grains are broken forming a paste.
- Sprinkle the rice mass and bottom of the pestle with cold water occasionally to prevent sticking
- With moistened hands, shape dough into balls, patties, squares etc.
- Serve fresh or pan-roasted, topped with grated daikon and shoyu, rolled in toasted ground walnut meats or wrap in nori strips.
Note: Japanese mugwort is less bitter than American mugwort and better for building blood, while American mugwort is better to eliminate parasites (see below).
It is important to note that through my research on blood deficiency, inadequacies in the diet aren’t always the cause. Parasitic infestation, raised in two esteemed references, The China Study and Healing With Wholefoods, is listed as a common cause. That is why with illness it is important to treat the individual and not the disease.
If you’re a devout meat eater and so concerned with the health of your Vegan counterparts (said with a measure of sarcasm), I ask you to take a look at your own diet first. How much fresh produce are YOU getting? How much variety of grains and legumes? Is your meat organic so it has preserved all the nutrients, energetic and otherwise to nourish your body?
Is vegan for me?
People are now becoming more aware that there are no nutritional deficiencies with having a plant-based diet. However, as our lifestyle and emotional needs differ, the dedication involved in finding unadultered quality foods and to prepare them properly it becomes a question of our constitutional and lifestyle needs. Giving credibility to the health benefits of a more vegan diet, notable personalities such as Oprah and Bill Clinton have taken to veganism while Alicia Silverstone has been a vegan advocate for years.
Weak and deficient types (pale, frail, weak, nervous, cold) should generally not follow a 100% vegan diet until you’ve built up enough constitutional energy – this can take years, depending on how deficient you are. In saying this, most people, including the deficient, don’t need animal protein 7 days a week. Millions of vegans have existed in China and India over thousands of years with great health. With the introduction of Westernisation and all the refined food products, we are now seeing incidences of the same Western diseases growing.
Those with robust strong personalities would benefit from more yin (plant-based) foods to balance their excesses. I read one study which participants who smoked cigarettes and turned to a heavy vegetable-laden diet, over time naturally gave up smoking.
Even if you’re highly physically active, protein concerns are still a mute point. Friend of a friend is “Vegan Tank”, Noah Hannibal, gold medal in the heavyweight division of the Australian National Bench Press. Check him out – he’s huge! Furthermore peruse the rest of the Vegan Strength site to see how vegans are pumping weights rivaling their “carcass eating” peers, thus blowing the protein hype out of the water.
The take away point is know your body. Know your limitations and strengths. By introducing more plant based foods into the diet, you are only going to enhance your health on so many levels and receive a more well rounded nutritional profile. And I promise you’ll start to feel better too!
How do I start eating more vegan?
The 30 day Vegan Easy challenge is a good opportunity to start. Visit the Vegan Easy website which will provide you with a 30 day vegan menu to make planning a breeze and teach you about some of the foods you can eat, not can’t eat. Embrace the change and get creative!
When I started dabbling with vegan food, then housemate and dear friend Bjorn had the book Vegan Cooking for One, which got me eating more variety, legumes and grains, while remaining main stream enough not to scare the bejesus out of the novice veganite. Not only does it provide a shopping list at the start of each week (how good is that?) but meals are broken down into seasons. Once you’ve mastered this a ready to improve, books such as Vegan with a Venegence and Veganomnicom written by notable vegan chef, Isa Chandra Moskowitz (and the latter with Terry Hope Romero) are favourites of mine.
There are lots of websites and blogs dedicated to vegan and vegetarian eating – including mine! Thankfully, because we can’t seem to get this information from mainstream media.
Transitioning, not jumping right in
Like anything, it is not advisable to radically change the diet from one extreme to another. Participating in Meatless Mondays is a one day a week, gentle way to introduce a plant based diet. Once you’ve mastered a few dishes, you can introduce another day and so on.
Getting the right balance
As spoken above getting enough protein and iron is usually the main concerns with a vegan diet. Not that vegan diets are the only diets to consider balance. But to help you along the way, in addition to the nutrients mentioned above, ensure you’re getting enough of:
- The good fats – virgin coconut oil, flax seed oil, avocados, wholegrain breads and pastas, primrose oil, bananas, broccoli, brussel sprouts, tomatoes, legumes, potatoes, walnuts and tofu
- Zinc – whole grains, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, legumes, soybeans, tempeh and tofu, almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, hazlenuts, macadamias, peanuts, corn, peas and sea veg
- Calcium – One of the biggest misconceptions is you need milk for calcium. Higher and more bio-available sources include sesame seeds, parsley, whole grains, green leafy’s, tofu, dried figs.
- Vitamin D helps calcium absorption ensuring you get enough responsible sun on your torso, not just face, arms and legs. Dark green leafys are the best plant based food sources of Vitamin D and ensuring a combination of sun and food sources is best
- Vitamin E – nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, avocados, asparagus, whole grains, wheat germ
- Folate, Vitamin K, Minerals – dark green leafys, sea veg, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds
- Complex carbohydrates and fibre – wholegrains foods such as bread, cereal, pasta, legumes, potatoes, rice, beans, peas and fruit
I don’t see the above as a list, I see it quite simply as eating as much plant based foods in my diet as possible, involving a lot of colour and variety. I don’t like complication and I’m far too busy to map out every single little thing that goes into my mouth (and I just love food too much!). Keep it simple by the 80/20 rule and ensure you buy wholegrains and organic where possible and eat with the seasons. Nature will tell you what nutrients you need and when.
It can look like another language when you start shopping vegan, hell, even shopping organic is from another planet. It wasn’t until I started shopping everywhere else other than Coles or Safeway that I realised how much our diets are dictated by these large companies. A couple of years back, I had two male housemates that to their credit were intrigued by this whole vegan/healthy way of eating that I touted. They were excited about a trip down to the local organic wholesalers, and it still makes me laugh to this day, the disappointment on their faces. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but what they found were a lot of products with funny names, that they didn’t know what to do with and didn’t know existed. So let me give you a little head start:
- Nutritional Yeast Flakes is a nutritional cooking supplement specifically designed for vegans and vegetarians to ensure enough B vitamins are in the diet. It is safe and very very tasty and imparts a cheesy flavour to dishes. Everyone who tries my breakfast burritos is blown away
- Quinoa – pronounced keen-wah is a little seed but for some reason is referred to as a grain, with a complete amino acid profile (so is a good source of protein).
- Tempeh is a properly fermented soy product, meaning it doesn’t have the same health connotations as all the ‘junk’ soy products on the market
- Wakame, Kombu, Nori, Arame, Dulse are all sea vegetables and very valuable for your health
- Adzuki beans are little red beans with a sweet flavour used in Chinese cooking. You’ll often find them in the form of a paste in the sweet steamed buns (yum!). Very blood building and good for your Spleen!
- Egg replacer – a mix of starches from potato, tapioca and corn used as a substitute (with very pleasing results) in baking and I use it in making tofu-free veganaise
- Agar Agar, a plant based gelatin substitute that is more superior to gelatin because it can harden at room temperature
- Agave syrup, the sweet syrup produced from the agave plant (yes, the one that makes tequila!) and used as an alternative to sugar and honey
- Rejuvelac, kombucha, sourdough are all fermented foods that are highly beneficial to the good gut flora
- Seitan, vegan substitute for meat. Has a fleshy springy texture and while is kind of weird to eat meat-like products on a vegan diet, I find is quite pleasing if eaten sporadically
- Textured vegetable protein – once rehydrated it looks like mince meat. It’s a processed soy flour product that I like to refer to as Vegan junk food.
- Tamari and Shoyu are types of soy sauce often brewed traditionally and fermented and usually organic. I find they have more depth of flavour and not just the salt-hit that you get from soy sauce
- Spiralina and Chlorella are micro algae superfoods often taken in powdered or tablet form. Enjoy it in your green smoothie!
for Fe (Iron)…
Vegan Easy Challenge
Mr Nice Guy cupcakes
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – Deceptive Language in Meat, Dairy in new dietary guidelines
Healing with Wholefoods, Paul Pitchford
The China Study, T. Colin Campbell PhD and Thomas M Campbell
The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Michael Murray N. D
Gastrointestinal Health, Steven R Peikin M. D
The Natural Cookbook, Dorothy Hall and Carol Odell
You Are What You Eat, Dr Gillian McKeith
Now Vegan!, Lynda Stoner