By Kristin Ohlson, Experience Life
When some people decide to eat less meat, they still want something that looks, smells and tastes like meat on their plate — and they want its preparation to be as easy as flipping a ground beef patty. Even mainstream supermarkets now offer dozens of veggie burgers and other protein-rich products (usually made from some combination of textured or hydrolyzed soy protein, wheat gluten, and grains) to fill this savory niche. Great idea, right?
Not necessarily. It may be convenient to rely on “meat analog” products when first making the transition to a plant-based diet, but many of these products also contain industrial-food byproducts, chemically processed soy and grain powders, artificial flavorings, colorings, and other chemicals to make them palatable. Many vitamins and minerals are leached away during their high-heat production. And some people may have trouble digesting them or experience intolerances to ingredients like gluten and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
“I advise people to cut these highly processed things out drastically — even cut them out completely,” says Brendan Brazier, professional Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life (Da Capo Press, 2008).
Concurring is Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Chiefs football team and Kansas City Royals baseball team, and coauthor with NFLer Tony Gonzalez of The All-Pro Diet: Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Live Like a Champion (Rodale, August 2009). If consumers want good sources of non-meat protein, she encourages them to eat beans, lentils, quinoa, legumes, nuts, whole soybeans (edamame) and naturally fermented soy foods like tempeh. Or, she suggests, choose vegan products (e.g., veggie burgers) made primarily from these whole-food ingredients rather than relying on products made from soy protein isolate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and textured vegetable protein (TVP).
Next: A Better Way to Maintain a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
Physician John McDougall, MD, has eaten a 99.9 percent vegan diet for 35 years — no meat, eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt or milk. And no cookies, cakes or breads made with eggs or dairy products. He has also preached the health benefits of this diet to thousands of patients at his Santa Rosa, Calif., clinic.
But even though he serves on the board of the vegan-friendly Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and speaks widely about the value of a plant-based diet, McDougall prefers to think of himself not so much as a vegan, but rather as a selective and healthy eater. Because not all vegan eating, he notes, is particularly healthy.
“The first so-called vegan I knew lived on potato chips and Coke,” he says. “If you live on bad vegan food, you don’t hurt any animal except the one holding your fork.”
So while chefs like Moskowitz are showing how a vegan diet can be delicious, McDougall and nutritionists like Virginia Messina, MPH, RN, are explaining how to make sure it’s nutritious, too.
First off, like anyone else, vegans should avoid overdoing junk food, refined flours and sugar, says Messina, who practices in Port Townsend, Wash., and recently coauthored two peer-reviewed papers for the American Dietetic Association that examined the benefits of a vegetarian diet (fewer cases of obesity, and lower incidences of hypertension and colon cancer). She urges vegans to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, plus a variety of legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains to meet nutrient needs, including protein, which is about 55 grams per day for the average person. That’s about half the amount contained in the typically protein-overloaded Western diet.
While most vegans can get an adequate supply of calcium from leafy greens, some nutritionists recommend calcium-fortified foods or calcium supplements. And, while plant diets are generally rich in iron, Messina notes that vegans need to make sure that the iron is well absorbed by eating a diet rich in vitamin C — leafy greens, as well as citrus, peppers, potatoes, melons and tomatoes. She reminds vegans to get enough zinc in their diets with nuts, seeds and seed butters like tahini. And some nutritionists suggest that vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Vegan Diet– Enough Fuel for Athletes?
Can a largely plant-based diet provide enough nourishment for those with demanding fitness regimens? Brendan Brazier, Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life (Da Capo Press, 2008), set out to answer that question back in 1990, at the beginning of his athletic career. He studied leading athletes’ performances and realized that those who recovered more quickly from their workouts had the advantage of being able to train more often.
He determined that 80 percent of recovery had to do with good nutrition, so he experimented with various diets. He tried a vegan diet and, at first, felt dreadful. But he persisted, and after experimenting for two years, he figured out how to get enough B-12 (from seaweed, miso, nutritional yeast and various algaes), iron, calcium, omega-3 fats, protein, and other essential nutrients to create a high-performance diet that powered him to first place in the 2003 and 2006 Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Championships.
There are two major advantages to a plant-exclusive or largely plant-based diet, in Brazier’s view. First, the body spends less energy digesting and assimilating plant food than it spends on processing meat and animal products. Even when he was eating fewer calories, he says he had more energy. “Since a calorie is a measure of energy, you’d assume that the more calories you eat, the more energy you’ll have,” he says. “But if that was so, then the people who eat fast food and high-calorie foods would have more energy than anyone else — and they don’t.”
Second, Brazier says that meat, dairy products and highly refined foods create an acidic environment within the body, which can lower vitality and immunity, and also cause the body to respond by pulling calcium from the bones to maintain a proper pH level. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also points to studies showing that the high protein levels of the typical Western diet stress the kidneys and encourage calcium loss, which increases the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
Kristin Ohlson is a writer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Next: What Kind of Eater Are You?
What Kind of Eater Are You?
Are you a meat lover, a vegan, a bacon-eating quasi-vegetarian or something else altogether? Here’s a look at some common (and just plain intriguing) food-selection practices and ideologies.
- Omnivore: eater of both plant- and animal-based foods
- Flexitarian: mostly vegetarian; sometimes eats meat
- Lacto-vegetarian: vegetarian who eats dairy products but doesn’t eat eggs
- Ovo-vegetarian: vegetarian who eats eggs but doesn’t eat dairy products
- Pescatarian: vegetarian who eats fish
- Vegan: eats no meat, eggs or dairy, and no animal-derived ingredients like gelatin, honey or whey
- Raw-foodist: eater of unprocessed foods that are not heated above 115 to 118 degrees F; often vegan
- Locavore: prefers foods grown or produced in own local neighborhood or region — often within a certain radius, such as 50, 100 or 150 miles
- Macrobiotic: consumes unprocessed vegan foods, sometimes fish; generally avoids refined oils, flours and sugars
- Kosher: abides by Jewish dietary laws; avoids pork, shellfish and fish without scales; does not mix meat and dairy in same meal; eats only meat prepared by Kosher methods
- Halal: abides by Islamic dietary laws and customs; avoids pork and alcohol, may avoid seafood or fish without scales; eats only meat prepared by Halal methods
- Fruitarian: eats only fruits or foods that fall from plants or that do not require the destruction of the plant for harvesting
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