I think one reason that when someone “tries” to go vegan (whether it’s for health, ethical, or environmental reasons), a big factor in the failure of most is a lack of information and education into what a vegan should be consuming to make sure they are getting everything they need to be the best vegan they can be! So to kick off IDA‘s ‘World Go Vegan Days‘ (Oct 25-31), I would like to give a crash course into what every vegan (or human in general) should and shouldn’t be eating (for those going vegan, and those who occasionally cook for or even just know a vegan, or if you’re a human being concerned about general health)…and I would like to dedicate this post to all those who don’t have time to read every vegan health book/resource out there but want to know how to be successful in getting all the nutrients one needs to have a healthy body while working their way through the information that’s out there. Jo and I do recommend a variety of books on our Links page, as well as discuss vegan health aspects here, which are good references for vegan nutrition and general information. I’ve also included links to some of our recipes that will help you eat from each food group, and as you’ll notice..a lot of them overlap in one recipe). This is a rather long post (by no means an exhaustive list), but I tried to make it as easily referenceable as possible – future post: I’m working on a cross-reference page of all the vitamins and minerals that I’ll randomly throw out in a post associated with specific foods! So I give you the Ins, the Outs, and the What-have-you’s of eating vegan!
(Side note from Jo here: a lot of people pass along information that is woefully inaccurate because they lack the most basic understanding of how the body works. For example, “milk builds strong bones.” That idea, like many of the erroneous beliefs about how bad veganism is for you, stems from the hugely successful marketing of the dairy industry. In fact, studies have shown that higher consumption of dairy products correlates with higher incidents of osteoporosis. Regular people, of course, don’t read scientific journals, but they do watch TV, so which piece of (mis)information do you think they believe? Sara is working on her PhD in physiology, so she knows a lot about how the body works and what it needs. I’m just saying that companies trying to sell you something are probably not a great source of reliable information, but scientists whose expertise allows them to sift the fact from fiction might have say something worth listening to.)
Vegans, as do all people, need to consume fats – good fats..not bad fats. Lipids (fats) are the body’s most concentrated source of food energy. However, lipids are only fully utilized if they are oxidized along with sugar. Without sufficient sugar, the body if forced to burn stored fat for energy. Sounds good in theory, but when only lipids are being metabolized, there is an excessive accumulation of the breakdown products (ketone bodies). Ketosis occurs frequently when a diet is low in carbohydrates, during starvation, and in uncontrolled diabetes mellitus. If ketones continue to build-up in the blood and interstitial fluids, blood pH can drop causing acidosis, leading to depression of the nervous system possibly causing serious brain damage, coma and death. Some lipids supply/aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K), while others promote and maintain healthy skin, normal growth, and reproductive ability. Quantity of fats also play as integral a role as the type of fats. Fats being less than 30% of total calorie intake in one day is recommended for optimal health. Eating 50% of your total calories as good fats is still bad for you – portion control people. Good fats include the following:
*Extra-Virgin Olive oil (obviously, sauté in Olive Oil over another oil is a good way to get this oil, as well as using it as a base for salad dressings and marinades)
*Coconut oil (good for baking and/or light fry – but watch the fried food intake)
*Safflower oil (also good for sauté in things like Vegetable Curry)
*Canola oil (excellent for baking and cooking alike, including as a base for marinades)
*Flaxseed oil is a rich source of vital omega-3 essential fatty acids (excellent for base as salad dressings; you can also add freshly ground flax to baked goods to get all the omega’s from the flax thereby getting it’s oils into things like banana bread)
*The best fats are from whole vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds that are unprocessed, polyunsaturated, and nonoxidized.
Bad fats include, besides the obvious animal fats, those from vegetable sources that are hydrogenated and found in most margarines, many brands of peanut butters (so look for the more natural nut butters), and hydrogenated cooking fats
Another thing vegans, and all people, need to consume is protein. However, people don’t need nearly as much protein as commonly believed (only about 0.8 kcal per kilogram of weight for adults). With a varied diet and adequate calorie intake, I don’t think vegans (or anyone) should really worry about protein deficiencies. And stop the presses…all plant food DOES contain protein! You don’t need to consume animal products to attain dietary protein. Just like animals, plants require protein for their basic molecular structure…so of course plants have protein! Dietary protein is most beneficial when it is balanced with many types of food to provide all the necessary amino acids. Excess protein is either used for energy or converted into saturated fat, so eating proper portions of the following foods, with variable combinations on a daily basis, will provide adequate amino acid requirements for the body to keep working like the machine it is:
*Beans and Peas (Check out these protein packed dishes: Baked Rice Casserole, Millet ‘Pea’laf, and Spicy Noodles)
*Whole Grains, cereals/breads/pastas (quinoa is a complete protein, i.e. it contains ALL 22 essential amino acids) – source of dietary fiber, minerals, and B-vitamins (Black bean Quinoa Salad, Red Beans and Rice, and Mexican Quinoa)
*Nuts and nut butters (but watch intake, as you could cross-over into excess fat consumption)
*Fruits (easily blended in fruit salads as well as various juices – blue, red)
*Meat-alternatives (though Jo and I aren’t personal fans; which just goes to show that you can be a healthy vegan without ever consuming a ounce of tofu or tempeh – and Jo and I both have the blood work to prove it)
One also needs to consume dietary carbohydrates, as they are another building block in that which we call life. Just like fats and proteins, there are good sources and bad sources of carbohydrates. Oh, and carbs aren’t the enemy – our good friend quantity is usually the enemy when it comes to carbs. All carbohydrates required for dietary health come from plant sources, with the exception of glycogen (which is made by our own liver). And by dietary carbohydrates, I’m referring to biological carbs, including starches, sugars, and fibers. Carbohydrates provide the most readily available energy source. Good sources of healthy carbs include:
*Vegetables which provide starch and some sugars
*Nectars, syrups, and ordinary table sugar provide glucose, fructose, maltose, and sucrose
*Grains and legumes are excellent sources of healthy starches (it’s the processed starches that become unhealthy)
*Plants also provide indigestible polysaccharides (aka dietary fiber), which assist in the passage of food through the large intestine and may help reduce the risk of colon cancer
*Some good recipes to experiment with using nectars are in fruit and nut-based icings and frosting instead of butter and sugar-based, as well as high-fiber fruit muffins/breads
Vitamins are another major topic of discussion amongst those who are concerned with a healthy dietary lifestyle. To keep this post as brief as possible, I will discuss vitamins in their own individual post for easy referencing of which vitamins do what, and where can you get them…
Obviously, the major out is animal products. This includes the fleshes of ALL animals (land, air, and sea), as well as the byproducts of those animals. Byproducts include:
Excessive calorie consumption is also out! Being aware of what you’re putting into your body by making sure it’s animal-free is a good step to being aware of how much you’re putting into your body. Obesity is a major problem these days, leading to issues like diabetes – so let’s stop blaming scapegoats and look at what you’re eating as well as how much of what you’re eating. A handful of nuts will give one an excellent source of good fats and proteins, but a jar of nuts is defeating the health benefits they provide. A vegan blueberry bran muffin will provide fiber and other nutrients, but 4 muffins in one day will overdose you with gluten and calories that are counterproductive to the goodness of the muffin.
Vegans avoid animal products not just in their food, but also in regular daily life – such as body products (lotions, soaps, etc) and clothing. Aside from the ethcial reasons to avoid products which contain animal products and those which test on animals, slathering animal products on the outside of your body while making sure that no animal products are going into your body is really only doing 50% of the animal-free job!
One thing you have to realize, for healthy eating in general (vegan or otherwise) – healthy portions are a must. If you’re eating 4 vegan cupcakes a day, everyday..that’s not healthy regardless of how much veg you stuff in your pie-hole (or cupcake-hole, as it were). Just because a vegan cupcake is vegan doesn’t make it automatically healthy. I know here at the Primate, we love our sweets – but it’s called moderation. Also, you need to be getting your share of veg everyday. You can’t live on pasta with marinara without veg and call yourself a vegan – well, I suppose technically if your pasta is eggless then you can, but you’re not going to be very healthy. Incorporating a variety of colors is the easiest way to ensure you’re getting a wide variety of nutrients. You don’t want to fill yourself with white and brown food without any color…that makes for very boring and malnourishing meals. If you notice, most of the dishes that Jo and I post (desserts included), they are 90% of the time extremely colorful! This ensures we get all our nutrients while having an aesthetically pleasing plate of food – it’s easy, you can do it too! Without meaning to sound like I just did a bunch of drugs, eat like a rainbow everyday… The colors in food are a good indication of what they can provide you. Those in the red/orange/yellow family (carrots, red bell pepper, yellow corn, cherries) provide goodies like beta-carotene. Those in the blue/purple family (blueberries, blue corn) provide antioxidants and calcium. Greens (do I really need to give examples) provide iron and calcium, as well as vitamin C. Browns/blacks (beans, whole grains) give that all important fiber and protein, among various vitamins and minerals. Making sure you get something of every color every day is a good way to make sure you are getting a wide range of nutrients that, in combination, will make for a healthy human being at the end of the day.
Another obvious is exercise! Just because someone is thin and eats vegan doesn’t mean their body is a lean, mean, healthy machine. Exercise has many more benefits than the size of your jeans….
Happy and Healthy Eating!
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