Acclaimed vegan chef, Mark Reinfeld, has called plant-based diets “the future of food,” because of their low carbon footprint and lowered impact on the planet. Many seem to share this sentiment, as in recent years, vegetarian and vegan diets have seen a rise in popularity. People are becoming more aware about vegan food habits that are free of animal products, but rich in healthy plant foods, whether it is due to the dramatic health benefits that many people have experienced, the avoidance of animal suffering, or the well-established fact that animal agriculture has a significant negative effect on the environment. Thanks to these benefits, many people are embracing a vegan lifestyle!
The Protein Myth
Protein is, in fact, abundant in plant foods! Janice Stanger, PhD, author of The Perfect Formula Diet, explained that “animal protein is nothing but recycled plant protein.” The protein in animal foods was originally obtained by an animal eating plants. She also explained that “animal protein is a very concentrated form of protein,” and some studies suggest that the excess protein can destroy the liver and kidneys and encourage the growth of cancer and chronic inflammation. The only way to not get enough protein on a vegan diet is if you do not consume enough calories or eat too many processed foods—many people Dr. Stanger encountered that gave up on their vegan diet said they were lacking in protein, which made them feel sick. What they were actually lacking in was calories! Just as athletes consume copious amounts of protein because they are building muscle, you actually need to increase all calories, not just those from protein.
When becoming vegan, there are some guidelines that can make it simpler to eat a well-balanced diet. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has a vegan food plate, patterned after the USDA’s eating recommendations plate, which usefully summarizes the basics of healthy vegan eating. These basics can be summed up into 5 main food groups: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and a small amount of nuts and seeds. Eating from each of these food groups every day will help ensure you are getting enough nutrients. Also, Dr. Stanger recommends eating a variety of foods, and flavoring them with sauces, spices, and herbs to “make sure you’re eating really flavorful foods that you love.” By enjoying a great variety of food, you’ll healthfully and happily maintain your new eating habits.
Plant foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, low in fat and sodium, and free of cholesterol. While you can easily obtain all your needed nutrients from plant foods, many people worry they won’t get enough. Here are some of those concerns—debunked! CALCIUM can be easily found in green leafy vegetables and legumes, and many plant milks and juices are fortified with it as well. VITAMIN D is created in the body when you are exposed to sunlight. Otherwise, during winter months, or for people living in darker regions, it may be a good idea to take a supplement or consume fortified foods. VITAMIN B12 is the only vitamin that cannot be obtained by only consuming plant foods. Many animal foods are not very rich sources anyway, so most people, vegan or not, need to take a supplement. If you choose not to take a supplement, you can also consume fortified foods, such as nutritional yeast or some brands of plant milk. IRON can be easily obtained on a plant based diet. Legumes and greens are good sources, as well as nuts and seeds. OMEGA-3s are also easy for vegans to find in their diets as long as they are consuming a diet rich in whole-plant foods. Some good sources of omega-3s are flax, chia, and hemp seeds. Just remember that humans need to convert plant-based omega-3s (ALA) into usable forms EPA and DHA, so you’ll need to consume more ALA to maintain healthy levels. Some studies suggest humans convert roughly 8 to 20 percent of ALA to EPA, and between 0.5 and 9 percent is converted to DHA. And a genetic mutation exists that severely limits this conversion for some people.