There are many reasons why people choose a plant-based eating style. Here is a list of possible rationales:
– Taste/don’t like animal foods
– Emotional/Sympathy for animals
– Most of their friends are vegan
– Health and healing (scientific or energetic)
Vegan means no animal products of any kind. Vegetarian means a consumer may want to include eggs and milk products, which are of animal origin but do not entail the killing of a living animal. Others won’t eat eggs because they could develop into animals.
It is possible to be a healthy vegan, but one needs to pay attention. Here is the problem: humans are designed to just eat what they catch or grow and not give it too much thought. But in our society, with its hyper-abundance of edible stuff that is quite “new to nature” as Jeffrey Bland would say, it is not advisable to eat without giving it some thought. There are way too many food choices that are, in fact, “vegan,” but not necessarily health supportive. We need to be constantly attentive to what we put in our mouths, and constantly check into our dietary model to see how we’re doing. It’s work, and it’s annoying. Through the years, I found that being fully conscious and alert all the time is exhausting, but unfortunately, once you know what you know, you can’t pretend you don’t know and just pig out. You may pig out, but if it’s with poor quality food you may end up feeling dumb.
While food choices may be the result of a spiritual approach, we cannot ignore the nutritional needs of the body. Therefore, in a 100% plant-based diet, we need to look at the following issues:
a) We need a good source of protein every day, in every meal
b) We need some good quality fat, every day, in every meal
c) We need good carbohydrates, but in a plant-based diet, that is easy
Let’s look at each of these.
A) The best plant-based protein sources are beans. There is some protein in all plants, including whole grains like brown rice and barley, but these are not sufficient. So, if you want to be a vegan, you have to eat beans every day – including lentils, split peas, chickpeas, red beans, navy beans, black beans, and tempeh. One of my students once replied, after I mentioned this, “but I don’t like beans!” The answer to that is – “then don’t be a vegan if you want to be healthy!” I know people will disagree with me, but believe me, I have not seen it work successfully. Additional vegan sources of protein are nuts and seeds.
I do not recommend tofu as a source of protein, as it is not a whole food and is missing the fiber; besides, soy needs to be fermented in order to be better assimilated, as in miso and tempeh.
The main thing that happens when people don’t eat enough protein is that they crave sweets. And the worst diet for health is a vegan diet with plenty of sugar and dessert – too heavy on the carbohydrates, light on the protein, and this can end up causing a mild form of protein malnutrition.
B) We need enough fat in the diet to be satisfied. We also need it to nourish skin, hair, hormones, and for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. The fat-free approach has not worked out well over the past 15 years, especially in vegan diets. A low-fat vegan diet is maybe briefly useful to counterbalance a diet of chips and fried chicken, but in the long run, fat is essential in a plant-based diet. So, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil – include some good quality fats to make sure your diet is satisfying! Because with a diet too low in fat, you get – you guessed it – cravings for sweets!
C) Make sure you eat enough quantity/calories to be satisfied and well nourished. Soups and stews, grain and bean dishes, stir fries and salads, a variety of colors and flavors, cooked food and raw – remember that vegetarian animals eat all day long, while meat-eating animals eat once and go to sleep. Three hearty meals a day with a good balance of nutrients, and you’ll be a happy vegan.
D) Eat lots of leafy greens, roots, stalks such as celery, cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Aim for organic and non-GMO produce.
E) Careful with “products.” The best vegan diet is cooked from scratch by a person. It is not about convenience food, it is not about eating fake meat and fake dairy. Seitan burgers are not a good substitute for the real thing. You either eat meat or you eat beans – fake meat means you’re living a lie. Same with the imitation “milks” – usually poor quality white liquids trying to be what they’re not. The only “milk” I would consider as a dairy replacement is coconut milk; most other ones are junk imitations. Avoid such commercial foods as margarine and egg replacer. Careful with tofurkey, fakin’ bacon, soy cheese, and textured vegetable protein – whatever is in those foods, it isn’t food.
So to eat a health-supportive vegan diet, you need real, natural, organic food – and the effort of cooking it. It can be done. In fact, many ethnic cuisines can be made vegan. Just note such common dishes as Japanese miso soup and vegetarian sushi – Indian dal with rice and vegetables (hold the ghee) – Chinese vegetable stir-fry over brown rice with sesame seeds – Italian pasta e fagioli with broccoli rabe in olive oil with garlic – and so on and so forth.
The bounty of the plant foods that the earth provides for us can be highly nourishing and satisfying. It needs to be approached with respect and gratitude.