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Spoutin’ Off on Veganism (Again)

Posted By Mark Sisson On August 15, 2007 @ 2:45 pm In Carbs,Diet,Health,Nutrition,Protein | 29 Comments

Readers Mike and Danielle wrote last week inquiring as to what vegans can do to stay on a Primal Health path. The full letter is below, but I will draw from a few quotes first to give my thoughts on specific elements.

As you know, I am an omnivore and believe we have clearly evolved as omnivores. (For the record, my wife eats fish and certain protein powders, but is otherwise “vegetarian”; my 13-year-old son is 100% vegetarian and has never eaten flesh in his life; my 16-year-old daughter is omnivorous). Most evolutionary biologists will tell you that there has never been a culture that existed entirely without animal products of any kind, although apparently some Hindu sects claim to have done so. I question [7] even that.

Clearly, our digestive systems evolved to efficiently handle an incredibly vast array of animal and vegetable foods. In fact, that ability is what fueled our migration out of Africa and across this planet. The genetic blueprint that resulted from our evolution gives each of us, at least in theory, the digestive tools to enjoy beef, chicken, fish, lamb and all the side dishes and dessert we can eat. Nevertheless, citing religious, ethical or health reasons, some people choose to live as vegans, eschewing all forms of animal flesh and often avoiding other animal products (leather belts, gelatin capsules, candies, etc). How, then, is it possible – or is it even feasible – for vegans to thrive in this world? I don’t have the answer, but I do have some observations based on my model of Primal Health [8].

One of the first comments Mike makes is ironic, but probably typical of initial converts to veganism:

“We became vegan partly for health reasons, but the diet we had adopted wasn’t very much different than the diet we left, as we were still consuming large amounts of highly processed foods, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. It seems that modern life has made it possible to be vegetarian or vegan without ever actually needing to consume vegetables. Who would’ve thought of that?”

If being vegan means simply avoiding all animal products, then it’s a slam dunk to find an almost infinite variety among the center aisles of your grocery store [9]. Unlike the British colonists of the 1600s who were grateful to eat whatever flesh they could get (even each other), we Americans now have the luxury of excess calories in the 21st century. The average American eats as many as 4,000 calories daily [10] – over twice what nearly anyone would typically need to survive. Processed foods are everywhere, and one could easily be a nominal vegan existing on the likes of soft drinks, soy pizzas, whole wheat crackers, and Rice-a-Roni, but as you know from reading [11] this blog, processed foods are the bane of a healthy lifestyle. And as Mike says, they turned to veganism for health reasons. So we will assume that being vegan also means being on a quest to achieve some measure of good health.

The fruit and vegetable part of true dedicated healthy veganism probably needs little discussion. If you’ve followed what we write here, you know that I make vegetables the very base of my food pyramid [12]. As a source of most important micronutrients, there is nothing that beats a variety of fresh, organic, dark, and colored vegetables and berries. If I were vegan, I’d be more concerned with limiting the fruit sugars than worried about getting enough of them.

One of my biggest concerns for my son the vegetarian is that he is getting enough protein to fuel his growing athletic body. Luckily, he has agreed to supplement his diet with a protein powder that my company makes, and he is otherwise very diligent about consuming nuts and legumes with his vegetable meals to provide as wide an array of amino acids as possible. There are 22 amino acids that humans use to manufacture muscle and other vital tissue. Miss out on a few of the essential aminos and you dramatically reduce your body’s ability to repair and regenerate. For vegans who avoid even protein powders from eggs, milk or whey, getting quality protein is without a doubt the biggest challenge. And not everyone is suited to consuming the traditional alternative protein sources, as Mike points out:

“We realize that quinoa, tempeh and beans can serve as good protein sources for vegans, but that seems limited. I also find that some of these non-animal sources of protein greatly upset my digestive system, especially tofu and tempeh. I have to be very careful when consuming either of these foods to ensure that I don’t eat too much, as it can cause immense intestinal distress.”

This is a problem. It IS a limited menu. Furthermore, intestinal distress is a key indicator that something is not working right in the diet and needs to be changed. I am not a fan of grains of any type [13], believing strongly that we cannot handle the digestion of these grass seeds (although quinoa isn’t technically a grass, its seeds are unpalatable unless processed properly and cooked). Keep in mind that grains have only been around for human consumption for less than 10,000 years – in evolutionary terms, simply not long enough for us to have adapted a grain-based digestive system. There are many vegans who rely on a variety of grains to supply protein, but they can sometimes encounter other health issues such as celiac sprue [14], a condition in which the gluten in grains causes destruction of part of the intestine and a resulting loss in ability to absorb critical nutrients. Ultimately, even the most efficient of the grains supply only about 20% of total calories in the form of protein. The rest of those calories are carbohydrates.

Soy-based foods such as tempeh [15], while fermented or otherwise processed to render the protein more digestible – and therefore probably as good a protein source as a vegan can find – can still cause gastric distress in some people and mild allergic reactions in some others. Furthermore, the jury is still out on the health benefits of soy [16], particularly among those whose intake is unusually high in an effort to consume more protein (say, exceeding 30 grams soy protein a day). I do let my son eat a bowl of edamame once or twice a week.

And that gets us to the crux of Mike and Danilelle’s dilemma:

“My wife enjoys cooking, and I enjoy her meals. She doesn’t want to subsist on a diet of meals that she doesn’t like to cook due to lack of variety in the ingredients themselves or lack of variety in the way in which they’re prepared. Do you have any advice on how vegans can find variety and satisfaction in their meal choices, at least in terms of fulfilling daily requirements for protein intake and other nutritional needs?”

That’s really what it’s all about. How can vegans look forward to what is arguably one of the most enjoyable activities that humans undertake – eating a satisfying meal – without feeling as if overwhelming compromises were made? That’s where Danielle and her kitchen skills get put to work. I would start by actively seeking greater variety in the ingredients by scouting the organic fresh fruit and vegetable choices available at some of the larger national chains like Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

- If vegetables are to be the base of your diet [17] – and they have to be – get to know every vegetable [18] there is.

- Keep that spice rack full of exciting taste options.

- I’d look at adding nut butters and/or raw nuts to those vegetable dishes to add flavor, healthy fats and some extra protein. Speaking of fats, I’d eat avocados, I’d dress salads with olive oil and I’d cook with olive oil or coconut oil. I’d scour the healthy cookbooks for exciting new salad recipes and, yes, I’d add ground flax seed often. I’m not big on potatoes, but the occasional yam, rutabaga, lima beans and the like would make fair protein substitutes once in a while. Find eight or ten healthy dishes you love and don’t be afraid to have them often.

Realize that when you choose a vegan lifestyle, you are probably electing to eat a higher percentage of calories from carbohydrate than your Primal Health omnivore neighbors. While it’s not ideal in my book, as SNL self-help guru Stuart Smalley would say, “that’s OK.” However, it does put a slightly greater onus on you to keep up with your exercise routine. I would also definitely supplement with a good high-potency multi-vitamin and make sure I got sunlight for 15 minutes any sunny day. So Mike and Danielle, I think that with a little research and effort, you can arrive at a point where healthy meets tasty and still be fairly close to the Primal Health ideal.

Further Reading:

My Carb Pyramid [12]

10 Terrific Carbs [15]

What I Eat in a Day [11]

My Escape from Vegan Island [7]

Mike and Danielle’s Letter:

Hi Mr. Sisson,

My wife and I have been reading your blog, as well as Arthur De Vany’s blog for a few months now. Your insights on nutrition have introduced us to a new way of eating and living, and for that we thank you both. We’re starting to incorporate much more fruits and vegetables into our diet and eliminate most of the starchy, grain-filled, processed foods that we normally gorged ourselves on, such as white rice, bread and mock meats. However, my wife has some reservations about what this new style of eating holds in store for her cooking abilities.

We’re both vegan. I’ve been vegan for roughly 7 years, and she’s been vegan for about 3 years. Most of that time we’ve been dining on lots of tofu, beans, grains and assorted meat analogs. She’s pretty much been tailoring traditional recipes to our diet. After reading your blog, we realized that we were engaging in a self-defeating process. We became vegan partly for health reasons, but the diet we had adopted wasn’t very much different than the diet we left, as we were still consuming large amounts of highly processed foods, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. It seems that modern life has made it possible to be vegetarian or vegan without ever actually needing to consume vegetables. Who would’ve thought of that?

Anyway, the last few weeks we’ve been changing our diet in light of yours and Mr. De Vany’s recommendations. Being vegan, we don’t want to rely on tofu and mock meats for all of our protein requirements, as this does not seem conducive to good health because it is so highly processed. We realize that quinoa, tempeh and beans can serve as good protein sources for vegans, but that seems limited. I also find that some of these non-animal sources of protein greatly upset my digestive system, especially tofu and tempeh. I have to be very careful when consuming either of these foods to ensure that I don’t eat too much, as it can cause immense intestinal distress.

My wife enjoys cooking, and I enjoy her meals. She doesn’t want to subsist on a diet of meals that she doesn’t like to cook due to lack of variety in the ingredients themselves or lack of variety in the way in which they’re prepared. Do you have any advice on how vegans can find variety and satisfaction in their meal choices, at least in terms of fulfilling daily requirements for protein intake and other nutritional needs?

I realize that both you and Mr. De Vany espouse an omnivorous diet, and, as such, probably do not see the vegan diet as the optimal diet for humans to prosper, but my wife and I are both morally opposed to factory farming, and will not purchase animal products produced in this manner. We are also uncomfortable with smaller scale, local or organic animal products, so this would not be an option either. Given this information, I realize that you may not be able to offer much advice, but I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I realize your advice may just be “you should incorporate animal products such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, and organic eggs into your diet, and you’d have no need to worry about meeting such requirements,” but this is not an option for us. Any advice or help you could offer given our dietary restrictions would be much appreciated.

We look forward to reading your response, and thank you again for your blog. It has been inspirational.

Sincerely,

Mike and Danielle Drew

P.S. We realize that vitamin B-12 deficiency can be a problem for vegans, but we both take a daily multi-vitamin and consume foods fortified with vitamin B-12, such as soy milk. I’m not entirely sure that these are the best sources for B-12, or whether it’s absorbed well enough, but it was my understanding that the body only needs a small amount of B-12 each day. I also understand that our bodies can store B-12 in reserve for a long period of time, so I hope that fortifying our diet in this way keeps us healthy in terms of B-12 intake.

A second potential problem could be adequate consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. I think this could be solved by supplementing our diet with flax seeds or flax seed oil, though I have heard that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is also important, and that flax seed is not the ideal source because of this ratio. This is another aspect that my wife and I must research further.

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