There is an indisputable trend sweeping America’s refrigerators and grocery carts, making animal agribusiness folks uneasy and ecovores optimistic. For a growing number of food consumers, beef (or pork or chicken or fish, for that matter) is no longer “what’s for dinner.”
Whether for reasons of health, environment, or ethics, people in the United States are eating less meat. Recent food documentaries and books such as Forks Over Knives, Food Inc., and Eating Animals have increased consumer awareness about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and about the ugly realities of industrial meat production; consumption trends have shifted accordingly. Vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or simply veg-curious, more people than ever before are interested in plant-based cooking.
Cooking without (or with minimal) animal products can be daunting for new vegan or veganish chefs. For many cooks accustomed to a standard American diet, the first decision of every meal is ‘beef, chicken, or pork?’ For plant-based cooking, obviously the process is a little different. Instead we might say, ‘Hmm, I think I want nachos for dinner,’ or ‘Tonight I feel like Thai stir-fry’– it’s just a different way of thinking about food and cooking.
Habit is comforting, and change can be intimidating. But armed with some knowledge and a world of resources, the transition to a vegan kitchen doesn’t have to be anything but exciting and tasty!
Vegan Basics: Knowledge is Power
Before making the transition to a plant-based diet, new herbivores are encouraged to arm themselves with information. For any significant dietary change, it’s important to embrace new habits healthfully. It’s also important to be knowledgeable enough to handle potentially awkward social situations in a positive way, by responding confidently to well-meant but erroneous advice.
First of all, let’s just get this out of the way — protein is all over the place in a balanced vegan diet, from whole grains/ legumes/ nuts/ seeds/tofu/ seitan/ mushrooms/ tempeh/ nutritional yeast/ etc. etc. etc. Humans need about 10-12% of their calories from protein (about 0.36 grams per pound per day), which most vegans get easily without extra effort. Consumption of higher levels of protein (15-18% of calories), as in the standard American diet, can actually change blood acidity in such a way that calcium from bones is lost in urine, and osteoporosis rates increase. At least one study suggests that too much protein can also contribute to the development of diabetes.
Like protein, calcium is often the subject of grim warnings from omni friends to dairy-free herbies. There are many reasons to avoid or minimize dairy consumption, which is a topic deserving of its own post. For now, suffice it to say that not only isn’t dairy NECESSARY for calcium (unless of course you happen to be a baby cow), it’s actually not that great a source of calcium for humans.
The highest rates of osteoporosis occur in the nations that consume the most dairy. Calcium comes from plants; that’s where the cows — and all other herbivorous animals on the planet — get it in the first place. Kale, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens, almonds, sesame seeds, tahini, tofu (set in calcium citrate) and fortified orange juice, soy milk, or cereals are all good plant-based calcium sources.
Bone density for most people is actually determined more by activity level and weight-bearing or resistive exercise than by calcium intake. Bone is metabolically active, just like muscle. Popping protein pills won’t give you big muscles; consuming calcium without resistive exercise won’t give you strong bones. There is a powerful myth within our Western culture about needing cow’s milk to meet calcium needs; it’s well-funded, but inaccurate.
Leafy greens and other vegan foods also provide plenty of iron; you’ll be asked about it by well-meaning SAD eaters. In the developed world, it’s much more common to have an excess of iron than a deficiency. In the absence of significant blood loss, humans only need about 1 mg of iron per day (1.5mg for women of childbearing age). There are many plant-based sources of iron, so vegans/ vegetarians do not experience a higher rate of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.
You may also encounter omnivores who offer dark warnings against soy consumption; these concerns have largely been debunked, but are still floating around. Basically, consensus among the scientific community is that unless you have specific food allergies to soy, or eat large quantities of heavily processed soy foods (with lots of additives/ preservatives/ other unhealthy ingredients), or have some types of thyroid disease, soy is not harmful and in some cases is especially beneficial.
So educate yourself about your nutritional needs, and how to best meet them with a plant-based diet. Type ‘vegan nutrition’ into any search engine, and surf around a bit: it’s well worth the time! A veg (or primarily veg) diet can be outstandingly healthy, but to get the benefits you need the knowledge. A diet of potato chips and sodas won’t build a healthy herbivore! Also, if you’re going vegan (avoiding animal products completely), be sure to read about vegan sources of B12 and Omega-3s; these are the main things that are (not absent but) deserving of a extra attention within a vegan diet.
A little nutrition research will come in handy when relatives or acquaintances offer unsolicited (and often inaccurate) nutrition advice, as many people feel compelled to do once they realize you’re a planteater.