Plant based diets, such as Vegetarian or Vegan, are the subject of constant debate. Are they healthy or will they lead you to an early grave?
On November 13th, 2015 I was an omnivore. Around 11:00 a.m on November 14th, 2016, I was a Vegan. I didn’t have a transition period, but I also wouldn’t use the phrase, “cold turkey” either. I had simply learned enough that I no longer had any interest in eating any animal products whatsoever. I had been plant-based for a few years, meaning I ate mainly vegetables, but would throw in some eggs, cheese and the occasional steak or pound of bacon as well.
These days, I focus on a solely whole foods, plant-based diet and I have never been happier or felt healthier! I would like to quickly elaborate on what I mean when I say “whole foods, plant based diet.”
Whole foods is one of the most important pieces of this puzzle. “Vegan” or “Vegetarian” does NOT inherently mean “healthy.” Oreos are vegan. In fact, there are literally hundreds of junk food items that are vegan. It is very easy to be an incredibly unhealthy vegan. But if you stick to whole foods – plant based whole foods ideally, but not necessarily – you eliminate most junk food and are opening up your culinary world to healthier, less processed, less toxic delights!
Plant based is fairly self-explanatory – foods that are derived from plants. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. Even flowers!
I am not perfect. I do eat some processed foods, most notably tofu and tempeh and Ancient Grains wraps. But I try to limit my consumption of these products, and make my own versions of common processed food items like pasta sauce, for example. Of course I crave junk food some times, and I usually try to opt for air popped popcorn instead of a bag of chips. Yes, sometimes I want the creamy comforts of a ooey, gooey lasagna, and I have discovered that home-made zucchini noodle veggie lasagna with cashew basil creamed “cheese” is not only one of the most delicious meals I’ve even eaten, but it’s also super easy to make! And you can eat a boat-load of it without ever feeling bloated or gross….speaking from recent experience!
Moving on, even though I feel more energetic, healthy and full of life than ever before, whenever someone new learns of my eating plan, there is an inevitable list of questions and selection of “myths” that people ask me about, shocked and scared for my well-being as they are. I found a great infographic (see bottom of the post) and though I would elaborate on each point to help clear up any confusion you may have about a plant-based diet.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Lack Iron
- Lack of Iron isn’t as common of a fear for plant based eaters as, say, protein, but because so many of us are programmed to believe that the only way you can get iron is from red meat, and without iron your blood will simply fail to keep you alive, it is still a frequent concern of those without a good foundation in nutrition.
- According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting about 30% of earth’s population. With that being said, the problem is most concentrated in developing countries who have little access to proper nutrition, especially in regards to children and pregnant women. This is compounded by the fact that many diseases that are much more common in developing nations – intestinal worms, malaria, HIV or TB – which exacerbate the problem, making the deficiency more pronounced. If you are a growing child or teen, or a pregnant woman, you may consider getting your blood tested to see what your iron levels are like. If you are not within that limited group, and you happen to live in a relatively developed country, you likely have little to worry about in regards to your risk for iron deficiency.
- Therefore, yes we all need iron to survive and yes, pre-menapausal women and children need a bit more than everyone else, but we don’t need nearly as much as most people think we do. Also, our body doesn’t excrete iron like many other micro and macro nutrients, so unless you lose a lot of blood, it can and will actually build up in your body. An overload of iron can actually be dangerous for your health. Too much iron can lead to diseases such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, cardiac arrhythmia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. Dr. Mercola wrote a great article that I encourage you to read if iron is a concern of yours: The ‘Selfish’ Reason to Donate Your Blood
- Here is a chart that outlines the Recommended Daily Allowance for Iron, to give you a baseline:
- From there, here is a very handy reference chart for some high sources of iron. This will not only give you ideas of how to ensure you are getting enough iron on a regular basis, but it will also lay to rest any assumption that eating animal products is somehow a better source of iron than a plant based diet.
Vegetarians / Vegans Don’t Get Enough Protein
- This is probably the most common (infamous) concern for meat eaters when faced with a loved one or acquaintance who has just admitted to following some type of plant based diet: “But, my dear, how will you ever get your protein!?” I’m sure you can read my frustration through the mocking tone I just used in the dialogue…
- One of the best answers to this question that I have heard came in the form of a podcast interview with Dr. Garth Davis, author of the book Proteinaholic (affiliate link). The lovely hosts of the Food Heals Nation Podcast (my absolute favorite podcast of all time), do an incredible job of asking all the right questions and Dr. Davis goes in depth on a variety of protein related facts, studies, and myths. I could go on, but really, you should probably just listen to the episode yourself: Food Heals Nation Episode 36
- Many plant based foods, such as beans and whole grains, provide plenty of protein. To be honest, I’m not going to delve too deep into this rabbit hole right here, because it is a topic that deserves it’s own post, so stay tuned!
A Vegetarian / Vegan Diet Isn’t Safe For Pregnant Women
- When pregnant, the most important thing to consider is getting enough nutritional value to support not only your own health, but also that of your growing child. As such, you want to be sure that you are eating foods that are nutrient dense, and avoiding foods that have damaging chemicals, preservatives and fats. In other words, ideally you should be consuming whole foods and avoiding processed foods as much as possible! Even if your eating plan happens to include animal products, the best thing you can do for the health of your entire family is to remove packaged, processed, foods that have little nutritional value.
- It is very easy to get all the nutrition you need for optimal health through eating the right fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the most important nutrients for pregnant women include protein, calcium, fiber, iron, folate, healthy fats and pretty much all the vitamins. While they do recommend animal products as simple sources for protein and calcium, they are also very clear that a plant based diet can provide all the nutrition necessary for pregnant women. For example, beans are a great source of healthy protein, avocado and olive oil are nutrient rich, plant based fats, and dark green vegetables are great sources of calcium, along with a host of other valuable nutrients!
A Vegetarian / Vegan Diet Isn’t Optimal For Athletes
- The argument for athletes generally goes back to protein, so again I’m not going to spend too much time here. But I will leave you with some pictures of vegan athletes and this video playlist, both courtesy of the adorable yet passionately educated, Bite Sized Vegan:
Kids Won’t Like Vegetarian / Vegan Food
- So many people have this die hard belief that kids are picky eaters, but the reality is kids have way less reason to be picky than adults do. They don’t have a lifetime of expereince and judgements to fill up their head and program them against certain foods. They look to their parents and authority figures to figure out what is “good” and what is “bad”, so essentially, if you have a picky kid is it, in large part, because you’ve created a picky kid!
- Now, let me clarify – anyone at any age has certain foods that their taste-buds legitimately rebel against. But, for the most part, our bodies are biologically programmed to want the foods that are best suited to helping us survive. Processed foods and fast foods are genetically engineered to overrule this biological programming and, if you allow it, will actually alter the chemical signals your body gives to experience pleasure and cravings. As adults, it can be really, really difficult to overcome this chemical alteration and get back to a more natural state, but children don’t ever have to be introduced to it in the first place! If you never give your child a fast food burger combo, they will never have the chance to become chemically altered by it, and their natural instincts will prevail – their body crying out for all the foods that naturally preserve its highest functions.
- The other part of the equation is that children watch how you react to just about every situation, and mimic you. They learn the rules of the world by watching their parents. If you make faces every time you force yourself into eating your vegetables, your kids will pick up on that. If you scream every time you see a spider, they’ll pick up on that. Vegetables and spiders will be filed under “bad, avoid!” But if you get totally blissed out every time you have the chance to savor a fresh strawberry, or get excited by all the gorgeous colors of a salad, your kids will pick up on that.
- Finally, there are a lot of foods that are traditionally “kid friendly” that just happen to be accidentally plant based: peanut butter, soy protein hot dogs and burgers, popcorn, fruits, tacos, wraps and smoothies and kids love. You can also upgrade just about any family favourite to a plant based diet friendly alternative…just check out these Vegan Choc Bluebery Pancakes as a great example from 100 Days of Pancakes.
- One of the weekly contributors for Choose to Cook has 4 children of various picky natures and shares her experience feeding them while juggling multiple jobs and, of course, a full household. If this sounds familiar, you might be interested in reading some of her posts: Katryna Jolene
Transitioning To A Vegetarian / Vegan Diet Will Be Difficult and/or Expensive
- Before I ‘went Vegan’ I had certain assumptions about Vegans and even Vegetarians. Before I did all the research, I thought that I needed meat and eggs and milk to be healthy. I thought that Vegetarians were just picky eaters (most of the foods I didn’t like but forced myself to eat were animal products) and Vegans were self-righteous militant crazy people. I had a pretty bad impression, if I’m being honest. But then I started the research and realized I had essentially be brainwashed by the media, and animal products were actually terrible for my health, worse for the environment, and utterly tragic for animals. For the purpose of this post, I also realize that Vegetarian and Vegan foods were pretty much exactly the same as what I was eating already…just without the extra animal. Plant based foods are totally normal, every day foods. Just without the flesh.
- There is a learning process involved if you want to get into some of the incredible gourmet plant based foods, but that is applicable to any type of gourmet cooking. It can be simple and straight forward though. Replacements can be as easy as using meat alternatives like veggie dogs or ground round (which I actually don’t recommend, because they are still processed), or swapping the beef in tacos with black beans, adding tempeh to stir-fries instead of chicken, and making a tofu scramble with mushrooms instead of having an omelettes.
- Replacing animal based proteins with plant based alternatives is actually a frugal way to grocery shop, as beans and quinoa are less expensive than most meats. Replacing dairy with non-dairy alternatives, I’ve found, is relatively cost comparative. Milk alternatives are around the same price, and plant-based cheeses may be more expensive than say, cheddar, but they are in line with higher end, quality cheese like brie, or boursin.
- There is also no end to incredible and easy inspiration online. One of my favourite people to follow socially is Plant-Based Dietician, and this is just one of the many helpful posts she has shared recently:
Vegetarians and Vegans Require A Collection of Different Supplements To Stay Healthy
- The main supplement concern is B-12, because it is mainly obtained in red meat, fish and eggs. It is fortified into many plant based “alternatives” though, such as many milks, tofus, veggie dogs, etc. It is also in Nutritional Yeast, or ‘nooch’, which is a cheesy pleaser in many plant based diets.
- DHA is a critical component for our health, as it is an Omega-3 fatty acid that most omnivores derive from fish, seafood and fish oils. If you are following a strict no-animal products eating plan, this could sound dismal. However, there is a very interesting backstory – it turns out that the seafood gets their DHA through their own eating habits; namely, algae. Algae is a totally valid plant based item that you can incorporate into your diet for numerous health benefits. Another of my favorite podcasts, Ben Greenfield Fitness, goes in depth on this topic: Is This The Most Dense Source Of Nutrition On The Face Of The Planet?
I hope this post has helped to relieve you of a concern or two about what it really means to try a more plant based diet, but if you have any questions or topics that were not touched on, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
Infographic: Top 7 Vegetarian Diet Myths