Today people are turning vegan in ever-increasing numbers. They realize the benefits are there, but getting started scares them. They panic about vegan nutrition.
When I was a young boy back in the 1950’s and 60’s, we were taught by our parents, teachers (and the occasional after-school special) that milk and eggs were nearly the perfect food; fish was “brain food” and meat was absolutely necessary to build muscle.
By the 70’s and 80’s red meat and eggs began to lose ground because of fat and cholesterol concerns so chicken and fish suddenly became our preferred sources of protein. Our consumption of cheese grew rapidly as fast food restaurants began to put it on everything.
And so, we were conditioned. We were taught by rote learning. You need meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk for protein. Sure, some plants have a little protein-but it’s the wrong kind. It’s plant protein. Do you want to have plant muscles? Do you want to have arms like a daffodil? Do you want carrot legs or potato abs? Your brain already looks like a cauliflower-do you want it to be a cauliflower?
No I don’t. I will eat my meat.
So that’s why we’re panicked! All of a sudden, we are finding out that beef, eggs, cheese, pork, milk, chicken-all those animal products are bad for us. Sure, we knew about animal fat-and cholesterol. But now, we’re finding that even the coveted animal protein is far more damaging to us than plant-based protein! And not only are they bad for us, the general public is just now beginning to wake up to the truth about factory farming and the atrocities being committed just so we can eat animals. We want to quit meat-we really do-but we need our protein!
What’s a mother to do?!
Try pushing over a gorilla… or an elephant. Might there be a little muscle in these wild kingdom vegans? Try to run down a stallion… or a Thompson’s gazelle. Might there be a little muscle in these speedy plant-eaters?
Don’t panic about vegan nutrition. Protein is not an issue! It seems like there is protein in almost everything! (Okay, no protein in water). Take broccoli for instance (a food that you would suspect would have almost no protein): one-half cup contains three-grams of carbohydrates, zero-grams of fat and one-gram of protein. That means almost a quarter of the calories come from protein-in broccoli. One cup of spinach has a gram of carbs, very little fat and a gram of protein-so nearly half of the calories in spinach come from protein.
In comparison, let’s look at beef. Three-oz. of top loin, prime steak contains no carbs and 22-grams of protein. So, yah-a lot of protein. But it also contains 20 grams of fat (and more than 8 grams of that is saturated). So steak is a little more than 50% protein-but it also gives us all that fat that we have to deal with.
Sure, there are more details that I don’t have the time or space to go into right now. There’s the whole discussion about protein quality for instance. But those details don’t change the basic truth.
The point is… you can get all the protein you need from a whole foods plant-based diet… with very little effort. Gorillas do it. Elephants do it. Horses do it. And an ever-increasing number of humans are doing it (including triathletes, pro football players, pro hockey players and ultra-marathoners).
Don’t panic about vegan nutrition. Vitamins and minerals are the least of your concerns. What did mom tell you growing up? Eat your vegetables! They have vitamins in them! Vegetables and fruit are the most nutritionally-dense foods that we have. They are practically bursting with vitamins. And they have something more-phytochemicals.
Every day in the news we hear about antioxidants. Antioxidants are just one type of phytochemical. Phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) are substances that the plant produces to protect itself against environmental and chemical dangers. When we eat those phytochemicals, those substances protect us against various diseases including cancer. They also help to protect us against some harmful effects of aging.
Phytochemicals produce the distinctive colors in plants. So it’s best to eat a variety of colors to insure that we’re getting a variety of healthy phytochemicals. Many vegans advise that we “eat from the rainbow”.
So don’t panic about vegan nutrition! If you’re thinking about becoming vegan, it’s probably the first time you’ve ever even thought about specifically what you’re putting in your mouth. About the only additional thing we have to worry about as a plant-eater is vitamin B12. Plants have no vitamin B12. So take a vitamin supplement and drink soy milk or some other B12-fortified products.
And everyone should pay attention to their levels of vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and iodine. These potential deficiencies are not a vegetarian and vegan issue. These micronutrients can be an issue for herbivores and carnivores alike-not just vegans. As carnivores, we probably never worried about these nutrients. As a side benefit, becoming vegan has made most of us more aware of our nutritional requirements and mindful of what we’re putting in our mouths.