Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vegan Kitchen Essentials Week: Essential Nutrients

Disclaimer: I am not a certified or trained dietician/nutritionist/etc.  I am simply a well-informed, educated vegan sharing my thoughts and ideas on nutrition.  The information I present here are findings I have read and researched from books and websites.  Proceed with caution.

Today is an exciting post!  And one that will probably take me the majority of the day to finish writing.  I do not want to mislead or give any false information, so I have been checking my resources, crossing my t's and dotting my i's on everything.  As I present Essential Nutrients to you today however, please know that I am not an expert and these are simply my opinions expressed.  This is what works for me and what I believe to be true.

Of course to every story there is another side.  Some people may not agree with the things I am about to say...but I encourage you to read with an open mind.  The cool thing about food and nutrition is that despite the government constantly changing guidelines, nutrition itself really is unchangeable.  We all need certain things to survive.  Nutrition at its core is actual quite basic despite our society's obsession with confusing it.  So today I am going to give it to you as simple and straightforward as I possibly can.  There is tons of research out there and I encourage you to do your own investigating if this topic interests you at all. 
Where do I get my information?  There are several sources I look to for information about health and wellness as it relates to nutrition.  Of the books and websites I have researched, some are pro-vegan and some are just pro-health.  Here is a list of my favorite resources:

The Eat Clean Diet by Tosca Reno
The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone
Food Matters by Mark Bittman
Food Rules by Michael Pollan
Skinny Bitch by Freedman and Barnouin
Food Inc. edited by Karl Weber
The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell

As I share with you information today about proper vegan nutrition, I will not necessarily be citing these books, rather than share with you in my own words what I have learned from these fine authors and their research.

First of all you do not need meat to survive!  That is right, you heard me!  YOU DO NOT NEED MEAT.  There I said it.  Furthermore, you do not need dairy either.  Ok, that was hard to swallow, I'm sure.  I know that sounded a bit harsh, but I just needed to get that off my chest.

I constantly hear "Well, what do you eat then?" And I promise you it is a healthy, well-balanced diet that is also delicious and full of variety and flavor.  And it is possible to receive all of your vital nutrients and minerals from a plant-based diet...and if I'm speaking boldly here, it is also probably easier to get all of these from a plant-based diet.  Plants are super-foods- chalk full of good-for-you things.  I could go on and on and take up 100 pages of all the goodness that are in plants...but it's already been done.  Just google it.  Instead, let's talk about the big pieces:


The 3 basic forms of calories.  All are equally important in a well-balanced diet, but do not necessarily need to be eaten in equal amounts.  Carbohydrates in fact should make up 50-65% of your diet.  Carbohydrates provide energy and balance out blood sugars in your body.  Now I'm not sending you out to devour all the white bread and cupcakes in the world.  Carbs receive a bad-rap as being just those bad food items.  This makes people go crazy and think low-carb diets are the way to go.  Guess what?  Veggies are carbs too.  And you need those.  You need those more than any other food group.  Fruit and whole grains are also carbs.  And these are what you need to be eating.

Fats are another group that receive a bad-rap because our food has become so laden with saturated and trans fats.  Skip those and get a decent dose of your healthy fats in the form of unsaturated fats.  These can be found in healthy oils such as olive oil, nuts and even avocados.  Most of the fat you take in from animal sources are unhealthy.  Animal products typically have fat contents that are well above what you should be eating.  Fats should comprise 20-35% of your daily intake of food.  Just one hamburger has the potential of maxing out your fat calories for the day.  On the other hand, if you eat a well-balanced vegan diet your fat calories will almost always come in right on target.

The last piece of the puzzle is proteins.  This is a touchy subject because the government and the meat industry would have you believe that more is better with protein.  As some studies will suggest however, eating protein from meat is actually correlated to higher cancer rates.  The proteins in animal products also diminish nutrient quality.  For instance, milk is highly touted as "It does your body good" because it provides calcium for growing bones.  But did you know that the animal proteins in milk actually make it more difficult for your body to absorb the calcium.  Conversely, a serving of kale has as much calcium as a serving of milk and is absorbed 40% better than the calcium in milk.

But we aren't really supposed to be talking about calcium here.  Rather the amount of protein you need each day.   It is recommended that 10-35% of your caloric intake come from proteins.  You will notice that this percentage range is smaller than both the carbohydrate and fat categories.  Yet, as Americans we are taught that proteins are the "super-group".   Healthy ranges for a woman are between 50-150 grams of protein a day while some diets have women eating twice that.  Did you know that eating too much protein can be just as dangerous as nutrient deficiencies?  (And for the record the only people I have ever known to have a protein deficiency are ones who are starving) Studies have linked high-protein diets to osteoporosis and, like I mentioned earlier, even cancer.  Healthy vegan protein sources include lentils, beans, nuts, whole grains and even some vegetables.

So is it possible to get your recommended daily nutrients from a whole-foods, plant-based diet?  Yes!  Is it easy?  Absolutely!  I rarely pay attention to calories, nutrients, etc as I'm eating every day.  But with any new change, careful preparation and research is key.  When I began eating vegan I paid more attention to how much protein, fat and carbs were in all these new foods I was trying.  Now I tend to listen more to my body and how it feels.  I make changes based on what my body is telling me.  However, rarely does it tell me I need more protein...more likely it is seeking balance with more green veggies!

So I've given you the basic components of a healthy diet and how to achieve that eating a whole foods plant-based diet.  (Diet used as a way to describe our daily eating habits and not as an actual diet that has a start and finish).  Notice there are no "franken-foods listed as essential to providing nutrients in a vegan diet.  As the plant-based diet begins to gain attention, so do the foods that were created and processed to lure meat-eaters to the other side.  These foods include faux sausages, cheese, milk, chicken, etc.  While these items make their way into my diet, some all the time, and some on occasion, I think it is important to remember that we can't achieve a healthy lifestyle by simply replacing one processed food with another.  A vegan diet should be based on whole foods- foods that are as close to the source as possible.  If you are concerned about nutrients in your food, eating whole foods is the way to go.

Since I've already acknowledged that there is always more than one side to an issue, I would like to disclose that I do find it very possible to eat a healthy diet while still eating lean cuts of meat (not dairy though, but that's another story).  However, if you choose to eat meat and/or dairy, I encourage you to become an informed consumer and educate yourself on the meat industry.

Sorry for the graphic nature of that video...but I thought you should know.

I am anxious to share with you the specific food items that are essential to my vegan kitchen that help achieve a healthy, well-balanced diet.  Tomorrow should be another fun post!

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