On Nutrition

It’s been a loooooong time since I’ve posted. And, for the most part, I’m okay with that. I had a flurry of activity in the latter part of last year because I had a lot of things that I needed to get out of my head. Writing forces me to assemble random thoughts into something that at least approaches coherence. Plus, I had/have some views that I wasn’t used to seeing in the vegan blogosphere, so I’m glad that I got them out there for the world to read. The response has been mostly positive, much to my surprise. I’m also glad to see that the blog didn’t completely wither away in my absence of posting. People are still reading, and that’s cool.

So after I got a lot of that stuff out of my system, the desire to blog diminished, and I’m okay with that. I felt like I’d said the majority of the “important” stuff that I had to say. I haven’t had much desire to blog lately simply because I haven’t had anything very unique or insightful to say.

But what I’ve been focusing on a lot lately is nutrition. After being pretty lazy about nutrition for quite a while, I finally got my act together and did some research. I spent some time on nutritiondata.self.com (an awesome resource) looking at the vitamin and mineral (V&M) content of the foods that I typically eat (in the typical amounts that I had been eating them), and I realized that there is NO WAY I was getting enough of a whole range of V&M. And since my diet has been fairly consistent since going vegan over four years ago, this had been going on for a while.

So I’m kind of mad at myself for letting myself get lazy with my diet and for not doing this kind of research like… uhhh… FOUR YEARS AGO! But the thing is, I did do SOME of this kind of research. I had the best of intentions when I went vegan. I just didn’t sit down and do the math. I also probably wasn’t really prepared to eat in such a “weird” way. I was used to filling up on big plates of rice and pasta, and I carried that tendency into veganism. I’ve always loved carbs. I do remember thinking at one point “how the hell am I going to eat all of those beans, nuts, seeds, greens and vegetables every day?!”

I’m also kind of mad at all the “Go Vegan!” people that say that all you have to do to have a healthy vegan diet is “eat a balanced diet.” Well, “balanced” is a pretty vague word in this context. My idea of “balanced” it turns out is pretty unbalanced (too many carbs, not enough protein, fat, vitamins and minerals). So, really, I guess I’m more mad at myself for having trusted the people that say such things. They probably haven’t done the research either. They’re just trusting the people and organizations that told them the same things (“It’s easy!”).

Basically, if a person or organization isn’t willing or able to tell you how to get enough calcium, B6, copper, zinc, niacin etc. etc. etc. on a vegan diet, you probably shouldn’t be getting nutritional advice from them. If they’re not willing to tell you that eating well takes diligence (and go into specifics about it), they’re either not telling you the whole truth, or they don’t really know what they’re doing. I wish I would have thought about it like that before.

To eat a truly healthy vegan diet, it’s not the most difficult thing in the world, but you really do have to prioritize the nutrient-rich foods in your diet. You need to be eating enough of them before you can think that it’s okay to just fill up on carbs and desserts and whatnot. You can’t just cross your fingers, try to “eat a balanced diet” and expect it all to be fine. It won’t be. Yeah, it’ll work for a while, but if you’re lazy about it, or just underinformed (I was equally guilty on both fronts), you’ll eventually run into problems. And for what it’s worth, vegetarians have it only slightly easier. They still need to be more diligent than they’ve probably been led to believe (and I’ll go into specifics about that in coming posts).

Pretty much everyone that pimps a vegan diet will tell you “It’s easy!” but I’m here to tell you that that’s not necessarily true. “Easy” is a subjective word, I guess, but I’ll say this: if your definition of “easy” is something like “doesn’t require a good amount of self-education and daily vigilance,” then no, eating a healthy vegan diet is not easy. You will be missing something, guaranteed, probably a lot of things (like I was).

What I’ve realized is that a healthy vegan diet is (most likely) much lower in carbs (especially “carby” carbs and grains) than I previously assumed. When you prioritize nutrient-rich foods in your diet, you just don’t have room for all those (mostly) nutrient-poor grains (the largest source of carbs for most people). Initially my vegan diet was a little bit lower in carbs, but I’ve always been such a carb junkie that it’s not hard to figure out why I kept getting further and further away from that type of diet.

So… in my coming posts I’ll go more into specifics about what I was lacking and how I have been re-tooling my diet to rectify the situation. I’ll also post specifics about what you need to eat to get enough of certain V&M so you can see for yourself how you stack up. I hope you’re not unpleasantly surprised, but I think a lot of you might be. It’s really not as easy as most vegans like to make it seem. We’re supposed to keep repeating “It’s easy!” to win more converts, and then it’s apparently every man for himself.

I’m not a nutritionist, so please don’t take my word for anything. I’ll tell you what my sources are and you can go look at it for yourself. That’s what I should have done for myself long ago.

– – thanks for reading – –


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19 Responses to On Nutrition

  1. rhys says:

    Ha, my next entry or the one after that is probably going to be about the “It’s Easy!” line that vegans so often drop. (You may have noticed that Francione even mentions vegan easiness in the sign off for all his posts.) As for nutrition, have you ever read QuasiVegan, Christina Beymer? She does a lot of vegan nutrition sleuthing, and is commenting on my latest entry: http://letthemeatmeat.com/post/18380305665/for-vegans-human-health-comes-before-animal-lives#comment-461238927

    • Ha! I read your mind! I’ll definitely be reading that piece.

      Good vegan nutrition really does take more vigilance than a lot of the vegan “luminaries” make it seem, especially the ones that are more steeped in the theory/rhetoric side.

      It’s no wonder so many ex-vegans feel like they were misled. I don’t fully agree with that sentiment, because everyone is responsible for their OWN health, but I understand the feeling more now.

      Btw, nice Wire reference! I love that show.

  2. Dave Rolsky says:

    Most people aren’t eating an optimally healthy diet, whether they’re vegan or not. If the average omnivore goes vegan, will that improve the quality of their diet, make it worse, or will it be about the same?

    There are specific concerns with a vegan diet, especially B12 and calcium, but beyond that, optimizing your diet is going to take effort, vegan or not.

    As for whether “it’s easy”, I’ve heard a huge number of ridiculous health claims from vegans and omnivores alike. People who know very little about science think they’re qualified to give nutrition advice based on reading Michael Pollan or an article in a magazine.

    The advice I give people who are going vegan and care about nutrition is take a B12 supplement and read Vegan for Life.

    • Very few people eat an “optimally healthy” diet, for sure. Vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, omnivore, whatever. This is true. But B12 and calcium are not the only nutrients that can easily go lacking in a vegan diet, even a vegan diet that is pretty “balanced.” The list is longer than that (and I will go into detail in my coming posts). Anyone, regardless of diet, has to put in the work, learning and dedication to have an “optimally healthy” diet, but I am becoming more convinced that for those people that don’t want to put in the work, learning and dedication, vegetarianism or omnivorism would be healthier for them. This is not an endorsement of either of those diets over veganism – just an observation.

      I have not read “Vegan for Life,” but I’m now getting it from the library next week. I’m sure it’s full of useful info. It’s good that you recommend something that is nutrition-focused. I’m guessing that you’re not the type to trot out “It’s Easy!” and that’s a good thing. Veganism can be a good thing, but uninformed vegans eating a shitty diet will eventually lead to bad things for everyone – themselves, animals and other vegans.

      thanks for commenting

    • TaVe says:

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll try to get my school library to get it so I can look at it. I normally tell people to look at Jack Norris’s site for nutritional advice.

      For me, to make my diet as healthy as my old diet all I had to do is drink fortified soy milk cause my old diet absolutely was terrible. I think that many people would not be worse off, but we still need to be honest upfront. Claiming going vegan will automatically cure everything will not lead to long term vegans if people get sick (especially if they are celebrities and blame the diet). And brushing off those who get sick by saying something like “you can be vegan and only eat vegan cake- its a no-brainer that you’ll get sick. As long as you eat some variety, you’ll be superman” doesn’t help at all.

  3. Smilla says:

    hi, as a newbie vegan (I know you qualify them as “the worst”) I have also found myself saying “it’s easy!” a couple of times over the last few weeks. But not as an answer to the question “is it easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle when applying a strict vegan diet?” but rather to the typical “oooh I could NEVER give up cheese… How do you do that??” the understated answer is then indeed… “it’s easy”… And to be honest: it is easy to give up cheese, milk, butter & the rest if you make that decision based on ethics. I just happened to read a series of articles on dairy cows and was as disgusted as I was 15 years ago about the meat industry, which led me to becoming a vegetarian. When people ask me whether I think it’s healthy to be vegan i tell them truthfully that I am still trying to find out. So I am looking forward to your new posts, I feel that you have done a lot of the thinking work for me (about the ethical boundaries of veganism) and now you will also share your research, that’s great!

    • Thanks! I hope you (and others) will find the info useful. I’ve been learning a lot in the last few weeks. And eating a lot of seeds!

      And newbie vegans aren’t necessarily the worst. It’s just that sometimes they have this curious mix of low knowledge and absolute conviction mixed with a proselytizing tendency. I went through that a bit. But I knew to be careful because I had “newbie syndrome” after becoming atheist and later regretted it. Now I try to be less preachy about basically everything because I’ve realized that if I changed my mind once, I could change it again. I don’t know everything.

      I’ve really come to appreciate humility as a character trait and I’ve been trying to cultivate it in myself. So don’t go complimenting me too much, or I could get off track ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Yay! Speciest Vegan is back!

  5. Fiona says:

    I look forward to reading your posts! When I was receiving my minor in Nutrition and Food Science I received two important messages relating to vegetarianism/veganism. One of my nutrition teachers (who happened to be vegetarian) said that unless a person is willing to embrace ALL plant foods, they should not be a vegetarian or vegan, because each plant group provides necessary nutrients. For example, if you don’t like beans and aren’t willing to make them a regular part of your diet, you should not become a vegetarian or vegan. A second very important lesson I learned from a different nutrition teacher is that the RDA is set to meet the needs of 95% of the population. This means that most people do not need as much as the RDA recommends, so a common rule of thumb my nutrition teacher used when analyzing a person’s diet was not to worry about a nutrient unless they are getting less than 65% of the RDA. I have done a personal diet analysis with professional nutrition software three times and have always gotten at least 70% of the RDA in everything on days that I make sure to eat all the good stuff first and then eat treats after. On the days I fill up on too many treats I don’t usually meet the requirements, especially for zinc. Anyhoo, interesting post and I can’t wait to read more!

    • Good point about embracing all plant foods. It stills blows my mind when I encounter vegans and vegetarians that “don’t really like beans.” My recent nutrition research has just further convinced me that this is just not a good situation. Same with nuts and seeds.

      That’s also an interesting point about 65% RDA. I’ve been wondering lately how RDAs are set, and what assumptions are made when doing so. Now that I’ve learned even more about how contentious (politically and scientifically) the RDAs for the macronutrients are (and I’ll include cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium in that category), I imagine that the process behind setting RDAs for the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is just as contentious. If you (or anyone reading this) know of a good paper or book about this, please let me know. Until I find out differently, I’m shooting for 100% every day. But I hear you that 65% may be adequate for many people. It’s just that after under-nourishing myself for a long time, I want to err on the side of caution.

      And I am totally with you on the “filling up on treats” thing. I realize now how bad it is to skimp on the good stuff in favor of sweets and carbs. It’s a bad choice for anyone, but it’s even worse when vegans do this.

      take care

  6. sweetopiagirl says:

    Reblogged this on Inspiredweightloss.

  7. Froggy says:

    I’m glad I found your blog. When I first became a vegetarian 25 years ago, I thought eliminating meat automatically meant I was healthy. Meanwhile, the main staples of my diet at that time were processed meat alternatives, white rice, and peanut butter. Any bread I ate was the kind that is so soft you can roll it up into a dough ball. Of course I had to put extra cheese on everything and eat lots of ice cream so I wouldn’t feel deprived.

    Becoming a vegan meant I had to learn to cook and pay more attention to the nutritional content of my food. I even started eating whole wheat bread that actually had a texture! I go through phases of being very interested in all the nutritional information I can find, but then I get lazy and can’t be bothered to think about it too much. For me, being vegan is not always easy, but for a long time I thought admitting that to anyone would be a betrayal of the vegan community. I have this feeling of responsibility to represent veganism in only a positive way. If you don’t, a cute little lamb will be dangled over a pack of hungry wolves, and if the rope breaks, it’s all YOUR fault. ; )

    I’m looking forward to reading your posts and making good nutrition a priority again.

    • Yup, I also go through phases of paying attention to nutrition followed by phases of being very lackadaisical. I’m not naive enough to think that it won’t ever happen again, but I figure if I can commit to some simple life-long changes, I can make it so the “off” periods aren’t quite so off.

      Being vegan is NOT always easy. As much as some people want to think otherwise, we really do have to try harder to get the vitamins and minerals we need. When we fill up on junk, those V&M are even more likely to go lacking than if we were vegetarian or omnivore. Admitting this is not a betrayal of the vegan community or anyone else. It’s just being honest. If honesty is betrayal, that’s a group I don’t want to be a part of.

      I’m glad you’re anticipating my upcoming posts. Doing it in a comprehensive way that really feels “complete” to me is turning out to be a lot more work than I anticipated (hence the delay), so it’s good to hear that at least some people are excited for it. I’m going to try to get it all together and posted by Sunday, 4/8/12.

      thanks for reading

      • ingrid says:

        I became a vegan when I was 20 years old, thinking the same thing. Many years and several dietary experiments later, I’m now working at creating a healthful vegan diet that has to exclude soy and gluten, owing to intolerances. It’s a challenge to be sure and tends to eliminate most of the vegan comfort foods, like veggie burgers, etc. I find that when I focus on vegetables and beans, using the denser carbs like grains as condiments (small portions) when needed, it helps. But I have to be judicious about nutrition, given my limitations. And it doesn’t help that I don’t have the patience for cooking. I do it grudgingly. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll look forward to your various observations and notes. I’m grateful for the bounty of alternative milks and vegan options nowadays, quite a departure from the heavy soy-and-wheat-based vegetarian landscape when I first made the transition.

  8. Reader says:

    “And for what itโ€™s worth, vegetarians have it only slightly easier. They still need to be more diligent than theyโ€™ve probably been led to believe (and Iโ€™ll go into specifics about that in coming posts).”

    I bet the people pushing the paleo diet, the locavore diet in cold climates, etc. are *also* leading people to believe “It’s Easy!” when it’s not actually that easy with those diets either.


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