By Anne Custer
Plant based diets have become a trend in the past few years, with meat and dairy alternative sales skyrocketing, more public interest in sustainability, and increased research in the health effects of these diets. However, it’s more than just a trend- it’s an overall lifestyle change driven by compassion, consciousness, and wellness. I made the change three years ago to a completely vegan diet. After my certification in Plant Based Nutrition through the T. Colin Campbell Center of Nutrition Studies, I can confidently take pride in my lifestyle and the benefits I (and the animals, and the environment, etc.) reap.
Before you read, here are a few definitions to be aware of:
– Pescetarian. Eats fish, dairy products, and eggs, but not poultry or red meat.
-Lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Eats both dairy products and eggs. This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
-Lacto-vegetarian. Eats dairy products but not eggs.
-Ovo-vegetarian. Eats eggs but not dairy products.
-Vegan. Does not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other animal product.
The terminology between plant based and vegan differ slightly. Plant based eliminates oils, refined sugar, and processed foods. It is exactly how it sounds- plant based! Vegans may or may not consume these products depending on their preference.
Right now, about 3 out of 4 Americans are on some type of prescription drug. The majority of these medications are for chronic diseases that could be prevented and reversed by proper nutrition. The underlying problem behind this is the fact that the majority of medical professionals and the general public do not believe in the power of nutrition. Doctors are paid based on the number of patients they see, the tests they order, and the pharmacotherapy prescribed. This type of system doesn’t allow for a holistic approach where the needs of the patient are priority and the curative option (usually diet and lifestyle change) is taken. Diet and lifestyle changes can be cures for long term chronic diseases, while medicine temporarily treats a symptom of the disease, until they need a new medication for a different symptom. This is how people end up prescribed many different pills to take each day, all while the sustainable, cost effective solution is in their kitchen.
Of course, the nutrition I am speaking about is plant based. I learned a great deal about chronic disease prevention and reversal from my certification program. For example, there was a study out of the Pritkin Center that looked at the relationship between plant based diets and type 2 diabetes. 40 patients with the disease were prescribed a low fat, plant based diet along with exercise and within 26 days, 34 of the patients (85%) discontinued all medication. All medication! Perhaps the most controversial is the ability to turn on and off tumor growth in rats injected with cancer. The rats were fed a diet containing 20% of casein, which is a protein found in cow’s milk, then a diet containing of 5% casein. Scientists found that tumors continued to grow at a fast rate when fed 20% casein, but when switched to the lower amount, the tumors not only stopped growing, but they shrunk. This is controversial for many reasons, but mainly it contradicts the animal rights movement, which is one of the main reasons people decide to switch to plant based diets. I was first interested in veganism after hearing about the health benefits and the amazing power it has to combat disease. However it has grown into an appreciation for the Earth and the environment, as well as a desire to see the suffering of animals for our consumption come to an end. Unfortunately, these tests cannot be undone, but we have this information now that we can utilize to be a voice for the animals harmed in the process.
I get endless questions about what I eat. How do you get protein, iron, calcium, B-12, etc.? What can you eat? Do you get bored? Do you eat a lot of salad? (The answer to that is a firm no.) So, just for the curious reader here is a vegan food pyramid. An example dinner from this would be brown rice with lime juice and cilantro, sautéed veggies, black beans, topped with fresh Pico de Gallo and guacamole. Sounds boring, right? No, but really there are bountiful options and many foods I didn’t discover on a SAD. (Standard American Diet. Yes, it is as sad as it sounds.) As for things like iron, calcium, and B-12, these micronutrients are of concern in a vegan diet because they aren’t as bioavailable to be absorbed in plants as they are in animal products. This shouldn’t discourage you because it is still easily achievable to get these nutrients. Fortified tofu, cereals, and nut milks have plenty of absorbable calcium and sometimes iron. It’s important to pair iron sources with a source of vitamin C. Put some lemon juice on sautéed kale, have a snack of cashews and an orange, or make a creamy chickpea salad with craisins. The possibilities are endless! As for B-12, if you are like me and hate the idea of supplementation, either buy fortified foods or use nutritional yeast as a seasoning on potatoes, vegetables, pasta, or even popcorn. The last word I would use to describe a vegan diet is restrictive or boring. I can eat whatever I want and feel good about the choices I make. I rarely have the same thing for dinner in a week and look forward to trying new foods and recipes. Plus, most people eat vegan meals without consciously deciding to and many common recipes are easily made vegan.
These resources have challenged, inspired, and educated me throughout this transition. If your interest is sparked, I encourage you to do your own research and seek out resources that can do the same for you.
Forks Over Knives
How Not to Die by Michael Greger
Whole by Howard Jacobson and T. Colin Campbell
Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman
Main Street Vegan by Victoria Moran