Monday, August 12, 2013

Part 7: What About the Vegan Diet?

Veganism is not only a way of eating, but a way of living. People who consider themselves "true vegans" avoid harming or taking anything away from animals in every way. Not only do they avoid consuming any form of animal products in their diet (no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy), they also refuse to purchase clothing, shoes, linens, household/beauty products, etc. that are made with animal products or tested on animals. There is some debate amongst vegans about whether it is or is not okay to consume honey. Sometimes vegans will boycott an entire company and its products if even one product is tested on animals or uses animal products. It's no wonder that vegans are often viewed as crazy hippies or aliens from another planet.

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(Photo Source)

Summary of Diet Recommendations:
Similar to vegetarians, vegans likely feel good about no longer contributing to the negative environmental and ethical mistreatment impacts associated with the meat and dairy industries (read my Stewardship series to learn more about this).

In general, vegans avoid consuming any food or beverage or using any product that contains animal products or derivatives of any kind -- a few examples are no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, beeswax, bones, gelatin, lard, lanolin, casein, and whey.

What's Good?
It's very good to eliminate animal products from your diet. I also like that vegans go the extra mile to ensure that no animal products are contained in packaged foods they consume. This is one of the most difficult aspects of eating opposite to most Americans, but the vegan's passion fuels them to ask questions about ingredients. Furthermore, it would likely be easier for a vegan to adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet because they are already committed to avoiding all animal products and investigating what is in the food they eat. Their decision to not contribute to the meat and dairy industry have a positive impact on the environment.

What's Bad?
The problem with a vegan diet is that it's defined by what to avoid rather than what foods to pursue. As I mentioned in Part 6: What About the Vegetarian Diet?, simply eliminating all animal products from the diet is only half the picture. In other words, eating a strict vegan diet does NOT necessarily mean that the person is eating a healthy diet. The end result is usually one of two outcomes: the junk food vegan (discussed in this post) and the starving vegan (I'll address this briefly in this post, but you should also read Part 8: What About the Raw Foods Diet?).

The starving vegan usually exists because the vegan consumes most of their calories from vegetables and fruit, rather than whole grains and starches. Vegetables contain about 200 calories per pound; fruit contains about 300 calories per pound. I don't recommend counting calories, but hypothetically, if you need 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight, do you realistically think you could eat 10 lbs of vegetables or 6-7 lbs of fruit every day? That would be pretty difficult.

The junk food vegan is also very common because they eat a diet full of fat and processed foods.  Technically, the food I choose to eat is vegan (no animal foods), but I would not want to consume many of the popular vegan commercial foods because they are very processed and high in fat.

There are many "vegan junk foods" on the market today, making it very easy and convenient to continue eating processed and high-fat foods after adopting a vegan diet. Tofurkey, vegan cheeses, Oreos, soda drinks, french fries, potato chips, and much more are technically vegan friendly foods. But are these foods healthy for you in the long run if consumed regularly? No!

Fun Facts about Vegan Junk Foods
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You may notice the rightmost column "Isolated Soy Protein," and wonder what that is. Many vegan junk foods use de-fatted soy as an ingredient to help replicate meat. But using these isolated soy proteins is very harmful for your health, and leads to the same diseases as the animal foods diet. You can recognize isolated soy protein if you see anything like soy (or pea or peanut or whatever plant food) "defatted soy flour," "textured soy flour," "textured vegetable protein," "soy protein concentrates," or "soy concentrates." These fake soy foods have been stripped of their original nutrient makeup and design, which should naturally include fiber, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Isolating the protein and removing all the other beneficial "stuff" creates a fake food product, which can harm your liver, kidneys, and bone health similar to high amounts of animal protein. Just to be clear, natural forms of soy like soybeans, edamame, soy milk, soybean sprouts, soy sauce, soy flour, tempeh, tofu, and miso are okay because they have not been made such that the protein has been isolated. The Clif Builder's Bar in the table above is the best example of what to AVOID because its ingredients list says:

"Soy Protein Isolate, Beet Juice Concentrate, Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Dried Cane Syrup, Palm Kernel Oil, Organic Rolled Oats, Unsweetened Chocolate, Cocoa, Organic Soy Protein Concentrate, Vegetable Glycerin, Natural Flavors, Organic Almonds, Rice Starch, Cocoa Butter, Inulin (Chicory Extract), Organic Flaxseed, Organic Oat Fiber, Organic Sunflower Oil, Soy Lecithin, Salt."

It's important to watch out for how much processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods you consume. Oils are unnecessary and 100% fat. Refined sugar can easily be over-consumed if not careful. Preservatives and chemicals are prevalent in many packaged foods. Highly processed and enriched foods have been stripped of their nutrients. Always look at the entirety of the diet instead of simply the elimination of a few foods. And always read every ingredient label carefully!

Instead of only focusing on avoiding all animal products (avoiding them is good, but incomplete), focus on pursuing whole, plant-based foods. Try new whole grains you might never knew existed (quinoa, millet, buckwheat). Embrace a newfound love for starches and complex carbs -- let the potato be your new best friend, just don't melt vegan cheese and crumble gimme lean on it. And of course enjoy lots of vegetables and fruit.

The vegan has already won a huge battle by voluntarily giving up all animal products and passionately questioning what ingredients are in food and other products. So take the next step by actively pursuing whole, plant-based foods without any added oils.

For additional reading, Dr. John McDougall has a great article about the unhealthy vegan.

Bottom Line:
Eliminating all animal products from the diet is a wonderful step in the right direction, but it is only half the picture. A vegan diet is not the same thing as a whole foods, plant-based diet because many processed/junk foods are technically vegan, but are not health-promoting. But the vegan is already much closer to a plant-based diet than the average American, so I encourage all vegans to switch your thinking towards pursuing whole, plant-based foods rather than focusing solely on avoiding all animal products. A whole foods, plant-based diet trumps a vegan diet any day of the week.

Next -- Part 8: What About the Raw Foods Diet?
Previous -- Part 6: What About the Vegetarian Diet?
Introduction to the 10-Part Series 

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