When I went vegan just over three years ago, the book Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy, Plant-Based Diet (Book Publishing Co., 2000) by Brenda Davis, R.D. and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D. was indispensible on my journey. Written by two experienced and knowledgeable registered dietitians, this is a scientifically backed resource on living optimally on a vegan diet. My copy has certainly become dog-eared, highlighted, and well loved, as I have used the information and advice in it time and time again.
That’s why I was thrilled about the brand-new follow-up book by the same authors. Becoming Vegan, Express Edition: The Everyday Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition (Book Publishing Co., 2013) is a streamlined version of the classic title that still manages to cover all of the necessary topics that both new and veteran vegans need to know about. With chapters on everything from basic nutrition to special dietary needs, this fantastic resource presents complex material in an easy-to-digest format, with threads of compassion and practicality throughout.
I was lucky enough to prepare some questions for the authors, both of whom are well respected in the realm of vegan nutrition. The topics they cover here (especially the health-related ones) are further explored in Becoming Vegan, Express Edition, which I am sure will become an asset to your library.
Carrie Forrest (for Our Hen House): To start, Brenda and Vesanto, would you share your personal stories about why and how you became vegan?
Brenda Davis’ Story: Many factors affected my decision to become vegan, but none more compelling than my interaction with a friend back in 1989. On a rather ordinary day, my friend called to see if he could drop by for coffee on his way deer hunting. Although my response was positive, I immediately began thinking about what I could say to make him feel guilty. After dispensing with the usual trivialities, I asked him what it was that made him want to kill such a beautiful, innocent creature. I pointed out that it didn’t seem like much of a “sport” to me – after all, in “sports,” both teams have the same equipment. Then I asked him if it made him feel like more of a man. His response changed the course of my life. He responded, “You have no right to criticize me. Just because you don’t have the guts to pull the trigger does not mean you are not responsible for the trigger being pulled every time you buy a piece of meat in the grocery store. You are simply paying someone to do the dirty work for you. At least the deer I eat has had a life. I doubt very much you can say the same for the animals sitting on your plate.” I was silenced, because I knew deep down inside he was absolutely right. At that moment I vowed to take responsibility for the food I was purchasing, and to find out about the lives of the animals I was eating. What I learned made me take a stand against the system of cruelty that I had unknowingly supported. At that time, I didn’t actually know any real, live vegetarians, and I was a public health nutritionist in Northern Ontario, encouraging the consumption of a “balanced” diet, including the four food groups. Eliminating animal products was quite a leap. Interestingly, when I asked my husband (the hunter’s best friend!) if he would become vegetarian with me, he answered, “I thought you would never ask.” He was always a step ahead of me!
Vesanto Melina’s Story: I had been vegetarian for 20 years when, in 1993 while writing a “Without Dairy” chapter for our first book, Becoming Vegetarian, I came face to face with my own mistaken belief that dairy products were essential to human health. From a critical review of the scientific research, I soon learned that I could survive very well without any flesh or fluids of animal origin. Over time, I learned about the profound impacts of our food choices on the environment, health, human hunger, and the lives of animals. In doing the extensive nutrition research that is a foundation of our books, I came to see that a vegan diet could provide every nutrient that we need in recommended amounts, and that such a diet makes sense for reasons that become more compelling every year. I was deeply touched by the plight and tragic lives and deaths of pigs, cows, calves, chickens, and turkeys when they are regarded as “food animals.” I came to appreciate how many of us are voting with our grocery dollars for good health, compassion for animals, and sustainable agriculture. My own dietary transition gave me an understanding of the challenges and solutions that people encounter as they move along a continuum from non-vegetarian through to vegan.
OHH: What do you tell people about the connections between veganism and the reduction of animal suffering?
BD and VM: Ninety-five percent of the animals killed by humans are killed for food. In North America alone we slaughter about 11 billion land animals per year. Every person eating an omnivorous diet is responsible for the deaths of close to 100 animals per year. These animals all have the ability to think, to feel, and to suffer. They are not simply “resources.” If we did not consume animal products, these creatures would not be bred for this purpose, and would not have to endure such unspeakable suffering. In Becoming Vegan, Express Edition, we go into the concerns about animal agriculture in considerable detail.
OHH: Let’s talk about health, which you two definitely know a thing or two about! Can you explain some of the health advantages of a vegan diet?
BD and VM: A recent study showed that mortality is reduced by about 15 percent in vegans. Also, vegetarians and vegans have a 28 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease (when all variables are controlled for, including body fatness), and vegans have a 16 percent lower risk of cancer (this compares to 8 percent lower for lacto-ovo vegetarians). Vegans have the lowest rates of diabetes of any dietary group, with only 2.9 percent of vegans having diabetes – compared to about 8 percent of the general population. Vegans also have a 40 percent lower risk of cataracts. In addition, both vegetarians and vegans have reduced rates of kidney disease, diverticular disease, endocrine disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and constipation.
OHH: That’s incredible! As a vegan myself, I know that I feel great, physically. One question that I’m asked from time to time is whether veganism is safe for women who are pregnant (or want to become pregnant), as well as women who are lactating. What can you tell us about veganism and these particular dietary needs?
BD and VM: Vegan parents-to-be (and their relatives) often take a big (and sometimes nervous) interest in nutrition! A study was done in 1987 in rural Tennessee looking at the health and pregnancy outcomes of 775 pregnant vegan women. Lo and behold, they were doing just fine. Their weight gains and the weight of babies were normal; in fact, the moms had a much lower risk of the medical condition called preeclampsia. Since then, research has established that vegan diets can support excellent health at all stages of the life cycle, including the growth spurts of children and teens. In Becoming Vegan, Express Edition, we took a great deal of care to address potential challenges, and give families clear guidance so they can relax, proceed with confidence, and enjoy watching their children grow up in fine health.
OHH: How do you answer questions about whether people can get enough protein and all the indispensable amino acids without animal products?
BD and VM: All vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and grains are protein sources. These provide all indispensable (essential) amino acids found in meat. So any vegan can easily meet their recommended protein intake, regardless of gender, size, or activity level. Even super-athletes manage well. A diet can be short of protein if it is primarily composed of fruit, or of junk foods (such as chips, fats, refined foods, and sweets) or is very short on calories (as in a poorly designed weight loss diet).
Legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils, soy foods, and peanuts) are protein superstars as well as being excellent sources of iron and zinc. There are plenty of choices within this group, including tofu, tempeh, veggie “meats,” peanut butter, and over 20 varieties of beans. Learning how to easily include these protein-rich foods is an important part of creating a vegan pattern.
OHH: What is the evidence regarding veganism and iron-deficiency anemia?
BD and VM: As it turns out, there is no greater risk for iron-deficiency anemia among vegans and other vegetarians than among meat-eaters. While the non-heme iron in plant foods is absorbed somewhat differently – typically at a lower percentage – it turns out this manner of absorption is better suited to our needs. So we absorb iron from plant foods more efficiently when we need it, and less efficiently when we don’t. This is actually an advantage, since high serum ferritin levels (indicating lots of stored iron) are linked with heart disease, some cancers, insulin resistance, and diabetes.
At the same time, we need to know our sources, and Becoming Vegan, Express Edition gives plenty of information and tables that help. Plant-based diets easily provide ample iron; some sources are beans, peas, lentils, and soy foods; pumpkin seeds and oatmeal; and fortified breakfast cereal, blackstrap molasses, and dark chocolate. And including a vitamin C source – red peppers or onions in your stir-fry, strawberries with your chocolate – increases iron absorption significantly.
OHH: What are the best vegan sources of calcium?
BD and VM: Calcium is abundant in a wide assortment of vegetables, particularly the low-oxalate green vegetables: bok choy, kale, napa cabbage, watercress, broccoli, and collard, dandelion, mustard, and turnip greens. Other good sources are legumes, calcium-fortified juices, almonds, tahini, and figs. Calcium is added to fortified nondairy milks and tofu, and in both cases, calcium absorption compares favorably with that of cow’s milk, whereas that from greens is higher still. These products can be very helpful in meeting recommended calcium intakes.
OHH: Do vegans need to take nutritional supplements?
BD and VM: Not necessarily, although supplements can be helpful. Vegans must ensure reliable sources of vitamin B12. This means taking a B12 supplement of at least 25 mcg if daily, or 1,000 mcg if two or three times a week, or consuming B12-fortified foods. Nondairy milks, veggie “meats,” breakfast cereals, or nutritional yeast with three servings totaling 4 mcg of vitamin B12 for the day or 100 percent of the daily value is generally sufficient, although amounts vary from one batch to another. To be on the safe side, you may want to take a 1,000-mcg B12 supplement once a week, even if you are using B12-fortified foods. As it turns out, all adults above the age of 50 years, regardless of diet, are advised to use the form of B12 in supplements or fortified foods, as it is better absorbed than that from animal products.
While we can produce our own vitamin D when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet B rays (sunlight), this approach has its limitations due to people living at northern latitudes, being indoors, and using sunscreen. There is strong evidence that suboptimal vitamin D status compromises bone health and increases risk of disease. Low levels of vitamin D are common in populations throughout the world, including in vegan populations. Everyone should strive to meet recommended intakes for vitamin D, especially when their sun exposure is limited. Although some foods are fortified with vitamin D, it can be a challenge to meet needs through diet alone. In this case, a supplement is advised.
OHH: Finally, let’s talk about your favorite foods. Do you have any super-special recipes that you love to make for nice occasions?
BD and VM: The companion volume to Becoming Vegan, Express Edition is Cooking Vegan by Vesanto and Joseph Forest (The Book Publishing Co., 2012). It gives 150 outstanding yet simple recipes using ingredients that are readily available. For holiday feasting, a great central dish is Holiday Stuffed Winter Squash, accompanied by Mushroom Gravy or Rosemary Gravy, and Cranberry-Ginger Relish. Kale and Red Pepper Ring is a pretty side dish that looks like a wreath. Some great dessert ideas are Blueberry Mince Tarts, Cashew Cream Topping or Holiday Pie Topping, and Pumpkin Spice Pie. This book provides excellent breakfast items for everyday or special brunches, and is particularly strong on great ways to include legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) in menus. All recipes, plus 10 menus composed of delicious foods, include a nutritional analysis.
OHH: Thank you, Brenda and Vesanto, for your thoughtful responses, and for inspiring and informing us and countless others through your continued invaluable work in vegan nutrition.
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