We are delighted to welcome back reviewer Piper Hoffman, who has become an official member of our flock.
Book Review: “Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet” by Jack Norris & Virginia Messina
Review by Piper Hoffman
Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet (Da Capo Press/Lifelong Books, 2011), by Jack Norris, RD and Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, is a densely-packed treasure chest of nutritional information for vegans and those who feed them. From the minutiae of the benefits of individual vitamins, to the bigger picture issues like low-carb diets, and that old chestnut, “how do you get enough protein?,” Norris and Messina have the answers and the empirical data to back them up.
Bring a pen when you dive into this book. I wound up with a list of supplements I should take, arrows next to all the recipes I’d like my chef/husband to try out, and slips of paper marking information I did not know, yet am determined to reread until it I know it well. For instance: did you know that excess sodium is linked to calcium loss? But iodine is necessary for the thyroid, and table salt is the major source of iodine for American vegans (non-vegans also get iodine from fish and dairy products). This leaves some vegans who don’t add salt to their food vulnerable to iodine deficiency. To make matters even more complicated, sea salt, which many cookbooks prefer over table salt, is an undependable source of iodine, and the salt added to processed food usually has no iodine at all. Suddenly I’m wondering whether I’m getting enough table salt – and then whether I’m getting enough calcium.
The beauty of this and other dilemmas Vegan for Life examines is the very fact that this book is raising and examining vegan-specific nutritional concerns. There is no sugar-coating here: Norris and Messina do not believe that veganism is nutritionally perfect (though they find it much healthier than eating animal products) and strongly recommend that vegans take certain supplements. They have examined a whole lot of science, explain which of it is most reliable, and admit that for many questions, science does not yet have answers. Through it all, their priority is to help people become – and stay – vegan and healthy.
The book is marketed for both veteran vegans and people considering becoming vegan, and it has vital information for both. But for people who are not yet vegan, I offer one caveat: read this book backwards. Not like holding it up to a mirror, of course; just start with the last chapter, then read the chapter before that, and then the one before that. It is the last one, Chapter 16, that answers the fundamental question (and is titled), “why vegan”? It is a condensed, vivid, and relentless depiction of the lives of animals raised for food. If you haven’t already, it will have you swearing off meat, eggs, and dairy. Chapter 16 illustrates that the welfare of non-human animals is the authors’ primary motivation for advocating veganism.
Chapter 15 tackles the safety of eating soy. Treat Chapters 9-14 like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” section. They delve into special nutritional needs like pregnancy and breast-feeding; vegan kids; eating vegan over age 50; veganism and diabetes; sports nutrition; and more. Pick the parts that are relevant to you and you will gain confidence that not only is a vegan diet healthy for you, whatever your special circumstances, it is also healthier for you than any alternative.
Chapter 8 is the most fun. It offers tips for transitioning to a vegan diet, easy meal ideas (how about chili beans with veggie burger crumbles served over rice with steamed carrots?), and paeans to the virtues of beans (sauté onion, garlic, white beans, and – wait for it – dried figs, season with basil and rosemary) and frozen vegetables (all the nutrition with less of the prep work!).
By this point in the book, new and potential vegans have a foundation and motivation for the work of learning about nutrition. Chapter 7 sets forth a Vegan Food Guide, followed by an almanac of what and how much to eat to get necessary nutrients. This chapter provides both a summary of the sources of nutrients and an overview for meal-planning, showing that it can actually be fairly easy to plan and prepare a healthy vegan diet. Fold over the corners and break out the highlighter: you’ll be going back to this chapter often.
Now the reader knows the moral imperative for eating a vegan diet and has been provided with ample evidence that it is healthy, weeks’ worth of easy recipes and shopping tips, and a food guide that wraps it all up in one page. Now it is time to tackle Chapters 1-6, which painstakingly analyze the vegan sources of nine individual nutrients, advising which supplements you should take, which nutrients you will get enough of without even thinking about them, why you should eat fats and carbs (and which ones), and what scientific studies have revealed. Some surprises (at least for me): sometimes eating calcium doesn’t mean getting the benefits of calcium; some sources of Vitamin D are vegan and some aren’t; and drinking coffee or tea with a meal impedes iron absorption.
Without the grounding and summaries provided in Chapters 7-16, the volume and detail of the information packed into Chapters 1-6 can seem overwhelming. As a long-time and (I thought) well-informed vegan, I was surprised by the amount and importance of the information I didn’t know, and spurred to action by the possibility that I am not getting enough of certain nutrients (in large part because my version of “vegan” is less focused on vegetables than on peanut butter, chocolate, cookies, muffins – in short, sugar with a generous helping of fat). If I were not yet a committed vegan, I might have been scared off from the task of eating healthfully, which is why I recommend that newbies start at the back of the book. By the time they get to Chapters 1-6, they will feel like I do: I have some work to do, but I am eager to do it because the benefits I will reap from applying the information in this book to my eating will improve my health for a lifetime.