Could you resist that hearty ham and egg breakfast or a mouth-watering rack of barbecued ribs in favor of a strictly plant-based diet? Dedicated vegans do it every day, some because of their belief in proven health benefits, while others are motivated by a strong commitment to a way of life that believes in compassion and kindness towards all animals. Veganism is more than just a diet. It is a philosophy and a lifestyle.
Plant-based diets and reduced health risks
"It's really a very easy system," says Medford physician Miven Donato with Dolphin Health and Education. A doctor of physical therapy and chiropractic, he specializes in nutritional metabolic therapy. "People think they have to cross a huge gulf to make the change, but if you make that challenge for yourself, even for 30 days, you'll see the benefits immediately."
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), vegans and vegetarians tend to have a lower incidence of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney stones, gallstones and asthma. Also, vegans are generally significantly thinner, their blood pressure levels are lower, and they have lower blood cholesterol levels than vegetarians, and much lower levels than those who eat meat.
The true vegan excludes all meat and animal products from their diet, including milk, cheese, eggs and honey. In the strictest sense, vegans do not use any items that contain animal products, such as candles, wool, leather or manufactured goods that have been tested on or harm animals. They value the health benefits of eliminating saturated fats, cholesterol and toxins common to animal products, especially those fed growth-inducing supplements and antibiotics, which health experts have linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Supersizing our waistlines
Not so long ago, getting enough food to survive required some hard work. Humans burned a lot of calories hunting, fishing and farming. Today, we can drive through the nearest fast food restaurant and gobble a fat-laden 2,500-calorie meal in one sitting with no more effort than reaching for our wallet.
"Our society has become so obese and it really doesn't have to be that way," says Laurie Gadbois, a Medford nutritionist and Food for Life instructor. "Diabetes, cancer and heart problems are all things that can be prevented if not reversed."
The average American consumes about double the protein her or his body needs, according to the PCRM, most of which is high in fat and saturated fat. In support of a plant-based diet, they state that as long as the diet contains a variety of grains, legumes and vegetables, protein needs are easily met.
The American Dietetic Association has stated that well planned vegan diets can be healthy during all stages of life, from infancy through adulthood, including pregnant women and athletes. In fact, according to the PCRM, vegan diets are the healthiest, but even with the more traditional diet, research shows the health benefits increase as the amount of animal products consumed goes down.
The phrase "well planned" is at the foundation of a nutritionally sound plant-based diet. Gadbois says that people sometimes think they are eating healthier just because they are eliminating meat, but without some knowledge of how to bring a variety of plant-based components into the diet, it is just as easy to eat food that is high in fat and low in nutrients on a vegan diet.
"In my opinion, a plant-based diet is a healthier way to refer to a vegan diet," says Gadbois. "You can be vegan and still eat a junky, unhealthy diet of potato chips and donuts, all the processed foods. But when you say plant-based, that really means whole foods." Gadbois teaches people how to shop for, plan and prepare meals. "In my classes, I don't talk about restricting the diet. I want to open people's eyes to all these new things you can add that you might not be familiar with."
No meat, no power?
A common misconception about a meatless diet is that it lacks protein, especially as required for a physically demanding lifestyle. Not so, says extreme distance runner Joseph Chick, who has been a vegan for eight years. "I became vegan after learning about the practices of the food industry and the treatment of the animals we consume," says the Ashland resident. "The more I learned and continue to learn, the more I am committed to this choice."
Lack of animal protein doesn't limit Chick's energy level or his ability to excel in the sport he loves. Because of the extreme demands on his body, Chick supplements his daily smoothie with vegan proteins. "When I became vegan, I had finished two marathons," Chick says. "Since then, I have finished over 20 marathons, and moved up to ultra-marathons, which is any race over 26.2 miles long." Chick has finished 16 marathons in the past two years and recently completed his first 100-mile race. He feels his times are continuing to improve, as is his recovery time, even as he gets older.
Making the switch
For traditional meat eaters, going vegan can mean big dietary changes. There are two schools of thought when it comes to making this transition: One is jumping in, all or nothing, and the other is to ease into it by gradually replacing meat dishes with more plant-based meals.
"I've taught a lot of vegan classes," says Donato, "and the one thing I have noticed is that the people who do the best are the ones who switched overnight. The ones who said they would just gradually improve their diets—while I see a rationale for that because they don't want to make a sudden change—these people get stuck somewhere along the line where they don't have enough motivation over time to make the change."
A vegan diet includes all grains, beans, legumes, seeds, vegetables and fruits. Although this may sound like a limited number of food sources, there is no shortage of inventive vegan recipes that combine these foods to create tasty and healthful meals. This does require some education in how to use ingredients the more traditional diet may not include.
"Sometimes people feel overwhelmed, like they have to throw out everything in their cupboard," Gadbois says. "And some people do that—jump in with both feet and feel great—but there are other people who approach it differently."
For all those who praise the benefits of clean eating, support of the vegan diet is not unanimous and arguments can be found both for and against. Some maintain that humans have consumed saturated fats from animal products for thousands of years and that a certain amount of fat in the diet is necessary. There are several nutrients that are found in abundance in animal products, but exist in only a handful of vegan foods. Therefore, critics argue, while it is possible to get all of the essential nutrients on a vegan diet, it is extremely challenging.
The Mayo Clinic recommends being especially mindful of sources of vitamin B12, calcium, iodine, iron, zinc, vitamin D and omega-3 fats to ensure getting sufficient protein and nutrients. Sources include flaxseed, soybeans and walnuts for omega-3; dark green vegetables for calcium; and foods high in vitamin C to boost iron absorption.
Reeducating our taste buds
Gadbois admits that substituting only vegan sources of protein can take some adjustment. "I think you have to retrain your taste buds if you're used to eating fast food and processed food because your taste buds have just been bombarded by artificial flavoring, way too much salt, sugar and spice, just to make it taste good."
In her cooking classes, Gadbois focuses on quick and easy recipes with no bizarre ingredients. "I want to meet people where they're at, not beat them over the head with being a vegan. I feel that if I can encourage people to add more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains into their diet, that's good. Just start with maybe one healthy meal a week if that's what you need to do."
Thanks go to the Medford Food Co-op, which supplied the ingredients of a balanced vegan diet, including whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Cindy's T-shirts were provided by Café Press (cafepress.com) and Zazzle (zazzle.com) which both have extensive vegan/vegetarian-themed product options.