Doctor’s orders?

“Let food be thy medicine.”

“You are what you eat.”

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

apple

We’ve heard these sayings before, but step into a doctor’s office and you’ll likely not be guided toward eating well. Doctors are great at things like diagnosing disease, performing surgery, and prescribing drugs. But I’ve learned that very few are trained in nutrition.

A vegetarian friend of mine who was low on iron started eating meat again—on her doctor’s orders! I told her cashews, kidney beans, quinoa, spinach and tempeh are all great sources of iron. Her doctor never told her that—or even recommended a supplement.

The doctor I saw last week for my checkup was just as bad. When he found out I’m vegan, he told me “it’s the riskiest diet.” He then recommended goat’s milk, since I can’t drink cow’s milk. I had to tell him goats are animals and their secretions aren’t vegan!

He told me to be careful because there are certain amino acids that are found only in meat. I said, “you mean protein?” He nodded. I asked him how cows and other herbivores get their protein. He referred me to a nutritionist.

The truth is, plants have protein. Plant proteins are referred to as “incomplete” only because they don’t match our human amino acid profile. But they are not “incomplete” when it comes to fulfilling our dietary needs.

Not all medical schools require training in nutrition, and the ones that do, require only a few hours. I’ve completed the Plant-based Nutrition Certificate program through eCornell, and while that doesn’t make me an expert, it has given me more nutrition training than most doctors have.

I worry for people who trust doctors blindly. For people considering veganism, a doctor’s warning like the one I heard might convince them not to try it. A whole-food, plant-based diet is a healthy choice—and most doctors aren’t aware.

There was a time when doctors recommended cigarettes as a way to relieve nerves. What doctors say about nutrition likely isn’t gospel. I’m on a quest to find a vegan—or nutritionally-aware—doctor.

Until then, here are a few good resources:

Dr. John McDougall
Dr. Michael Greger
Ginny Messina
Plant-Based Dietitian
PCRM

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Plant-based Diet 101

I just finished reading a book by Luke Jones. You might recognize that name: I featured Luke in my vegan profile segment recently. Luke runs the site Hero Health Room, a blog about plant-based living, sustainability, mindfulness and exercise.

Plant-based Diet 101

Luke recently published a book called Plant-based Diet 101: The Ultimate Guide to Healthy, Sustainable Eating Habits. I just finished reading it, and I highly recommend it–especially if you’re new to (or considering) a plant-based diet or if you’re a vegan who isn’t eating as healthy as you think you should (after all, cola and cookies can be vegan, but they’re certainly not healthy).

The book is very digestible (pun intended) and covers health basics like what to eat, what to avoid, and whether supplements are necessary. Luke covers costs, health concerns, and even topics like how to eat in restaurants and deal with skeptical friends and family members.

Luke has a great, conversational writing style, which made reading the book feel like a trusted friend was helping me. It’s not preachy nor is it judgmental. Of course I’m a proponent of a plant-based lifestyle and I sometimes want to bash people over the head with my ideas. Luke doesn’t do that. It’s clear that he’s researched the topic well (and has loads of references and resources to support his findings), but he allows readers to make their own decisions. I like how Luke shares a plan for easing into a plant-based diet and sets readers up for success.

The main focus of the book is health and wellness but Luke also addresses the environmental and ethical angles of eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. It’s an excellent primer.

You can download the book from Luke’s site. It’s only $5, making this the most affordable investment in your health that I can think of.

Vitamin supplements for vegans

When people find out I’m vegan, they’re often concerned about my health. “Where do you get your protein?” is a common question (I’ve answered it in this post). Iron, calcium and B12 are other things people worry about too. I’m going to address these concerns (and throw in a bit about vitamin D too).

I’m not a medical professional, but I study nutrition and I’ve completed the Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate taught by Dr. T. Colin Campbell at Cornell and I’m going to share a bit about what I’ve learned about supplements and vitamins for vegans.

plant-based lunchThe good news is that we can get all the nutrients we need from plants. Ditching meat, eggs and dairy is ethical and it’s a way to avoid cholesterol and excess fat and protein (too much protein is not healthy). Animal products lack fiber and are missing a host of other nutrients–as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants!

The course I took emphasized a whole food, plant-based diet. Coke and Oreos are vegan, but not good for us! When we eat a variety of whole foods, we get a variety of nutrients. Our bodies utilize nutrients over time and it’s healthy to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and beans.

Vitamin B12 – We need B12 so our brains and nervous systems work properly. It helps build blood and regulate our metabolisms. B12 is produced by microorganisms (it comes from bacteria, not meat). Animals who eat foods from the earth consume dirt and the B12 stays in their intestines. In the past, we ate food with a bit of soil on it too and got our B12 the same way animals do. Today, we’re cleaner (and soil is Deva vegan B12often depleted of nutrients), making B12 not just “a vegan problem.”

A simple blood test can determine your B12 levels. Fortified soy and almond milks contain it, but you can also take a supplement. Deva makes vegan vitamins (meaning vitamins for vegans but also vitamins free of animal ingredients and gel caps made from gelatin).

Vitamin D – This vitamin isn’t truly a vitamin (it acts more like a hormone and helps us absorb calcium). We can make our own just by getting some sun. It’s often added to dairy, but milk normally doesn’t have vitamin D. It’s in fortified soy and almond milks too. The best way to get vitamin D is to get a bit of sun exposure. Not too much, course! Get your levels checked and supplement if you’re low (a lot of people in the northern hemisphere are).

Calcium – Calcium builds strong bones and helps our bodies absorb vitamin D. Many people think about milk when they think of calcium, but milk and other animal proteins create an acidic environment in our blood. Our bodies use bone calcium to neutralize the acidity and make blood more alkaline. When we get rid of the excess protein, we lose calcium. Animal proteins also block vitamin D which, in turn, promote cancers. Yikes! So where should we get calcium? Check out this chart from Vegan Street:

plant-based sources of calcium

Iron – Iron is also important. Among other functions, it carries oxygen to the lungs. Meat has iron, but fortunately so do a lot of plants. Pro tip: eat iron-rich foods with foods containing vitamin C. The vitamin C aids in iron absorption. Tomatoes and spinach on a pizza, anyone? Here’s another great image from Vegan Street:

plant-based sourcdes of iron

Thoughts about supplements

One of my nutrition classes was presented by Dr. Matt Lederman. He said we’re designed to get nutrients from food. Supplements aren’t food. They don’t cure disease, and we don’t need then unless we have a deficiency. The real reason people are sick is because they’re poisoning themselves with fat, cholesterol and protein and by eating foods that are lacking in nutrients. Doctors don’t know exactly how much of each nutrient we need, but our bodies do. Poor health, Dr. Lederman said, is a fruit, grain and vegetable deficiency.

The best thing we can do is eat a variety of whole foods from plants. With the exception of B12, and (if you’re in a northern clime) vitamin D, we can follow Hippocrates’ advice:

Let food be your medicine and medicine your food.

Making a transition to veganism

Veganism is on the rise and people are interested in it for many reasons: health, animals, environmental, economic, political, and more. Here’s a list that might make your vegan transition smoother.

Find your groove.

hearty salad

For some, Meatless Mondays is a good start. Others might have fun with being Vegan Before 6 (breakfast and lunch). Lean into veganism when it feels right. But if you wake up tomorrow and want to be a full-fledged vegan, go for it! You don’t have to do it in phases. Push yourself but don’t set yourself up for failure.

It’s a journey.

You’re going to slip up. Maybe by accident (“whey is an animal product?”) or on purpose (“I couldn’t resist the pizza.”) That’s not a reason to quit. After a lifetime of developing food habits, you’ll find some are hard to break. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Being vegan isn’t about being perfect.

Eat out.

A good vegan restaurant (or restaurant with vegan options) is really helpful. If you’re at a regular restaurant, look for ways to veganize a dish. Hold the cheese. Substitute a Portobello for a hamburger. Ask the wait staff. They’re usually more than happy to help customers with dietary needs.

Learn to cook.

There’s nothing like taking your health into your own hands. Cooking at home means you know exactly what goes into your meal. Find some recipes online or get a few cookbooks and experiment. My first vegan cookbook was How it all Vegan. I still use it because the recipes are simple and delicious.

Find replacements.

If you crave cheese, bacon or ribs, look for vegan versions like Daiya, Upton’s, or Morningstar so you can still eat your favorite foods. Mock meats (or analogs) are a lifesaver when you’re not sure what to eat and you haven’t found a new way of eating yet.

Don’t live on processed foods.

That said, it’s easy to become a junk-food vegan. Mock versions of your old favorites can be healthy, but they aren’t always. The best vegan food plan includes lots of natural, whole foods. When it comes to health talk, you might hear “whole-food, plant-based” instead of “vegan,” because chips and soda are usually vegan, but they’re not healthy.

Introduce color.

A colorful plate of whole, plant-based foods is bound to be rich in lots of vitamins. Even my salads are hearty, and include lots of things like quinoa, garbanzo beans and seitan.

mango saladSpeaking of seitan.

Try new foods. You won’t like them all, but you’ll find new favorites and you’ll likely end up eating a more varied diet than the typical meat-and-potatoes American. I like to explore a variety of foods from around the world–and I’m always pleasantly surprised.

Expect change.

Meat is calorie dense. I don’t count calories but I know it takes a lot more plant-based food to match the calories of animal-based foods. You might find yourself snacking more (healthy snacking is fine). Maybe you pile your plate higher. If you’re eating whole foods, go for it! If you swap a 3-oz. steak for 3 ounces of hummus you’ll probably still be hungry! If you aren’t full, eat more. If you’re eating processed foods though, be careful. Oils and refined foods are fattening and offer very little nutritional value.

Don’t worry about protein.

Yes, it’s absolutely important, but if you eat enough food (meaning you’re not starving yourself), you’ll get enough protein. And a big surprise to many people is that plants have protein! Tomatoes, potatoes, bananas–they wouldn’t grow without it. Beans, nuts and such have more than fruit, but there’s protein in all of it. A plant-based diet provides 8-10% of calories from protein, which is the exact amount the RDA (recommended daily allowance) recommends. I’ll write a separate post about it soon.

Supplements.

Vitamins are a multibillion dollar industry but nothing comes close to whole foods–it’s what we really need. We get vitamin D from the sun, but if you don’t get a lot of sun, that’s one supplement you could take. Dairy is fortified with it, and fortunately, almond, soy, and other milks have it added too. There’s B12 in organic soil (that’s where the cows get it from) but since so much produce is grown with pesticides and other chemicals, soil isn’t what it used to be. A B12 supplement is probably wise. For the record, a lot of omnivores are low in B12 too–it’s not just a vegan thing.

Remember why you’re doing this.

For me, it’s was all about the animals (I say was because it’s about health now too). What’s your motivation? Remembering why you’re going vegan will help you stick with it. You can eat whatever you want; you choose not too. It’s not limiting if you think of it as a choice.

Resources:

  • Forks Over Knives – This documentary drives home the value and sound nutrition behind a whole food, plant-based diet.
  • Engine 2 Diet – This website links to books, recipes, and lots of resources for your plant-based journey.
  • The China Study – A comprehensive look at the 27-year study that Dr. Campbell undertook that led to finding on the superiority of whole food, plant-based diets.
  • Whole: rethinking the Science of Nutrition – This is Dr. Campbell’s latest book and explores a new way to look at how–and what–we eat.
  • PCRM – The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine portal has tons of health and nutrition information.
  • Vegan Outreach – This site links to videos, a free vegan starter kit, and lots of resources about why to be vegan (from factory farm cruelty to environmental nightmares).

As an aside, I’m in the middle of taking the Plant-based Nutrition course through eCornell. I’ve learned a ton in the course, but I’m not a medical professional, nor do I play one on TV. The course is amazing but doesn’t qualify me to dispense medical advice. Then again, most doctors aren’t trained in nutrition either!

Vegan readers, do you have other tips on going vegan? Best cookbooks? Favorite recipes?