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Have you ever noticed that when you tell someone about your lifestyle, vegan nutrition is always the core of every question they ask? The most popular questions tend to be "how do you get calcium," and "where does your protein come from," but I've heard plenty of others.
I often doubt that the people asking me about vegan nutrition have stopped to really think about where their own protein intake comes from, but because I am the one living the "alternative lifestyle," I am the curiosity.
I understand and appreciate where the questions come from, and I'm also here to tell you that vegan diets should be incredibly healthy, full of calcium and protein, and low in saturated fat, cholesterol, refined sugars, and any other "bad" stuff.
Did you read how I said, "should" be healthy? You can find just about any vegan junk food you want in almost any store and certainly all over the internet, and that means that some people may not reap all the benefits that a plant-based, balanced vegan diet provides.
The big reason people are so confused by vegans is because the standard American diet revolves around meat and potatoes. While people often will throw some green beans or broccoli into the mix, they aren't aware that the focal point of a meal should actually be the vegetables, rather than the other way around.
Outside of the vegan world, I feel an evolving trend towards a better understand of nutrition. Most people know that fruits and vegetables are healthy, and can often list good vegetables to add to a nutritious diet.
There is still some misunderstanding about carbohydrates, and some deep-seeded beliefs that animal protein is superior to plant-based protein, but I think that over time, the truth about vegan health is leaking its way into the general public.
One of my favorite first resources was The China Study, which taught me about how most degenerative diseases can be linked to when people stopped eating traditional (plant-based) diets and started eating Western diets full of animal protein. We're far better off eating like peasants than adopting heavy diets full of animal proteins.
If you're a brand new vegan, it's probably a bit harder to see the evolution because you're being faced with the "how do you get your protein?" and "if you don't drink milk, how do you get calcium?" questions for the first time in your life. For veteran vegans, you might have noticed that when a total stranger asks you the common questions, there's a glimmer of respect and fascination in their eyes.
There may be a "fat gene," and you may have cancer down the genetic line as far as the genealogical chart reads, but that doesn't mean you're going to have those illnesses. With proper vegan nutrition, you can prevent your body from triggering those genes into action.
There is scientific data to support the idea that you can prevent heart disease and other illnesses with a plant-based diet.
If you've read anything on vegan nutrition, you've probably heard of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. His name is referenced in The China Study, and he has his own book called Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, based on his research and work at The Cleveland Clinic for helping to improve the lives of former heart disease patients. He found that a low-fat plant-based diet can help to prevent and even reverse heart disease.
A similar study on vegan nutrition was done by Dr. Dean Ornish, who conducted a trial on heart disease patients that involved them changing only their diet, exercise, and stress management methods. His trial found the same results; their arteries became less clogged, cholesterol levels dropped to healthy levels, and their chest pain disappeared. What do you think happened to those people who went back to their former eating habits?
Dr. Joel Fuhrman has changed people's lives with his research and implementation of an anti cancer diet. He encourages people to get about 90% of their calories from nutrient dense foods that he calls GOMBS; greens, onions, mushrooms, beans, berries, and seeds. This dietamounts to about two pounds of greens each day, as well as four additional, different fruits, and whole grains, beans, and seeds as toppings.
Another study that was referenced in The China Study was one done by Dr. James Anderson, and this one focused on people with Type 2 diabetes. Dr. Anderson had half the group follow the ADA guidelines for eating habits, and the other half followed a plant-based diet. Which do you think had superior results?
As referenced in The China Study, many of the current heart disease studies were initiated after results from the Framingham Study, which helped find the relationship between clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease. Today we understand that the two are intertwined, but we owe a lot of that knowledge to this one study.
The Framingham Study was started in 1948 with 5000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, right outside of Boston. It was funded by the National Heart Institute, which was created right after WWII, when they were looking to find out why plaque developed in arteries and why that in turn led to cardiovascular disease.
Death rates from cardiovascular disease had been increasing for five decades before the study, but unfortunately, not much was known about what led to heart problems. The founders of the study wanted to see what factors were leading certain people to cardiovascular disease and keeping others disease free.
By checking in with thousands of people over the course of their lifetimes, they have been able to amass a huge amount of data about the risk factors for the disease. They've also added second and third generations of study participants to continue the study through the current century.
Today most people are well aware of the risk factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease, such as obesity, lack of physical activity, high cholesterol levels, smoking, and diabetes. We have this study partially to thank for the fact that this is such common knowledge. What's great about adapting a vegan diet is that it can help you to prevent many of those risk factors, or even reverse them after they have begun.
The study is still going on today, and has helped dramatically in our awareness of the risk factors for heart disease. Nowadays, they have added to the study the role of genetics in risk for heart disease, as well as adding more culturally diverse participants (the original participants were mostly Caucasian.)
Check out theframinghamstudy.org for more information about this long-standing scientific study.
In 2008, a report from Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that the vegan diet beats the ADA diet in its recommendations for preventing heart disease and diabetes. You can't beat the facts on vegan nutrition, can you?
People sometimes think that because someone is a vegan, they definitely buy things that are organic, and that's not necessarily true. There are plenty of people who don't follow a vegan diet and eat organic foods, and plenty of vegans who couldn't care less if their food is organic.
I personally found that as I learned about certain facets of the food industry, they naturally lead into new topics. For instance, when I was creating a huge list of fruits and vegetables, I learned that some fruits and vegetables absorb pesticides and fertilizers at a higher rate than other produce, and many of those are listed on the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables list created annually by The Environmental Working Group.
For those highly contaminated foods, there are definite organic food benefits. As part of the certified organic identification, fruits and vegetables cannot be made from genetically modified organisms, which are highly untested and can pose health risks.
You can learn to live the organic life on this great site, and you don't have to change all your food right away.
The easiest starting point to being a healthy vegan is the quick and simple vegan food pyramid. It's very similar to the pyramid we were all taught in health class, but changes the proportions by focusing more on vegetables and less on proteins.
An easy way to ensure you are getting a full day's worth of each ingredient is to track it on a few random days. Just write down what you eat, and how much of it. At the end of the day, check with the pyramid and see how it matches up.
I also put together a quick and simple guide to designing vegan meals to make sure they have the proper amount of whole grains, beans, and vegetables for the best vegan nutrition in each dinner.
You'll probably be surprised to see that it's right on target, and if you have adjustments to make, they likely aren't very large. The pyramid can seem intimidating, but because serving sizes are small, it's actually easy to eat all of the necessary foods.
An excellent source of advice on vegan nutrition, Dr. Neal Barnard, of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, recommends a low-fat vegan diet, and many people follow this type of diet. Rather than cooking in oils, they avoid adding anything extra to their meals. While they will eat vegetables and fruits higher in fats (think avocadoes and olives), they eat them with restraint. When you do add oils when cooking, opt for heart-health oils like olive oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil rather than simple corn oil.