Eating becomes a performance as a vegan. Friends gawk, ooh, and ahh; inquiries like “what’s that brown/green stuff?” abound; eyebrows raise at the mention of an alien vegetable called “kale”; and the audience either applauds or criticizes the theatric meal by ceding “I could never eat as healthfully as you,” or smirking “that’s weird.”
The befuddled faces only escalate in number as soon as I mention that in addition to any animal products, I also exclude white flour, sugar, soda, fast food, and junk food from my diet (I actually gave up sugary carbonated beverages and chemical-laden snack foods in about the fifth grade).
However, the more my good friends, classmates, or newly-met puzzled folk question me about veganism, the more I appreciate their genuine wonderment. Truly curious about my daily nutrition, they contentedly listen to my rants about livestock abuse, the excessive protein intake in America, how factory farms feed cattle crops that they could and should grow to sustain the human population, and why I have to concern myself with vitamin B12 but not calcium or protein.
Thus, I contemplated that it may interest you to discover why you’ll seldom find salt in my recipes, why I need a leafy green with every meal, why I don’t drink thirty minutes before or after a meal, why I only buy organic, and why I absolutely detest green bell peppers. Enjoy.
- I eat at least two servings of leafy greens every day.
A cup of cooked kale contains over 1,000% of your daily vitamin K intake, almost 200% of your daily vitamin A intake, and almost 100% of your daily vitamin C intake. Not enough? Leafy greens rank among the highest out of any other vegetable in antioxidant activity, contain the cancer-fighting phytochemicals indoles and insothiocynates, protect the eyes from macular degeneration thanks to their lutien content, and offer the highest concentration of flavonols out of all other foods. Perhaps the most important reason to include a ridiculous amount of leafy greens in the vegan diet remains their significant source of calcium—100 calories worth of collard greens offer 457 mg out of the daily recommended 1,000-1,500 mg.
- I eat at least 1 cup of beans or tofu every day.
Ah, yes. The most common question to plague vegan ears: “But where do you get your protein?” Believe it or not, 10%-40% of calories derived from most plant foods come from protein, which some Americans (probably the average ones who consume more than double the recommended daily protein allowance) cannot seem to fathom. Vegans who eat mostly whole plant foods, which are slightly less digestible than refined and processed crap “food”, require 0.9 g of protein per 1 kg of body weight, totaling between 43 to 86 grams of protein for a 105 to 210 pound person per day, respectively. Obtaining this modest amount of protein becomes incredibly manageable when you consider that 3/4 cup of beans, 2 cups of cooked broccoli, 3 cups of cooked kale, 4 ½ cups of mushrooms, 8 bananas, and 11 cups of berries all contain 10 grams of protein! Calorie for calorie, beans remain the highest concentrated source of protein in the plant food world. Thus, if I don’t want to stuff my face with 9 cantaloupes per day to achieve my easily attainable protein needs, I eat my “musical fruits” everyday.
- I eat at least 1 tbsp of nuts every day.
Naturally low in saturated fat thanks to the omission of red meat and dairy, the vegan diet offers a bounty of healthy monounsaturated fats in the form of nuts, avocados, and olives which protect against heart disease, lower LDL “bad” cholesterol, increase HDL “good” cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and enhance blood flow. Nuts are also rich in antioxidants such as selenium and vitamin E, protein, fiber, copper, magnesium, lignans, and anticarcinogens. Almonds contribute substantial amounts of calcium to the vegan diet.
- I eat only whole grains.
Consider wheat refining to produce white flour: when stripped down to a pure, snowy white powder, wheat loses 75% of its vitamins and minerals, 90% of its fiber, and 95% of its phytochemicals. In their whole state, grains offer vastly greater nutritional values such as keeping your tummy full for longer so you don’t overeat, regulating blood sugar, reducing “bad” cholesterol, providing antioxidants and phytochemicals, and contributing fiber which in turn protects against constipation, gallstones, hemorrhoids, and ulcers. I literally feel disgusting after eating white bread or white rice because I know that it is absolutely devoid of nutrition.
- I eat nutritional yeast daily.
Vitamin B12. It builds our DNA, protects nerve fibers, and effectively metabolizes fatty and amino acids. Without the complex molecule, our blood cells couldn’t divide properly resulting in anemia, inability to transport oxygen through the body, and hazardously affecting the spinal cord and brain to the point of paralysis. I don’t think that sounds like too much fun, do you? Bacteria found in soil synthesize B12. Unfortunately, either animals (which vegans do not eat) ingest the soil and transport it to their intestines or we wash away the soil on vegetables before consuming them. What’s a vegan to do? Supplements. 2 tbsp of nutritional yeast offers 8 mcg of valuable vitamin B12—almost triple the daily recommended value of 3 mcg! I prefer to fulfill my nutritional yeast needs by sprinkling it on corn, adding it to any dish that requires a “cheesy” tang, or coating salads with my spoon-licking delicious Liquid Gold Dressing.
- I eat flax, hemp, or chia seeds (preferably all of them) daily.
All of these seeds offer generous amounts of fiber. Hemp seeds even contain all of the essential amino acids! However, their most important health benefits are their high omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid contents. Linoleic (omega-6) and alpha-linoleic (omega-3) acids maintain cell integrity, aid in the development and functioning of the brain and nervous systems, and regulate vital organs. Flaxseeds have the highest linoleic content of any food, the lowest omega-6:omega-3 ratio (ideally, your intake ratio of these two fatty acids should be between 2:1-4:1), and the richest concentration of lignans which reduce the risk of cancer. Hot damn, these seeds are healthy.
- I drink Kombucha daily and include as many other probiotic foods as possible in my diet.
Because I eat only whole, unrefined foods, my digestive system has to work a little harder to pass it through my system. Low in heavily caloric foods such as red meat and full-fat dairy, my diet is also bulkier than that of an omnivore since I have to eat greater amounts of food to fulfill an adequate caloric intake. However, even though my diet actually requires me to stuff my face, it also can take a toll on my colon and…ahem, bowel movements. Full of probiotic microorganisms (like those found in yogurt), Kombucha culture produces a wide range of organic acids which detoxify the kidneys and liver, combat yeast infections, regulate blood pH levels, and most importantly, aid the digestive system to prevent bowel decay and constipation. In short, Kombucha and other probiotics such as sauerkraut and miso help me poop. WARNING: MAY BE TOO MUCH INFORMATION COMING! In fact, during my two weeks at camp, I felt constipated the entire time without my Kombucha and flushed everything out after a single bottle of GT’s. Now you know more about Ali than you ever wished to fathom.
- I vigorously avoid white flour, processed sugar, and artificial sweeteners.
As I mentioned before when insisting on solely whole grains, stripping plants down to refined forms such as white flour and glucose decimates any nutritional value originally found in the plant. High on the glycemic index, these incredibly processed products release sugar into the bloodstream much faster than whole food low on the glycemic index thus increasing hunger, cancer risk, and bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol. Now, since I haven’t eaten white sugar in such a long time, my body responds to the refined food with utter exhaustion, such as after my splurge on the Raspberry Soy Nebula ice cream at the Chocolate Shoppe.
- I almost never add salt to my food.
The human body requires 500 mg of sodium, a mere 1/4 tsp of salt, per day. However, most Americans’ sodium intakes skyrocket above the maximum daily recommendation of 2, 400 mg (just over 1 tsp), thanks to the unfortunate popularity of processed foods. Though the vegan diet, thanks to its base of whole plant foods, naturally limits sodium, it still features canned tomatoes, beans, veggie broths, soy sauce, and miso. Thankfully, many groceries now offer low-sodium versions of canned items (such as my favorite Eden brand which doesn’t even add salt to their beans!). I much prefer to fulfill my basal sodium requirement with nutritious miso or Bragg’s liquid aminos rather than simply salt, devoid of any added health benefits. Excess sodium also steals calcium, a valuable vitamin for vegans, away from the body. With every gram of sodium excreted, the body loses 23-26 mg of calcium that I would have liked to keep, thank you very much!
- I avoid drinking thirty minutes before or after meals.
One of my classmates during my vegetarian culinary internship at Apicius in Florence, Italy mentioned that she never drank water at meals, nor twenty minutes before or after and alleged than it aided her digestion. Shrugging this tidbit off as unverified mumbo jumbo, I continued drinking two glasses of water with every meal to ensure proper hydration. After returning from Italy and reading a post on Pure 2 Raw (of course, now I can’t relocate the post, but I trust their knowledge since they’ve experimented a fair share with combating digestive issues), that claims better digestion and nutrient absorption if you wait to drink until 30 minutes before or after a meal, I decided to rethink my skepticism on my friend’s claim. I’ve followed this practice for about a month or two now and have to say that I feel digestively stronger. Perhaps the placebo effect may play a role in my supposedly ameliorated tummy, but as long as my stomach smiles, I’ll hold off on a tall glass of water with dinner. (For more info on avoiding drinking water during meals based on yogi/ayurvedic principles, read here.)
- I limit my oil intake and only use olive or flax oil.
Used to soften foods by sautéing, release the flavor of certain spices, and keep foods moist during cooking processes, oil remains a vital ingredient in every home. However, if you don’t use a light hand when pouring, excess oil can add unwanted fat and calories to dishes. Oils such as canola, corn, grapeseed, and peanut endure a high-temperature refining process which strips away any nutrients such as monounsaturated fat, but cold-pressed organic oils including olive, flaxseed, coconut, and sesame retain their omega-3, 6, and 9 fatty acids. Still, oils only offer fat to the diet, lacking phytochemicals and antioxidants in which other fatty vegan foods such as avocados and nuts abound. Thus, I prefer to consume most of my daily fat in the form of more
nutritionally-dense sources than oils.
- I attempt to minimize my flour and bread intake.
I base this philosophy on the macrobiotic principle of shunning all processed foods due to the significant amount of nutrition lost during refining, such as the milling of flour. Within the first 24 hours of grinding wheat into whole wheat flour, 45% of its nutrients have dissipated and after 3 days, the flour has lost 90% of its valuable nutrients. Thus, I prefer to treat myself to whole grain breads at most once a week, with the exception of products from Cress Spring Bakery in Blue Mounds. Ground fresh in their own stone mills, organic ancient whole grains such as rye, kamut, and spelt maintain the majority of their minerals, vitamins and fiber and don’t sit around losing nutrients since Cress Spring grinds each small batch of flour for bread-baking that same day. Making the grains more digestible and their nutrients more accessible, Cress Spring ferments their bread for about two days, also creating a deep sourdough flavor that I crave.
Update: I no longer enjoy Cress Spring bread, seeing as their products are not gluten-free. Boo hoo!
- I attempt to incorporate raw and sprouted foods into my diet whenever possible.
While some foods gain nutrition when cooked (tomatoes increase their lycopene content and spinach allows easier access to its iron), most others lose vital nutrients and phytochemicals. However, valuable enzymes necessary for proper digestion lie dormant in raw foods. The solution: sprouting! By soaking, sprouting, and fermenting fresh fruit, veggies, and nuts, you produce “living foods,” dubbed as such because of their enzyme activity and probiotic (“friendly bacteria”) content.
- I passionately strive to eat an exclusively organic diet.
Vastly better for the environment and its inhabitants, organic farming has become 100% absolutely necessary for the sustainability of our planet. While I could and likely would spend a good hour or so ranting about our skewed, barbaric conventional farming practices, I feel that Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet as well as Michael Pollan’s books (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.), can more effectively express the dire nature of today’s agricultural system than little old amateur blogger me. I can, however, relay that “Certified Organic” translates to food grown and produced without chemical pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or sewage sludgy soil and free of genetic modification, antibiotics, or hormones. Thanks to the richer, purer soil and omission of unnatural ingredients, organic foods contain more vitamins and minerals than those conventionally grown.
- I don’t peel my vegetables.
All organically grown and thus free of chemicals, the peels on my vegetables are perfectly safe to eat, tasty, and full of phenolic compounds: a group of 4,000 different phytochemicals. By separating the peel from the vegetable, you lose valuable nutrients concentrated inside the skin.
- I prefer soy milk as my daily non-dairy beverage rather than nut milks.
While I’ve mentioned the health benefits of my favorite Edensoy Extra soy milk thanks to its vitamin enrichment in previous posts, I failed to include the nutritious values of soy. Highest in protein of any bean, this legume contains all the essential amino acids, far greater amounts of phytoestrogens and isoflavones than any other food, fiber, and a cornucopia of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Soy protein also lowers “bad” cholesterol, prevents hormone-related cancers, and inhibits bone deterioration thanks to its abundance of calcium. Compared to nut milks, soy milk contains almost 8 times the amount of protein, about twice the calories, and much higher vitamin B levels. I prefer soy milk because it further quiets the vegan protein “dilemma”, it contributes calories in which vegans diets can easily lack, and it offers valuable B vitamins sometimes rare in the vegan diet.
- I harbor a burning hatred for green bell peppers and may soon develop one for radishes.
Why on earth would nature produce such a disgusting, bitter vegetable completely devoid of any pleasing flavor whatsoever? Shaped, smelling, and related to red, yellow, orange, and purple bell peppers, green peppers lack every ounce of the juicy, slightly sweetness of their brothers and sisters. I look forward to the day when a vengeful vegetable god descends from above and smites every last green bell pepper on this earth in an unworthy vegetable apocalypse. As for radishes, they just taste weirdly spicy and somehow rotten to me.
I hope that my rambling about nutrition hasn’t left your head lolling backwards onto your computer chair but has rather enlightened you about my view of veganism and answered any questions about my curious eating habits.
Comment Provoking Questions: Do you set any dietary guidelines based on health reasons for yourself? What are your views on any of the principles listed above? What are your least favorite vegetables and fruits? How do you feel about green bell peppers?
Until next time, Ali.