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Monday, November 7, 2011

Veganism and Vegetarianism and Ideal Diets

A yummy vegan dish
I post about all different types of diets and eating habits on my blog. I've shared  my thoughts before on gluten free diets and Paleo/Primal diets, and have talked about how to prioritize your spending when it comes to purchasing healthy food (or at least how I do it). There's an abundance of recipes on my blog that pretty much can appeal to almost every single style of eating (other than maybe the Standard American Diet), but the types of recipes I post most frequently are those that are vegan and vegetarian.

I've recently gotten into Pinterest, an online "idea board" where you "pin" up different cool ideas, the same way you'd pin up ideas on an old fashioned bulletin board. Basically, when you see a web page with a really cool idea, you can pin it to various boards within your account and then come back at a later date to see what you've pinned up. You can also follow people on Pinterest who share your interests so you can see what ideas they've pinned up on their idea boards so you can get inspired. (For those interested in following me, here's the link to my Pinterest boards. )
Anyhow, so on Pinterest, what interests me for the most part are recipes, and the types of recipes I pin up most often are vegan and vegetarian recipes.

From the posts on my blog and the pins on my Pinterest boards, you'd get the impression that I'm a strong advocate of vegetarian and vegan diets. But am I? How do I really feel about vegetarian and vegan diets?

Let me first clarify something in case someone wasn't sure- no, I'm certainly not vegan or vegetarian.

Then why am I so into vegan or vegetarian recipes, and why do I constantly feature them on my blog? Why did I even write a post about protein myths, which would seem to be advocating a vegetarian diet? 

Money
Numero uno- because it's cheap. 
Very cheap. Vegan diets, anyhow. Beans and legumes (made from scratch, not purchased in a can) are pretty much the cheapest foods out there. Meat? Not usually anywhere near as cheap. (Unless you eat roadkill, as my friend Butter does or go hunting.) Fish? Again, not nearly as cheap, unless you fish for it yourself.
I think people who eat meat or chicken or fish every day are driving up their food bills, and if you're trying to save money in the grocery department, having at least two or three vegetarian meals per week is probably prudent.
But honestly, vegetarian isn't even nearly so cheap. Dairy, especially cheeses, can add up to quite a pretty penny. Eggs? While not exactly a fortune, can also be expensive if you're having them in large amounts.
I've had people tell me "Penny, you suggest vegetarian meals to save money, but vegetarian lasagna is more expensive to make than a package of chicken."
Quite true, at least if you make standard lasagna instead of my el cheapo lasagna
Vegan eating, however, is much cheaper than vegetarian eating.
Well, not exactly. Soy hot dogs, tempeh, prepackaged veggie burgers, ready made seitan, and tofu aren't necessarily so cheap either.
When I say vegan is cheap, I mean homemade vegan dishes, not made with exotic or prepackaged ingredients. Things like lentils, beans, split peas, homemade seitan, etc... 

So why do I have so many vegan dishes featured on my blog? Because its cheap, and including quite a few vegan meals per week into our diet is part of how I manage to keep our grocery bills so low. (We currently have vegan suppers- and their leftovers for lunch the next day- probably 3-5 meals per week.)

Allergies
Another benefit of vegan meals is that dairy and eggs are very common allergens; making meals that are by their essence vegan is usually cheaper than trying to find allergy friendly alternatives to dairy, eggs and cheese in recipes. I've recently learned that my stomach is sensitive to most dairy, and I think eggs may exacerbate Ike's eczema (but I'm not 100% sure), so aside for the frugality issues, I like cooking vegan legume based dishes because they're usually naturally dairy and egg free.

Health
Well, what about the health aspects of eating vegan and vegetarian diets? Are they objectively healthier or unhealthier?
Well, I have to admit, this is a subject of great controversy. 
What I do have to say is that you can certainly get enough protein from a vegan diet. Legumes and grains and nuts and seeds are absolutely terrific sources of protein. Vegan diets can also be rich in iron. There is no way to refute either of these; they're simple facts.

I know there was this book published by Dr's Campbell called the China Study, which posits that eating animal products is the cause of all sorts of illnesses prevalent today, and many health minded people advocate switching over to a plant only diet based on that.
However, before people take Dr Campbell's claims as pure fact, it's also important to note that there are numerous rebuttals to what he's written, proving that his work is misleading and makes incorrect assumptions

So, some people claim vegan is healthiest, some people say its not.

What do I personally think and feel regarding the matter?

Firstly, I feel the need to point out that people following a vegan diet are strongly urged to take vitamin B12 supplements, as there aren't really any plant sources for this vitamin that is essential for the brain and nervous system to function as well as to create blood.
If a plant based diet can't provide you with every single thing your body needs to function properly to the extent that you need to supplement with vitamins or fortified foods or risk a very dangerous vitamin B12 deficiency, how can anyone actually think that a vegan diet is ideal, that vegan diets are the supreme diet?
Wouldn't an ideal diet provide you with all the vitamins and minerals and nutrition that your body needs without need of supplementation?

Then there's the aspect of iron absorption. 
A plant based diet can contain lots of iron, but many plants also contain absorption inhibitors. Someone can be eating an iron rich diet but not absorb much of the iron because of the combination of foods being eaten. Iron is absorbed best from animal sources; if someone is iron deficient, they may need to eat animal products in order for their body to properly absorb as much iron as it needs.

Vitamin A is also necessary for proper body functioning. While it's found in a variety of plant sources, it is most readily found and absorbed in animals sources, especially liver. 

Cholesterol, that "ever so evil thing" your cardiologist warned you about, found in animal products mainly, like eggs, full fat cheeses, meats, etc... is actually imperative for the development of the brain in children. (Breastmilk contains high amounts of cholesterol for this reason.) Recent studies also show that cholesterol also plays an important part in maintaining optimal brain functioning and possibly preventing diseases like Parkinson's.

On top of that, there are plenty of stories of vegans who were vegans for years, and were very sick, and it was only after they returned to a non vegan diet that they were able to regain their health

When it comes to nutrition, grains are one of the least nutritionally dense foods. Animal products, vegetables, and fruit are much more nutritionally dense. 

So... vegan diet? I have a hard time believing its ideal. In fact, I would say I think its probably somewhat, if not very problematic.

I'm pro a traditional foods diet. Eating how our ancestors were eating for thousands of years. I look at how the majority of the world traditionally ate. Even the traditional diets that contained lots of vegan meals, such as Ethiopian and Indian diets generally weren't strictly vegan. Both traditional Ethiopian and Indian diets include ghee, for example, even if they did have a lot of legume and grain based dishes.
Other than the diet of Buddhist monks in Nepal and Tibet, I don't really know of any traditional diet that completely eliminate animal products.
I'm not a fan of "fad diets", diets that have only cropped up in the last 100 years or so. I think we need to eat how our ancestors have been eating, and vegan diets just don't fit the bill...

I look at Eastern Europe, where my family originates, and try to think how they might have eaten.
Did they eat vegan? No.
Did they eat a Primal diet? No.
For the most part, people were small scale farmers and homesteaders. What they grew and raised, they ate. I highly doubt they were able to raise enough animals to be able to have poultry or meat daily. Maybe more like they slaughtered one or two chickens per week. They probably milked their cows and had eggs more frequently than they had meat. I mean, if you think about it, they most likely didn't have enough chickens running around to be able to slaughter one for every meal, unless they were very wealthy. It takes a long time to grow a chicken large enough to eat (especially without the growth hormones they inject into them today), and to grow a lamb, pig or a cow takes even longer... 
I look at my family's traditional recipes that they made in Europe. Most of the ones that contained meat or fish were stretched with other cheaper foods, like legumes, carrots, potatoes, or eggs. No one had a meat or fish based meal; they used meat or fish as a flavoring, something to add body to the other cheaper foods they were eating. They certainly weren't eating Paleo style, thats for sure.

I would say I probably do eat similarly to how my ancestors traditionally ate. We eat animal products at least a few times per week, but our meals aren't meat heavy. I try to have them heavy on the produce, and then use meat or legumes or grains or whatever to fill in the rest.
In many ways, I do think this is the ideal type of diet.

And as for morals?
I can understand why someone might choose to be vegetarian or vegan for moralistic reasons, and that's fine. I understand it. In fact, I was vegetarian for 2 years as a teenager. ;)

I think that humanely raised and slaughtered animals is absolutely the ideal, the perfect cross between being morally conscious regarding animals' lives and taking care of our health and doing what is ideal for our body.
I'll be honest that I'm not quite able to afford to buy humanely raised animals, but I do at least purchase only humanely slaughtered animals. 
I don't feel guilty about consuming animals that weren't humanely raised because while I do think its important to treat animals well, I don't equate an animal's life with a human's life. (Throw rotten tomatoes at me if you want, but that's how I feel.) If it comes down to not eating animals at all because I couldn't afford humanely raised animals, or buying and consuming the type of animal products that I do, I'll take what I currently do, because I feel my health is more important than the life of an animal; though, if I could afford to purchase and eat humanely raised and slaughtered animals, that certainly would be my first choice.

I do, however, feel that the type of eating that I do is respectful to the lives of animals in general. I have a hard time imagining that someone who eats meat every single day, or three times a day even, is able to fully appreciate that every single time he or she is consuming that animal flesh, an animal had to die to fill his or her belly. Me, because consuming meat is a less frequent occasion? I definitely am acknowledging the fact that an animal gave its life so that I could be nourished. And I am appreciative of that and give thanks before I take even my first bite.

So, what do I think about veganism and vegetarianism?
I respect people's desires to be compassionate to animals.
I don't think a vegan diet is healthy at all.
I think a vegetarian diet can be made to work healthily and can provide enough nutrition if you consume enough animal products like dairy and eggs, though I don't think its necessarily cheaper than a non vegetarian diet.
I don't think either type of diet is ideal though; I think its ideal to eat how your ancestors ate, namely meat on a regular basis, but not every day, and not as the base of the diet, but a supplement to it.

How do you feel about vegan or vegetarian diets? Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Are you one because of moral reasons or health reasons?
If you're not a vegetarian or vegan, do you ever make vegetarian or vegan meals? Why or why not?
What do you think about my thoughts on vegetarian and vegan diets? Agree with me? Disagree with me?

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. One reason I have been combing through your back posts after finding your blog is the prevalence of plant-based recipes. I've read so much information on both sides (plant-based vs. primal vs. traditional foods heavy on dairy and eggs. I've been the person who was very ill and blamed my decade plus of veg*n eating. But then, five years after embarking on a traditional foods diet full of pastured meats and eggs, raw dairy, etc. I found myself just as sick, and my body rejecting all animal based foods (asthma, hives, bloody stools, delayed anaphylaxis, etc.). I've come to think that it is very possible that people who think they are ill because of a specific way of eating my have underlying issues that aren't related to eating animal products or not. For me, I had never been a healthy eater when we I ate 100% plant-based, because when I did that I hadn't found whole foods yet. And all the years I ate lacto-ovo vegetarian I was ignoring the fact that I still had a mild-to-moderate dairy allergy.

    So now I am healthy, eating a plant-based whole foods diet low in sugar. I worked on correctly a magnesium deficiency by bathing in epsom salts regularly, I increased my sun exposure for natural vitamin D, I don't cook or bake with refined grains and sugars, I drink clean water, I eat legumes almost daily, I eat seeds such as flax and hemp for essential fatty acids, and I eat large amounts of fresh produce daily. I changed my lifestyle to go to bed early and wake early, aligning with the sun for optimal adrenal health. I also learned to reduce my stress, which could be considered an anti-nutrient and health destroyer. Slowly, my food allergies and intolerances are lessening (I don't know about the allergies to meat and dairy, as I don't intend to test them).

    Also, new research suggests that B12 supplementation may not be necessary; even my mainstream doctor advised against it. It appears that supplements in general serve to enrich the pocketbooks of big corporations, not the health of those who take them. Whole foods are the way to go, not taking synthesized chemicals that contain very little of what the whole foods does. Heck, I'd rather eat a whole grain muffin with jaggery than take an iron supplement. For the first time ever, I have normal iron levels in my blood, and no deficiencies noted at all.

    I eat plant-based for several reasons: my personal health, the environment, ethical concerns (not just animals but humans around the world), and frugality. But like you, I don't suggest that everyone eat this way. I would much rather crusade for people eating real food and preparing it in ways that enhance the nutrient content, be that soaking (or pressure cooking, even better for lowering phytate content) grains and legumes, simmering, fermenting, etc. Because really, humans are very adaptable, and I think anyone who feels that they have been unhealthy eating a specific way was probably unhealthy because of processed foods and poor lifestyle choices, not because meat and dairy are evil (per the plant-based advocates) or grains and legumes are evil (the primal advocates). (Well, I do think there is a possibility that dairy does cause cancer; the research on casein is pretty clear cut. But dairy, out of all these foods, is an interesting case in point, in that it truly is intended to grow baby cows, camels, goats, sheep, etc. into adult animals.)

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    1. About supplements- my b12 levels were extremely extremely low, despite my eating animal products, until I started taking b12 supplements. But it depends what type of supplement you take- I take methylcobalamine b12, which is not the synthetic version, and it makes a difference. And my vitamin D levels are also really low. So I supplement with that as well.

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