No longer on the fringe of culinary culture, plant-centered diets are more popular than ever. Here’s why—and why you don’t have to be a vegan to benefit from putting more plants at the center of your plate.
I used to groan whenever I discovered that friends I’d invited to a dinner party were vegetarian or, worse, vegan. How could I make a main dish with only meatless ingredients? Wasn’t “main dish” just a synonym for meat?
No need to worry anymore. Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s best-selling vegan cookbook, Veganomicon (Da Capo Press, 2007), has me salivating over their Eggplant-Potato Moussaka with Pine Nut Cream, Asparagus and Lemongrass Risotto, and dozens of other amazing recipes. I could easily assemble a plant-based feast that would please all my friends — even my meat-loving husband — and give them a taste of one of today’s hottest culinary trends.
According to some estimates, as many as 7 million Americans identify themselves as vegetarians, and of these, about half are vegans, who avoid meat, eggs and dairy products. Many of the latter choose a plant-based diet for better health, and others make that choice because they believe it’s more humane and environmentally conscious. (Recent studies suggest livestock generates about 18 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases — more than cars and all other forms of transportation combined.)
No matter what their rationale, these vegan advocates are busily creating a robust food culture, with new cookbooks and gourmet recipes, hip new restaurants, new products, and an explosion of Web sites and chat rooms devoted to a plant-based lifestyle.
Recent books advocating vegan or mostly vegan diets, like Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch in the Kitch (Running Press, 2007) and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2008), were runaway bestsellers, and vegan celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, Tobey Maguire and Woody Harrelson have added luster to the movement.
Recent research by the Natural Marketing Institute suggests that while only about 2 percent of the general population currently self-identifies as vegan or vegetarian, 6 percent identify as quasi-vegetarian (meaning they consider themselves vegetarians but still occasionally eat meat, fish or poultry), and fully 30 percent are trying to reduce their meat intake. Not surprisingly, in health-oriented circles, these numbers are significantly higher. And given the interest in veganism that the current generation of young adults, especially, has demonstrated, many trend-watchers are predicting a “vegan tidal wave” over the next several years.
“There is a new veganism,” comprising a more diverse and expansive group of people, says Michael Parrish DuDell, a vegan and senior editor at Ecorazzi.com, a green-gossip Web site. “The new vegan is not your typical patchouli-wearing, dreadlock-sporting hippie. There’s even vegan fashion from designers like Stella McCartney.”
The new veganism movement, it seems, is less about deprivation and more about enjoying a delicious, more conscious way to eat. And it’s shaking up the culinary world, says DuDell.
If you walked into an upscale restaurant just five years ago and asked if there were vegan entrées, waiters would snippily point to a list of salads, he says. “Now you can walk into some of the best restaurants and tell them you’re a vegan, and they’ll prepare a great vegan meal for you.”
The Right Way to Eat Plants
Physician John McDougall, MD, has eaten a 99.9 percent vegan diet for 35 years — no meat, eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt or milk. And no cookies, cakes or breads made with eggs or dairy products. He has also preached the health benefits of this diet to thousands of patients at his Santa Rosa, Calif., clinic.
But even though he serves on the board of the vegan-friendly Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and speaks widely about the value of a plant-based diet, McDougall prefers to think of himself not so much as a vegan, but rather as a selective and healthy eater. Because not all vegan eating, he notes, is particularly healthy.
“The first so-called vegan I knew lived on potato chips and Coke,” he says. “If you live on bad vegan food, you don’t hurt any animal except the one holding your fork.”
So while chefs like Moskowitz are showing how a vegan diet can be delicious, McDougall and nutritionists like Virginia Messina, MPH, RN, are explaining how to make sure it’s nutritious, too.
First off, like anyone else, vegans should avoid overdoing junk food, refined flours and sugar, says Messina, who practices in Port Townsend, Wash., and recently coauthored two peer-reviewed papers for the American Dietetic Association that examined the benefits of a vegetarian diet (fewer cases of obesity, and lower incidences of hypertension and colon cancer). She urges vegans to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, plus a variety of legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains to meet nutrient needs, including protein, which is about 55 grams per day for the average person. That’s about half the amount contained in the typically protein-overloaded Western diet.
While most vegans can get an adequate supply of calcium from leafy greens, some nutritionists recommend calcium-fortified foods or calcium supplements. And, while plant diets are generally rich in iron, Messina notes that vegans need to make sure that the iron is well absorbed by eating a diet rich in vitamin C — leafy greens, as well as citrus, peppers, potatoes, melons and tomatoes. She reminds vegans to get enough zinc in their diets with nuts, seeds and seed butters like tahini. And some nutritionists suggest that vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Enough Fuel for Athletes?
Can a largely plant-based diet provide enough nourishment for those with demanding fitness regimens? Brendan Brazier, Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life (Da Capo Press, 2008), set out to answer that question back in 1990, at the beginning of his athletic career. He studied leading athletes’ performances and realized that those who recovered more quickly from their workouts had the advantage of being able to train more often.
He determined that 80 percent of recovery had to do with good nutrition, so he experimented with various diets. He tried a vegan diet and, at first, felt dreadful. But he persisted, and after experimenting for two years, he figured out how to get enough B-12 (from seaweed, miso, nutritional yeast and various algaes), iron, calcium, omega-3 fats, protein, and other essential nutrients to create a high-performance diet that powered him to first place in the 2003 and 2006 Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Championships.
There are two major advantages to a plant-exclusive or largely plant-based diet, in Brazier’s view. First, the body spends less energy digesting and assimilating plant food than it spends on processing meat and animal products. Even when he was eating fewer calories, he says he had more energy. “Since a calorie is a measure of energy, you’d assume that the more calories you eat, the more energy you’ll have,” he says. “But if that was so, then the people who eat fast food and high-calorie foods would have more energy than anyone else — and they don’t.”
Second, Brazier says that meat, dairy products and highly refined foods create an acidic environment within the body, which can lower vitality and immunity, and also cause the body to respond by pulling calcium from the bones to maintain a proper pH level. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also points to studies showing that the high protein levels of the typical Western diet stress the kidneys and encourage calcium loss, which increases the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
Certainly it takes some retraining to shift to a vegan or plant-based diet. Some people may decide to try it one day each week, as author Michael Pollan recommends. But once people get the hang of preparing tasty plant-based meals, many discover a sumptuous and abundant culinary lifestyle.
“Most American omnivores eat the same things over and over,” says Erik Marcus, editor of www.vegan.com and author of The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice (CreateSpace, 2008). “But vegans actually have a diet that’s substantially more interesting than the typical omnivore. You might think that your diet becomes more limited if you get rid of animal foods, but the opposite is actually true.”
For those looking to make more room on their plates for nutritious vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains — or trying to cut back on their meat consumption for any reason — that’s delicious and reassuring news.
What Kind of Eater Are You?
Are you a meat lover, a vegan, a bacon-eating quasi-vegetarian or something else altogether? Here’s a look at some common (and just plain intriguing) food-selection practices and ideologies.
- Omnivore: eater of both plant — and animal-based foods
- Flexitarian: mostly vegetarian; sometimes eats meat
- Lacto-vegetarian: vegetarian who eats dairy products but doesn’t eat eggs
- Ovo-vegetarian: vegetarian who eats eggs but doesn’t eat dairy products
- Pescatarian: vegetarian who eats fish
- Vegan:eats no meat, eggs or dairy, and no animal-derived ingredients like gelatin, honey or whey
- Raw-foodist: eater of unprocessed foods that are not heated above 115 to 118 degrees F; often vegan
- Locavore: prefers foods grown or produced in own local neighborhood or region — often within a certain radius, such as 50, 100 or 150 miles
- Macrobiotic: consumes unprocessed vegan foods, sometimes fish; generally avoids refined oils, flours and sugars
- Kosher: abides by Jewish dietary laws; avoids pork, shellfish and fish without scales; does not mix meat and dairy in same meal; eats only meat prepared by Kosher methods
- Halal: abides by Islamic dietary laws and customs; avoids pork and alcohol, may avoid seafood or fish without scales; eats only meat prepared by Halal methods
- Fruitarian:eats only fruits or foods that fall from plants or that do not require the destruction of the plant for harvesting
The Perils of Fake Meat
When some people decide to give up meat, they still want something that looks, smells and tastes like meat on their plate — and they want its preparation to be as easy as flipping a ground beef patty. Even mainstream supermarkets now offer dozens of veggie burgers and other protein-rich products (usually made from some combination of textured or hydrolyzed soy protein, wheat gluten, and grains) to fill this savory niche. Great idea, right?
Not necessarily. It may be convenient to rely on “meat analog” products when first making the transition to a plant-based diet, but many of these products also contain industrial-food byproducts, chemically processed soy and grain powders, artificial flavorings, colorings, and other chemicals to make them palatable. Many vitamins and minerals are leached away during their high-heat production. And some people may have trouble digesting them or experience intolerances to ingredients like gluten and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
“I advise people to cut these highly processed things out drastically — even cut them out completely,” says Brendan Brazier, professional Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life (Da Capo Press, 2008).
Concurring is Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Chiefs football team and Kansas City Royals baseball team, and coauthor with NFLer Tony Gonzalez of The All-Pro Diet: Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Live Like a Champion (Rodale, August 2009). If vegan clients want good sources of protein, she encourages them to eat beans, lentils, quinoa, legumes, nuts, whole soybeans (edamame) and naturally fermented soy foods like tempeh. Or, she suggests, choose vegan products (e.g., veggie burgers) made primarily from these whole-food ingredients rather than relying on products made from soy protein isolate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and textured vegetable protein (TVP).
“People think that anything soy is good,” says Dulan, “but I’d prefer to see people stay away from those fake meats and cheeses as much as possible.”