Becoming a better vegan/vegetarian

By Lindsey Woods

by Sam Bohne

Contributing Writer

While the traditional turkey or ham is passed around the dinner table this Christmas, some may opt for the vegetarian or vegan-friendly tofurkey instead.

It is clear that while nutritionists and dieticians still differ in their regarding opinion regarding whether an animal-free diet is the way to go, or whether animal products are necessary for good health, there are more people then ever choosing not to eat meat.

Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician in the Chicagoland area, recommends a plant-based diet to her patients.

“A vegetarian or vegan diet is appropriate for everyone,” Blatner said. “So whether you’re an athlete, a child or somebody who is elderly, it is a very healthy diet for a person to follow.”

A vegan or vegetarian diet, Blatner said, decreases the risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer.

Although resorting to a primarily plant-based diet can reduce such risks, Blatner said there are four different groups of nutrients that vegans and vegetarians should pay attention to so that they do not become deficient. These groups include: protein, iron and zinc; calcium and vitamin D; and vitamin B12 and omega-3 fats.

“People in all types of regular diets should pay more attention to [these nutrients],” Blatner said. “But in particular, plant-based or vegetarian vegan eaters should be aware.”

In order to maintain a balanced diet, She recommends eating protein-based beans and lentils to gain iron and zinc; milk or plant-based milks to gain calcium and vitamin D; animal products, fortified nutritional yeasts or supplements to gain B12; and to ingest omega-3, eat fish, flax seeds, walnuts, or supplements.

While some of her patients transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet, Blatner said there are common mistakes that she has noticed.

“The mistakes that I generally see are that people will just not eat meat and they just keep eating what they regularly eat instead of swapping in plant-based proteins, like beans,” Blatner said.

She said some people even become “carbaholics” or “cheeseaholics,” and do not eat enough vegetables.

“Seventy-five percent of the word [vegetarian] is vegetable and there [are] plenty of plant-based eaters who don’t eat vegetables,” Blatner said.

According to her, soy beans are another food item vegetarians and vegans can swap in instead of meat.

“[Soy beans] are the main food people think about when they think of tofu, soy milk and tempeh, and a lot of foods are made out of soy beans,” Blatner said. “But I just make sure a lot of my clients eat soy beans regularly, and other beans, too.”

Radio personality and author Kaayla T. Daniel, who bills herself as “The Naughty Nutritionist,” recommends that people eat soy in the form of miso, natto and tempeh because they are processed in an old-fashioned way that is said to reduce anti-nutrients and toxins.

“Soy beans naturally contain phytoestrogens that can cause hormone havoc, goitrogens that can contribute to thyroid disorders, phytates that block mineral absorption, protease inhibitors that interfere with protein digestion and other anti-nutrients and toxins,” Daniel said.

She said that when ingredients like soy protein, soy protein concentrate, hydrolyzed protein and textured vegetable protein are produced, carcinogenic residues are usually left behind in the food because of the manufacturing process. She advises avoiding products that contain these ingredients.

Although Daniel recommends that people eat soy, she said it’s best to maintain an omnivore diet because there are many deficiency problems with plant-based diets.

“I do not recommend factory-farmed animal products, but ones that are free range, pastured, grass-fed and local,” Daniel said. “Vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, etc., should be organic and also local. These food choices are best for personal and planetary health.”

Sally Fallon Morell, co-founder and president of The Weston A. Price Foundation, which is dedicated to nutrition education and promotes the consumption of animal products, supported Daniel’s view and said a vegan diet lacks important nutrients that can only be obtained by eating animal products.

“The vegan diet is [one] that will lead to nutrient deficiencies, sooner or later,” Morell said.

Besides causing nutrient deficiencies, she said she thinks there are spiritual dangers, as well.

“[Vegans] think they are spiritually better than everybody else, and that leads to some real serious personality problems,” Morell said.

Although Blatener, Daniel and Morell’s opinions on veganism differed, they all agreed that vegetarianism—as long as animal products are included—is a healthy diet.

Daniel said a lot of people give a vegan or vegetarian diet a chance but often fall “off the wagon” and start eating meat or animal products again.

“[New vegans/vegetarians] feel like it’s all or nothing, and I think that could be a big mistake for a lot of people,” she said, noting that the journey to becoming vegan or vegetarian should be just as enjoyable as the actual diet.

According to Daniel, there are three main tips in transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle:

Step 1) Re-portion your plate. Cut meat intake in half and add more vegetables to your plate.

Step 2) Swap in other vegan or vegetarian ingredients instead of meat. Try making black bean chili instead of turkey chili or switching out chicken fajitas for edamame fajitas.

Step 3) Try new vegetarian or vegan recipes at a slow pace, so that it does not seem as intimidating.