Friday, July 25, 2008

FAQs and Comments and Answers

Here are the most commonly asked questions and comments I get about being vegan and eating healthy, along with my answers. I tried to give references for all of them. Note: see my unfrequently-asked questions post for things you might not have thought of (I only have 2 so far).

Where do you get your protein?  Guess what, vegetables, especially green ones, have a lot of protein.  So do legumes (beans) and nuts and seeds and soy products.  So that's how I get my protein.  Plant protein is not a problem. In fact, animal protein is a health problem. Here's a link from Dr. Fuhrman's site discussing it. Eat to Live has more info on pages 136-140 and chapter 4. Here are additional links from Dr. McDougall's website and PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, led by Neal Barnard). Becoming Vegan, a nutrition book, has a chapter on protein with tables showing amounts for various foods.

Where do you get your calcium? Leafy green vegetables (kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce) are loaded with calcium, as are squash (yea, I love squash!), and beans (also known as pulses or legumes; for example, red kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, and many many more). You actually need less calcium if you don't consume animal products (including dairy). That is because the high acid content of animal protein leaches off minerals like calcium (summarized in Eat to Live, pp. 84-90). Fuhrman summarizes other foods that make you pee away your calcium in a table on p. 86. These include animal protein, salt, caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol, vitamin A, antacids and several drugs. Here are some links on Fuhrman's, McDougall's, and PCRM websites. Another great resource is the book The China Study, which talks about how animal protein (which dairy has a lot of) is correlated with higher rates of hip/bone fractures, osteoporis, type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and more.

Why are you so down on dairy? Yeah, I am down on it. I think dairy is worse for you than meat. It has a lot of fat and calories and harmful animal protein and not a lot of nutrients. If you go vegetarian but still eat dairy, you'll likely get an iron deficiency (Becoming Vegan, p. 105). From an animal rights point of view, dairy animals lead miserable lives. The cow has to be continuously pregnant to make milk, the calves are wrenched away from her at birth, and if it's male, it's chained up in a small pen and becomes becomes veal in a few months. The dairy cow is slaughtered when she's done producing milk, usually after about 4 years. Cows produce much more milk than they used to and suffer from infections in their udders, which results in pus in your milk. Antibiotics are added to her diet to limit the infection. Most cows are given growth hormones to increase production which you ingest later. Most people are lactose intolerant to some degree, yet most processed food has dairy buried in the ingredients, because it is such a cheap additive. No wonder there is so much indigestion medicine on the market! I think it's criminal that our government allows the dairy industry to continue to promote misinformation campaigns while the medical evidence builds that it is harmful to your health. We don't eat milk from any other animals (except goats, whatever). Would you want to eat dog's milk? Cow's milk has much higher protein content than mother's milk. We should drink only mother's milk and then stop when we're done nursing. Cow's milk is liquid meat.

Why do you avoid salt? Salt is correlated with higher mortality rate and risk of coronary heart disease, independent of other cardiovascular risk factors (Eat to Live, p. 240). Even if you eat a healthy diet and have lowered your risk of heart disease, salt causes you to excrete calcium and other important minerals from your body, and it increases your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Here's more from Dr. Fuhrman's website: here and here.  When I log my food in cronometer, I get about 350-500 mg of sodium from natural foods.  I add an additional 200 mg per day from salt (less than 1/8 tsp).  My understanding is you can add up to 500-1000 mg of salt to your diet and still be healthy.  That's 1/4-1/2 tsp so that's a good compromise if you love the taste.  Salt is hard to give up. But once I got used to it, I taste more of the food and now prefer it without salt. Also, once your body adjusts to not ingesting so much salt, your sweat and urine are no longer filled with it. This means if you exercise a lot and sweat a lot, you don't lose too many electrolytes so don't have to replenish them. You can just drink water, or a little juice, no need for the gatorade.

What's so bad about oil? Each tablespoon has about 100 calories. It raises your cholesterol and has no nutritional value. I'd rather eat 100 calories of healthy fats like nuts, seeds, or avocado.  Not only that, most oil is rich in omega-6 fats.   Your body only has so many enzymes for digesting both omega-6 and omega-3 oils.  So if you flood it with omega-6 fats, you won't digest the omega-3 fats, which are essential to healthy functioning.  I learned that from one of Jeff Novick's DVDs.  It's also discussed in Becoming Vegan.

What about olive oil? Same answer as before.

Yeah, but... the mediterranean diet... I grant you that olive oil is less harmful than saturated fats like lard and butter, and trans-fats. That doesn't mean it's good for you. The mediterranean diet, which uses a lot of olive oil, was relatively more healthy than the SAD (Standard American Diet) because they traditionally ate more fruits and vegetables and exercised a lot. Now, most people in the Mediterranean eat more meat and less vegetables, they are more sedentary, and their health has declined accordingly.

What about margarine? That's even worse if it has trans fats in it. Check the labels. You can put jam on bread without butter. Or make up new toppings for your bread (using tomatoes, salsa, mushrooms, avocado...). Boiled sweet corn is so good (if you got it fresh), that you don't need margarine. Try it a few times and see what you think. It's different at first but that's because you're used to slathering it in grease and salt. Chives is good on sweet corn, as are no-salt seasonings. My favorite is a mashed up avocado, I call it avocado butter. really good on corn. But like I said, fresh sweet corn is also good with absolutely nothing on it.

Do you eat any fat? Yes, I eat some fat, but in the form of nuts, seeds, and avocados. These taste way better than oil.  Think guacamole instead of oil, way more appetizing. But I'm convinced that low-fat is the way to go if you want to lose weight.  Potatoes and squash are more satiating, even more nutritent dense, than nuts (see Jeff Novick's DVDs), and help keep the weight down.  Drs. McDougall, Esselstyn, and Jeff Novick recommend a diet with less than 20% of your calories as fat.

I enjoy life and want to enjoy my food. It sounds like too much of a sacrifice to cook without oil, salt, dairy and meat! If you really like to cook and like to think of yourself as adventurous and creative, what could be more creative than inventing delicious recipes without oil and minimal salt? Oil and salt are crutches. You can make anything taste good by frying it in oil, and adding salt and/or sugar and/or hot peppers. Where's the challenge in that?  Nuts and fruit are great additions to entrees.   I enjoy life and want to enjoy my food, and I do.

I suppose I have to give up caffeine too? Hey, you're catching on! Actually, Fuhrman says 1 cup of coffee a day is probably okay. More than that can interfere with sleep and cause food cravings and stuff (Eat to Live, p. 242). Here's something to consider: Who is benefiting more from your caffeine addiction, you or the corporation you work for? They get increased productivity from you during the day, and then after work when you are coming down from the high, you get to be exhausted on your own time. Maybe you should save the caffeine for the weekend for yourself and give your corporation what it deserves, a normal level of human work output. I gave up caffeine a few years ago. I didn't like being addicted to a drug. It took me a few years of gradually decreasing. I got down to one cup of green tea a day, then cut that out when I was being supportive of a friend who had to give up caffeine for health reasons. Even from that low level, it was noticeable. And it took a few months for my energy levels to get back up. They say it takes only a few days to a week to break the caffeine addiction. Sure, that's how long it takes to get rid of the horrible headache, but it takes months for your energy levels to go up.  My understanding is that the dopamine receptors in your brain have to regrow. However, once that 3 months or however long it takes, is over with, then things get good. I do have more energy throughout the day now. And if I am tired I can take a cat nap at any time. Before if I had too much caffeine and was tired, I couldn't take a 10 minute nap because of the caffeine so then I was wired and tired and that felt pretty awful. So I'm glad I gave it up, but I sympathize with anyone trying to do it. It is hard!

And alcohol? Well, Fuhrman says one drink a day is okay, but it can set up food cravings. If you are a small woman, you might watch out for this. Since I lost weight, alcohol (and caffeine) affects me a lot more, and one drink is pretty strong. I'm getting old and since I'm off caffeine, alcohol usually just makes me tired. So I personally have lost interest in it. I don't forbid an occasional drink for myself, but I am usually not interested.

I could never give up cheese. That is the most common comment after the first two questions about protein and calcium. I've read in various places that the casein in cheese is addictive--here's one link. Maybe that is why it's hard to give up. For some strange reason I didn't have a problem giving it up even though I used to eat it all the time. A lot of the flavor of cheese comes from salt. I bet it wouldn't taste as good without the salt. I guess I just find that there are other things that taste great. I don't try to reproduce the flavor of cheese, just enjoy the flavor of other things, like a cashew sauce instead of a cheese sauce. Ground lightly toasted pine nuts are a great replacement for parmesan cheese. I say replacement, not substitute because I'm not trying to reproduce the flavor of parmesan cheese. I like the flavor of toasted pine nuts. I guess I think there are so many delicious vegan foods that have replaced cheese that I don't miss it. I feel that I eat more delicious food than I ever did before.

I don't like fruit. A lot of people say this too. You must not have had the right fruit. Often, the produce at the supermarket is sub-par and usually not ripe. Try organic fruit (only if it looks reasonably fresh!). Buy a bunch of different kinds of fruit and berries. Let it sit in your fruit basket until it's ripe (maybe a few days)--not the berries, apples or oranges. They are best eaten soon and kept refrigerated. Let your bananas develop small spots--that's perfect ripeness to me. Make a fruit salad with the mixture of fruit and berries. Add a little maple syrup if you are in transition. That usually appeals to fruit naysayers. Add fruit to vegetable salads. Make fruity salad dressings from the blender. Next thing you know, you'll start craving it. Maybe you'll even want to eat an apple and an orange! Start buying all kinds of weird fruit. I just learned how to slice a pineapple (I was dumb for not trying before). Boy is that ever good!

I don't like vegetables. Boy, you are one tough cookie. Well, you can change your tastes. Most people don't like milk, coffee, beer or wine when they first taste it. It usually takes from 3-10 tastings before your preferences change. It's like listening to new music too--it usually takes a few listenings before a song grows on you, especially classical music. I didn't like falafel the first time I tried it, but by the third time I really liked it. If you've conditioned yourself on processed foods, vegetables may seem unfamiliar and tasteless. Note that most processed foods have chemicals that make the food seem to taste better than it does, so they can get away with lower-quality ingredients and just fool your taste buds.

I exercise a lot, isn't that good enough? Most people think diet has only a minor effect on your health. I thought so too until I stumbled on this vegan kick. Well, minor tweaks to the Standard American Diet (SAD) do indeed have minor effects. However, changing your diet completely from SAD to one dominated by fruits and vegetables has dramatic effects. Exercise alone will not prevent you from getting heart disease and cancer. My mother was an avid jogger and had a heart attack a day after she ran 5 miles. Diet alone has a more dramatic effect, but won't prevent your muscles from atrophying as you age. Both exercise and diet are the magic formula. And it's fun too. I found that as I lost weight and gained energy I was more enthusiastic about exercising than I had been in years.

What supplements do you take?  I follow the advice of Dr. Fuhrman and several of the vegan R.D.'s.  I take B12, vitamin D, and a tiny amount of iodine.  I take Dr. Fuhrman's vitamins since they are low dose compared to most.  I also take his DHA/EPA supplement for insurance.  I am not sure it's needed but I don't think it's harmful in small doses--at least I hope not.  I'm not sure about the vitamin D either.  It's controversial.  My blood levels for vitamin D were low.  But does raising the blood levels from supplementation have the same effect as getting it from the sun?  I don't know.  Dr. Fuhrman and most of the vegan RDs recommend it, Drs. McDougall & Campbell are against.  Here's Pam Popper's take on it (she's in the McDougall camp).  It is pretty convincing against.  

What sort of health improvements can I expect from changing my diet? The list of ailments this diet can prevent, halt, and often reverse (unless damage is done) is astounding: heart disease, alzheimers, parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, multiple sclerosis, allergies, headaches and migraines, rhuematoid arthritis, lupus, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, acne, asthma, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, osteoporosis, kidney stones, gallstones, constipation, hemorrhoids, macular degeneration, appendicitis, gout, indigestion and gastritis. A better way to state it is, those are ailments the SAD (standard american diet) causes; and removing the cause heals or improves all these conditions. These medical conditions are discussed more here: Fuhrman, McDougall. Success stories are described here: Fuhrman, McDougall. Here is a post about how my health has improved.

How do I learn to cook healthy vegan food? I wrote a post on how I do it. This website is full of wonderful recipes: and her blog. There are lots of great vegan cookbooks out there and many can be adapted to a healthy diet by eliminating most of the oil and adding more vegetables. There are easy, healthy and good-tasting recipes in Jennifer Raymond's books: e.g., The Peaceful Palate, and Fat-Free and Easy. She wrote a lot of recipes in Neal Barnard's older books. I like a lot of the recipes in this book, Very Vegetarian.

Can I just be 90% vegan? Actually, yes I think you can. I'm vegan primarily for ethical reasons. For health reasons, 90% may be enough if you don't already have serious health issues. Dr. Fuhrman says that a diet with animal products (all meat, dairy, eggs, and fish) under 10% of calories can still maximize your health and lifespan (Eat for Health, p. 167). This is discussed in this article. Let's see, if you consume 2000 calories a day, that amounts to 200 calories per day, or 1400 calories per week of animal products allowed to maintain optimum health. Fuhrman doesn't recommend cheese in any case since it's high in saturated fat. Also note that the higher up you go in the food chain, the more toxins will be in your food, compared to fruit and vegetables. Fish are the most toxic.

Why are you a vegan? I first became a vegetarian for environmental and humanitarian reasons. It turns out the most effective thing you can do for the environment is become a vegan, unless you are really powerful and can make big corporations to change their behavior. Then I learned about how meat and dairy are produced and that was the end of my participation in the system. Other people have summarized the animal rights/cruelty issues much better than I can. I'll reference Dan Piraro's site which has a nice summary of why he's vegan, cartoons, and links to the horrible realities. Now, an interesting healthy side effect of being vegan for ethical reasons is that I think people are more likely to remain vegan for ethical reasons than for health reasons.  However, I think all vegans need to learn a little about health so they can thrive, and that will encourage them to stay vegan.   If all you ate were fritos, oreos and cokes, I think you would suffer some serious deficiencies and you might not last long as a vegan.  

What is a vegan? A vegan eats no animal products. Most vegans prefer not to wear them either.

Do you eat fish? No, a fish is an animal, with a nervous system and a brain.

Do you eat eggs? No, eggs are an animal product.

Do you eat butter? No, that comes from a cow's udder. It is an animal product.

Let me be more explicit. Vegans don't eat dairy (for example, milk, yogurt, butter, powdered milk, casein, whey, cheese). We don't eat eggs (neither yokes nor whites). We don't eat fish (for example, salmon, trout, scallops, shrimp). We don't eat meat (beef, chicken, pork, deer, dogs, cats, monkeys, horses, and all the rest). We don't even eat honey. Great replacements for honey include agave nectar or maple syrup.

But how do you get your protein and calcium? See the top of this post.

What's left to eat? Tons of wonderful varieties of vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, nuts and seeds. I eat a more varied and delicious diet than I ever did as a meat eater.


Tuco said...

Wow - that is one comprehensive post. Nice job!

healthy vegan said...

wow, my first comment and I didn't see it. Thanks for the comment.

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Anonymous said...


This is a fantastic post, and a terrific blog. I'm a member of the Furhman website, although I don't post a lot. I'm a bit of a back slider at the moment, due to just returning from vacation. So reading your posts is really motivating me to jump back on the wagon with both feet! Anyway, just wanted to tell you what a great job you've done with all this.


healthy vegan said...

Thanks very much Deb. I was just wondering today if I should keep continuing with the food log. so maybe I will. :)

Tough Chick said...

Right on! This is one of my favorite posts on your blog. Very well put.

Mr. Curious said...

Great post - It's so well put together - I will definitely link to it when people ask me about the nutritarian diet.

Anonymous said...

What about coconut oil? Is that bad for you too?

kneecap said...

The Whole Foods Plant Based crowd would say that oil is oil and is not a healthy food. It's okay in small quantities, but getting your fats in their original form, like coconuts and nuts and avocados and olives is a much better way to go.