So I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the myths about veganism (and vegetarianism) that float around. Hopefully we’re mostly beyond the thought that veg = a hippy that sleeps under trees and doesn’t shave or bathe, but despite the fact that it seems obvious that there are plenty of plant sources for protein and calcium, people still worry that their veg acquaintances are lacking the “nutritional benefits” of meat and dairy. You here all sorts of phrases like “amino acids” and “complete protein” being tossed around, but is a vegan diet really nutritionally lacking anything besides excess fat and cholesterol?
It surprised me that several of my family members asked how I would get enough protein when I went vegetarian in 2008. I thought it was common knowledge that you can get plenty of protein from soy products, beans, nuts, whole grains, and a wide variety of vegetables. (That’s right folks! Vegetables have protein. Asparagus, broccoli, okra, sweet potato, mushrooms, and many other veggies are good sources of protein.) Most sources will say you need around 50 grams of protein a day for a 2000-calorie diet (which I’ve read is actually a little more than you really need). In reality, most Americans get much, much more than this, which is not good for your health at all. Too much protein can harm your body, building up toxins, which stresses your organs. Too much meat and dairy-based protein also increases the acidity of your blood, causing your body to rob your mineral stores to even things out (here’s looking at you osteoporosis!). Of course, if you’re vegan and you’re eating white pasta and drinking soda all day, that isn’t healthy either, but someone eating a well-balanced vegan diet has no trouble getting enough protein.
A related myth is that vegans and vegetarians have to combine certain foods (like beans and rice) in order to get a “complete” protein during meals. From what I’ve read, the source of this myth was a book called Diet for a Small Planet. This idea that you have to laboriously ponder over what foods to eat together to get a complete protein has no basis in fact. The book’s author later admitted that she made a mistake. While it may be true that certain plants are incomplete sources of protein, that doesn’t mean you have to do something to make them “complete.” Different sources have varying amounts of protein and if you are eating a varied diet, your body will pull what it needs from each source. Some vegan foods are complete proteins by themselves like quinoa and tofu. So never fear, you don’t have to ponder over food combinations. Just eat a variety of grains, legumes, and veggies and your body will take the amino acids it needs from each to form complete proteins on its own.
Another common myth (more so with vegans than vegetarians) is that we can’t get enough calcium. This, of course, isn’t true either. Diary-based calcium sources make your blood pH more acidic, causing the same problems mentioned above with meat. You can get plenty of calcium from plant sources like grains, beans, soy, fortified juices, broccoli, collards, swiss chard, spinach, kale, mustard greens, and okra. Blackstrap molasses, tahini, and almonds are also good sources of calcium. Most sources recommend at least 1000mg of calcium a day, which is absolutely doable for a vegan. Here are a couple of sample menus that include more than 1000mg of calcium. Think about it, what grows a cow or a horse into a big, healthy animal with strong bones? Plants!
Most of these foods are also good sources or iron. To increase your iron absorption, you can eat a foods that contain both vitamin C and calcium (like broccoli).
I realize that I haven’t cited any sources here. Most of this is a collaboration of internet research and the many books and cookbooks I have read. As always, I encourage you to do your own research on any of the issues I discuss. If you have any questions about other myths that you’ve heard, please feel free to leave me a comment. Some reading recommendations are listed below:
Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina
The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Cooking by Beverly Lynn Bennett // and Ray Sammartano
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Living by Beverly Lynn Bennett // and Ray Sammartano
(more to come)