Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Challenge Of Eating A Vegan Diet

James McWilliams had an article in The Atlantic extolling the virtues of veganism (consuming no animal foods):

The Evidence for a Vegan Diet, The Atlantic, January 18, 2012

A fine article, not least of which because he says that if you are going to eat a vegan diet:
"You have to do it right, and doing it right means consuming a broad diversity of nutrient-rich plants."
He gave an example of the "right" way using his own diet:
"Here is a comprehensive list of what I ate, in one form or another, on the day I wrote this:

Kale, mustard greens, carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, quinoa, amaranth, pinto beans, beets, parsnips, turnips, yellow peas, brown rice, kimchi, purple cabbage, butternut squash, blueberries, a banana, hemp seeds, flaxseed oil, snap peas, an apple, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachio nuts, garlic, broccoli, raisins, granola, avocado, polenta, salsa, a few saltines, a piece of raisin toast with apricot jam, tofu, coffee, olive oil, harisa, chickpeas, tomatoes, a small handful of chocolate chips, a couple of beers ... and a vitamin."
His example of the wrong way:
"Someone can live on potato chips, pot, and cherry soda and call himself a vegan."
I think he's right, technically at least. But in practice ... Who can eat that way? Unless you have someone preparing your meals? Mr. McWilliams admits to eating at a high-end vegan restaurant one or two times a day. How do single parents with full time jobs manage the style of eating described in that "kale..." paragraph? How do people with limited mobility and limited income? People who depend on public transportation? University students living in dorms? People who live where produce is a relatively expensive and rare commodity?

I have not read Lierre Kieth's book, The Vegetarian Myth, which according to McWilliams has spawned a legion of followers:
"Bloggers have clogged foodie networks with angst-ridden accounts of fatigue, sickness, hair loss, anxiety, diminished sex drive, and mental breakdown after quitting animal products."
But I wonder if the disillusionment is due, not to actual inadequacies of a good vegan diet (plus vitamin B12), but to the extra-ordinary effort needed to eat this way.

It may be possible to eat healthfully on a vegan diet, but without help, it may not be probable.


Bix said...

Come to think of it, any really healthful diet is going to require work ... money, time, education, assistance. But I think vegan diets require a bit extra.

preserve said...

In reference to the people that have struggled..

As obvious as it may sound, I wonder how many people realize that they need to work and learn their way into a vegan diet? Reading literature alone won't cut it.

Bix, thank you for regularly bringing up the economic issues related to food and diets. It keeps getting more complex in my head.

McWilliams helps very few people by elaborating on his excesses.

ElDoubleVee said...

McWilliams is just another snob living a privileged life and berating those who don't follow his example. He is way out of touch. His blog is less about eating well as it is about bragging.

Leo said...

There's no way I would have time to eat, much less prepare, all that. I'm always studying, on a fixed income, and it takes me about 2 hours to get to campus on public transport. So maybe a granola bar on the bus? lol Interesting diet though. ;) peace

Anonymous said...

It's really not that hard.

I've switched my diet to be partially plant-based. I eat 4 - 5 smaller meals a day; 2 - 3 of them are plant-based. Those are no more difficult for me than the other meals.

Once or twice a week I cook up a bunch of things which I combine for meals over the course of the week. I'll cook some beans and lentils, I'll roast or steam some vegetables, cook some grains or sweet potatoes, grill or roast some meat for the non-plant-based meals.

When it's meal time just I just grab the things that I'm in the mood for. Sometimes it's an apple and some hummus, sometimes it's something more complicated.

You don't need to eat 20 different vegetables in one meal in order to get adequate nutrition. This is only really a problem if every meal has to be an event.

caulfieldkid said...

This made me think through what I normally eat. I'm vegan before dinner (as of right now). That usually only consists of 5-12 different fruits and vegetables, although, which ones will change from day to day.

Even If I was 24/7 vegan, I would have a hard time meeting that type of variety on a regular basis, if ever.

Then again, how many people on a typical American diet have that kind of variety?


Claudia said...

I had a job that it took me over 2 hours to get to on public transport. I'd be exhausted when I got home at night. We did a lot of Chinese take-out, pizza, and pasta.

When does he shop for all that food? Lettuce goes bad after a few days. Can he shop once every 2 weeks? And where does he put it all? A head of cauliflower takes up most of my veggie bin! Seriously, "kale, mustard greens, carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, beets, parsnips, turnips, purple cabbage, butternut squash, blueberries, snap peas, apples, garlic, broccoli, avocados" How many refrigerators does he have? He's bragging.

Bix said...

Was it Mark Bittman who did that "vegan before dinner?" Great idea.

And about Claudia's point, the refrigerators. I always said if I won a lottery I would get a walk-in! I will purposely not buy things, big bunches of kale or heads of cabbage, because I know I have no place to store them, and no time to deal with them. McWilliams is a lucky guy.

Bix said...

In fact, we were recently talking about belonging to a CSA. I know there are lots of positives but it's still challenging. You get a big load of produce at once and you have to clean and store it or cook it before it goes bad. I know some people who end up tossing a good amount. I admire CSAers!

preserve said...

Freezers, soups, and stir-frys are pretty efficient if the goal is to have variety with busy schedule.

Anyone know if stir-fry with coconut oil is okay? I've read lots of conflicting info. (personally use butter)

RB said...

First, I would like to point out regarding an earlier post, “Rich Roll, Ultraman, Vegan”, that a quick Google search finds many world class and professional athletes who are vegans. Rich Roll is not an exception. It also shows a vegan diet isn’t detrimental (or doesn’t have to be detrimental) to good health and good athletic performance. I think a quality vegan diet is the best diet if one is able to do it.

I am not a vegan yet although I am moving in that direction. I am down to three or four meals a week that have a portion of meat. I still eat dairy but have reduced it to milk with my oatmeal and some cheese with other meals. It is very hard to avoid dairy completely because it is hidden in so many foods, especially baked good. Eggs, milk and butter are part of so many recipes.

Before one needs to think about going vegan, one should first think about removing the junk food from one’s diet. The first thing I did many years ago now is stop drinking sodas. I gave up candy bars and ice cream. I eliminated snack chips. I rarely eat desserts such as cakes and pies (I make exceptions for birthdays.). As I did these things I began to feel better and stopped gaining weight and finally stabilized near my ideal weight. I seldom have headaches and am generally healthy. I rarely get colds and I can’t remember the last time I had the flu.

As I reduced the just food I began adding more fruits, vegetable and nuts to my diet. Then I finally started to eat less meat. It think its possible to have a quality vegan diet (or close to it) without breaking the bank or having a personal chef. I am trying to do it. My breakfast is typically a bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon, chia seeds, flaxseed, blueberries and raisins. I also add about ½ cup of low fat milk. I also have a glass of orange juice. Except for the chia seeds, I can get most everything else at a Walmart, Sam’s Club or any supermarket. For lunch I will eat an orange, a variety of nuts, spinach, beans, carrots, grape tomatoes and celery. Sometimes I have hummus on crackers instead of nuts. I will have an afternoon stack of grapes and a square of dark chocolate (85% cocoa). Dinner can be a bean soup with plenty of vegetables mixed in: squash, zucchini, green peppers, jalapenos, a stir fried (rice with sauteed vegetable) or spaghetti with a vegetable sauce. I often add mushroom to my dinner dishes. A salad with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, green peppers, jalapenos, mushrooms, cucumbers and some crushed walnuts is good, Sometimes I add a little meat to the stir fried and salads. I have a banana, strawberries, blackberries, watermelon, cherries or other fruit for dessert.

Almost everything I can get from the local supermarket. I don’t think the cost of a plant based diet has to cost more a meat based diet. A plant based diet is probably cheaper if one considered the healthcare cost of the standard American meat based fast food diet. I find a quality plant based meal filling and satisfying. I don’t get hunger pangs. A plant based diet by design tends to prevent overeating.

I do about 90 minutes of exercise a day which may include running, walking, bicycling, stretching and weights. I’ve maintained a exercise regimen of some sort all my adult life. I am fit and trim but I am not in a Rich Roll shape.

I think a plant based diet (or totally vegan) is probably the way to go but it is very hard in a society that thinks meat is the perfect food and vegetable are only for garnish.

caulfieldkid said...

RB makes some excellent points (I'm forgiving him for the ice cream thing). One fact that sticks out to me is the pervasiveness of animal products. I think it's pretty manageable have a 95% plant based diet. It's really hard to have a 100% plant based diet.

I think that's okay.


P.S. It fascinates me to see which posts of yours generate lots of discussion and those that seem (they aren't) to go unnoticed. Kale? Really? I still haven't figured it out.

Bix said...

Thank you for that, RB. It's a wonderful testimonial. It's going to get me to eat more fruit!

Bix said...

preserve, my 2 cents on your question... if it came down to a question of butter or coconut oil, for me, I'd pick the coconut oil. I just question the provenance of dairy foods these days.

Angela and Melinda said...

Shaun, kale is really easy to prepare/eat. Remove thick stems, cut or tear leaves into desired size. Saute w/ olive oil (or the fat of your prefernce) & garlic till it's wilted. Or steam it if you're avoiding fat. Eat as a side, or mix w/ rice, pasta, smashed potatoes, etc. Tender kale leaves (not the stems) can be thrown in w/ smoothies in the blender. It also can be used raw as the basis for wonderful pestos. In fact, if you belong to a CSA & you have veggies left at the end of the week, almost anything can go into a pesto sauce. Or, once tomatoes are in season, you can make "tomato junk." Roast whatever veggies you want to use up w/ some olive oil & seasoning, or you can boil them in a large pot; whichever way you use, when they're done & tasty, blend or food-process the results & you have a FABULOUS pasta sauce w/ all the goodness of summer. (I work for a CSA, so I've had to develop these methods of dealing w/ lots of veggies in a hurry.) This afternoon I'm making lettuce-based pesto (w/ garlic, basil, etc.) to use up the copious lettuce before we get more tomorrow.

Angela and Melinda said...

It is getting more possible to eat vegan at junk-food emporia. Subway has just introduced 3 vegan options,"Sweet Riblet," "Malibu
Greek," and "Italian Black Bean." Now if that ain't populist, I don't know what is!

Angela and Melinda said...

Laura Shapiro (Gourmet Live) says that not having time to cook is a myth. "Gourmet Live: You shocked attendees at a February 2012 panel discussion, “Tick-Tock: Cooking Against the Clock,” at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York City, by rejecting the long-held notion that Americans don’t have time to cook as a “big lie” pushed for decades by food manufacturers. Yet all of us have friends and family who seem sincere in their complaints that they really do lack time to cook. What makes this a fallacy?

Laura Shapiro: The whole idea of “no time to cook” was invented out of thin air to promote packaged foods. During World War II, food companies got pretty good at supplying the armed forces with canned and processed foods, and after the war they wanted to keep going and develop a civilian market. So they launched a new rhetoric around home cooking, in which smart, modern women were much too busy to spend time on old-fashioned drudgery like kitchen work. But to the surprise of the food companies, the new products were a tough sell. Most homemakers just didn’t need them. Meals were simpler in the ’50s than they had ever been: Most people had gas, electricity, and running water; you could buy chickens all plucked and cut up; you weren’t scrubbing clumps of dirt off the carrots or picking weevils out of the flour. And women were accustomed to cooking, so they knew how to toss a meal together."

Angela and Melinda said...

Here's a link to the "recipe" for making "Tomato Junk." Easy-peasy!

anrosh said...

Pressure cooker - the magic tool to decreases the actual cooking time. Planning to cook takes longer time than cooking itself. - soaking the beans at night, grinding them, fermenting them, washing the greens, scrubbing the vegetables, etc. Lets take a step back. How about getting the grains from the shop, cleaning them and giving it to the mill to be ground into flour ( this way you will know that the 100 % whole wheat flour is whole wheat itself )..the list goes on.
chow :)

Bix said...

I believe Rich Roll would not be the Vegan/Ultra Athlete/Full-Time Lawyer raising 4 young children if he didn't have someone preparing his meals. Since he says his wife is that person ("my wife Julie, she’s the genius cook and deserves all the credit!") ... Here's to Mrs Roll!

Anonymous said...

I've heard of kale - but wasn't sure what it was - I was thinking something like seaweed, which is not terribly appetizing - I'm sure others would vehemently disagree. I think I might like kale, without the k with some walnuts, fried okra and a tomato relish. I could definitely be vegan...for a day.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Bix said,
“Come to think of it, any really healthful diet is going to require work ... money, time, education, assistance. But I think vegan diets require a bit extra.”

Yes on the first. On the second, from my experience, no, not really. The transition seems insurmountable at first, but after getting into a routine, it’s business as usual. I will add that many vegans do tend to learn to embrace home cooking (if they never did before) in order to provide from themselves.

preserve said,
“I wonder how many people realize that they need to work and learn their way into a vegan diet? Reading literature alone won't cut it.”

Yes, at some point you have to put theory into practice. Because of the health halo of veganism, many new vegans make it more challenging than it needs to be and this does create a drop out rate. Vegans don’t need to exclude every single potential unhealthy food or make every meal extravagant.

Leo said,
“There's no way I would have time to eat, much less prepare, all that. I'm always studying, on a fixed income, and it takes me about 2 hours to get to campus on public transport. So maybe a granola bar on the bus?”

But your experience says nearly nothing about eating a plant-based diet and more about why so many people have poor diets in general. With that said there are busy collage vegans and vegetarians. Somehow, they make it work. I do understand what you are getting at, however, “I (or people) don’t or can’t eat properly, therefore veganism is untenable,” isn’t a strong argument.

Claudia said,
“We did a lot of Chinese take-out, pizza, and pasta.”

Those options are fairly close to vegan already. It’s certainly very easy to eat as a vegetarian that way. The question is whether it’s a good idea to eat take out all the time. Vegan or otherwise, probably not, though vegan take out options tend to be healthier choices by their nature.

I’m vegan. I get busy too. I’m fine with take out and probably eat out too often to be quite honest though I live in New York City so I recognize the ease of eating out as a vegan around here. All I can say is that there are vegans everywhere and they seem to manage but I can’t personally speak from experience in every location.

If the assumption is that a vegan diet has to be farm fresh home cooked organic vegetables at every meal, than yes, that’s probably not possible for a lot of people including myself. I don’t have a personal chef and I don’t eat every meal at a vegan café. A Chipotle bean burrito is just fine. Indian take out is fine. Frozen vegetables and the occasional frozen prepared meal is fine.

Bix said,
“And about Claudia's point, the refrigerators.”

There’s a Mediterranean store up the street from me that is packed with food but doesn’t have that many refrigerator cases. The bulk of the food is dried goods in bins like rice, grains, a large assortment of beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Much of this can be bought in bulk and store indefinitely in a pantry.

Soups last in the refrigerator for days. So do things like bean salads.

Root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, turnips) and things like cabbage keep for a long time in the refrigerator. Leafy greens have the shorter shelf life, but they don’t go bad over night, and again, nothing wrong with frozen greens and such either.

RB said,
“Before one needs to think about going vegan, one should first think about removing the junk food from one’s diet.”

Not quite, at least not in my experience. What happens is that most junk food isn’t vegan as it contains dairy or eggs. This rules out a lot of candy bars, snack goods, cakes, cookies, ice creams, etc. So when I first when vegan, I did stop eating such foods and I still don’t.

However, once you get the hang of being vegan, you figure out how to get your hands on plenty of vegan junk food. Vegan cake, cookies, donuts, ice creams, etc, there are vegan counterparts for most everything. What is still removed though, is the ubiquitous impulse-buy for these sorts of foods as vegan versions just aren’t prevalent.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

McWIlliams is making the point that a vegan diet need not be restrictive or so limiting as to force someone to eat chips and soda all the time therefore declaring veganism untenable. He used a day of easy abundance to demonstrate the amount of variety that can be accomplished. McWilliams isn’t trying to point out how special he is, he’s not trying to brag, he’s attempting to point out how pedestrian eating a varied vegan diet can be and that even a not so special person like himself can manage it with ease.

While variety is a great idea, there is no mandate to have that much diversity on a daily basis. Remember, the Okinawans ate a fairly monotonous diet of sweet potatoes and are the longest-lived people on the planet. I’m not saying that everyone should just eat potatoes, I’m just pointing out that a monotonous no-bells-or-whistles whole foods mostly plant based-diet is fine and the choices and abundance of a plant-based diet almost anywhere in the United States can easily surpass a monotonous plant-based diet.

People who would find it difficult not so much to be vegan but in eating well in the first place, that’s a legitimate concern, but McWilliams probably isn’t addressing these oh-so-busy people who probably aren’t reading the Atlantic. He’s talking to an audience of people like himself.

Take a different perspective, there seems to be as much or stronger evidence to the contrary that not being vegan isn’t all that easy either, people just don’t “drop out” of non-veganism. Non-veganism is doable, but at least according the prevailing data, a lot of people are “doing it wrong.” If so many people can’t manage to eat healthfully as non-vegans, clearly it must be challenging. If eating “a healthy omnivorous diet” was so easy, we wouldn’t have the plethora problems and diet books and “ways of eating” debates that permeate our culture.

As for concerns of the healthy food disenfranchised, again, take another view; how are they being serviced with our current food system? What’s so great about what these groups eat now? For ease of healthful eating for the disenfranchised, our current system isn’t at all adequate so why is it being compared as some sort of gold standard. If more people eating like McWilliams became the norm, would the ubiquity of such food options permeate into other areas? The college dorm is a perfect example. The more college vegans, and there most certainly are college vegans (or even non-vegan young people who give a damn about food), the more demands are made on food staff to provide decent variety of plant-based meals.

I have plenty more to say on the topic of privilege and a vegan diet, but it’s really it’s own topic that I would need to lay out some defending evidence (another day) to the counter the usual assumptions. While it’s important to address broad food justice, it’s a bit tertiary. “Healthy” food availability, and more importantly, cultural adoption, has far less to do with veganism and is a challenge for any fair food system that’s probably going to require a faceted approach to makes things better.

But let’s not get into a strawman debate. It’s not vegan or nothing. It’s “Hey, there are a lot of problems with animal foods, ethically, environmentally, perhaps health-wise (I tend to feel that it’s a more dose dependent argument), everyone really should consider drastically reducing our consumption. This doesn’t have to mean everyone be vegan, it means a whole spectrum of options.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

The basics of a successful vegan diet are fairly easy and not at all as complicated as often assumed. Transitioning, or more to the point, thinking of transitioning to veganism can be hard, even insurmountable to most people, but the daily routine of eating a diet of plants isn’t at all challenging.

In McWilliams’ last book, Just Food, it was published before he went vegan. He expressed how challenging he felt that vegetarianism was when he was attempting it in order to reduce his meat consumption since he found the environmental data so compelling.

Now that he’s over the initial transition, he finds veganism easy. There is still a question of how long he will remain vegan, but by his writings, my guess is that he’ll be vegan far into the future. If he was writing only about health related vegan topics the projection would be far less certain.

Health vegans tend to burn out by incorporating more and more restrictions, cutting out plenty of comfort foods that don’t make a diet feel restrictive. Or if they believe they are following the ultimate health diet, and they get sick for whatever reason, they become disillusioned. Ethical motivated vegans tend to stick around because the goal isn’t to have the ultimate health diet; it’s to eschew animal products. A poor health outcome for an ethical vegan gets chalked up to bad luck, for a health vegan, it’s a reason to move on whether it’s related to their diet or not.

Most problematic issues come up with unique social situations, (i.e. eating with non-vegans), but planning mitigates most of this friction, which is a burden at first, but overtime just becomes routine. For example, if a vegan wants a vegan meal on a plane flight, it requires an additional step like checking a box or making a phone call, but vegan meals are available.

One doesn’t have to get all to extravagant with a lot of other health purity ideas that tend get rolled up into veganism. One doesn’t need to eschew all processed food, only eat organic, avoid gluten, avoid any added fat, only prepare your own food, eat mostly raw, etc. A not-too-fancy mostly whole-foods-based vegan food-groups style of eating works just fine and any half-way decent supermarket has everything you need. Eating out is fine, it’s not inherently unhealthy. Restaurant dining options for vegans tend to be “healthier” options than non-vegan counterparts anyway.

With that said, one does have to be reasonably motivated to transition to being vegan. Note, I didn’t say eat a plant-based diet, there’s a distinction. Also, social environment matters, but there are vegans in every US state and in many countries you wouldn’t think of.

Yes, there are famous vegans that we hear about, that’s because they are famous, but there are plenty of “regular” people out there who are vegan. This isn’t to say that this fact alone makes it easy, but it’s certainly doable, you don’t need to have personal chefs or grow all of your own vegetables. While veganism tends to be a practiced by well educated folks who have the time and means to adopt something like a dietary change, exclusive plant-based diets are not at all limited to the well-off or even the highly educated.

For an ethical vegan (the types that came up with the whole idea and are the core of the practice), it’s easy to be vegan because they feel they have no other viable choice. For people pursuing a plant-based diet for health reasons of even environmental concerns it’s a more tentative diet as cheats and exceptions are okay, even desired to a certain extent, like with any diet plan. A new health study, or more likely health fad, is far more likely to have a health vegan abruptly change their mind.

Veganism is not a diet plan though in the mainstream it is assumed to be. There is no “vegan diet,” it can be any combination or pattern of plant (fungi and minerals) foods so long as they are not directly animal derived.

Jacki said...

lol, it's not that hard. The challenge is the change of mindset, but the actual food prep isn't that hard. even the cooking is just heating things up. Choosing foods that are nutrient dense is important. And, for things that do take some time, like beans and quinoa, I cook those in larger batches for the freezer. Easy peasy. For newbies, tracking nutrients on a diet website can be helpful in tweaking your food to the right proportions.

Claudia said...

To all the people who say it's easy to eat all those fruits and vegetables. Its not easy for everyone. I have a neighbor in her 80s and lives alone and doesn't drive. Its not easy for her. I know people who can't chew and can't read labels and can't cook hardly. Expecting them to eat all those foods every day and knocking them when they eat the "wrong" foods isn't right. It's ageism.