Diet For a Small Planet

Many years ago when I first moved out and was living on my own I found that there were several things I needed to figure out before I could truly stand on my own two feet. One of these things was generally feeding myself, a simple concept but it implicated me in the details. There is a stereotype that kids in post-secondary live on things like ramen noodles and pizza. I was not doomed to fall into that tags however, as I serendipitously discovered a book titled Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet. It is difficult to recall what made me pick it up, but it was thanks to this work that I became a little more conscious of my health than the stereotypical undergrad. Why would anyone want to become vegan?

From the authors:

Becoming vegan is an expression of one’s profound reverence for life. For some, it is a delicate step towards the preservation of this planet. For others, it is a declaration of respect for all living things. For many, it reflects a commitment to personal health. Whatever the reason, a vegan lifestyle is a huge leap into a world that is very different from the one in which most of us grew up. Every step you take towards a more compassionate world is one of celebration. We wish you much peace and joy in your journey. May Becoming Vegan serve as a powerful ally and traveling companion.1

While vegetarianism has been around since the days of Buddha and Plato, it has only been relatively recent since the advent of veganism. 1944 to be exact – when the Vegan Society was established in London by Donald Watson and a small band of associates who believed that animals don’t exist solely for our exploitation.2 It is an answer to an ethical question but it in time incorporated other concerns such as cruelty to animals on factory farms and the environmental damage resulting from those farms. While I could talk about the history of veganism, the focus will largely remain on my personal experiences and understanding of veg*ism.

I believe for most the diet seems too strict, as one may deduce from the fact that the majority of vegetarians are of the lacto-ovo variety which allows eggs and dairy in their diet. This may lead one to wonder where the more confining demands leave vegans when it comes to calcium and particularly protein. This latter issue was something I took very seriously when I adopted the diet, however I fell into some pitfalls as I went along –as I’m sure many do.

Where do you get your protein?

Many advocates will say that there is protein in everything and that protein comes from the plants that animals eat; while both those suppositions are true, they are non-answers to this essential question. The real answer lies largely in soy products and legumes. However this leads to other issues, for instance: what if you don’t like beans? While beans are a good source of fiber, carbs and protein they are –at least for me– boring and they also would leave me gassy. A problem for me as well, was that I never had to cook for myself before which lead me to preparing them improperly.

This was thanks to one tip meant to assuage the problem of gas. Which would be to soak the beans causing the gas producing chemicals to come off, however this meant if you bought canned beans the sauce would be washed away, which to me was a waste. The other answer was to buy them dry in bulk which was also a PITA because you would not only need to soak them but cook them on the stove-top for at least 40 minutes in most cases (depending on the bean). I later bought a pressure-cooker which was the answer to these problems, a 40-60 minute cooking time was reduced by half, or more.

While legumes aren’t absolutely essential to a vegan diet, they are one of the most protein dense sources and they are also one of the best sources for lysine, an essential amino acid.3 They are also pennies per pound compared to other options such as processed soy products.

The Problem With Soy

When it comes to protein digestibility, soy is essentially as good as the eggs of a chicken and has all the essential amino acids, i.e. it is a complete protein. Those who are disparaging of vegan diets and soy consumption tend to point out –at least their belief– that soy or isoflavones within the soy causes feminizing effects on men, but there is no little evidence to support the claim.4 What I find issue with at least in my case is that most soybeans in North America are genetically modified and unless you live in a large city will not be able to find the alternatives (e.g. organic tofu). The other thing I am uncomfortable with is that tofu for example has a lot of fat content in proportion to it’s protein content. Most dietary recommendations suggest not to consume more than 30% of your daily calories in fat, I could be wrong here however.

Calcium & Bone Strength

I love cheese, but I learned to live without it and same thing with dairy chocolate and I found cocoa derived chocolate to be a fine substitute for a once-in-awhile treat. I never worried about calcium intake as greens, i.e. vegetables are a good source of calcium. However that is assuming you eat enough greens in the first place, it is admittingly simpler and easier to down a cup of cow juice. It is also said strength training is one way to look after your bones, it strengthens not just your muscles but increases bone density. The point is, you don’t need to have cow milk to get your calcium or worry about your bone health. Also soy-milk is easily comparable to dairy, but I would recommend not drinking anything besides Silk brand. Every other brand I have ever tested was unpleasant and would not give a good first impression for most folks testing the waters in becoming a vegan.

More Caveats

There are two types of people who adopt this diet: (a) those who didn’t do their homework and (b) those that did. The former are the type to dine on junk food and not worry about things like protein intake, the latter are aware and care about malnutrition and their general health. In becoming vegan there is a learning process when it comes to nutrition, as there rightfully should be. However if one is serious about it they will be much better off for it as they will be more knowledgeable. I think though that those who pretend that it is not a difficult lifestyle are fooling themselves and doing a disservice to others.

With this type of diet a person can waste away because it is easy to miss the mark on getting enough of what you need. Worse than the obvious effects from not getting enough protein are other considerations much more serious, such as B12 intake. It is a compound that is naturally found in meat, but vegans will generally need to take a supplement to ensure adequate intake. Otherwise they risk serious effects such as brain damage, no joke! Of course this is from prolonged neglect but the effect is insidious as it takes time.

My Experiences and Conclusion

The point is that veganism is actually a bit complicated to implement, or at the very least different. It is so much easier just to fall on inertia and eating whatever is on your plate.

I was vegan for a full year and eventually gave it up because –long story short– my resolve eventually weakened. In the process I had lost a lot of weight, and people noticed. Where I was once ranging from 210-220 lbs I at the time found myself sitting at about 170, which is well within a healthy BMI for my height, however I did look different. I felt fantastic too, but perhaps that was a placebo affect, I cannot be sure. Initially I began that lifestyle because I was an idealist, while I didn’t stick with it, I learned a lot and took my health more seriously.

Over the years I have eaten consciously and at other times let myself eat whatever at a whim, I feel some shame in this but many I know are the same way. I don’t have any role models in my life that are super health conscious, but I want to change and try to take it seriously again. Another book that had an impact on me was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer which is an intellectual and moral powerhouse of a read.

I guess the issue for me comes down between one of ethics and one of convenience and desire, as it probably does for most people it tends to fall to the latter. The ethics of food is a topic one of my favorite authors Michael Pollan writes about frequently, and I finally reading his most famous work The Omnivore’s Dilemma which has reawakened my thoughts on the topic. He points out that it is not entirely our fault we eat the way we do, those in the business of selling food engineer their product to make us eat more of it. We only have a limited amount of food we should eat in a day, which is a real problem for those in the business of selling food products, for how are they to grow and expand as a company or industry? It is by hooking us with added sweeteners and fat, because evolutionary-wise we will eat energy dense foods because our instincts tell us to, in order to prepare for possible upcoming famine.

However, what happens when there is no famine, now or in the future? Obesity and diabetes, to be blunt. One core thing I know that I have learned is that the healthiest options for consumption are usually the least palatable and least calorie dense. Though that thought is probably a result of a lifetime of eating sweet over-processed foods –or food-like products, which has conditioned me to not fully accept anything else. I want to regain control over myself though, not just fall into an unhealthy default position of “I’ll eat whatever tastes good or is available.” To know what I do and to fail to act on it would not just be –perhaps– ethically wrong, it would be shameful.

  1. Davis, Brenda. Melina, Vesanto. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet. 2000. pg v
  2. pg. 4
  3. Vegan for Life pg. 18
  4. J.M. Hamilton-Reeves, G. Vazquez, S.J. Duval, W.R. Phipps, M. S. Kurzer, and M.J. Messina, “Clinical Studies Show No Effects of Soy Protein or Isoflavones on Reproductive Hormones in Men: Results of a Meta-analysis,” Fertility and Sterility 94 (2010): 2095-2104.
Lee Kierstead

by Lee Kierstead