What does a healthy vegan diet look like? Many people don't know what a healthy diet is, let alone a vegan one. I got talking with a neighbor at the grocery store recently. He invited me to join his tai chi classes, and talked about general health benefits. I took a chance and asked him if he knew of any local vegan communities. His response was dismissive. “When I was training at the gym, all the vegans fizzled out quick. A vegan diet doesn't work.”
He went on to admit that the small group (one person, actually) of vegans he had met was back in the 1970s, over 40 years previous. I ventured to mention all the top vegan body builders with videos on YouTube. “With the lack of educational resources on diet before the Internet, the vegan you met probably lived on pasta,” I commented. The neighbor was not impressed enough to inquire more, and proudly announced that he “eats everything.” Needless to say, the man soon excused himself and went on his way.
So, do we really want to know about healthy eating, or are we slowly poisoning ourselves?
According to the National Cancer Institute, Americans do not meet federal dietary recommendations. Sure, opinions vary when it comes to what healthy eating means. But little debate emerges about what is not healthy, and the American population does not seem to care. The following is an excerpt from an NCI study:
The majority of the population did not meet recommendations for all of the nutrient-rich food groups, except total grains and meat and beans. Concomitantly, overconsumption of energy from solid fats, added sugars, and alcoholic beverages (“empty calories”) was ubiquitous. Over 80% of persons age ≥ 71 y and over 90% of all other sex-age groups had intakes of empty calories that exceeded the discretionary calorie allowances. In conclusion, nearly the entire U.S. population consumes a diet that is not on par with recommendations. These findings add another piece to the rather disturbing picture that is emerging of a nation's diet in crisis.
How to know what a healthy vegan diet is
In the hype of vegan diets, do you know what a healthy vegan diet is? You may have the suspicion that vodka and potato chips are vegan but not exactly healthy. But what about the vegan burgers you can buy in the supermarket or the lentil soup?
Once upon a time I happily ate any kind of processed foods. When I chose to become vegan, I continued to look for quick, processed vegan options for meals. A healthy vegan diet does not rely on processed foods and alcohol. This means you buy fresh produce with few exceptions. Let's take a look at fresh produce:
- Fresh vegetables and fruit
- Whole grains and spices
- Legumes and beans (dried, not canned)
- Nuts and seeds
The above items are all fresh produce. Of course, we are subject to seasonal and regional harvests, so including frozen produce as part of a healthy vegan diet is fine. Note that we are not talking about heavily salted, seasoned or sweetened fruits and nuts, like pre-made energy bars. Some basics for your food pantry, ingredients that have a minimal amount of processing, are healthy choices to include, nevertheless. Here are a few good items to keep on hand:
- Soy sauce
- Brown rice vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Coconut aminos
- Sprouted bread
- Nut butter
- Non-dairy milk
Canned vegetables and legumes are quite commonly found just about anywhere. It's a good idea to get into a regular habit of cooking with dried legumes rather than canned, mostly because the salt content and other additives found in canned food. However, canned legumes are still nutrient-rich and worth having in your cabinet.
The bad news is that the burgers and pre-made bean soups are all processed. So are all other kind of vegan/vegetarian meals and fake meat. The good news is that you can easily prepare meals yourself and freeze. How does a lentil-walnut burger with a paprika sauce sound or a meatloaf with glaze?
Not everything we prepare has to look like meals with meat and fish. Usually in the transition period it's nice to have something familiar to eat. Keep in mind that just because something says vegan on the package does not make it necessarily healthful for you. As you become more committed to a vegan lifestyle, you may not want so much meat alike food, which is only trying to trick your brain instead of transforming your thinking. We can cook delicious vegan meals, and it can be just as easy as opening a package of processed fake meat.
If you know nothing about cooking, let alone vegan cuisine, don't fret. It's a lot easier to do than many people think, and infinitely more healthful, no question. We all know that dark, leafy greens are rich in cancer-fighting goodness, for example. But due to the heavy lobbying and marketing of the meat and dairy industries, few Americans are aware that healthier alternatives, such as pulses – seeds of legumes that pull nitrogen from the air to create protein – are an important protein source globally. The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that dry beans and peas are rich in fiber (20% of Daily Value) and a good source of protein (10% of Daily Value). They are also an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin.
In Dr. Michael Gregor's, book, How Not To Die, the author goes into detail about the best foods to include in a healthy vegan diet. Check out Gregor's Daily Dozen in this video below:
At any rate, we all inherently know when we are eating badly. It goes without saying that processed foods are addicting because of added sugars, salt, and saturated fats. If you want to live a long healthy life on a healthy vegan diet, make a concerted effort to cut the processed crap out of your daily food consumption.