One of the first questions that vegans face from omnivores is “where do you get your protein?”. New vegans will sometimes worry if their diet is adequate. “Old” vegans sometimes need a source for vegan nutritional information.
Jack Norris and Virginia Messina wrote Vegan For Life to address the needs of new vegans as well as to offer assistance to long-time vegans who want more detailed nutritional information about their diet.
In their words,
“Going vegan is easy and fun. But without a doubt, there is a little bit of a learning curve. That’s why we wrote this book – to provide both newcomers and more seasoned vegans with solid information that will keep your diet healthy and practical.”
Did they succeed? Largely, yes. But as they themselves continually point out: not enough is known. What we know about nutritional needs, for anybody, is limited. Many of the U.S. Government’s recommended daily allowances are based on best guesses, not on certain science. This isn’t because researchers have been lazy, but because the subject is complex and nutritional needs vary by age, sex, activity level, and so many other factors. For example, some foods are rich sources of iron but our bodies may not absorb the iron well because of its form; or we may need assistance from other nutrients (like vitamin C) to help absorb it. It is not possible to offer absolutes in this field.
WIth a few exceptions, and with the above caveat in mind, then, this book fulfills this promise: it can help all vegans feel more comfortable with the way they are eating and can answer a number of questions any of us may have.
First, what you’ll find here. In the first chapters the authors take us through what is known about several significant nutrients: protein, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, fats, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin A. In each section the nutrient is described and its benefits noted, then recommendations made. The following chapters introduce foods commonly eaten by vegans, tips on going vegan, then specialized information for certain groups: children, people over 50, pregnant and breastfeeding women. Then we embark on chapters on the advantages of vegan over omni diets, a special chapter on vegan athletes and one on whether soy is safe. The final chapter focuses on the abuses in the animal farming industry and the arguments often made against veganism – something of a factory farming animal rights primer.
I found it interesting to read about how our bodies use certain nutrients. Much of the information about different vitamins and minerals was more detailed than I usually find, and the writing is good enough to have kept me reading. Prior to reading this book I was on the fence when it came to B12. I admit that I do now see the sense in simply taking a B12 supplement (vegan, of course). I also intend to make more of an effort to increase usable iron intake.
There were a few areas that I found oddly out of synch with the more scientific portions of the book:
In the introduction is a section headed “Top Ten Myths about Vegan Diets“. You might expect such myths as “vegans don’t get enough protein” or “vegan diets make you weak” to be on this list. We do find “Eating soy gives men female characteristics“, which is a favorite of some strange right-wing talk show hosts, but hardly a “top ten”, in my estimation. Instead of the ten you are I might expect, though, we get these myths:
- Vegans need less calcium than omnivores
- People don’t need to start taking vitamin B12 supplements until they have been vegan for three years.
- Vegans need to consume only 5 to 6% of their calories as protein.
These particular three are “myths” that some long-time vegans believe. They hardly qualify as “top ten myths” in my book. And I was not convinced, from reading this book, that they are in fact myths. Mostly, they are not established truths as yet (the jury is still out). Most of the other “myths” are equally mystifying, as I doubt there are many vegans or wannabe vegans who have ever even heard them.
The next area of the book that I found a little odd was the discussion of low-fat diets. In the myths section as well as in its own section, the authors contend that there are no benefits to eating a very-low-fat diet. As I personally have had great success and great energy increases from cutting back on added fat (to no more than 10% of total calories), and as I know several prominent doctors have helped literally thousands of patients with such diets, I was curious about the science behind this assertion.
Turns out there isn’t any. The reason given is is that it’s hard, that some people find it difficult to stay on a very-low-fat diet. Well, sure, some people do. Many people do not. And those who manage to stay on it have turned the tables on modern medicine by reversing heart disease, diabetes, and several other common health conditions. Nowhere in this book did I see mention of any of the work by pioneers like John McDougall, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., Neal Barnard, M. D. (although Messina works for the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is headed by Barnard, and the group advocates very low-fat diets), Esselstyn, and others, all of whom have tracked hundreds of patients and shown, without much doubt, the value of this way of eating. I am admitting here to a prejudice in favor of the low-fat diet; I suspect a prejudice against it in the authors.
I was also a little put off by the insistence on pushing the protein. We learn that there is one study that suggests that people are not getting enough protein – I have no idea how that conclusion was reached, because the study itself was not discussed here. Based on this study (and it may well be a good one; I have not read it), the authors offer ways to increase the protein in our diets. There is no discussion of the dangers of eating too much protein. As I understand what I have read over the years, too much protein may be responsible for reduced absorption of minerals, leading, among other things, to greater incidents of osteoporosis. Studies have shown that vegans have lower rates of osteoporosis than omnivores, and the connection is usually the amount and type of protein consumed. It may be that vegans can eat more protein than non-vegans because the source is healthier – perhaps only animal proteins have negative effects? I am not sure. I mention this because I came away from reading that chapter a little confused.
Finally, a word about the order of the chapters. At the very end we have the “why vegan?” – a brief story of factory farming. I was a little confused by this entry and wish the authors would explain this placement. It seems that a discussion of “why vegan” belongs right up front, but perhaps the reasoning is that people who pick up the book are looking for advice on nutrition, for any number of reasons, and therefore the animal rights discussion is left to the end, after the reader has already been convinced that a well-planned vegan diet is healthier than a well-planned omnivore’s diet. Many people move into veganism for health reasons and only later learn about the factory farming side (I am one of those myself). By leaving this chapter to the end the authors have perhaps kept the health-minded vegans reading all the way through.
Overall, I believe this is a good resource, with the exception of the discussion on fat and the odd list of myths, and what seemed an incomplete discussion of protein. The chapters on the major nutrients are worth reading and thinking about. The lists of additional resources and information at the end should be valuable for most vegans. The book may even be helpful at times in convincing non-vegan family members that the vegan in their midst is going to be all right.
Editor’s note: Vegan Soapbox received a complementary copy of Vegan For Life.