Not everyone has the same reason for following a vegan lifestyle. For some it is political, for some it is religious, for others it is for health. I am not here to debate ethics or defend any moral codes. I simply believe a natural, plant based, whole food, nutrient dense diet can be the simple answer many have been looking for. Is there more than one way to “lose weight and feel great”? Undoubtedly. So why vegan? Let’s talk basic nutrition.
Eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Our bodies require macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) for survival and health. Many diets try to put excessive limits or complete exclusions on one macronutrient or another. No macronutrient should be excluded from a healthy diet. They are called “macro”nutrients for a reason. They are ALL important. Proteins are responsible for building, repairing, and maintaining body tissue. Enzymes and hormones, which directly affect the body’s vital functions, are also built from proteins. Fats serve to protect body organs and maintain cell membranes. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and are used by every system in our body. Some systems use them almost exclusively (e.g., the Central Nervous System…that includes the brain…so carbs are kinda important…).
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. Every food has a unique micronutrient composition. By design, whole plant foods come prepackaged with vitamins, minerals, and enzymes in balanced and synergistic proportions to enable the body to use those vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. For example, we all know that too much sugar is bad for us. But did you know that the naturally occurring sugars in fruits are accompanied by naturally occurring chromium that assists the body with metabolizing those sugars? This, in part, is why you can eat an apple or a banana and not feel a sugar high like you do when drinking a soda. Eating a wide variety of foods ensures that a wide range of micronutrients is consumed. Fruits and vegetables vary in color because they vary in nutrients, particularly antioxidants. Eating Well has a good article, titled Eating Well by Color, that gives a simple summary of the variety of antioxidants available from different colored fruits and vegetables.
In addition to macro- and micro-nutrients, to maintain a healthy weight, we must be somewhat cognizant of our caloric intake. Calculating calories in and calories burned can be difficult, is very time consuming, and often leads to obsession, frustration, or giving up. Still, calories do count. If my body uses 2000 calories each day to perform all of its vital functions and I consume 3000 calories each day on a regular basis, those extra calories are going to turn into extra pounds. Unavoidable mathematical reality. What is not so cut and dry is how many calories any given person “needs” based on their metabolism and activity level.
The good news? Caloric intake and the balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates don’t need to be micromanaged if eating a variety of plant-based foods. One of the advantages of a whole food plant based diet is that you naturally lower your caloric intake and change the balance and quality of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that you consume with little thought or effort. Plant foods offer nutrient-dense calories (i.e., loads of micro-nutrients in low-calorie, high fiber form). All but one of the micro-nutrients vital for life can be obtained from at least one plant source, often from many different plant sources, and many of them exclusively from plant sources. The exception that is often touted as being exclusively obtained by eating animal products or through supplementation is B-12. B-12 is actually produced by a certain strain of bacteria in the digestive system (that’s why animal products are a source of B-12 – it is produced by bacteria in their digestive system). Given a healthy bacterial balance and a properly functioning digestive system, B-12 can be produced and absorbed within the human body. It doesn’t need to be consumed like other nutrients. However, because our bacterial balance and digestive systems are not always in prime condition, B-12 production, and therefore absorption can easily be below par. Hindered absorption is the reason why B-12 deficiency is not just a problem for vegans. It is a very dangerous and very overlooked deficiency that affects vegans and non-vegans alike. To learn more…read this post on the silent B-12 epidemic.
So what about meat and dairy? Don’t they have important nutrients too? Like protein and calcium? Yup. They sure do. But that protein and calcium comes with some undesirable hitchhikers: cholesterol and toxin-laden fat. Meat and dairy are high calorie, high fat, low micro-nutrient food choices. Since I live where I have access to many alternatives without the cholesterol and undesirable fat and with a colorful array of micro-nutrients and antioxidants, I don’t need to eat meat and dairy to get protein and calcium – I can get healthier versions of both from plant foods. If you haven’t watched it yet, Forks Over Knives is a great documentary on the health hazards of consuming animal products (heart disease and cancer to name a few).
One last thing – there is a big difference between a vegan diet that eliminates animal products but ignores nutrition and a vegan diet that focuses on healthy variety. Filling up on french fries and cookies just because they are free of animal products will hardly lead to optimal health. The idea is to eat a wide variety of whole, unprocessed plant foods. So look around the site and start learning about the value of plant foods and how to use them to nourish, protect, and heal your body. Eating your veggies doesn’t have to mean steamed broccoli and carrot sticks for every meal. Learn how to make plant food irresistibly delicious!