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On Being Vegetarian

Today I'm happy to share a guest post from Chris! Since he's a nutrition professor by day I asked him to write about some of the nutritional aspects of our "being vegan" experiment, which we're trying out this week.


We served veggie burgers at our wedding!

Professors are a strange breed. Regardless of discipline, we all are rife with idiosyncrasies and social maladaptation we think can somehow be forgiven because we’re introspective nerd-geniuses. The truth is, although many of us are introspective and nerdy, very few of us are geniuses. I fallinto this camp: I’m just extra-eccentric without the brilliant mind to match.

Part of my eccentricity, however, lies in the fact that I like to experiment with stuff. I study food and health in my day job, and that’s as much fun to learn about academically as it is to play with personally. So, I end up running little dietary experiments in my own life to see what I think and feel.

Good thing is, I don’t try anything too extreme when it comes to our home diet (unlike my bachelor years when I would eat a pound of broccoli a day in the name of science, or down multiple energy drinks just to see how it’d feel). These days, I’m on to something new, and it’s something Kels and I thought would be fun to try: veganism.

Extreme though it may sound, it’s really not; as a speaker we saw last week said, “Do you like PB & J? Then you like vegan food.” Kelsey and I have been qualified vegetarians for a while (‘qualified’ because we eat eggs, fish, and dairy). So we weren’t far off from veganism to begin with. All we really had to do was replace the dairy and stop eating the minimal fish and eggs we were before.

To see what stood between us and veganism we went through the pantry and fridge, and took stock of all non-vegan foods. For us, there were 10 items, such as eggs, milk, yogurt, and Trader Joe’s veggie burgers (contains egg…dang! They are so delicious!), but most were easy to nix or substitute.

This past weekend, we made a vegan plan and began trying it out. Kels already makes amazing bean-, lentil-, or quinoa-based meals, so dinner’s covered. We bought more fruits and greens than normal for the week, and we’re giving some non-dairy milks a try (soy and almond to start). All that coupled with buying a few types of whole-grain breads (one loaf and one pack of tortillas) rounds out our other meals.

There are some definite benefits and detriments to this experiment. Benefits are easy: in two days’ time, our fruit/veggie/fiber intake has skyrocketed without trying too hard (not to mention lessening animal ethics concerns and some impacts on the environment). Detriments come in the form of some nutrients that are hard to get from plant foods alone. Primary among them are vitamins D and B12; zinc, calcium, and iron; and omega-3 fatty acids.

We live in Arizona, so vitamin D is a bit less of an issue. If you live in northern latitudes, it can be more of a problem…especially if you have darker skin. If anyone out there wanted to try veganism, vitamin D is a nutrient I’d recommend supplementing. I’d make the same recommendation for B12. B12 is a vitamin that naturally is found in lots of animal products, but almost not at all in plant foods. Iron and zinc are less difficult to get from plant foods, but still harder than getting from animal products. Same goes for calcium and omega-3s.

Much of this is easily handled though. Kels and I like ready-to-eat cereal, and lots of cereals are fortified with most of these nutrients. The ones we buy have all of the above, even the omega-3s if flaxseed is one of the ingredients. So, I have a pretty straightforward strategy that doesn’t require us thinking too hard: fortified cereals + regular vegan diet + occasional multivitamin, and we should be all good. (Use canola oil in your baking and you’ll up your omega-3s even more.)

One other aspect is key: variety. Everybody needs “complete protein” in their diets. That means, across the day, we need to eat foods that contain all essential amino acids that make up a complete protein. Animal-based foods have a complete set of amino acids, but most plant-based foods don’t (with the exception of soy products and quinoa).

So, if you try to eat a vegan diet, mix in soy and quinoa when possible, and otherwise create meals with combinations of your more protein-y, fibrous foods (for instance, couple legumes with whole grains, have some nuts here and there, and mix up your veggies). Add variety, and you’ll be fine.

Thanks, Chris! If there are any nutrition-related questions about eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, or nutrition questions in general, please ask away in the comments; this guy is a wealth of knowledge.