Monday, July 27, 2009

Misconceptions About Vegan Nutrition Are Common, Even Among Vegans

The other evening I was introducing myself to some new people at a monthly dining event I host for a local vegan group. This particular night, 30 of us dined at a relatively new vegan restaurant called Loving Hut, part of an expanding global chain. Loving Hut has quickly become a favorite location for our group because the place is bright and clean, the food is very good, and of course everything on the menu is vegan.

One of the purposes of the group is to serve as a resource for people who are interested in veganism, but have not yet made the commitment. I think many vegans, including myself, can relate to how establishing a friendship with one or more vegans was instrumental in their decision to go vegan. Whether they simply served as a role model; or were helpful in offering advice about meal planning, grocery shopping, where to find non-leather shoes, the best books, pamphlets, and websites about the topic; having the support of vegan friends was easier than going it alone in a non-vegan world.

It continues to surprise me however, how much misinformation there is about vegan nutrition, even among vegans and vegetarians. When I initially spoke to one of the new group members at our dinner event, the topic of our conversation quickly turned to nutrition, specifically protein. She told me that as a vegan who didn’t consume much soy, she was convinced that she could not possibly be getting enough protein, even though she appeared healthy and suffered no deficiency symptoms. I asked her if she had ever analyzed her diet and actually added up the grams of protein in the different foods she was consuming in the course of a typical day. She responded that she had, and that she fell below the recommended 50 grams for a woman of her size. I then explained how a vegan eating a reasonably varied diet containing sufficient calories to maintain a healthy weight, would almost surely consume more than enough protein.

Thinking about this later on, I suspect she failed to factor in the protein content of some of the foods in her diet that many people don’t consider to be protein sources. Just about all whole foods except for most fruits, have significant amounts of protein, and all of these sources—small and large—contribute to the daily total.

Out of curiosity I added up the protein and calorie contents of some protein-containing vegan foods, and this is what I found:

In this example 63.4 grams of protein has been obtained from foods containing just 1,490 calories. This is less than a full day’s food intake for a woman of her size, yet she would have already consumed plenty of protein without eating much soy. Among the foods on my list, only the pumpkin pie contains soy (in the form of silken tofu).

Recommended daily intakes have a comfortable excess factored in to accommodate individual variations in protein requirements. Individuals engaging in intense strength or endurance exercise have somewhat higher protein needs that in almost all cases are easily met with the additional food consumed to meet their increased caloric requirements. The vast majority of people purchasing protein supplements are wasting their money.

I hope this was helpful in explaining away the most common myth about vegan nutrition. For further information, I recommend this excellent book I read a few years ago: Becoming Vegan—The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet, by Brenda Davis, R.D. and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D.

1 comment:

Tyrvald said...

People are often surprised to learn my herbivorous diet is exceedingly high in protein. I was once a carnivore and I'm used to more protein than most of the people who think we vegans are "missing out" on nutrition or flavor. Devouring plants and mushrooms has increased muscle mass, trimmed away fat, kept my energy up and it all tastes so good that I simply do not miss eating flesh, eggs and milk!