As a certified instructor of plant-based nutrition and a former national lead healthy cooking and nutrition educator, I am thrilled to research, interview and compile the data for this article. I desire to provide clarity around the vegan/vegetarian controversy, as well as the concerns of healthy available options.
Knowledge is power and the knowledge of food and nutrition is one of the most powerful elements in life. Some may say it’s the key to the true fountain of youth. Others have said, based on economic status, it’s the right of some and not of others.
Recently, I reached out to notable names in the plant-based game to contribute: Stephanie Williams (California Vegan Actress and Foodie), Monica Bumbury (a London-based vegan recipe developer) and Tracye McQuirter, MPH (the woman behind the By Any Greens Necessary phenomena). Collectively, we’ve put together a collection of beneficial information that could serve as a guide for non-vegans, new vegans and everyone in between.
Vegan or Vegetarian? What’s the Difference?
There are a lot of diet-related buzz words flying around, so let’s start by establishing the true definition of each one.
- Vegan: Someone who eats foods that don’t contain animals or any animal bi-products.
- Vegetarian: Someone who eats foods that don’t contain animals, but allow limited animal bi-products.
- Plant-based: Someone who eats foods that come from plants only.
- Whole foods: Foods that are minimally processed or refined and free of additives and other substances.
- Nutrient-dense: Foods that are low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals.
Now that we have that cleared up, where do we go from here? How do you decide which option is best for you? Bumbury believes a plant-based diet is the future. “I believe more and more people will be consuming more plant-based foods as part of their daily lifestyle and diet. People are taking their diets, health and the environment more seriously, so plant-based is here to stay forever.”
McQuirter adds, “Eating a healthy vegan diet can help reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases, like heart disease, stroke, certain cancers and diabetes (which are the leading causes of disability and death in the U.S.) by up to 80% or more.”
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The lines are often blurred between vegan and plant-based and so you must be careful. They’re regularly interchanged, when in fact this is both inaccurate and misleading. Let’s take snacks for example. Vegan micro meals (as I like to call them) can consist of vegan junk foods that can be deep-fried or packaged or at best minimally processed. Those who follow a plant-based, whole foods diet snack on nature’s treats such as fresh fruit, raw nuts and a never-ending variety of salads just to name a few.
Green leafy vegetables play a huge factor in reducing the major health risks previously mentioned. They can also aid in reducing belly bloat, taming toxins in the body, relieving stress and supporting the immune system. “Dark leafy greens are the most nutritious of all plant-based foods. The nutrients in green leafy vegetables (including vitamins A, B, C, E and K, and calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and fiber) can decrease your risk for heart attack, stroke, cancers, and diabetes,” McQuirter says. Other colorful, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables such as garlic, carrots, avocado, ginger, tomatoes, mushrooms, squash, onions, berries, peppers and sweet potatoes play a role in achieving optimal health as well. Eating the rainbow isn’t just a popular saying; it’s a simple rule to follow that could change the trajectory of your life.
Is the Future Now?
Now that we’ve developed a foundation let’s dive a little deeper into the meat versus vegetable debate. More specifically, will the world be mostly vegan or plant-based 20 years from now? Many researchers have predicted that this could very likely be the case, but with the onset of the coronavirus, some think the future is now.
One of the major animal agriculture debates of the decade focuses on man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and its direct collation to climate change. “Eating plant-based foods has the most immediate and effective benefit to the climate, since the factory farming of 9 billion cows, chickens and pigs each year to produce meat and dairy causes more global warming than all of the world’s transportation combined,” McQuirter says.
Then along came the coronavirus. Did COVID-19 alter the course of meat production, causing an impact on the agricultural environment? Many would (and have been) saying yes. In fact, Tyson Food’s (one of America’s largest meat producers) took out a full-page ad in the New York Times back in April stating, “The food supply chain is breaking.” Numerous meat producers have ceased plant operations where workers tested positive for COVID-19. The result of this action has caused beef production to decrease by 25% and pork production to decrease by 15% as reported by the USDA’s weekly report on April 27 of this year.
On the flip side, vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based product sales are on the rise. Most likely you have heard of vegan meat brands such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. They’re the leaders in the industry for producing and seller their wildly popular vegan meat alternatives. It’s even available on the menu at fast food chains Burger King, KFC, Red Robin and Little Caesars. These processed vegan meat options currently hold an estimated global worth of over $12 billion. They’re not the only ones. Many brands are cashing in on the healthy eating frenzy.
If you’re a newbie to the conscious consuming game, there may be some confusion around which products are the best or just better-tasting. It’s no surprise dairy alternatives are a hot topic. No one wants to give up the cheese. Also, no one has time or money for trial and error when it comes to these alternative products. So why not turn to the experts to see how they weighed in with their favored tried and true dairy substitute recommendations. My personal favorite for all things butter is Earth Balance. I even use it when I’m developing cake and pie recipes. Other vegan options I recommend include Veganaise mayo by Follow Your Heart and Trader Joe’s cultured coconut milk. I use it instead of yogurt. “If you're stuck on good cheese alternatives, I recommend brands such as Follow Your Heart, Miyokos and Violife,” says Williams. Bumbury recommends Borna Foods for their incredible pistachio milk drinks and Rude Health’s almond milks.
This is How You Do It
We’ve compared the different non-carnivorous diets, discussed the health benefits of eating more vegetables and addressed the environmental concerns of meat production. So what’s next? How can you select a better diet without drastic changes to your daily routine in life and without breaking the bank? It’s easy after you take the first step.
Step #1. Start slow. Williams suggests starting with one meal. “I never encourage people to dive all in because you can crash and burn and give up on a healthy plan that can really change your life. Some cheap basics are with potatoes, beans, rice, lentils, lettuce, bananas, oats, peas and tofu.” McQuirter adds, “Veganize your current meals, swap out processed, refined grains for whole grains and try green smoothies made with water or plant-based milks.”
Step #2. Let it flow. You don’t have to declare you’re a strict vegan tomorrow and live that way for the rest of your life. Don’t worry about defining it. Just go with it. Experiment, eliminate, journal how your body responds and reacts, then decide what’s right for you. I’m currently a plant-based flexitarian who’s dairy and soy-free.
Step #3. Go for what you know. In other words, read the labels. If you pick up a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes and the only ingredient listed is tomatoes, you know you’re safe. But if you read the label on a processed frozen meal (even those that claim to be healthy) and it has 1,200 mg of sodium per serving, you know that’s not the right choice.
Other options I recommend include:
- A variety of colors in fresh produce
- Shop the outer perimeter of the grocery store; the processed stuff is in the aisles.
- Follow the Dirty Dozen / Clean Fifteen rules
- Avoid sugary drinks such as sodas and juices and drink mostly water or water-based beverages like herbal tea
- Take quality vitamins and supplements
- Eliminate white processed foods such as sugar, rice and bread
- Only eat clean, organic meat
- Reduce sodium intake; replace the salt with herbs, citrus and spices
- Buy non-GMO and BPA-free
- Get what’s on sale and supplement it with what’s in the bulk section
Following these recommendations is an excellent start to improving your overall health. They’ll also put shopping at so-called high-priced grocery stores within a budget’s grasp.
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Look to the Future
No one knows what the outcome of the coronavirus will have on meat production, but we do know the end result of choosing a healthier lifestyle. “I think it’s great that more people are considering a vegan diet and purchasing more vegan options. Vegans have been saying for years that animal agriculture is not sustainable and it takes an incredible amount of resources to maintain that system. I hope that as the prices for meat continue to decrease that people will finally realize that you don't need to eat meat every day to live a healthy, happy life, ” says Williams.
Adding to that, McQuirter says, “Eliminating or reducing meat is best for the health of people, animals and the planet. My hope is that people seeking out more plant-based foods during these times will only continue and expand.”
For more tips on who to transition into a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet, visit McQuirter at www.byanygreensnecessary.com and Instagram and Twitter, Williams at www.veganwhat.org and on Instagram and Bumburry on Instagram and Facebook.