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The Vegan Experience, Days 7, 8, and 9: A Bit of Nutrition

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Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Days 7, 8, and 9: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday

Breakfasts: Lots more beans on toast, avocado, grapefruit, and oatmeal.
Lunch: Coconut Lentil Soup, Smoky potato and kale soup.
Dinner: Braised greens and chickpea sandwich on pizza bianca. Fried eggplant with tomato sauce and eggplant mayo. Tofu with steamed bok choy and spicy sesame sauce.

To be completely honest, nutrition isn't a subject that particularly interests me. I have nothing against the field and I follow it casually. It does bother me how quickly the newest nutritional finds get immediately snatched up by the media, misrepresented or misinterpreted, and regurgitated back out in ways that are certainly not helpful, and oftentimes quite harmful to the general public, but that's just the way the nutritional cookie crumbles.

Nutrition is a complicated and politically-charged field that I prefer to steer clear of in my writing, focusing on what's delicious instead. I'm of the philosophy that in general, as long as you eat everything in moderation and focus mainly on vegetables, you'll probably be pretty healthy, regardless of whether you abstain 100% from white foods or animal fats or cookies (and I think most nutritionists would agree).

That said, since starting my veganism, I've been asked by several people about a few nutritional aspects of the diet and how I deal with them. I'd like to clear those all up now so we can get back to focusing on the food. Here's what I've done so far:

Vitamins are an issue for vegans, particularly those that come from primarily animal-derived sources. B12 is the biggie, essential for proper function of the brain and nervous system. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are linked to fatigue and depression on the light end, and mania and psychosis on the heavier side. It's not something you want to go without.

Though it's often thought that only animal-based food contains B12, that's actually not the case. It occurs in small amounts in some plant-based diets. The vitamin itself is not made by animals, rather by a bacterium. Man-made synthesized vegan B12 is made with the use of this bacterium.

Some healthy vegans seem to manage just fine with the amount of B12 they take in through plant-based sources (plants can become contaminated with B12-producing bacteria if they touch dirt) along with the small amounts of B12 synthesized by bacteria living in their own bodies. Personally, I'd rather be safe than sorry, so I've been taking a B12 supplement (some evidence here to support supplement use).

Which brings us to another issue: not all vitamin supplements are vegan-friendly. The most common offense is the use of animal-derived gelatin in their formula. One popular brand of vitamin supplement based off of a famous cartoon character is made with gelatin (confession: I was taking them until now and only just realized that I'm going to have to switch to a more vegan-friendly version).

Calcium is another tough one for vegans. As someone who used to drink about two glasses of milk a day, I got the majority of my recommended 1,000mg/day in liquid form (each glass of milk contains about 300mg). Vegans have to take a little more care when planning their diet. The best natural sources for vegan calcium are from dark leafy green vegetables. Fortunately, kale and collards are some of my favorite things in the world.

A cup of cooked collard greens has more calcium in it than a full cup of milk. A quarter pound of tofu processed with calcium sulfate (that's the non-silken kind of tofu) has just as much. I eat plenty of tofu and greens, so calcium hasn't been much of a concern to me.

Iron deficiencies can lead to anemia, and you'd think that without red meat, vegans would be more prone to iron deficiencies than your average meat eater, but there's no data to actually support that assumption. Turns out that those dark greens I've been eating for calcium (and for flavor!)? They're packed with iron as well.

Vegans do need to consume more iron in their diet than a typical meat eater because the iron consumed through plant matter is not as bio-available as that consumed through meat (read: your body can't use it as easily). There are ways to make up for this. For instance, this study shows that the addition of acid can increase the absorption of iron threefold. Once again it serendipitously turns out that the same things that make food delicious (acid) also make it healthier. Joy!

Protein seems to be something everybody cares about, to near obsessive levels. Indeed, until I did a bit of research, I was under the impression that a super high-protein diet is the road to great health. Turns out it's not so black and white. According to this insanely well-referenced report from the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, our daily protein intake should fall at about 10% of our caloric intake. The government Recommended Daily Allowance is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For my 171.8 pounds, that comes to about 62 grams or just over 2 ounces. That's not an awful lot. (For point of reference, a meat-eater gets closer to 18% of their caloric intake in the form of protein).

I took a quick look at what I ate on Sunday, a pretty average day for me these days.

Here's what I got: A couple slices of whole wheat bread along with some mashed pinto beans for breakfast gets me 17 grams of protein. A braised kale and chickpea sandwich along with a cup of lentil soup for lunch nets me another 39. Finally, tofu with steamed bok choy for dinner tacks on another 22 grams for a grand total of 78. Not bad for someone abstaining from hamburgers and steaks.

The only other major dietary issue that vegans face that I've yet to consider in my own diet is Omega-3 Fatty Acids. You've probably heard about them in the last few years. They're the "good" type of fat that comes primarily from fish-based sources. Unfortunately, that means they're very difficult for vegans to find. Omega-3 fortified orange juice? Sorry, that's made from fish, as are many supplements.

Flaxseed oil or flaxseeds themselves are the food of choice for Omega-3 conscious vegans. I'm not a huge fan and I've yet to do enough research to convince me either way that my Omega-3 levels are going to affect my overall health, but when it comes down to it, I may indeed need to add some flax to my diet.

Man, this whole exercise can get a bit depressing. When I think and write about my food like this, it's not coming from a place of joy or pleasure, it's coming from an analytical "food is fuel" view, and it's precisely for this reason that I believe veganism or vegetarianism can be so off-putting to omnivorous eaters. Where's the joy in your food if you constantly have to analyze every bite that goes into your mouth?

Well, there's good news: you don't have to do that. So long as you've got a loose grasp of the types of foods that you should gravitate towards and keep your pantry stocked with those, there's no need to be an absolute prescriptivist. As an omnivore, I wouldn't consider it sacrificing my health to eat the occasional croissant or doughnut. The occasional bowl of white rice or mashed potatoes sure ain't going to harm me as a vegan.

What I've quickly discovered as a vegan is that certain foods are friends. Beans are your friends. Dark leafy greens are your friends. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are also your friends. Tofu's even your friend. Luckily, my friends all happen to be delicious. Be kind to your friends and they will be kind back to you.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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