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    Going Meatless, the Healthful Way

    vegan-cook-book-2The exclusion of meat from one’s diet — whether completely or once a week, as encouraged by the Meatless Monday movement —  has quickly gained followers over the past few years.

    For those of you considering “the switch” (or, at least, “the step down”), here are some tips to hep keep nutrition at the forefront:

    1) While convenient vegetarian/vegan foods like soy burgers, soy “chicken nuggets”, and soy cold cuts can help newbies add variety to a meat-free lifestyle, most of them are highly processed (AKA low on nutrients, high in sodium).  Consider these transitional foods, rather than staples.  Make it a goal to eventually phase out these foods as situational ones (ie: mainly eaten only at barbeques or at your favorite vegan restaurant with friends).  Too often, I see “newbie vegetarians/vegans” eating diets high in processed ingredients.

    2) Soy is but one source of high-quality protein.  Soy burgers, soy nuggets, soy “chicken breasts”, and soy ribs definitely impart protein into the diet, but the focus of all diets (vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore) should be vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants.  One has to make a very concerted effort to not meet protein needs (yet, it’s probably the nutrient Americans are most hyper-aware of).  Nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains, and vegetables are all sources of protein, too, and offer significantly superior nutrition.

    When consuming soy, look for minimally processed forms.  Prioritize tempeh and natto (their fermentation yields more bioavailable nutrients) and edamame (as a ‘baby’ soybean, it offers lower amounts of antinutrients found in full-grown soybeans).  When it comes to soy milk, keep in mind that flavored varieties contain a substantial amount of added sugar (‘plain’ varieties offer the equivalent of one and a half packs of sugar per cup!).

    3) The fact that ice cream, hot dogs, and burritos the size of your head are vegan does not make them healthier.  A lot of these products are still high in added sugars and sodium.  Regardless of the type of diet you eat, the bulk should consist of whole foods. Too often, I see veganism touted as a cure-all for a variety of ailments.  While it is true that vegan diets are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, they can also be high in sodium, added sugars, and omega-6 oils depending on what foods are selected.

    Before I wrap up, I want to address one commonly-held viewpoint about vegetarian/vegan diets that drives me up a wall: the advice that “they need to be carefully planned.”

    You’ll often see this mentioned (often by Registered Dietitians, no less!) in articles that question if a vegan diet can be healthful and meet dietary needs.  The conclusion is always “of course, but they need to be carefully planned.”  To which I then ask, what diet doesn’t?

    The additional planning makes sense within the context of eating out in certain parts of the country (where, at some restaurants, you’re relegated to a handful of side dishes), but the average vegan eating meals at home can find plenty of foods in a local supermarket.  While there may be a learning curve at the beginning, after a few months of meatless eating, it becomes second nature to most.

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