With vegan eating increasingly becoming more mainstream, I thought it was time to compile a list of recent articles to see how the media frames and discusses the issue. Despite some improvements, there is certainly room for more.
Below, what the media continues to get wrong — and how it can avoid making the same mistakes.
The Protein “Problem”
Tell the average person you’re avoiding all animal products and “the question” inevitably arises: “How do you get enough protein?” It doesn’t help that, in our vernacular, protein is mostly equated with meat (as I have mentioned before, almost every food — yes, even vegetables! — contains protein).
While recent articles mention that protein should not be a nutrient of concern for vegans (woo hoo!), this is strangely stated with certain degree of skepticism.
An US News & World Report piece titled The Mainstreaming of Vegan Diets cites one Registered Dietitian who correctly says protein is not a concern as long as vegans eat a variety of plant-based foods (which is otherwise known as “normal eating”).
Her words, however, are prefaced by that of another dietitian who explains that “plants are not the best sources [of protein] because their proteins do not break down into the full range of amino acids that the human body requires for healthy functioning”.
Why is that last quote even included in the article? While it may make for a neat bit of trivia, it is irrelevant in day-to-day life, where vegans eat from more than one food group. The fact that plant-based foods lack the full range of amino acids is only problematic in extreme scenarios (i.e.: eating nothing but wheat or potatoes for months).
A recent New York Times article on vegans in bodybuilding states the following:
“Vegan bodybuilders may face challenges getting sufficient amino acids found in meats, Jose Antonio, chief executive of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, said, adding that although protein can be found in vegetables and nuts, they must be consumed in greater quantities to get the same amount as their counterparts in meat. “The amount of rice and beans you need to eat would fill up a Mexican restaurant,” he said.”
The notion that one has to eat extreme amounts of plant-based foods to get enough protein — even for a bodybuilder — is a gross exaggeration. A half cup of lentils contains anywhere from 9 to 13 grams of protein. Add a cup of quinoa to that and you have 8 to 10 grams. That’s approximately 20 grams in a mere cup and a half of food (as any bodybuilder will tell you, a cup and a half of food is minimal). Top that off with just a third of a cup of cubed seitan and you’ve got another 21 grams.
Omega 3s: A Lot to Learn
The more recent concerns in mainstream articles on vegan eating focus on omega 3s. From the US News piece:
Omega-3 fatty acids probably represent the greatest nutritional challenge for vegans, the two nutritionists said. Thought to be critical for cognitive function and healthy cardiovascular function, omega-3s appear in large amounts only in fatty fish such as salmon — a dietary no-no for vegans.
To begin with, the wording of this paragraph is incorrect. It’s not all omega-3s that are a “challenge”, just the two found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements: DHA and EPA.
The third omega 3 fatty acid — ALA — is abundant in nuts and seeds. While the body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, the conversion is not very efficient.
But, wait. That does not mean vegans are screwed. See, fish are really the middlemen of DHA and EPA, which are found in aquatic flora. Sea vegetables offer EPA, while microalgae provide DHA. Sea vegetables and microalgae also offer a nice array of vitamins and minerals, so eat more of them!
Although most vegan omega-3 supplements only offer DHA, our bodies can convert some of it into EPA. Here, by the way, is a vegan omega-3 supplement that offers DHA and EPA.
Planning Isn’t Exclusive to Vegans
Here’s one statement that keeps making the rounds:
“Properly planned vegan diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of many diseases.”
It’s the “properly planned” part that bothers me. Why not simply say that “vegan diets can be healthy, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits”? Planning, after all, is something everyone — regardless of their dietary habits — has to do if the goal is to eat healthfully.
There’s More To it Than Seeds and Nuts
Another quote from that US News Piece:
“It is absolutely possible to get enough protein from beans, lentils, tofu, soy products and other plant sources like seeds and nuts.”
This only perpetuates the idea that the only vegan sources of protein are “meat substitutes” like beans, nuts, and seeds. And, PS, how about reconceptualizing and not having meat be the golden standard? After all, these “substitutes” offer many nutrients not found in meat that the average American does not eat enough of, like fiber and magnesium.
What is missing from the quote above is that whole grains and vegetables also offer protein. A cup of cooked oatmeal offers as much protein as an egg. Two slices of whole grain bread add up to 6 or 8 grams of protein, and a medium potato provides 6 grams.
My Advice to the Media
- Re-frame your articles. Enough with the “veganism is trendy/restrictive/difficult/challenging” themes. How about articles which demonstrate why eating vegan — or in a more vegan manner — is simpler, easier, and more affordable than people think? Point out how many common foods (hummus, guacamole, pasta, peanut butter sandwiches, lentil soup, etc.) already are vegan!
- Talk to the right experts. In the same way that some nutritionists and dietitians specialize in sports nutrition or maternal nutrition, there are many of us who focus on plant-based nutrition. Simply being a nutritionist or dietitian doesn’t mean one is well-versed in vegetarian or vegan eating. Contrary to what some people think, most vegan advocates aren’t interested in telling everyone how they are eating wrong or condemning them to a life of disease unless they go 100 percent vegan. Rather, we like to make the concept of vegan eating less intimidating, showcase the wide variety of foods and meals available, and challenge erroneous mainstream nutritional assumptions.
- Help make it appealing. Don’t mention the “low-fat benefits” of going vegan. Not only are low-fat diets relics from the ’90s, they miss out on the healthful fats that vegans enjoy (nuts and seeds aside, it also includes coconut, cacao, and avocados). The fact that Bill Clinton has taken up a low-fat, vegan way of eating doesn’t mean it’s the only vegan dietary pattern out there. One more thing: if you showcase a vegan individual, don’t start your story by describing their lunch of steamed greens and bulgur.
Veganism may not be for everyone, but everyone deserves accurate information to help them make that decision.