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    Why The Media Needs a Vegan 101 Course… Stat!

    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

    1. 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!
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

    Share

    21 Comments

    1. Michelle Thompson said on January 8th, 2012

      Andy,

      You make some valid points in your article. Perhaps those reporting are being cautious or are unfamiliar with vegan diets.
      Since we will be teaching about beans & legumes in our upcoming Chefs Move to Schools nutriton education program, I have a question regarding nutrition information about legumes. What is your source for the 1/2 cup of lentils has 26 grams of protein? My bag of dry lentils, Meijer Naturals, states 1/4 cup dry has 8 grams of protein. So probably 1/2 (1/3?) cup cooked Meijer lentils contains 8 grams of protein. That’s a big difference Andy. Just wondering which is correct.

    2. Chelsey @ Chew With Your Mouth Open said on January 8th, 2012

      Great post! As a new vegan these are all issues that have been frustrating me in the media. On a personal level, several of my co-workers (also RDs) have a pretty opinionated view of my new lifestyle. It is frustrating that more people don’t take the time to really learn about something before they form an opinion on it. If they were to do that, they would learn that a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is outstanding for health and not a taboo concept.

    3. eva @VegucatingMyKid said on January 8th, 2012

      thank you for the best explanation of the Omega 3 i have read to date…plus i clicked on the link that was provided and finally, ‘once and for all’ i understand this!

    4. Andy Bellatti said on January 8th, 2012

      Michelle,

      Thanks for catching that (the original sentence was for 1 cup of lentils; I changed it to 1/2 without changing the amount). The “13 grams” figure comes from the bag of lentils in my pantry, which contains 13 grams per 1/4 cup dry serving.

    5. Andy Bellatti said on January 8th, 2012

      Thank you, Chelsey. Very sad and irritating to learn that other RDs are negatively biased towards veganism, as it’s a clear indication they don’t understand what it’s about. Well, take this opportunity to teach them — I have a feeling their viewpoints aren’t informed ones, but rather based on lack of knowledge.

    6. Andy Bellatti said on January 8th, 2012

      Happy to hear that, Eva! I tried to make that part of the post as easy as possible to follow, and I’m glad it was.

    7. Eric said on January 9th, 2012

      The media also continues the misconception that diary is required to prevent Osteoporosis.

      The diary industry has convinced them of this through their advertising even though “Countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis, such as the United States, England, and Sweden, consume the most milk. China and Japan, where people eat much less protein and dairy food, have low rates of osteoporosis.”
      Nutrition Action Healthletter, June, 1993

      The sad truth is that bone loss is actually accelerated by ingesting too much protein which forces the body to leech calcium from the bones to lower the acid level in the body. It’s not how much calcium you eat. It’s how much calcium you prevent from leaving your bones that matters.

      It is time for the news media to research the medical studies themselves and other sources of information that is readily available before continuing to provide indusrty funded mis-information that disceives the public.

    8. Andy Bellatti said on January 9th, 2012

      Eric,

      Absolutely — I think you’ll be interested in this post I wrote last year (Beyond Milk: There’s Much More to Bone Health than Calcium & Vitamin D): http://smallbites.andybellatti.com/?p=7098

    9. Coach Stevo said on January 9th, 2012

      Hey Andy,
      I have been a longtime reader of your excellent website for some time, but I have to call you out a little on this particular article. I agree that the portrail of vegan diets in the MSM is shallow. But I think it is important to recognize that vegan eating for athletes, especially for a population like bodybuilders, is more of a challenge than other populations. I agree with you that Jose Antonio was overstating the problem, but his sentiments are not unfounded. Let’s take your example of a protein heavy meal for a bodybuilder.
      1/4 cup lentils (dry)
      1 cup quinoa (dry)
      1/3 cup cubed seitan

      Dry, this is 285g. After cooking the lentils and quinoa in water, this might be more than a pound of food that also contains 135.5g of carbohydrates and 25.8g of fiber. This is a lot of baggage (and volume) for the 56g of protein. In order to get 56g of protein with no carbohydrates or fiber, a meat-eating bodybuilder would only need to consume a 180g chicken breast. With conservative bodybuilders shooting for 1g/lb of bodyweight, a vegan bodybuilder is just going to have to consume a lot more food than meat-eating bodybuilder. And when it comes time to lean out for competition, a vegan bodybuilder is not going to have as many food options as a non-vegan because of the necessary pre-contest carbohydrate and water management issues.

      I agree with your point that all healthy eating requires awareness, but let’s not minimize the challenges that vegan athletes face, especially those concerned with extreme levels of body composition.

    10. Andy Bellatti said on January 9th, 2012

      Coach Stevo,

      A proper post-recovery meal for athletes also requires carbohydrates, which is why I felt the example of lentils and quinoa was fitting. Also, to clarify: my example was for 1/4 cup of dry lentils and a 1/2 cup of dry quinoa. That gives a total carb count of 89 grams, not 135.

      But, if it’s a low-carb, pre-contest option you’re after, something as simple as greens with seitan and edamame will do the trick. And, much like omnivorous athletes, vegan ones can also make their own shakes using vegan protein powders and non-dairy milks.

      My main point with that example was to show that statements along the lines of “you have to eat a restaurant’s worth of rice and beans” (which, unfortunately, are often repeated as truth) are a gross exaggeration.

      I think the issue of vegan athletes facing more of a challenge has more to do with the food landscape than the actual food supply. A vegan athlete can’t walk into any smoothie bar and get a post-workout shake that is aligned with their dietary principles. Nor can they go to a run-of-the-mill restaurant and get a brown rice and tofu bowl. And, while many delis and corner stores carry dairy yogurts, soy-based yogurts are definitely not as accessible.

    11. Coach Stevo said on January 9th, 2012

      During most of the year, your assumption of a post-workout meal requiring carbohydrates would be true. I think that the main issue for vegans is the pre-contest cutting phase which requires the barest whisper of carbohydrates. But you are correct that it can be done with manufactured soy products (like seitan) and vegan protein powders (which are delicious, though pricey). This is a more limited diet than meat-eating bodybuilders, but that’s kinda like the pot calling the kettle black: No one is loving life pre-contest.

      Again, I agree with you that Jose Antonio was flat wrong. I am just saying that as people who give nutrition advice, it is in our best interest to stick as close to the truth as possible, especially when lecturing the MSM about failing to do so. Hyperbole does them no favors with the public; understating the issues does us no favors.

      The fact is, being a vegan athlete has challenges, whether in food supply or landscape. But when I talk to my vegan athletes I feel obliged to warn them of the challenges, however slight, in eating a balanced diet without animal products and that includes finding convenient alternatives and financial costs as well.

    12. Mia106 said on January 9th, 2012

      I was a 255 pound, 53 year old woman who loved meat,cheese and all the fast food one could eat. I have been on every diet ever written and lost and gained the weight back. This time my blood sugar, pressure and cholesteral were so high I had to take a month off work. Switched to a vegan diet even though I hated all vegtables and thought grains would make my diabetes climb even higher. After 2 months I cannot believe the change. My blood sugar is in the normal range after 10 years. I have lost 30 pounds and am never hungry eating this way. Blood pressure and cholesterol are normal. The weirdest part for me was I am actually liking the food I swore I hated (ie. kale,greens and grains). I have excluded dairy as well and I have more energy than I did 20 years ago Shocking difference in teh way I feel. I AM A CONVERT. I am also the least likely person who anyone would have thought could do this type of eating. I actually love it.

    13. Andy Bellatti said on January 9th, 2012

      Coach Stevo,

      What you say makes perfect sense. I think any bodybuilding “diet” is difficult (even for omnivores, it requires extreme discipline and can often feel like a chore). Alas, the grounded viewpoint you are sharing is not the one I tend to read/hear in the mainstream media.

      At best, I read or hear things like “It’s impossible to be vegan and be an athlete” (forget bodybuilding, I have heard trainers and ‘fitness experts’ say that a vegan diet is a hindrance to an athlete).

    14. Andy Bellatti said on January 9th, 2012

      Your story is wonderful — and very inspiring. It’s also living proof that a plant-based, whole-food diet that includes whole grains helps stabilize blood sugars. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people blame beans and whole grains for “causing diabetes”.

    15. Elisa Rodriguez, RD, LDN said on January 11th, 2012

      Fantastic article Andy – I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for setting the record straight. I intend to share this article often ;-)

    16. Ginny Messina said on January 11th, 2012

      Thanks for a good post, Andy. Just a couple of comments. Per USDA data, 1/2 cup of lentils has 9 grams of protein and a cup of quinoa has 8 grams. So that’s 17 grams of protein rather than 25–although it’s still a hefty dose of protein!

      And in response to Eric’s comment, it’s not true that high protein diets cause calcium loss. That theory has long since been dismissed, and the thinking now is that protein is good for bones. (There is a good review article that was just published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that looks at the many studies on this issue. It’s really important for vegan nutrition experts to correct this misconception since many vegans believe that they don’t need to worry about calcium because of their lower protein intake.

    17. Andy Bellatti said on January 11th, 2012

      Ginny,

      Thank you for the USDA values; I’ve updated the post to reflect their figures.

      I don’t think anyone is under the impression that protein is intrinsically bad for bones, but rather that *high* intakes of *animal* protein can be harmful from a bone health standpoint. Of course, what is left out of that whole conversation is that relying solely on dairy for bone health is myopic, since other nutrients important for bone health (vitamin K, vitamin C, manganese) are missing from it (but they are found in greens).

      Disappointing to hear that some vegans think “lower protein intake” = “don’t need to worry about calcium”. The way I always explain it is that calcium requirements are the same for everyone; the bigger issue is to realize that as important as calcium and vitamin D are, there are also other nutrients we need to make sure to get enough of for optimal bone health.

    18. Ginny Messina said on January 12th, 2012

      Thanks, Andy. I sure don’t want anyone eating tons of animal protein (or *any* animal protein!) but the idea that it causes calcium losses has been largely dismissed. The bulk of the research shows that the urinary calcium associated with high protein intakes is due to increased calcium absorption, and doesn’t reflect bone losses. I think the 2009 AJCN Darling et al meta-analysis provides some good perspective on this. Jack Norris summarized it here: http://jacknorrisrd.com/?p=722

      Unfortunately, there is a pervasive myth in the vegan community that diets high in animal protein are bad for bones due to the alleged calcium losses. Conversely, the thinking goes that vegans, who don’t eat animal protein, have reduced calcium requirements. And, some of the most popular vegan resources still encourage this idea. It’s a belief that really hasn’t served vegans very well. So I’m glad to know that you encourage adequate calcium consumption.

      And I agree that the focus on calcium alone really misses the boat regarding the many factors that affect bone health.

    19. Ryan Andrews said on January 12th, 2012

      Great blog. Thanks for posting.

    20. Alexandra Caspero said on January 13th, 2012

      Great article, I intend to show it often to fellow RD’s who mis-speak on vegan diets.

    21. Andy Bellatti said on January 13th, 2012

      Thanks, Alexandra. It is quite frustrating that many of our colleagues speak against vegan diets without having a good foundation of what they are about.

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