Vegan myth busting reveals consumption tips and dangerous green mirages
Part-time vegans improve their health and lower their carbon footprint, but vegan meals can still be just as misleading as conventional recipes for disaster.
Monday, August 23, 2010 - 20:58
SOYBEAN STRETCH: U.S. soybean fields steal acres from more edible plants. (Photo: La Banane Juane/Flickr)
I ate vegan meals for a week, hoping to show that recipes without animal products can add creativity, nutrition and responsibility to one's diet. My hunch was right, and I now eat vegan meals once or twice daily. Still, I couldn't help noticing the vegan diet isn't as inherently green and pristine as most advocates believe. In fact, vegans face just as many mystifying, often dangerous marketing claims as conventional eaters.
By consuming certain plants excessively, vegans inflict environmental and bodily damage comparable to conventional eaters. I dodged most of these traps during my week of vegan meals — except for soy. I knew soy monocultures were an unfortunate product of the farm bill, but until recent research, I hadn't grasped just how severely soy and other replacement proteins threaten human health.
Dicey imitation proteins
"So, where on earth do you people get your protein?!" your baffled parents may ask of vegans. Many omnivores wonder how vegans could possibly be healthy without cheese omelets and large slabs of meat on their plates every day. This mindset isn't fully their fault, especially if they're baby boomer omnivores.
Special interest groups and lobbyists of the meat industry coerced Congress relentlessly throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In result, as Marion Nestle famously emphasized in Food Politics, USDA food pyramid recommendations for meat climbed from 4-6 ounces daily in 1958 to a whopping 5-9 ounces and 2-3 servings in 2000. A meal was not a meal without meat, and a big piece of meat at that. This cultural dependence on excessive meat spurred anxiety over protein deficiency and in turn spawned the imitation protein market for vegetarians.
In comes processed soy. The government subsidizes soy production so that these cheap, dangerous little beans cloak an ample portion of the American great plains. Soy is used for factory farm animal feed and for making filler ingredients in virtually all processed foods. Chemically-protected soy monocultures not only wreak havoc on farmland, biodiversity and watersheds, but they take room away from plants that should actually be eaten by humans.
Soy has phytoestrogens, or plant-based estrogens. Overdoses of estrogen in the body can lead to breast cancer, endometriosis and infertility among many other complications. As Food Renegade reports, each time a baby drinks soy formula instead of milk, it consumes the hormone equivalent of four birth control pills. Soy is especially high in phytates, which block mineral absorption. It also contains trypsin inhibitors, which rid of trypsin needed to digest protein. This causes stomach cramps, digestive issues and pancreas trouble.
Soy is one of the most goitrogenic foods, as well, meaning it creates thyroid problems. The list goes on and on, as do the endless acres of soy fields sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Dedicated or duped?
Just because a package boasts it is "green" or "vegan" doesn't mean that that food helps the environment; be wary of eco-labels that are used as moneymakers. Vegans quite often rely on soy beans, soy milk, soy burgers and imitation ingredients made of soy for a variety of vegan processed foods. In doing so, these responsible consumers are eating harmful agricultural waste products that defy the very principles they stand against.
Soy products aren't the only clandestine items lurking in the vegan marketplace. Mysterious imitation beef, chicken, butter, sour cream and the like can all potentially contain highly processed or questionable ingredients. Mainly, people who eat vegan meals in reverence for the environment shouldn't do so by eating packaged, overly processed concoctions filled with replacement ingredients. It's best to respect the environment without defying nature.
Vitality and disease prevention
The nutritional benefits of a plant-rich diet are irrefutable. Meals high in minerals and vitamins (naturally occurring ones — not the ones infused in breakfast bars) likely prevent numerous cancers, heart conditions and other diseases. High intake of potassium and magnesium are especially helpful to absorption of nutrients and bringing down high blood pressure.
Excessive meat eating — especially red meat — raises your risk for cardiovascular problems and high cholesterol. Conventional meat also exposes you to hormones and antibiotics, which are found in most restaurant, deli or grocery meats. The USDA is finally shifting its guidelines in the right direction by advising six ounces of protein per person per day, and suggesting people vary their protein choices using "fish, peas, beans, nuts and seeds."
Studies also show 75 percent of the world may be lactose intolerant, but again, dairy lobbyists and special interest groups spent many years convincing the USDA to push three glasses of milk a day. This recommendation still stands. By insisting hormones and antibiotics are part of a complete breakfast, the dairy industry caused many people's milk allergies and sensitivities to go untreated. In such cases, excessive milk drinking causes a considerable range of digestive problems.
Lowering your meat intake drastically reduces your carbon footprint. The nation's livestock population consumes more than seven times the amount of grain that the nation's citizens consume. Just imagine how many U.S. monocultures are dedicated to feeding animals and meeting our demand for meat.
Studies suggest if we keep eating meat at the same rate and the population keeps growing at the same rate (9 billion by 2050), the earth will literally be incapable of sustaining enough livestock to feed the developed world and growing middle classes — regardless of conventional or organic production methods.
So, how do you get your protein?
It's smart to go organic when you eat meat, but keep in mind that it's not healthy for the earth or your body to eat meat as your only form of protein all day. Nuts and legumes can provide all the protein needed in a meal. A cup of beans, for example, has as much protein as 6 ounces of steak. You can also try milk replacements like almond or cashew milk for protein. Yes, they're replacements, but these milks are considered relatively beneficial to your health (unlike soy milk).
Matching your body's needs
Different bodies require different diets. Some people are allergic to nuts. Some are allergic to gluten. Some are smaller and need foods like whole milk, quality meats, and plants high in unsaturated fats more often than others. Yet regardless of your body type, keep in mind that eating meat and dairy at every meal is not helpful in any respect. Organic meat and organic milk are much healthier options than conventional animal products, but not in the amounts special interest groups beg you to consume.
As you find your personal diet balance, try out some new vegan recipes; it's a way to diversify your diet, increase your vitality, and pay your respects to the environment.