University is a time for proving your parents wrong, resounding lifestyle changes, pretension and, if you believe everything you see on popular television, talking philosophy at parties. It's hard to balance all of those at times, especially with profs doling out readings like theirs is the only class and teaching assistants marking assignments as if with a personal grudge.
Luckily, we here at the Gauntlet found a way to satisfy all four of these lofty university ideals at once. When done right, it doesn't even change your day-to-day homework grind. That's right, we're talking about the ethically distinguished, functionally dubious vegan lifestyle, which many students at some time in their academic career may be wont to try.
Not only have we rediscovered this nifty lifestyle choice, we've embedded reporter Ben Hoffman to get a perspective on it for those who would decide to practice it. Over the next month, he shall endeavor to report on all things vegan.
"Why am I doing this? God, this is going to be so expensive and will probably kill me, I can't handle it."
This mantra repeats through my head as I shovel bell peppers, carrots and romaine lettuce into my shopping basket, contemplating a life with only garden salad to console me. My mind flips back to a couple of days earlier on the phone.
"I think people may want to be a vegan for many reasons," Melanie Faust, University of Calgary Health Services' part-time dietitian tells me. "Many people may think that it's one of the healthiest diets out there, because basically they're avoiding all animal products and so by doing that they're avoiding a lot of unhealthy fats that come along with a high intake of animal products. Saturated fats and stuff like that would be a lot lower when you're following a vegan diet. Other people might follow it for different reasons [like] ethical reasons or environmental reasons. Some people might find it's a lot cheaper to follow a vegan diet, because generally animal products are a lot more expensive. Then there are those people that have religious reasons."
It's true, there are a plethora of reasons to go vegan. Wait a sec, though, one of the healthier diets out there? Different, maybe, but healthier?
"Is it actually healthier?" I shoot back skeptically.
"It can be," Faust replies. "It depends on whether someone goes about being vegan with a good amount of information backing them up before they get started so that they know how to make sure that they're getting all the right nutrients. If they know what they're doing, it's very healthy."
"But a meat diet can be healthy too, right? I mean, not strictly a meat diet..."
"Yeah, not just a meat diet, no, but incorporating animal products can be healthy too."
"So veganism is really no better or worse than a meat diet, it's maybe just a little less sustainable?"
"If it's done properly, vegetarians in general--people who reduce animal protein from their diet--tend to have a lower body mass index," Faust explains. "They are found to have a healthier weight than people that aren't vegetarians. They're also shown to have lower death rates from heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of type two diabetes and different cancers as well, so in a sense you can say that if followed properly, it can be a healthier way to go."
Hm. Didn't know that...
This knowledge does go a long way in helping me pick vegetables with moxie. Providing me some reassurance I can make it for at least a month, the grand experiment is worth pursuing. Still, just a quick wander through the aisles of the grocery store shows me what will be missing entirely from my life in the next few weeks. Sandwich meats, bread, cheese. Cereal with milk, hot chocolate, pasta, yogurt. Cream in my coffee. Damn.
"If I bite my fingernails, does that mean I'm not a vegan anymore?" I ask.
"Oh, I dunno," Faust ponders. "That's your call I think. Depends if you swallow them or not."
THE KEY INGREDIENTS
Do you see many cases where people have become malnourished because they didn't do enough research to become vegan or vegetarian?" I ask. My nightmare is that, even with a bunch of research, I will still end up sick in the hospital, so I want to make absolutely sure I know how likely the possibility is.
“They have been quite common.” Faust says. “The most common things we see are people that have become deficient in vitamin b12 and in iron, and sometimes in calcium. That’s not something you necessarily see [visually]. You can really only see the effects of that long term. That’s the risk of avoiding animal products, especially if you’re avoiding dairy products, which are your primary source of calcium. Long-term-wise, if someone’s not making sure they’re getting adequate calcium through other sources, then they can end up with osteoporosis. It’s really important to make sure you’re getting foods with those nutrients; otherwise you can end up with nutrient deficiencies.”
Being a vegan means making the right choices about supplementing what would otherwise be coming from the meat portion and dairy products in your diet. Luckily, the Dietitians of Canada believe there is a right way of going about this supplementation, and that it's possible and even healthy to do so if researched properly. There are several things primarily missed in meat's absence, and several ways of going about replacing them.
Proteins are the basic building blocks of cellular life. In humans, proteins are made of chains of 20 different types of chemicals called amino acids, 10 of which cannot be made in the body and must be obtained from food. These amino acids become harder to obtain in a vegan diet and must be accounted for by any means necessary. Missing out on essential amino acids forces your body to decompose its own proteins when it needs them, causing muscle degeneration and other ill effects.
Good protein sources outside of meat include soy products like tofu, grains, nuts and the ever unpopular supplements. Grains shouldn't be treated as a whole protein source and are relatively hard to break down. Nuts, on the other hand. should go in just about everything.
Although this is more important for females than males, iron will be lacking in an unplanned vegan diet. The best thing to eat: dark greens.
"I would go for dark greens like spinach or kale or other types of mustard greens and collard greens," Faust says. "The reason I say that is because they're really packed with a lot of nutrients. Some of them give you quite a lot of folic acid, spinach gives you quite a bit of iron as well. Bok choy and broccoli give a bit of iron. In that sense, if you're not going to be eating meat, I would focus on making sure you were getting those types of vegetables in your diet."
This one's for your bones! Inadequate calcium in your diet leads to osteoporosis in the long run, and I'm told osteoporosis is awful. The Dietitians of Canada recommend fortified soy and bok choy if you want to grow up big and strong like your dad.
No, no, not the singer, that's Vitamin C. Vitamin D is a chemical that apparently makes sure you have the right amount of calcium and phosphorous in your blood. Unfortunately it's found mostly in dairy, so vegetarians will be fine, but vegans might have trouble. Fortified soy milk is one source, otherwise, look towards vitamin supplements.
Deficiency in B12 causes anemia. If you like your red blood cells, and boy, do I ever, then you might want to get some fortified soy milk, nutritional yeast, multivitamins, or Chinese Dang Gui.
Long story short, there are a few peculiarities about a vegan diet anyone interested in trying the lifestyle should be aware of.
"I would say, portions-wise, the majority of your diet is going to be whole grains, vegetables and fruits." Faust says. "So this switch is basically going to be towards choosing ones which are the more whole grain types of starches. If you're going for pasta, I would say whole wheat pasta, if you're having rice, go for brown rice. Try different grains, maybe things that you've never tried before. Something like a quinoa, you might not have heard of it, but you can find it in health food stores. Things like quinoa or barley or bulghur have quite a lot of protein in them."
"That's one of the things that vegans are often lacking, they are not getting adequate protein, so if you choose grains that have a lot of protein in them, then that helps to make up for what you might be lacking. Make friends with beans, things like that, because beans and tofu-based products are going to be your main source of protein and iron. You want to make sure you're getting enough of them, but the thing is, when you eat beans, they're called an incomplete protein. What that means is they contain most of the amino acids that meat would give you, but they're lacking a few. In order to get the same nutrients that you would from meat, you would have to combine them with grain products, and by eating those two foods together it becomes a complete protein, so it's like you were eating meat."
"Tofu is considered a complete protein, so by eating it alone you would be getting most of what you'd be missing from meat. You're going to really want to concentrate on getting those whole grains, more vegetables. A lot of people, I think, when they become vegetarian, one of the first things they do is they tend to eat a lot more fat. You want to make sure you're not just getting one type of food group, you want to get a balance."
The simplest way to make becoming a vegan easier is to surround yourself with a good community. In Calgary, this isn't hard to do. Our city boasts several organic and vegetarian-tailored stores as well as an active group of people eager to help.
"I think there's actually a good supportive community in Calgary for [vegans]," Faust tells me. "I think that in most cities you'd be able to follow a vegan lifestyle. It helps when there are specialty food stores out there, because they will have more specialized products. For example, fake meat type products which actually are enriched or fortified with the nutrients vegans might typically be lacking."
"Generally, a lot of grocery stores might have those types of foods too, artificial meat type products, soy cheeses, different soy beverages, or other rice milks. A lot of grocery stores right across the country are starting to bring in more products to cater to that market."
The biggest favour you can do yourself is making a friend or two who can help you pick out good stuff to eat. It's not rocket surgery, but any abrupt dietary change can wreak havoc on your life if you don't put effort into it. It really helps to know people who have gone through the change before.
THE SOY CONUNDRUM
So I stand at the organic market, palming different types of soy and rice milk, trying to figure out which one's for me. There's an adventure ahead, and I want to make the most of it. I recall hearing from someone on the more naturopathic side of the spectrum that soy throws your estrogen levels out of whack and wreaks havoc on your hormones.
"I don't think that there's enough research out there really to say that's true at this point." Faust tells me on this issue in particular. "Most of the studies that have been done have focused on when people are taking soy supplements--isolated soy compounds called soy isoflavones--in tablet form. People should avoid taking it in that form, but if you're just eating soy products, tofu, soy milk, things like that, and you're eating them in normal quantities, not extremely excessive, then there are no problems with that."
But the lady at the health food store next door swears the stuff's no good, except when it's fermented, like tofu. I'm really not sure what to think, so I grab some soy milk and hemp protein supplements in the hope one or the other fills my needs.
It just goes to show, vegetarian means something different to everyone who practices. To try and fill somebody's predefined conception of vegetarianism is folly. There's no substitute for doing your own good research and talking to somebody.
If the lifestyle is something you really want to get into, read up on it and follow the links contained in this article. In short, be absolutely sure. Good luck and happy vegging.