Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

Cue the sun drenched cherubs plucking harps and songbirds chirping: here marks my first day as a vegan. Breakfast went easily enough: some cereal with fortified soy milk (I use Natura, which tastes fantastic, is vegan, organic and supplemented with calcium, iron and vitamin B12), my multivitamins, coffee and a banana. Fairly painless, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’m planning to save gutsier vegan brekkies for later in the week (such as scrambled tofu, pancakes, etcetera).

I’m not expecting any significant changes in the first few days. After all, I have been mostly vegetarian for a few years, so it’s doubtful anything earth shaking is likely to occur in terms of bodily functions. My roommate did remark that I seemed at tad pleased with myself, however. Must remember to keep the infamous "smug vegan" bearing safely at bay.

Last week, I spoke to Nimisha Raja, a reputable, Toronto-based, vegan registered dietitian. We’ve all heard a ghoulish urban legend or two about some poor twit who has done veganism poorly, and has (reportedly) suffered everything from extreme weight and hair loss to anemia and an insatiable pull toward Birkenstocks. Raja helped me understand otherwise, or at least how to safeguard against these hazards. 

LH: What are some of the most common concerns people have about the nutritional content of the vegan diet?

NR: If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked, “Where do you get your protein,” I’d be comfortably retired on a tropical island. Protein is mostly a non-issue for vegans. Our hospitals are not full of vegans with protein deficiencies, but with meat eaters who are getting too much animal protein. Excellent sources of vegan protein include legumes (black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, lentils, etc), nuts, seeds, tofu, and tempeh. Whole grains also provide some protein, as do green, leafy vegetables. As long as one is eating sufficient calories from a variety of plant sources, protein is not a concern of a vegan diet. The second most common issue raised is calcium. There are wonderful sources of plant-based calcium: dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, broccoli as well as almonds, sesame seeds, fortified soy and rice milk and legumes. 

LH: What are some of the most common nutritional roadblocks of most concern to those just newly transitioning to veganism?

NR: New vegans sometimes don’t pay enough attention to eating a balanced vegan diet – they leave out the meat and dairy, but often don’t get enough calories, or not get enough legumes to meet their nutritional requirements. This can lead to iron deficiency, and a general feeling of being tired or low energy. Another thing vegans really should pay attention to is getting enough vitamin B12 [note: there are no reliable plant-based forms of vitamin B12], either from fortified foods [many soy products and soy milk are fortified with B12 – check the labels] or an easy solution is to take a vegan B-12 supplement. Inexpensive, sublingual B12 supplements are available at drug stores, grocery stores and health food stores. 

LH: In terms of bodily functions, what are some of the most common physical changes people experience during the first few weeks of going vegan? 

NR: Increased energy, some weight loss and better bowel movements. Usually, once the meat and dairy are eliminated, two to three bowel movements per day are common, because there’s nothing clogging up the system [Oh dear. –L]. The only caveat is if they’re eating vegan junk food (cookies, crackers, cakes, chips, white bread, white pasta), then they don’t get the benefits of a whole foods vegan diet. 

Next on Gone Vegan: After digging through countless scholarly journals, Lindsay goes beyond truthy and presents her Vegan Defense Primer, whereby readers can regale, lord over and confuse their friends with scientific findings suggesting that veganism might be a healthier way to go!