Veganism/Vegetarianism – Are they healthier?

March is National Nutrition Month so I am going to be focusing heavily on more nutrition-oriented topics in my blog this month.

One nutrition question I get frequently is whether it is healthier to go vegan or vegetarian over meat eating. My answer probably irritates many who ask: not necessarily.

So first let’s get the differences between the two out of the way:

Veganism

In the most basic sense, veganism is a diet in which you don’t consume any animal products whatsoever. This means no dairy, eggs, fish, meat, honey, or gelatin and no products containing these ingredients. Some vegans are stricter than others. For example, certain beers are clarified using animal parts and some vegans will not consume them based on that while other vegans don’t mind as much because the animal parts are not actually part of the beer. Likewise, honey is technically not vegan in the strictest sense, but many vegans still use it.

Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism allows a lot more dietary options than veganism. In the most general sense, vegetarianism is simply not eating meat. Other animal products, such as honey, eggs, dairy, and gelatin, may be OK for a vegetarian. Some vegetarians, known as pescatarians, will eat fish, while others won’t. Likewise, lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy, but no meat. As with veganism, there is a spectrum of dietary choices that fall into the vegetarian category.

Are Vegan or Vegetarian Diets Healthier than Eating Meat?

Not necessarily. Sorry. While both of these diets have the potential to provide your body with loads of healthy nutrients and help you maintain a healthy weight, there are some mistakes that can make them less healthy.

As a certified health coach, I immediately get concerned whenever the prospect of eliminating entire food groups comes up. That to me is an immediate alert that the individual adhering to that diet needs to be really diligent in making sure they are getting all of the nutrients they need.

One thing that I know from my vegan and vegetarian friends is the most annoying thing people say to them is, “are you getting enough protein”? In our meat-centric society, we often assume that meat is the best or only source of protein. The difference between animal protein and plant protein is that animal protein is what we call a “complete protein” – it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids our bodies need. Plant proteins are known as “incomplete proteins” because they contain some but not all 9 essential amino acids. However, you can combine different plant proteins to make a complete protein and you don’t need to eat them all at once to do it. For example, you could have nuts for a an afternoon snack, tofu as part of your lunch, and pea protein in your morning smoothie. So protein is a concern for vegans and vegetarians only if they are not varying their protein sources enough (generally speaking).

Vegans have a bit more of a challenge than vegetarians when it comes to making sure they are consuming all of the nutrition their bodies need. Eliminating one food group is one thing, but when you eliminate several, it can make things more difficult and complicated. With any diet, it’s important to monitor what you are eating to make sure you’re getting enough variety and nutrition but vegans have that much more monitoring to do. One nutritive concern that I have for vegans is their Omega-3 consumption. The best source of Omega-3 fatty acids (AKA the healthiest fats) is fish – partly because it is already in the form our bodies can use so we readily absorb it. There are plant sources of Omega-3s, but they are in a form that our bodies cannot use. This means that our bodies must first convert them into the usable form, but, once that conversion is done, our absorption rate is less than 5%. So it’s more of a challenge to eat enough Omega-3s without eating fish or taking a fish oil supplement. Iron is another nutrient that we get primarily from eating meat in our society. However, there are a number of rich plant sources of iron. As with protein, it’s really important for vegans and vegetarians to make sure they are eating enough plant sources of iron (like spinach for example), especially for women of child-bearing age.  Click here to receive my list of plant-based, whole food sources of iron.

The last major concern for both of these diets that I will discuss here is the meat substitute products found in grocery stores. Most store-bought, pre-packaged vegan and vegetarian foods are highly processed and loaded with all kinds of fillers and preservatives. These are not healthy options. The healthiest options are organic tofu and organic tempeh, not breaded faux-chicken from the freezer section. If you are vegan or vegetarian or are considering either, make sure that you really read all the labels of products you want to buy to make sure they’re not full of scary ingredients. If you’re a hands-on person and have the time, making your own animal-product substitutes at home is even better. For example, it’s actually pretty easy to make your own nut milks and you can use flax seed meal and water in place of an egg in recipes.

Is Meat Bad for You?

Again, not necessarily. Sorry.

As I said above, meat, fish, and poultry (I’m just going to call them all “meat”) are all complete proteins delivering all 9 essential amino acids. Meat is also a good source of iron (particularly red meat and liver) and fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Where the meat question gets tricky is when it comes to quality. Americans in general have no shortage of saturated fat in our diets and these are not the healthy fats we want to focus on consuming. Overconsumption of animal fats (excluding fish) has been linked to a number of health issues, particularly heart issues. Therefore, it’s important to consume lean cuts of meat as much as possible – this means lean cuts of beef, eating more poultry and avoiding the skin and fatty parts, eating more fish, etc.

Another quality factor when it comes to consuming meats is considering what that meat ate when it was alive. Much of the meat we eat in this country has been treated with antibiotics, hormones, and other substances that we eat when we eat the meat from those animals. Many of the animals in the factory farms that supply most of our meat also don’t feed their animals quality food and that affects the meat we eat as well. There are also a number of really awful humane issues associated with factory-farmed meat. Considering all of this, it’s important to eat organic meat as much as possible. Ideally, select meat from free-range animals that consumed their natural diet rather than some cheap mystery feed. The most ideal situation, is to actually know where your meat is coming from – supporting local farmers at the farmers’ market or joining a local meat share. Obviously, this is not always possible, but following the first two guidelines I mentioned will get you into healthier meat eating.

Read This If You Just Want the Gist of This Post Without Reading the Whole Thing

Science has shown time and again that plant-based diets are the healthiest option for us. Both veganism and vegetarianism can be extremely healthful diets when followed properly. They both have the potential to deliver loads of wonderful nutrients to your body and sustain its health for a lifetime. However, in our rush-rush, convenience-centric society, it can be hard to eat the variety of foods our bodies need and it’s very easy to opt for those junky convenience foods most of the time, regardless of whether or not you eat meat. Eating a variety of plant-based foods is critical to our health. This does not mean that eating meat is unhealthy or that we shouldn’t ever do it, though – meat can deliver large amounts of nutrients our bodies need all in one stop and, as long as you are eating lean, good quality, organic meat, then meat-eating isn’t a health problem. The majority of what you eat, regardless of your diet, should be fresh fruits and vegetables, but meat is a food you can eat every day and it plays an important role in many diets.

 

Healthy Breakfasts on the Go

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day – that’s not just an old wives’ tale. But, it can be the most challenging meal of the day as we are struggling to get ourselves ready for work, get our kids ready for school, maybe squeeze a workout, or leave earlier to drive the carpool. With everything that we have going on in our busy lives, it can be asking a lot just to eat breakfast let alone make it a healthy one.

Why is Breakfast So Important?

As the first meal of the day,  breakfast literally breaks our fast from the night before while we were sleeping. Once we wake up, if we go too long before we eat, our bodies begin to go into a fight or flight stress response and starvation mode. This elevates the levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, in our bodies. Since our cortisol levels are naturally at their highest in the morning anyway, elevating them further this way ensures that your stress hormone levels will be higher than they should be for the rest of your day. Eating within an hour of waking up will prevent this stress response from occurring.

Breakfast is the fuel for our bodies to start our day. Think of it like this: your body, having healed and rejuvenated all night long, is like a nice new car with an empty gas tank in the morning. You wouldn’t put sludgy cheap fuel into your brand new shiny car, right? Likewise, you don’t want to put junk food into your body to fuel your morning. A healthy, balanced breakfast consists of a lean protein and a complex carbohydrate. You can add a healthy fat in there for bonus points as well. The complex carbohydrate is burned for energy but it is absorbed as a slower rate than a simple carbohydrate like a donut or sugary cereal. This slower absorption rate give you even levels of energy throughout your morning and doesn’t spike your blood sugar like a simple carb would. The protein further slows this absorption and provides fuel on it’s own as well. The combination of fiber in your complex carb and protein will leave you feeling fuller longer. A healthy fat added to the mix provides brain food to keep you on top of things as you start your day.

Healthy On-the-Go Breakfast Ideas

So now that I’ve bored you with the science, here are some suggestions for healthy breakfasts on the go!

  • Whole grain waffles (I recommend these waffles) with all-natural, no added sugar nut butter (like Teddie). Sprinkle them with some cinnamon or cocoa powder for more of a treat or top them with half a banana or sliced apple.
  • Whole grain toast with low-fat cheese or hummus and half an avocado
  • Smoothie made with plain, low-fat yogurt, 1/2 cup of fruit, and 1 cup of spinach. If you like to add protein powder, I recommend this protein powder as it also contains additional vitamins and minerals and is a clean protein.
  • Fried egg folded up in a slice of whole grain toast
  • A banana and nut butter rolled up in a whole wheat wrap or lavash
  •  Egg muffin cups
  • Baked oatmeal muffin cups
  • Overnight oats
  • Coffee Smoothie –  1 cup cold brew or iced coffee, 1/2 cup milk of choice, 1/2 frozen banana, 2 scoops vanilla protein powder, blend and enjoy!
  • Whole grain toast with low-fat ricotta cheese and sliced apple sprinkled with cinnamon
  • 2 hard boiled eggs and a slice of whole grain toast and a piece of fruit
  • Savory quinoa and egg jar – pre-prep a big batch of quinoa and dish it into jars (1/2 cup serving) with whatever veggies you’d like and store in the fridge. In the morning, fry up an egg quickly and toss it in the jar to enjoy on the go. Or prep the whole thing in advance, microwave it for a minute, then go!

 

Got any favorite healthy breakfasts you take on the go? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Egg Muffin Cups

These egg muffin cups are super popular in the online healthy recipe world right now and for good reason – they’re a great way to get your healthy breakfast on the go!

Ingredients:

  • 12 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk of choice
  • 1/4 tsp salt (to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp pepper (to taste)
  • 1 1/2 cups spinach
  • 1/2 cup shredded, low-fat cheese of choice

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease muffin tray with coconut oil or spray with cooking spray.
2. Beat eggs, milk, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.
3. Stuff muffin cups with spinach evenly. Pour egg mixture over spinach until cups are 3/4 full. Top with cheese.
4. Bake egg cups for 20-25 minutes until eggs are cooked through. They will puff up while baking and then deflate a bit.

Serve hot and fresh out of the oven or store them in the fridge and reheat them throughout the week for breakfast on the go. These also freeze very well!

egg cups

Some Moo-sings on Milks (see what I did there?)

Twenty years ago, you never would have guessed that milk would be a polarizing issue, but, here we are. The moo milk and the no moo fans are just as vehement that theirs is the right side of the issue and it can lead to some major confusion about which is actually healthier. If you’re in that boat, I’m here to break it down for you.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an almond milk drinker but not because I think it’s healthier than dairy milk or that dairy milk is bad for you. I just have never liked the taste of cow’s milk – in fact, getting me to drink my milk as a kid was a losing battle for my parents at 9/10 family dinners. Cheese, however, is a totally different story.

So let’s talk about the pros and cons of each type of milk.

Nut Milks

If you are lactose intolerant or sensitive to lactose, then nut milks are a great substitute for the moo. However, they are not a bastion of health as some would lead you to believe. Most store-bought nut milks contain both natural and chemical emulsifiers and there are concerns that those emulsifiers may harm our gut health and contribute to obesity.  In terms of nutrition, you’re really not getting much from nut milks. They are not a significant source of protein or fat; however, they do contain more calcium than cow’s milk. You may also find nut milks fortified with vitamins and minerals (such as Silk), but on their own, nut milks do not contain as much Vitamin A and Iron as dairy milks do. If you’re watching your calorie count, nut milks may be a good option for you since they are less calorie-dense than cow’s milk. Obviously, however, if you have a nut allergy you should avoid nut milks.

Soy Milk

Unlike nut milks, soy milk is a significant source of protein with just about the same as dairy milk. However, unlike moo milk and nut milks, soy milk is a good source of folate. One of my primary concerns with soy milk is the fact that most of the soy in the US is genetically modified, so if you are buying soy milk or any soy products, make sure that they are non-GMO certified or organic.

The greatest pitfall that nut and soy milks have is that they come in a number of sweetened flavors and people often buy these thinking they are doing something healthy for themselves. Just one serving of a sweetened vanilla almond milk contains 16 grams of sugar! If you are going to buy non-dairy milks, it is important to make sure that you are buying the plain, unsweetened variety. If it doesn’t say “unsweetened” on the label, then it’s sweetened and, if you’re not sure, check the ingredients list. (Note: sugar will appear in the nutrition facts in dairy milk, but that is the naturally-occurring lactose, not added sugar. You can confirm this by reading the ingredients).

Cow’s Milk

Unless you are lactose intolerant, cow’s milk is a solid option with some caveats. It is important to buy organic milk to avoid ingesting hormones or antibiotics passed on from treated cows. It is also important to select a low or reduced fat variety, particularly for adults, because it is high in saturated fats. Cow’s milk is a good source of calcium (though not the best) and it is high in protein. It also contains Iron and Vitamin A. So cow’s milk is not the unhealthy sludge it’s often made out to be (and to those who say it’s not natural to drink milk because no other animals drink another animal’s milk, I say imagine what society would be like if we based everything on what other animals do!)

So that’s the scoop on milk. As a heath coach, I can say there are pros and cons to each and it really depends on what works for you. Quite frankly, it’s time we stop policing what other people choose to consume so don’t be bullied into a milk you don’t want.

Roasted Beet, Avocado & Quinoa Salad

With the warm summer months fast approaching, this refreshing and nutritious side dish is bound to be a crowd pleaser at any cookout. What’s more is it looks as good as it tastes! Bright colors like this are a great way to get picky kids to eat something healthy! They can even help mix it all up!

Quinoa Salad

Ingredients

For the Salad:

2 cups cooked quinoa

4-5 medium-sized beets, diced and roasted until soft (I suggest par-boiling them first to cut down on cook time)

1 orange bell pepper, diced

2 avocados, cubed

For the Dressing:

3/4 cup fresh cilantro

2-3 limes, juiced

1 orange, juiced

1 tbsp agave nectar

1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil (may need to add more, depending on flavor and consistency)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. First, prepare the dressing so the flavors can bloom while you prepare the rest of the salad. Combine the cilantro and fruit juices in a blender and blend about 30 seconds until beginning to get smooth and combined. Add the olive oil gradually and the agave nectar and continue to blend until liquified. Add a dash of salt and pepper and place the dressing in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the salad.
  2. Prepare the quinoa according to the package and roast the beets until soft (you can also just boil them but I find that roasting makes the flavor sweeter).
  3. Allow the quinoa and beets to cool before adding the other salad ingredients. You can place them in the fridge if you’re on a time crunch.
  4. Once the quinoa and the beets have cooled, combine them with the diced pepper and avocado in a large mixing bowl. Remove the dressing from the fridge and give it a good shake to mix it all up again. This is where you want to taste it to make sure that it’s the balance you’re looking for. If not, you can add more oil, salt and pepper, or juice. I leave this up to the chef because some people like things zestier than others.
  5. Pour the dressing over the salad, mix together, serve and enjoy!

 

 

Phase 2 Check In

In my last blog post, I was ending Phase 1 and starting Phase 2 and was concerned about what impact having foregone protein for that week would have on my athletic performance so I wanted to give you an update on that.

I deliberately eased back into things last week so I could have been feeding my muscles protein for a bit before pushing them to get right back to it. So I started out easy with some walking and by Thursday I did a pretty intense strength training circuit and then did an hour-long cardio dance class on Friday. So I was able to get back into things fairly quickly. I was definitely sore after the fact, but I don’t think it was much more so than it would have been otherwise.

Since last week, I have done a 4-mile run one day, followed by a 3-mile run the next, plus some arms and abs and yardwork and I’m feeling really good.

So, if you’re concerned about cutting out major protein sources for a week, don’t be. Both physiologically speaking and speaking from my experience, there are no adverse effects from this one week without protein (note: men who participate in Fresh Start can consume certain proteins during the cleanse week).

In terms of food, I am still not craving the things I used to crave. Let me be specific: I haven’t craved pizza once since my cleanse week. I always always always want pizza, so this is a really BFD. Add to that, coffee, wine, bread – all things I love and were always my vices – I don’t crave them! Imagine you’re trying to lose weight or get on a healthier track. Now imagine how much easier it would be if you didn’t crave cake or pizza. How amazing is that?! So you can see how this program is a great way to get you set up for sustained weight loss.

One final food note: I’m only human and I did cheat over the weekend. I had Mexican food and two beers… and MAN did I regret it. My body just isn’t used to beer and corn chips and cheese anymore – and it shouldn’t be! I should say, if I had moderated better, I probably wouldn’t have had that much of a reaction, but the fact is that my body has changed.

In the next couple days I’ll be posting some smoothie recipes on the blog to keep things more exciting for Phase 2, so be sure to check back for those.