“Where do you get your protein?”
For vegans, that question is probably right up there with “What do you eat?”
As more information becomes available about the benefits of a plant-based diet — for health, the environment, and for animal welfare — what was once a fringe, alternative lifestyle is becoming more mainstream, with options aplenty.
“The Economist” declared 2019 “The Year of the Vegan,” with correspondent John Parker writing that “fully a quarter of 24- to 34-year-old Americans [identify as] vegans or vegetarians.” And in a December 2017 Forbes.com article, entrepreneurs were urged to turn toward vegan-based business endeavors — geared toward food, clothing, makeup, or any other products that eschew animals or animal by-products.
But what about cheese?
My greatest concern going vegan nearly three years ago (after being vegetarian for more than three decades) was that I would be lost without cheese. Eggplant Parmesan, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, pizza, baked brie . . . I mean, c’mon.
Luckily, the cheese-alternative industry is booming and I have found tasty substitutes at everyday grocery stores that work with my favorite recipes. Also, vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants have delicious plant-centric versions of traditionally animal-based items. Some favorites include the Reuben sandwich (made with seitan) at Veggie Galaxy in Cambridge, tacos (made with crispy fried tofu and topped with kimchi, hoisin, pears, scallions, and toasted peanuts) at Rhythm n’ Wraps in Boston, mac ’n’ cheese (with sweet-potato cashew-cheese sauce, shiitake bacon, and almond parmesan) at one of the three by Chloe restaurants in Boston, shepherd’s pie (made with soy sausage) at Red Lentil in Watertown, and soy meat barbecue pizza at Veggie Crust in Brookline and in Somerville.
“It is wonderful because we have so many more vegan choices today than we did even five or 10 years ago,” said Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Clover [Food Lab in Cambridge] is one example that is good for people like myself who are not strict vegans, but like to have well-prepared vegan meals. When I eat there, I know it’s going to be interesting, flavorful, and healthy all at the same time — and have a much softer footprint on the planet than the kind of food I grew up with.”
However, Willett said when switching to a plant-based diet, it is important to be mindful that just because something is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
“You can go to Whole Foods and find lots of vegan junk food that is not healthy,” he said. “Pretty much any diet is the same way: You can have a healthy version and a deleterious version.”
Making the transition
Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society said that people making the transition to a meat- and dairy-free diet often focus on what they can’t eat anymore, when they should be focusing on what they are adding to their diets.
“Often, changing one or two ingredients will make a familiar dish vegan,” she said. “Making a pot of chili? Replace the ground beef with beans and chunky vegetables. Have a bean taco instead of a beef taco, or try one of the plant-based meat [substitutes] like Gardein. Try a chickpea salad sandwich instead of chicken sandwich.”
Willett said that having nonmeat, healthier versions of foods we ate growing up helps with dietary “shifts.”
“Traditions passed on to us by our parents are very powerful in terms of determining what we eat,” he said. “But the positive benefits of the changes we’re making cannot be overlooked.”
Rebecca Hastings, a Foxborough-based registered dietitian, said she recommends to clients that they “start slow” — and always consult with their physician — when making significant dietary changes.
“This ensures that the plan is more sustainable in the long run,” she said.
Hastings suggested starting by switching from dairy-based milk and yogurt to those made from almonds, cashews, coconuts, or one of the many other non-dairy alternatives. Then, decrease meat consumption and gradually increase the intake of beans, nuts, seeds, etc.
“Keep in mind that when starting a plant-based diet, you are typically increasing the amount of fiber that you are taking in daily, so make sure you increase gradually and [that you] increase your water intake in conjunction with the increase in fiber,” she said.
A well-stocked pantry is also essential, Hastings noted. Whole grains including steel cut oats, barley, brown rice, buckwheat groats, faro, millet, and quinoa are some of her go-to’s, as well as canned beans and lentils (look for low-sodium varieties and give them a good rinse before use, she advised), nuts, and an array of spices including basil, cumin, cayenne and curry powders, chipotle, fennel, oregano, and rosemary “to help add flavor and variety to meals.”
“Also, canned fire roasted tomatoes add great flavors to soups, stir fry, and savory bowls,” she added.
With a plethora of vegan cookbooks, websites, and blogs, Hastings said finding meat- and dairy-free recipes is easier than ever. Some of her favorites include www.bosh.tv, www.thugkitchen.com, and www.thevegan8.com. (“All recipes on this website are simplified and contain eight ingredients or less, not including salt, pepper, and water,” she said).
Undeniable health benefits
Willett said that short-term and long-term studies all point in the same direction: “People who emphasize plant-based protein sources such as nuts and seeds and legumes — including soy — not only have better blood cholesterol [levels], but also lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.”
A comprehensive study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology earlier this month found that eating even a moderate amount of red or processed meat is linked to an increased risk of colorectal (bowel) cancer.
The protein myth
Hastings said that while many people believe they need to eat meat to get an adequate amount of protein, “I’m here to tell you that is simply not true.”
“As long as you are getting a varied diet of whole foods, you will likely not be short on protein,” she said, adding that protein is found in many vegan foods including broccoli, spinach, oats, and nutritional yeast (a popular vegan cheese substitute). “You can also add a protein punch by consuming soy-based substitutes such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc.”
There are risks of certain nutritional deficiencies — like vitamins B12 and D, and calcium — on a vegan diet, but that is easily addressed by eating fortified foods and drinks and/or taking vitamin supplements, she said.
Being vegan feels good
Kimber said that through various channels — including social media — people are learning that their food choices have a significant impact on many levels.
“People feel good about themselves for eating in a way that does the most good and least harm — protecting our planet and the animals, while taking care of themselves with delicious and health-promoting plant foods,” she said. “The number of Boston Vegetarian Society participants has increased steadily over the years, and I suspect that will continue. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that they can live well without harming or taking animals’ lives.”