How will I get enough protein and other questions about going vegan

Avery and her son

Source: Avery Yale Kamila

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer. Her son just turned 4. He’s eaten a plant-based diet since birth and continues to be taller than average for his age. Avery was kind enough to answer some questions about being vegan from Catching Health Associate Editor Jen Boggs.

How can I get enough protein with a vegan (or even vegetarian) diet?

Americans – whether we eat meat or eat vegan – tend to get more protein than we need. Vegetarians and vegans are no exception. Protein exists in all foods, with plant-based foods such as beans, grains, nuts and seeds being particularly high in protein. Plant-based meats, milks and cheeses tend to be high in protein just like their animal-based counterparts. The key to eating a balanced plant-based diet is to center meals on beans and grains instead of chicken or beef.

What exactly is plant-based eating?

Plant-based eating means eating mostly plants. What this means in practical terms varies from person to person. To some, this means a strict vegan style of eating without any animal-based foods, while at the other end of the plant-based spectrum people include very small portions of meat, cheese, milk or eggs in their meals. In either case, plant-based eating focuses on eating whole plant foods with minimal amounts of added sugar and fat.

Why eat this way?

Over the years, I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens of vegetarians and vegans. One of the reasons people decide to eat this way is because of health. There is a considerable body of medical research linking plant-based diets to disease reversal and prevention. The benefits of plant-based eating can be seen with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, strokes, and many types of cancer. I’ve talked to many people whose health was transformed by centering their diet around plants.

I’ve even interviewed two women who say they’ve controlled and reversed their multiple sclerosis through a plant-based diet. The mainstream medical community considers MS an incurable, degenerative disease and the science on a connection between eating plant-based and controlling MS is lacking, but one of the people I’ve interviewed is a physician. So it will be interesting to see how the science around MS develops in coming years.

Are there any non-health-related reasons?

A growing number of people are actively reducing their meat consumption and tilting toward a plant-based style of eating because plant-based eating treads much more lightly on the planet. Animal agriculture is well known as one of the leading sources of climate-altering emissions (even more so than the transportation sector). It is also resource intensive – you can feed more people with the grain fed to cattle than you can feed from the bodies of the cattle – and heavily polluting of air and water.

Also, with the rise of social media, many more people have seen video footage from factory farms and slaughterhouses. For instance, lately, we’ve seen a wave of videos shared online showing the reality of dairy farming, where newborn calves are taken from their mothers and devices farmers call “rape racks” are used to keep the cows constantly pregnant or lactating. For some, eating a plant-based diet is a choice to align their food with their ethics.

How do you feed kids plant-based meals?

As with any kind of meal, a lot depends on the child. Some children will willingly gobble up any green vegetable put in front of them. Others have strong likes and dislikes. Some shy away from certain textures or don’t like their food to touch other food. For so-called picky kids, pureeing vegetables and finely dicing leafy greens is a big help. Whatever the case, it is possible for children to thrive on a plant-based diet.

The foundation of plant-based eating is beans and grains. For kids, this can be as simple as a bowl of oatmeal with soymilk or a plate of hummus with whole grain bread. Add fruit or vegetables and you have a complete meal.

Smoothies make excellent kid food, and they’re a great way to get extra fruits and even leafy greens into kids’ diets. My son’s favorite snacks are dried fruit, particularly dates. We often make our own snack bars by mixing dates and cashews (and sometimes other dried fruits and seasonings) in a food processor and then shaping them into bars.

What one tip can you offer home cooks who want to try a more plant-based diet?

Pick one simple recipe – say a stir fry or a veggie chili – and make it one night this week instead of an animal-based meal. Then, in a week or so, try another plant-based recipe.

What’s the biggest trend in plant-based food right now?

The sophistication of plant-based foods available in grocery stores and restaurants has jumped dramatically in the past few years. As one example, cultured nut-based cheeses have transformed the vegan cheese aisle. These are robust, fermented cheeses equal to dairy-based versions.

Many of the new plant-based products on the market are driven by a massive influx of investment capital into the plant-based food sector. Why the investment boom? Food marketers and trend forecasters are all saying that the food market is being radically transformed by the preferences of the Millennial generation. These younger people, much more so than older generations, gravitate toward healthful and sustainable choices such as whole grains, vegetables, and plant-based dishes. The result is that it’s never been easier or more delicious to eat a plant-based diet.

Tomorrow on the Catching Health blog, we’ll share a recipe from Avery for Build-Your-Own Stir Fry Bowls.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.