The Healthy Vegan: What you never knew about veganism

A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in ...
A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in products such as soy milk and low-fat yogurt, has been shown to reduce breast cancer incidence in rats. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright © Galina Pembroke, 2009.

We must do more than take the hot dog out of the bun; we must find a complete protein to fill it with.

I meet Karen at our favorite coffee shop. Karen adores their Fair Trade hot chocolate. I do too, but this isn’t the only reason we frequent this trendy café. On the counter I find a large metal jug of soy milk. Jackpot! I pour a decadent amount into my organic decaffeinated coffee. I don’t drink milk or consume any dairy. Neither do I eat meat. I am a vegan.

Many people think a vegan diet isn’t capable of meeting all nutritional needs, especially protein. But it isn’t true. In a June 2003 issue of JAMA, the Dietitians of Canada agreed that: “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.” The key words here are well planned. We must do more than take the hot dog out of the bun; we must find a complete protein to fill it with.

Together with fats, protein stops carbohydrates from causing an insulin Roller Coaster. My soy milk coffee topper has both. Plus it is far from being a second-rate substitute for dairy fats and protein. Unlike other beans, the soybean carries the entire chain of essential amino acids, otherwise known as complete protein. Karen accepts this, but her eyes raise when I tell her that my soy milk has 10.98 grams of protein per cup. She remembers that her 2 percent milk has 8.6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat. “Soy milk has almost the same amount of fat at 4.7,”  I share. “But it’s low in saturated fat and has no cholesterol. You’ll need to switch to 1 percent or skim milk to limit that unhealthy fat, but if you don’t want cholesterol you’ll have to choose soy. Even skim milk has cholesterol.”

“Are soy products the only way you can get complete protein?” asks Karen. I shake my head. “Hemp products also contain complete protein.  I have a tablespoon of hemp oil every day. And I know which foods to combine to get complete protein: Tempeh burgers on a whole wheat bun, corn tacos with pinto beans, brown rice with almonds and cashews-the list goes on.”

“Sure, but dairy is the absolute best source of calcium right?” asked Karen. I proceeded to explain that equivalent amounts of calcium could be found in soy versions of both milk and cheese. ” But I don’t want to limit myself to soy.” protests Karen. I understand. “There are an enormous variety of foods available that help provide the 800mg of calcium necessary to meet the daily Recommended Nutrient Intake. These include egg substitute, almonds, hazelnuts, figs, spinach, dried apricots and sunflower seeds.”  I remind her that the Endangered Species Chocolate Company, which she respects for being Free Trade, is also vegan.

“Okay,” she concedes. “A vegan diet can provide adequate protein and calcium, but isn’t it better to get your iron from meat?” I think for a minute. The iron from meat is more bio-available than from vegetables. “On the surface, one cup of trail mix has more iron than a serving of beef. Yet to actually get this amount I need to eat it with a source of vitamin C, which increases absorption.  This food combining isn’t always necessary though. Many iron rich foods, such as broccoli and bok choy, are high in both iron and vitamin C. I’ll never eat these with soy or any other high calcium source though, since calcium decreases iron absorption.”

“Yes, but even with all your attention to detail. How can you be healthy without B12, which isn’t found in today’s plant foods.” Ostensibly Karen has a point. Though the bacteria in the small intestine produce small quantities of B12, I can’t rely on this to prevent deficiency. Getting B12 is challenging. Thankfully I can small amounts from fermented foods like tempeh and miso, and obtain the rest from fortified cereals, soy and mock meat. For extra security I take a supplement.

“Sounds complicated. Like you’re following the rules of a secret society. Do you have to be sworn in?” laughs Karen. She may be joking, but some people truly believe veganism is a cult. Veganism is a reasonable and logical alternative to an omnivorous diet, and it’s becoming more mainstream than ever. Alicia Silverstone and Shakira are vegans, and so are Carl Lewis and Canadian Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier.  “Anyone can go vegan,” I tell her. “There are more foods, books and resources than ever.”

Selected Sources

Brazier, Brendan. The High Performance Vegan Athlete: It is possible. The Los Angeles Vegetarian Society, 2003

Henkel, John. Soy; Health Claims for Soy Protein, Questions About Other Components.  FDA Consumer magazine. US Food and Drug Administration. May-June 2000

Calcium.  USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17. 2004

Iron. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17. 2004

Dietary Reference Intakes-Calcium and Related Nutrients . National Institute of Nutrition. Ontario:2001

Mangels, Reed, Ph.D., R.D. .Iron in the Vegan Diet. The Vegetarian Resource Group. Maryland: 2003

Celebrity Vegans

Ives, Brian and Bottomley, C. Shakira: Live in Your Living Room. VH1: 2004

Parsons, Sarah. Celebs’ Quick Slim-Down Diet Secrets: Alicia Silverstone 2004

Brazier, Brendan. Thrive: A Guide to Optimal Health and Performance Through Plant-Based Whole Foods. Oceanside Publishing: 2004

Bennett, Jannequin. Carl Lewis On Being Vegan. Excerpt from Very Vegetarian. Rutledge Hill Press: 2002

~ ~ ~

Galina Pembroke was an internationally published writer specializing in health. She passed away on September 12, 2009 at the young age of 34 after a very brief illness.



  1. Hey, great information you compiled here! Thanks for the info!

    In regards to B12, the product that I used is called Dr. Schulze’s Superfood Plus. I 100%, completely, absolutely stand behind this product b/c it’s all organic and all natural. Each serving contains over 500% of the RDA of B12 and is made from non-fermentable saccharomyces cervisiae yeast.

    Thought I would share! 🙂


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.