Food guides have been a part of nutrition education in the United States for nearly one hundred years. They’ve come a long way too.
The first one, published in 1916, had five food groups: fruits and vegetables; meat, fish, and milk; cereals; simple sweets; and butter and
It was produced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the same group that produces the food guide pyramid for Americans today.
While pressure from agriculture and the food industry shapes current food guides and keeps them friendly to animal foods, the trend has been toward a greater emphasis on plant foods. Even so, government food guides are not especially useful for vegetarians, and they are all but useless for vegans. Therefore we need to create our own.
The food guide in this chapter is not the final word on planning a healthy vegan diet. No single food guide represents the only way to meet nutrient needs. And you don’t need to follow these guidelines with meticulous attention every day. You won’t keel over and die if one day you have only four servings of grains!
This is meant to point you towards a diet that is based on a variety
of whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
The guide doesn’t include items like chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, and wine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have them. They just don’t fit into the
food groups that should be at the center of your diet.
THE VEGAN FOOD GROUPS
To translate nutrition information into simple menu-planning guidelines, we’ve divided foods into the following groups:
Whole Grains and Starchy Vegetables
These foods are high in fiber, and provide protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. We’ve included starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes because their calorie content and nutrient profiles are similar to those of grains. Although it’s always a good idea to choose whole grains, products like fortified cereals can sometimes make important contributions to the diet, especially for children and some athletes.
Legumes and Soyfoods.
These are the most protein-rich of all plant foods, and they are among the few good dietary sources of the essential amino acid lysine for vegans.
We recommend at least three to four servings of these foods every day for adults. Generally, one serving provides around 7 to 8 grams of protein, but many of the soyfoods, such as tempeh, veggie meats, and some types of tofu, are quite a bit higher. These foods are also important sources of minerals like iron and sometimes zinc.
If your diet is based on a variety of whole grains, vegetables, and nuts, then the three recommended servings from this group are plenty. If you like to spend
some discretionary calories on desserts, added fats, or more servings of fruit (which are very low in protein), shooting for four servings of legumes per day will make it easier to meet protein and lysine needs.
If you are new to beans, keep an open mind about them. They are
central to some of the world’s best cuisine and can add great interest
to your diet. Chapter 8 has tips for easy preparation and gas-free enjoyment of beans. We’ve also provided alternative ways to meet protein needs.
Soyfoods are a special category of legumes that includes any food made from soybeans, such as tofu, soymilk, tempeh, and veggie meats.
You don’t have to eat soyfoods, but they can be valuable in vegan diets.
Not only are they nutritious, but they are convenient for replacing
meat and dairy products in meals. They make it super-easy to plan vegetarian diets that are healthful, varied, and delicious. There is lots of controversy about soy these days.
Although this group includes soymilk, it doesn’t include almond,
hemp, oat, or rice milk since they are almost always low in protein.
Nuts and Seeds
Some vegans shy away from nuts and seeds because of their high fat content. But moderate nut consumption improves cholesterol levels and can even help with weight control (see Chapter 13 for more on this). These foods are concentrated in calories, though, so a serving is small—just two tablespoons of a nut or seed butter or whole seeds, or ¼ cup of nuts. We suggest consuming one to two servings of these foods every day. Choose nuts more often than seeds; they usually have a healthier fat profile and their health benefits are impressive. If you are allergic to nuts, add another serving from the legumes and soyfoods group to your meals.
Vegetables rule when it comes to nutrient-dense foods. They are among the best sources of vitamins C and A and contain thousands of plant chemicals that might improve health. All vegetables are good for you, but leafy greens like kale, collards, spinach, and turnip greens pack an especially powerful nutritional punch. They are rich in vitamins A, C, and K, potassium, iron, folate, sometimes calcium, and a host of plant chemicals that are linked to everything from reduced risk for
heart disease to better eyesight with aging. Most people who grew up eating greens feel they can’t live without them, and many newcomers to this food agree. If, however, you need a more gradual introduction to them, try mixing small amounts of greens into soups and stews. If you are pressed for time, frozen vegetables are a good alternative to fresh. They are almost always comparable in nutrient content and, in fact, sometimes have even higher levels of nutrients.
Fruits are good sources of vitamins C and A as well as certain minerals, and they provide plenty of phytochemicals. While fruit juices can
be a valuable source of nutrients, they should be used in moderation.
Try to consume most fruits in their fresh, raw state if possible.
Added fats aren’t essential in healthy vegan menus, but small amounts
of the right ones can fit in a well-balanced diet. We’ve specified around
two servings for adults (note: a serving is just a teaspoon). It’s okay to
have more, and people with very high calorie needs may consume
quite a bit more.
Where’s the “Calcium Group?”
Most food guides aimed at vegetarians have a “milk” group, with
soymilk included as an alternative. Food guides for vegans often have
a “calcium-rich foods” group. But this doesn’t make sense. Except for
fats, all of the food groups contain calcium-rich foods, so why not take
advantage of this?
That’s what we’ve done in the guide on page 88. Our food guide
encourages you to choose a variety of foods to meet calcium needs. Be
sure that your choices from the food groups include at least six to eight servings of calcium-rich foods per day. (Or you can make up the
difference with a calcium supplement.)
USING THE VEGAN FOOD GUIDE
The vegan food guide is aimed at helping adults meet minimum requirements for nutrients. If you consume just what the guide specifies, it will provide you with approximately 1,600 calories. Since most adults need a higher calorie intake, you can meet your energy needs by boosting intakes from all of the food groups.
Again, make sure that you are including at least six to eight servings per day of calcium-rich foods. These are listed in the right-hand column of the food guide. For example, ½ cup of calcium-set tofu counts as a serving from the protein-rich foods group and also as one of your servings of a calcium-rich food. Or, if you include a cup of cooked kale with dinner, it counts as a serving of vegetables and also a serving of a calcium-rich food.
In a couple of cases, serving sizes need to be adjusted in order for a
food to count as a calcium-rich choice. While a whole cup of soymilk
is one serving from the protein-rich foods group, because it is so high
in calcium, it counts as two servings of a calcium-rich food. And two
navel oranges equal a single calcium-rich serving even though they
cover two of your recommended fruit servings.
It’s easy to use the food guide to pull together vegan menus that
are healthy and delicious.
In addition, the following supplements or fortified foods will ensure that you get adequate vitamin B12, iodine, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats.
• Two servings per day of fortified foods providing 1.5 to 2.5 micro –
grams of vitamin B12 per serving OR
• 25 to 100 micrograms per day from a chewable or sublingual supplement OR
• 1,000 micrograms twice per week from a chewable or sublingual
• 75 to 150 micrograms three to four days per week (or ¼ teaspoon
of iodized salt per day)
• 1,000 IU (25 micrograms) per day unless you are certain you are
getting adequate sun exposure
• DHA: A supplement providing 200 to 300 micrograms (of DHA
or DHA plus EPA combined) from algae every two or three days
(or every day for people over sixty)
• Alpha-linolenic acid: Be sure that your diet includes three to
four servings per day from the following list.
1 teaspoon canola oil
¼ teaspoon flaxseed oil
²⁄3 teaspoon hempseed oil
1 teaspoon walnut oil
2 teaspoons ground English walnuts or 1 walnut half
1 teaspoon ground flaxseeds
½ cup cooked soybeans
1 cup firm tofu
1 cup tempeh
2 tablespoons soynuts
For Those Who Don’t Like Legumes
If you’re beginning a transition to a vegan diet you may not have much experience with beans. Most Americans rarely eat them. Soyfoods and other legumes make it especially easy to meet protein needs on a vegan diet, but they aren’t absolutely essential to balanced meal planning. The real issue when you drop these foods from your diet is that it becomes more of a challenge to meet the needs for the essential amino acid lysine. If you choose not to eat legumes, you’ll need to add three servings of other lysine-rich foods to your diet. A serving is one cup of quinoa, ¼ cup of pistachios, or ½ cup of cashews. This is in addition to the five servings of grains and one serving of nuts that are already recommended in the food guide.
Consider introducing beans to your meals gradually if they are new to
Start out with one serving of legumes per day—maybe a hummus
sandwich or bean burrito—plus one serving of a soyfood.
Replace the third recommended serving with a lysine-rich food like ¼ cup of pistachios.
Because legumes are the most protein dense of all foods, diets require a bit more attention to planning when legume intake is limited.
If you aren’t consuming any legumes or soyfoods, make sure you are getting most of your calories from whole grains, vegetables, and nuts.
Limit fruit and other low-protein foods like added fats, desserts, and alcohol.
WHOLE VERSUS PROCESSED FOODS:
FINDING A BALANCE
It’s easier than ever to plan healthy and interesting vegan meals because of the array of convenience products like veggie meats and cheeses and boxed and frozen dinners. Although many forms of processing strip away nutrients from foods or add undesirable ingredients, processed foods have a long and nutritionally important history in many world cuisines. Tofu and soymilk are two examples of processed foods that play a significant role in Asian cuisine.
While it is a good idea to build your diet around a variety of whole plant foods, moderate amounts of foods that don’t carry the “whole
foods” label can play a role, and sometimes an important one, in healthy vegan diets.
For many, including veggie burgers, fortified plant milks, pasta sauce from a jar, instant soup, and other convenience foods makes vegan meal planning more realistic.
It can improve the chances that you will meet nutrient needs and thrive on a vegan diet, and it can be especially important for children. Athletes and others with high calorie needs can also benefit from more processed foods.
Too often we have seen an unwavering commitment to eliminating
all processed foods from meals morph into a restrictive eating pattern
that is marginal in protein and fat and falls short of providing enough
calories. Sadly, the result is that many people on this kind of regimen decide that a vegan diet is ruining their health or they find it unsatisfying
and difficult, and they return to eating animal foods.
On the other hand, we have rarely seen these kinds of problems in vegans who are more liberal in their food choices—enjoying veggie burgers, a drizzle of olive oil on salads, a sweet treat now and then, and whatever convenience products it takes to keep their vegan diet nutrient-rich and realistic.
The point isn’t that you must eat processed foods to be healthy; it’s
that there is a reasonable way to balance healthy food choices with convenience if you wish to do so. A diet based on veggie meats and protein
bars is not the best way to meet nutrient needs. But if a moderate use of
processed foods makes it easy to stick with a vegan diet, then enjoying
them will help you reap the health benefits of plant-based eating and
support your commitment to a diet that reduces animal suffering.
ALLERGIES AND FOOD INTOLERANCES
Food allergies are an immune response to a protein that the body perceives as “foreign.” The immune system reacts by producing anti –
bodies, which can trigger skin rashes, nausea, or respiratory symptoms.
Approximately 6 to 8 percent of children have food allergies and at
least half outgrow them by adulthood. Food allergies affect only 2 to 4
percent of adults.
If you think you might be allergic to certain foods, it’s a good idea to
get tested by a qualified health professional and possibly get a second opinion from a professional who does a different type of testing.
The number of people who believe they have allergies is much higher than
the number who actually test positive for them. As an adult, you may
no longer be allergic to foods that caused problems for you as a child.
Although any protein can cause allergies, eight foods account for more than 90 percent of food allergies.
These are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, and wheat. Of these, only tree nuts, pea -nuts, soy, and wheat are of concern to vegans. And peanut and tree nut allergies are the ones that are most likely to persist beyond childhood.
Allergies to soy are relatively uncommon in both children and adults,
and they are also unlikely to cause severe symptoms like respiratory
problems. Wheat allergy is not the same as celiac disease, which is an
intolerance to all sources of the protein gluten.
People with wheat allergy need to avoid wheat but can usually consume other sources of gluten like barley. However, if you have a wheat allergy, the growing
availability of gluten-free products makes it easier to plan a healthy diet.
There is no treatment for food allergies; if you have them, the only
solution is to avoid all foods that cause reactions. Vegans who have
multiple allergies face some challenges, but once you understand what
you can and can’t eat, and begin to explore alternatives, you may find
that planning healthy and satisfying meals is easier than you think.
For people with the most common plant-food allergies—nuts,
peanuts, soy, and wheat—there are plenty of foods to enjoy on the
menu, such as quinoa, oats, rice, potatoes, millet, corn tortillas, certain
types of Asian noodles, sunflower seeds, tahini, beans, vegetables, and
fruits. Most people with allergies to tree nuts can safely eat coconuts.
People with allergies should carefully read labels, of course, since soy,
wheat, and nuts can turn up where you might not expect to find them.
Food labels include a list of common allergens at the end of the ingredient list.
Although it’s easy to be vegan without shopping outside of conventional supermarkets, people with allergies may want to explore natural
foods stores and Asian groceries as a way of expanding their choices.
The following is one example of a vegan menu for someone with
allergies to soy, tree nuts, peanuts, and wheat.
4 Oatmeal with toasted sunflower seeds, chopped dried figs,
and calcium-fortified rice milk
4 Fresh fruit
4 Coconut milk yogurt
4 Tostadas: corn tortillas topped with refried pinto beans,
avocado, salsa, chopped raw vegetables, and Daiya cheese
(a vegan cheese that is also free of soy)
4 Fresh fruit
4 Rice crackers with sunflower seed butter
4 Rice noodles tossed with steamed vegetables and a sauce of
tahini and lemon juice
4 Salad with vinaigrette dressing
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