Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How To Be Well-Nourished Without Eating Meat

This raw vegan meal by Chef Areeya at the Go Raw Café contains plenty of protein.
Note:  This contains an edit to the original post.  I had said that there are 12 conditionally essential amino acids.  That was an error.  I meant to say that there are 12 nonessential amino acids that we normally produce in our bodies, 8 of which are conditionally essential, meaning that we don't produce them under certain circumstances such as stress or illness.  I'll write more on that in a future post, because it's important.

People who have been vegan or raw vegan for many years may not be able to relate to this.  But for some people who are striving to live a raw vegan lifestyle, every so often it may be tempting to walk on over to the paleo side and take a bite of flesh.

I don't believe in judging people for their food choices. If it works for you, great.  Each of us make a choice with every bite.  If you recently switched from a meat-centered diet to a mostly high-raw plant based diet, and now you only eat meat once a month when the moon is full, that's still a huge improvement, right?  I think so.   Going from eating meat one to three times daily to eating it rarely, IS an improvement.

But what if you want to be 100% meat-free?  And what if, despite your best efforts, you are struggling?  What if you are genuinely concerned about consuming adequate nutrition on a plant-based diet?

Please keep in mind that I am not an expert, a scientist, a doctor, a nutritionist, or a raw vegan guru, and nothing I write here should be construed as medical advice. But in the interest of improving my own diet, I have looked into this, and I'd like to share what I have found.

First off, why on earth would you want to be meat-free?  If you are reading this blog you probably already know, but let's run over a quick summary of the reasons:

Health benefits:  People who go meat-free live longer and experience fewer incidents of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Environmental benefits:  The production of meat for food is an inefficient use of resources.    Instead of growing food to feed humans, the meat industry has to grow food to feed cows to feed humans.  By eliminating or even decreasing meat consumption, we can decrease our carbon footprint, reduce carbon emissions, reduce water consumption and reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Kindness and compassion:  In the majority of cases, animals which are raised to be sold for food are thought of as property and inventory, and are not thought of as sentient beings with feelings. It would cost a great deal of money to consider their quality of life as they are fattened and their comfort as they die, and this would directly impact profit margins.  For these reasons, animals which are raised for food tend to suffer.  This is a fact.  You don't have to be an animal rights activist to care whether your diet results in suffering, especially when it's unnecessary and high-quality nutrition can come from other sources.

I believe that sometimes when we have a craving for a certain type of food, it's because we need the nutrients found in that food.  This is disputed and many people disagree with this, but in my personal experience this is true.  It could also be a nostalgic or comfort feeling for a type of food, or the feeling of satiation associated with the food.  However, I find that when I consume the necessary nutrition, the craving goes away.  So first, let's take a closer look at the nutrients found in red meat, and which vegan sources contain the same nutrition.

Let's talk about the first obvious nutrient found in meat:  protein.  Here's the truth about protein:  It isn't necessary.  A lot of people dispute this, but it's true.  People think they NEED protein, but the truth is, they do not.  Before you decide I'm completely full of it, let me explain:  Technically, we need amino acids.  To be exact, we need exactly 9 essential amino acids, which are deemed essential because they cannot be manufactured by the body.  We also sometimes need 8 additional conditionally essential amino acids, meaning normally you produce them in your body with the foods you eat, and you only need to consume them in food if you are sick, under stress, or if you are a young person who is still developing.  You may remember learning in school that amino acids are the building blocks of protein.  Here is a fact:  ALL of these essential and conditionally essential amino acids are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts! 

In infants and toddlers, arginine, glutamine, glycine, proline, taurine and tyrosine are essential because they do not yet make them in their bodies.    Fortunately, an infant can obtain all necessary nutrients from breast milk.  The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age and breastfeeding with appropriate complimentary foods up to age two and beyond.

When we eat animal protein, it is broken down by the body and turned into amino acids, which is a great deal of extra work.  It is much easier to assimilate the amino acids found in plant based foods.  The trick is to eat them in the right combinations, to get the full range.

One of the amino acids found in meat protein is called creatine.  Muscles are made partly of creatine, which is why it's a popular supplement with body builders.  It's not considered essential or conditionally essential because our bodies manufacture muscle with amino acids.  Seriously, if our body could not manufacture muscle tissue we would be in serious trouble, right?  We make creatine in our bodies, out of glycine, arginine, and methionine.  Glycine and arginine are conditionally essential, and L-methionine is essential.  Avocados, oats, and wheat germ contain glycine.  All nuts, seeds, berries and whole grains contain arginine, as well as all vegetables except celery and turnips.  Eggplant, strawberries, tomatoes, pineapple and coconut also contain this amino acid.  Methionine is found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables, and it is found in all nuts except Brazil nuts and in all grains, especially corn.

Another popular component found in meat, carnosine, is found in muscle tissue.  It's a dipeptide, which means it's a compound made of two linked amino acids, histidine and alanine. Alananine is found in nuts, seeds and whole grains, and histidine is found in beans, nuts and seeds, and in a wide range of  vegetables.  Histidine is essential, and alanine is nonessential.

So, the point is, you don't need protein.  You need amino acids.  Your body is unique, so depending on your lifestyle, stress levels, and other factors your needs may differ.  However, most people can take in adequate amino acids if they simply consume a wide range of fruits and vegetables each day, and a small quantity, perhaps a handful, of nuts and seeds.

Another nutrient we absolutely must have for our bodies to function normally are the Omega 3 (alpha-linolenic acid,) and Omega 6 fatty acids, (linoleic acid.)  We make cholesterol and fat in our bodies, but not these.  To be healthy, we need them to be in balance.  Because Omega 6 tends to be more common in most diets, the one that normally needs supplementation is Omega 3.  Walnuts, hemp, spirulina,  chia seeds, flaxseeds, collards and cabbage  contain alpha-linolenic acid, (ALA) which is an Omega 3 fatty acid that the body can convert to the other Omega 3s, which are also known as EPA and DHA.  EPA and DHA are found in marine life, but our body also makes it from ALA.  If one wishes to maintain a plant based diet, it's important to consume a small quantity of spirulina, hemp, walnuts, flaxseeds, flax oil, chia seeds, or some other food containing ALA each day.  Keep in mind that whole flaxseeds will pass through the body undigested.  Grind them in a high speed blender or coffee grinder before eating them.  Freshly ground flaxseed is delicious on salads, blended into smoothies or nut milks, and it makes delicious crackers, cookies and breads.  Nuts and seeds are a good source of omega 6, but many nuts and seeds tend to contain many times more omega 6 than omega 3.  This is why it's a good idea to eat foods that are higher in Omega 3 than Omega 6, to balance it out. 

In order to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, your body needs to put the ALA through a chemical reaction using the enzyme delta-6 desaturase.  In order for this enzyme to work optimally, your body needs vitamins B6, (pyridoxine) B3, (niacin) C, and the minerals magnesium and zinc.

Vitamin B6 is found in many vegetables, nuts and seeds.  Sunflower seeds, cashews, hazelnuts, spinach, bell peppers, peas and broccoli are especially rich in B6.

Beets, mushrooms, peas, avocado and sunflower seeds are rich in B3, otherwise known as niacin.  Not only do we need niacin to convert ALA into omegas, but it's a nutrient found in red meat, so it's important to get it from other sources if one is on a meat-free diet.

The other vitamins and minerals needed in the body for processing AlA are vitamin C, Magnesium, and zinc.  If you are deficient in these nutrients, your body may not be able to process the ALA from the flax seeds into Omega 3.  Vitamin C, of course is found in citrus fruits, but it's also found in bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries and kale.  Magnesium is in dark green leafy vegetables, cacao, avocado, banana, and nuts and seeds.   Zinc is in cacao, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms and spinach.

A tricky nutrient that omnivores obtain from meat is vitamin B12.  Before people understood B12 deficiency, some people grew very sick and died from it.  Some people claim that indigenous and early people probably got some of their B12 from the bacteria in soil getting into their food, and modern food preparation techniques have changed that.  We don't need much B12, but deficiency can cause serious nervous system damage.  I have seen some claims by people who have been 100% vegan for several years without supplementing this nutrient and without ill effects, but most nutritionists would not recommend it.  There is some speculation that some people may have bacteria in the gut that produces B12, however this bacteria is produced in the ileum and is not absorbed by the body.  Therefore, it's very important that vegans take a B12 supplement.  One terrific source of B12 is nutritional yeast.  Nutritional yeast has a flavor reminiscent of cheese, and is delicious sprinkled on salads, pizzas and casseroles, and adds a delicious flavor to salad dressings, sauces and dips.  About 2 tablespoons per day of fortified nutritional yeast provides an adequate source of B12.  Also, it's an inactive yeast, so those on a yeast-free diet should be able to enjoy it.  Make sure that you check the label when purchasing nutritional yeast to ensure that it contains B12.

Another source of B12 is supplementation in tablet form.   The best type of tablet is said to be sublingual, meaning that it dissolves under the tongue and is more readily absorbed by the body.  Vegans use B12 supplements made from methylcobalamin, which comes from bacteria rather than animal flesh.

My thinking on this is that B12 deficiency can be such a problem that it shouldn't be taken lightly.  I suggest incorporating nutritional yeast in the diet AND supplementing.  A person can't overdose on B12 since the excess is simply flushed out of the body.  It is possible for a vegan to become deficient however, and it's also possible to miss the signs of deficiency until after health consequences are experienced.

I recommend not only supplementing but make sure that your supplement is made by a reputable vitamin manufacturer that regularly has it's product tested for quality and efficacy by a third party testing lab.  Vitamins that are tested by a third party lab will typically have a seal on the label that can be verified by the testing lab.  In other words, don't just buy the lowest priced vitamin B12 supplement you can find, but one made by a company that places a high value on quality.  Because supplements are not regulated by the FDA, as many as 25% of the supplements tested may not actually contain the amount of nutrient stated on the label, and may be adulterated with additional ingredients that you do not want.  For this reason it's important to purchase a reliable, tested brand of vitamin.

While we are on the subject of supplementation, another vitamin to consider is D. The only unprocessed, raw, plant food source of vitamin D that I am aware of is mushrooms, if they are treated with UVB rays.  We do manufacture vitamin D with our bodies when we are exposed to the sun, but you need at least ten minutes a day of strong exposure on the arms and legs.  As everyone knows, too much sunlight can cause skin cancer.  A diet rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients will provide some limited protection to the skin from sun exposure.  However for many raw vegans, it might seem easier to simply take a supplement.  Again, it's a good idea to research the product to ensure that it has been independently lab tested and certified that it contains the ingredients advertized.

Two additional B vitamins which are found in meat are thiamin, which is B1,  and riboflavin which is B2.  Thiamin is found in sesame seeds and tahini, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, pecans, and macadamias.  Riboflavin is found in almonds, spinach, peas and crimini mushrooms.

Another chemical found in meat is called alpha-lipoic acid.  Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant which is produced in the body.  Vegan sources of this nutrient include spinach and broccoli.

The last three nutrients which are found in meat that I would like to mention are iron, zinc, and phosphorus.  Spinach, broccoli, and bok choy are rich in iron.  In a vegan diet, iron absorption is increased by eating iron rich foods with foods containing vitamin C.  Zinc is found in almonds, cashews, pecans and sunflower seeds.  Phosphorus is found in broccoli, sunflower seeds, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews and garlic.

In conclusion, if you are trying to reduce or eliminate your consumption of animal proteins, whatever the reason,  include the following foods in your diet:  a wide range of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, (especially flax, walnuts, chia seeds and hemp,) berries, a wide range of greens, including collards, bok choy,and spinach, spirulina, cacao, pineapple, coconut, eggplant, broccoli, avocado, beets, bell peppers, peas, mushrooms, and corn.  Make sure to include nutritional yeast and/or B12 supplementation and consider taking vitamin D.  Oats are an excellent source of nourishment, and they can be found organic, whole and raw.  If you are gluten intolerant, oats can be found that are certified gluten-free.

For more information regarding which plant foods contain essential amino acids and other nutrients, the book, "Rawsome!" by Brigitte Mars, contains a section in the back that lists the important nutrients and which foods contain them.  The front of the book contains an encyclopedia of plants foods commonly found in a raw diet, and the benefits of each food along with the nutrients each food contains.

For more information on getting enough nutrition as a bodybuilder on a raw vegan diet, look into "How To Build Muscle On A Raw Food Diet" by Peter Ragnar.