The Four Pillars of a Vegan Diet: Why Would Anyone Want to Go Vegan
My dietary preferences have waxed and waned over the years, which isn’t uncommon for those of us concerned about our health. With so much information out there, and so many options to choose from, it’s hard not to try a myriad of different diets and lifestyles throughout your lifetime. Like finding a mate, it takes time. And sometimes longer than we wish. Today, I’d like to talk about a diet, or a lifestyle rather, that resonates with me. And one that I find myself coming back to, again and again.
Veganism, or a plant-based whole foods diet
What I’m talking about is becoming vegan. But, as you probably know, the word is vague, and not always healthy, because a vegan diet refers to a diet that’s all about not eating animals, or any animal product. By definition, veganism doesn’t cut out sugar and other processed foods, which means a vegan diet can be totally unhealthy. So, perhaps a better phrase for what health conscious vegans are actually referring to is a sugar-free, plant-based, whole foods diet. This diet is radically different from the conventional way of eating, but it’s what I believe is best for you, best for society, best for the animals, and best for Mother Earth.
Pillar #1—your health
This is probably the most motivating factor for all of you reading this today. You want to know how you should eat in order to be (and stay) as healthy as possible. You don’t want to get sick as you age, and you definitely don’t want to die young. You are what you eat, as the saying goes, so we must take our eating habits seriously. First, let’s talk about eliminating sugar.
Taking sugar out of your diet, save the occasional kombucha drink or maple syrup cookie—which combines your favorite nut butter, pure maple syrup, and sea salt—is perhaps the best and most effective habit you can change in your life to transform your health. This might sound dramatic, and it is. Sugar lurks everywhere. As I write this, I’m enjoying a mandarin-passionfruit smoothie from my favorite coffee shop that tastes as if it’s got a ton of sugar in it. (No, I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to sugar, but like you, I’m trying to do better. And, I probably won’t be ordering this particular drink again.) Sugar is added to your favorite condiments like sriracha and ketchup, and it’s an unnecessary addition to some of your most favorite pasta sauces. And don’t even get me started on juice! But, I digress…
When talking to my vegan-eating friend Maria, a licensed therapist and marathon runner in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this is how she put her aversion to sugar:
I am vegan, and I cut out most all sugar, even though processed sugars are vegan-friendly by definition. But, they’re certainly not healthy. In my view, sugar is one of the products at the center of the capitalist system that keeps us sick, and hooked on pharmaceuticals.
Does this sound extreme? Depends. And, is there truth to it? For sure. It’s a corporate doggy dog society we live in, and sugary foods are big business. This has to do with the fourth pillar—eating as a political act—which we’ll cover in a minute. The unhealthy act of eating most sugars has been proven. Numerous studies show how eating too much sugar is intricately linked to type 2 diabetes, childhood and adult obesity, and yes—cancer.
Cancer cells thrive on sugar. When my step dad suffered through the treatment of stage 4 throat cancer, my mom and I learned that those screenings, (they’re called Pet scans) actually inject sugar into the body to detect where the cancer cells are thriving. Cancer cells love sugar, and they swarm to the injected sugar like moths to a flame. This fact alone should motivate us to cut out the sugars from our diet. But, because it’s not at the forefront of our thinking, we need constant reminding. It’s not as if there are commercials on television warning you of the dangers of sugar. Instead, your consciousness is bombarded with messages about how great the latest sugary sports drink is for your workout, or how your kids are going to love this or that sugary cereal.
So, why are most of us sugar addicts, so to speak? Turns out, it’s ingrained in our DNA. Sugar was incredibly scarce when our ancestors were out hunting and gathering. On the rare occasions that they found those sweet berries, they ate them up like they were going out of style. Because, they were.
The other piece is that the processed sugar we eat today is highly addictive because of the dopamine and opioids released in our brain when we eat it. There’s a kind of high that happens when we eat sugar as a result. No wonder we reward ourselves and our children with this pleasurable reward when we deserve one. Dopamine is actually part of the “reward circuit” in the brain. Unfortunately, as you eat sugar, you need to eat more in order to get the same high. It’s the same as any addictive behavior. We need more of the substance that’s giving us the high because our brains actually adjust. They release a little less dopamine each time. It’s a vicious cycle, no doubt.
The behaviors become hardwired over time due to the neural networks we’re building. No wonder the majority of us have some kind of addiction or two. And it makes eating no sugar an incredibly radical act. We have to overcome not only our biology, but also the media and society which says it’s ok to eat tons of sugar. Our tolerance builds and builds. And we desperately need to stop the vicious cycle because numerous studies show sugar is killing us. For all these reasons and more, the sugar-free part of a vegan diet is really important.
And just because simple processed carbs like breads and baked goods can be vegan, doesn’t make them good for you. Many vegans find eliminating gluten from their diet is just as important as eliminating sugar. It all has to do with gut health. Which we’ll talk about more in a future post.
Which takes us to other health matters. The old thinking goes, if you’re vegan, how do you get your protein? Aren’t the best protein sources from meat? The straight answer to this is, no. The protein in animals actually comes from the plants they eat. You can think of these animals as middlemen. By going vegan, you cut out the middleman, and go directly to the nutrient sources—the plants themselves. There’s a great documentary about vegan athletes on Netflix called Gamechangers, and it explains this point even further. I recommend watching it for vegan inspiration. You’ll learn that the strongest man in the world is vegan. No animal protein required!
The best plant sources of protein are:
- Nuts and seeds, of which there are many. Chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts—the list goes on and on.
- Nut butters
- Soy foods like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and edamame
- Beans and lentils
- Nutritional yeast
- Teff and spelt
- Chickpea flour
- Breads that are made from sprouted grains
- Veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, spinach, asparagus, sweet potatoes, potatoes
Vegans can get every bit as much protein in their diets as their meat-eating peers. And the quality of protein is much healthier. Plant foods are more nutrient dense than animal ones. This is just a simple fact. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Matcha green tea
- Medicinal mushrooms
- Bok choy
Supplement with B12 and super greens
The one supplement you’ll need to take is vitamin B12, as it’s the vitamin that’s only found in animal products. You can get your B12 from nutritional yeast, which I like to sprinkle on popcorn, soups, and salads, or you can take a high-quality B12 supplement. As you become more aware of your health, which happens when you start eating more plant-based foods, you may decide to purchase a nutrient-packed green powder, which you can add to your smoothies. I love making smoothies for breakfast, especially as we transition out of winter and into spring. Our company has a wonderful greens supplement that you take as a tea. It’s called Lean Body Hacks Detox Tea, and it contains a treasure trove of superfoods that enhance energy, increase immune function, and boost your metabolism—a real treat for the body and mind.
Sustainable environmental future
Ever wonder how the foods you choose to buy and eat will impact the future of life on our planet? If so, you’re in the right place! And if you’re a concerned environmentalist, you’ve probably had a thought like this one:
Does the future of the planet depend upon us eating a plant-based, sugar-free whole-foods diet?
Many experts say yes. Actually, most experts say yes. Climate change is a fact, and the facts are sobering. So, what exactly is going on with climate change, and why do our food choices make a difference?
The ecological footprint of eating meat is huge. It’s pretty darn big for dairy, too. But, why? This is a question I’ve often wondered, because I’ve never truly understood what’s going on with climate change. One piece of the climate change puzzle has to do with greenhouse gas emissions. When you choose to eat meat, you’re putting a ton of greenhouse gas emissions into the environment.
A 2009 study published in the journal Climate Change found that if the average person changed their eating habits by shifting to a low meat diet, they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a large, large percentage. The same researchers found that by simply switching from eating burgers to beans, you’d be reducing your risk of getting the dreaded heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s by a lot.
In fact, eating a plant-based diet is much easier on the pocketbook, and it’s much easier on the pocketbook of our world’s rising healthcare costs. Yet another study in the journal Climate Change found meat eaters were twice as responsible for global warming as vegetarians, and three times as responsible as vegans. Now, that’s something to ponder...
Most of the meat you eat, and also the dairy you consume, are produced in factory farms. What goes on in these factory farms is beyond humane. It’s bad for the animals, and it’s bad for the environment. Oh, it’s bad for you, too. First off, the animals. The cows, chickens, pigs, and all livestock are smashed together in really crowded living quarters. Instead of eating the food they were meant to eat, like grass, and other plants, they’re fed genetically modified soybeans, and modified corn. They’re injected with growth hormones and antibiotics.
This helps the factory farms produce more animal products at a faster rate, to make the highest profit—sacrificing the animals’ health, as well as ours. Their manure, which would fertilize grasslands if they were simply eating grass, builds up and pollutes our planet’s air and water. It’s really sad when all is said and done. So, the environmental pillar really ties into the compassion one. Like our bodies and minds, everything’s connected. All of it.
Compassion for all sentient beings
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to have compassion for animals, and all sentient beings, for that matter.
When I lived in Hawaii for a year, this pillar was the most influential for me. I lived just a stone’s throw away from Kealakekua Bay, one of the prettiest corners of the Earth. On the days I wasn’t working at the bookstore in town (Kona), I swam and snorkeled and kayaked in that bay. Surrounded by the sweetest little fish, I remember thinking to myself as I swam and watched them in awe, there is no way in hell I’m going to eat you. And my thinking translated to my actions.
Living that close to nature, and in a natural setting that was so alive, and so gorgeous made me not want to eat animals—plain and simple. We were sharing space, in a way that was so much more intimate than where I live today, in Kansas City. And that intimacy left such an impression on me that while ten years away, it remains with me today.
Why should we care about other animals? If you’re asking this, you haven’t had the experiences I did. Not yet, anyway. (There’s still time to move to Hawaii.) Think about how intelligent your dog is. Think about how much you love her. In certain places around the world, people eat dogs. Crazy, right? We’ve domesticated dogs, which were once wild. Domesticate any other animal or bird, and you’d probably feel the same. Sure, some appear to be more intelligent than others on the surface. But, so many animals we eat are infinitely intelligent. And we share the planet with them. Who are we to decide which is higher up on the food chain? Weren’t they here first, anyway? Something to consider...
Eating as a political act
European travel guru Rick Steves wrote a book several years ago titled, Travel as a Political Act. It’s a great book. I recommend it. The catchy slogan stuck with me, hence our last vegan pillar—eating as a political act. Eating is highly political, more so than travel because it’s more universal. We all have to eat. And we do it every single day. What we eat is intimately linked to our environmental footprint. What we spend our money on in terms of food is one of the most powerful ways we can stand up for what we believe in.
The sustainable future that you envision for your children and grandchildren can more easily be attained when you eat a vegan diet. If you’re interested in delving further into this topic, I recommend reading a book called Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. One of the first books of its kind to be published (in 1971), this compelling read explores the heavy environmental footprint of meat production and the implications it has towards food scarcity on a global scale. You really can make a difference by adopting a vegan diet. And if this sounds too extreme, simply begin eating more plants and less animal products. Little by little, you’ll make changes that stick. And changes that matter.