You Say Vee-gan, I Say Vehj-an
Though I completed my undergrad studies in Nutritional Science way back in the 80s and
actually spent a year in the Master’s program at the University of Hawaii, there was one thing I
never understood. Why are people who adhere to a strict vegetarian diet referred to as vee-gans
(vegan)? Since it’s a vegetable based diet as in vehj-tah-bul, why aren’t they called vehj-ans? I
mean, we don’t call the food items in the produce section veeg-tah-buls. Oh well, maybe that’s
why I moved on to pharmacy.
Vegetarians are people who don’t consume any animal flesh or products derived from animal
flesh. So obviously steak, pork, poultry and sea critters are off limits. However, so are dishes that
use beef or chicken broth as the broth is also created from the flesh (and bones) of the
respective animal. Vegetarians can consume products that come from animals like milk and eggs
(non-fertilized) and often are referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarians.
The biggest issue with vegetarianism is when you’re dining out as the public’s understanding
varies with what you can and cannot consume. For instance, my sister was a vegetarian for
several years and when we visited the local neighborhood Chinese restaurant, would inquire
about possible vegetarian dishes for sis. “Yes, it’s vegetarian, no chicken meat, just chicken
broth” or “Yes vegetarian, only fish in the stir fry”. Um... not vegetarian on both counts.
All vegans are vegetarian but not all vegetarians are vegan as veganism excludes all animal
products whether flesh or not, so even milk and eggs are off limits. In fact many vegans embrace
no animal products in their whole lifestyle so no animal hides are allowed to adorn their bodies.
While my sister was in her vegetarian phase, we used to tease her that she had to wear plastic
And though a totally plant based diet means zero dietary cholesterol as cholesterol only comes
from animal based foods, you can still be afflicted with hypercholesterolemia as your own liver
produces cholesterol and high levels of serum cholesterol are often due to genetic causes.
Dietary cholesterol simply makes a bad thing worse and it’s dietary saturated fat that raises
serum cholesterol even more so than dietary cholesterol. So even vegans who consume excess
saturated fats in the form of palm and coconut oils can inadvertently raise their cholesterol
levels even without consuming any beef, pork or chicken. Though the biggest dietary drawback
to veganism is a lack of vitamin B12 or cyanocobalamin in your diet as B12 like cholesterol, is
only found in animal sources. Which can be a serious issue as along with the possible
megaloblastic anemia that a B12 deficient diet can cause, chronic low levels of B12 can lead to
dementia which isn’t reversible by supplementing B12 after the fact.
But is it a Healthier Diet?
For the most part, a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier as it usually is lower in saturated fat
and cholesterol free plus you invariably consume a lot more dietary fiber and micronutrients -
both vitamins and minerals - than your basic animal-based diets. And though plant proteins
usually aren’t complete proteins lacking or low in one or two of the nine essential amino acids,
combining different plant proteins such as bean, wheat and sesame now makes it complete with
each different food source making up for what the other lacks. Or simply consume more
quinoa, buckwheat, chia seeds, soybeans or potatoes.
Personally I adhered to a vegan diet for several weeks – not by choice – but because I
volunteered for a classmate’s nutrition thesis research project. Because she was looking at
vitamin B utilization during both aerobic and anaerobic activity, she provided research subjects
with their daily vegan meals. During this time period was the only time I could swat the net on
a basketball court. I literally was jumping about 5 or 6 inches higher… and it wasn’t because
the higher fiber in the vegan diet was giving me a turbo boost from my backside. I also felt a
lot more energetic during those several weeks.
So why didn’t I continue a vegan diet? With food technology today, you can substitute real
cheese with soy based “cheese”. You can substitute ground beef with textured vegetable protein.
Heck, there are even plant based burgers that “bleed” red while cooking and have the exact
mouthfeel as real beef. But science still hasn’t been able to mimic a real sunny side or poached
egg with that glorious runny yolk. Until then, I’m not giving up all animal products!
Because of the strong flavor of chili and spices, I’m pretty sure you won’t miss the animal flesh
and though this isn’t like your usual bowl of Texas Red, it’s the classic style of chili common in
1 cup textured vegetable protein (I’m using Beef Not! Which is soy flour and corn based)
1 medium onion finely diced
4 to 6 stalks celery finely diced
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Vegetable oil (I use garlic infused macadamia nut oil)
3 to 4 cans kidney beans (drained and rinsed)
1 can chopped olives
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste
2 to 3 tbsp chili powder
1 to 2 tsp powdered cumin
1 to 2 tsp dried oregano
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Powdered chipotle or hot sauce (optional)
In a large Dutch oven, cook the onions, celery and garlic until softened. Add the water, beans,
olives and tomato products so the liquid level is a little above the solids. Add the textured
vegetable protein and powdered/dried spices then bring to a gentle boil then reduce heat to
simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes stirring occasionally and adding extra water if the liquid drops
well below the solids.
Finally, if going totally animal free is just too large a leap for you to take, you can take smaller
steps with the pescatarian diet which does allow seafood. It still is a healthier alternative to the
usual animal-based diets as most seafood is lower in saturated fat and fattier seafood options
like salmon, tuna and mackerel are higher in those long chain omega-3 fatty acids and unless
you’re pregnant, are always better to substitute for those land-based animals. Or if you’re not
ready to make the vegan leap or love your runny egg yolks like I do, simply make smaller
changes but reducing the portions of your land-based proteins substituting them with plant or
seafood-based proteins. However, if converting to pescatarian diet, you do want to consume
sustainable seafoods… but that’s a whole column in itself.