If first book on your vegan bookshelf convinces you to go vegan, the second one should tackle the practical problem of making veganism healthy and approachable. This problem is not as easily solved as we would like. 84% of all vegans and vegetarians in the United States return to meat eating. Some develop nutritional deficiencies, some “just don’t feel right” and all feel burdened by a vegan diet. Registered dietitians Jack Norris and Ginny Messina offer a refreshingly sane practical guide to avoiding deficiencies and burnout on a vegan diet.
The heart of the book is an examination of nine nutrients (protein, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, alpha-linolenic acid, and vitamins B12, A and D), but it covers a lot of ground. The authors have a talent for simply and elegantly stating their message. For example, in the introduction, which explores the authors’ motives for defending veganism, they offer their take on “humane meat:”
“Any truly meaningful welfare improvements can take place only on very small farms where every aspect of the animal’s life (and death) is monitored. But that’s a costly and inefficient way to produce animal foods. Even if people could afford them, there isn’t enough land for farms of this type to feed the American population.”
A perfect summation of the argument against eating “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” meat. This direct, simple approach to their subject matter characterizes the entire book.
Aside from the book’s value as a primer on vegan nutrition issues, it stands well as a reference work as the need arises for recipes, meal planning and nutritional guidelines. There are sections on different populations, most crucially pregnant women and children. Usefully, their sections on each nutrient contains a chart showing the levels of that nutrient contained in various foods. Chapters conclude with bullet points on how to maximize nutrient absorption. A personal favorite: to maximize iron absorption, be sure to pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods. I’ve taken to putting sliced banana in my oatmeal for this reason.
Perhaps more important than the specifics of the research covered, is the ethos behind this book, which stands in opposition to certain segments of the the health-oriented approach to veganism. The book has no interest in making promises about how a vegan diet can transform your life or cure your diseases. Their is no magic formula that this book is selling. They offer a measured, common-sense evaluation of how vegan diets may reduce your risks for heart disease and diabetes, without overplaying their hand. Even in 2011, the authors warned against the rise of low-fat, gluten-free and raw vegan diets: “Current trends among some vegans to give up more foods added fats, cooked foods, and gluten—are counterproductive, especially because these dietary restrictions have few health benefits for most people.” While these diets may work for some people, they shouldn’t be proscribed as a general rule.
There has also been increasing attention given to the “whole-foods plant-based” movement, advocated by T Colin Cambell and his acolytes. There’s nothing wrong with advocating for what is unquestionably a very healthy way of eating. However, it’s important to emphasize that there are many ways of being vegan. For instance, there is no reason to demonize mock meats that many vegans find convenient and tasty. People have a hard enough time maintaining a vegan or vegetarian diet, without advising a further narrowing of their diet. Veganism is not only for the health-conscious set. Vegan for Life fosters the basic level of nutritional literacy necessary for every vegan and leaves the rest up to the reader.
On the other side, there are those who think that a vegan diet—or, their particular brand of vegan diet—virtually guarantees healthfulness. People who argue that there is no need to think about supplementation or nutrient needs because those things will take care of themselves as long as you meet your calorie needs. However, nutritional deficiencies are not just dangerous to your own health, they are also bad vegan advocacy. The way to deal with skepticism about the healthfulness of a vegan diet is not to deny that deficiencies are possible, but instead to ensure that those issues arise in as few vegans as possible.
This work remains a relevant resource, even in the in the age of the internet. Jack Norris and Ginny Messina both maintain a vibrant web presence, but this book is more than a rehashing of blog posts. It’s a familiar ally in the search for valid nutritional information. The world of nutrition is contentious and ideological. Rational vegans are often caught between the general medical establishment, which may have no particular expertise in vegan nutrition, and the starry-eyed claims of vegans promising the moon if you follow their version of a vegan diet. Given the growing body of nutritional research, I do wonder what would be different about the book if it were it written today, but the book strikes me as well-researched and cautious enough that significant revision may be unnecessary. If Messina and Norris are interested in publishing a second edition, it would be welcome, but in any case, I’m pleased to call Vegan for Life the second book on my vegan bookshelf.
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