2019 UPDATE: This post has not aged well. There is a lot I would remove or change. It is only remaining on the site for archival purposes.
It is true that I no longer follow a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t right for me. But that is not what this post is about. In the past few years, I’ve learned how I could have done the vegetarian diet better. I want to share some of those ideas with vegetarians and at the end of the post vegans.
Vegetarians are 100% right when they reject factory farm meat. The reasons are numerous. However, rejecting a class of unhealthy foods doesn’t automatically make a diet healthy. Here are the steps I would take to improve the nutritional quality of the typical vegetarian diet. Note that I am not endorsing a vegetarian diet, nor am I condemning it.
- Avoid Soy – Soy is not healthy. This highly processed “food” makes billions for big agriculture, but can play hell on your health. It is unfortunate that soy is peddled as the healthy anti-meat alternative. It is criminal that soy is fed to infants and children. The only safe soy is the occasional fermented soy, such as natto or miso soup.
- Cook With Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, and Butter – Throw out your corn oil, soybean, canola, and other vegetable oils. Industrial seed oils are highly inflammatory. Olive oil is good for salads, but due to its low smoke point is not ideal for cooking.
- Avoid Gluten – Grains are similar to animals in that they don’t want to be eaten. They want to survive and pass on their genes too. Gluten is their defense and it is found in most grains. Many humans have trouble digesting it. I encourage everyone to do a 30 Day gluten-free test. For more information read Why Grains Are Unhealthy.
- Coconut Milk and Avocados – Your new staples. Highly caloric and full of healthy fats. Saturated fats are not the demons they have been made out to be. They are essential for good health. Read Dr. Enig’s article Proven Health Benefits of Saturated Fats for more information.
- No Fructose Without Fiber – Apples are fine. Apple juice isn’t. Only in a society as wasteful as ours would one throw out the fruit to get to a tiny amount of juice.
- Soak Nuts and Seeds – Nuts and seeds have enzyme inhibitors. Soaking them disables the inhibitors and will increase nutrient absorption.
- Soak and Sprout (most) Beans – Beans are a vegetarian staple, but very few go as far as sprouting. Sprouting tricks the living bean to lower its defenses, so we can fully utilize its nutrients. The book Nourishing Traditions covers this topic very well. Warning: kidney and soybeans are toxic when sprouted.
- Embrace Fat – Too many vegetarians eat continually and have extreme sugar cravings. Get off that cycle by reducing your carbs and increasing your fat. Cook with more fat. Eat eggs cooked in butter. Add olive oil to your salads. Soaked nuts. Put pastured butter on your cooked veggies. And of course coconut milk and avocados.
And now for the vegans.
- Rethink Pastured Eggs – I understand that 99.999% of all the eggs are coming from these mega-farms that exploit the animals. They are caged, placed under extreme levels of lighting, and are fed no grass or insects. However, there are hens that are allowed open farm access that eat their natural diet. The eggs cost more, but they are highly nutritious and the animals are not exploited. Meaning that without a rooster to fertilize the egg, it is going to drop anyway. Might as well eat it. I know labels are important and diet can be our identity, but I ask you to just consider the possibility of adding pastured eggs to your diet.
- Embrace The Sun – For 20 minutes in the middle of each day, get outside and soak up some Vitamin D. No sunscreen. If 20 minutes is too much, do 2 sessions of 10 minutes to avoid burning. Vitamin D plays an amazing role in the body. I highly recommend the post Vitamin D by Dr. Kurt Harris. Of course, this doesn’t work in the winter months, especially the further north you are. This leads us to…
- Consider Moving or Winter Vacations – The further one is from the Equator, the less natural a vegetarian diet becomes. Closer to the Equator plants grow year-round without having to deal with winter. The sun rains down Vitamin D year-round. As cultures move further away from their Equator, their diet increases in animal sources. Animal fat has all the vitamins of plants (except Vitamin C**). If being a vegan and living in harmony with the local environment is important, then choosing to be where plant growth is supported year-round might be a consideration. Or you could head to vegan-friendly areas like Thailand for your winter vacation. 🙂
- Vitamin K2 – The evidence is pouring in that Vitamin K2 is essential to good health and preventing cancers. Vitamin K1, which is abundant in green leafy vegetables is not the same thing and the body can only convert a small amount to K2. To stay vegan and get this nutrient, eat fermented foods such as natto or kimchi. I make my own kimchi, which is super easy to do. Fermented foods promote good gut flora and are very nutrient-dense.
Photo by Danny O.
Note that all these tips are not restricted to vegetarians or vegans. Provided the person doesn’t have a specific food allergy, they should work for anyone. Did I miss anything?
** DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: Correction, organ meat such as liver does contain Vitamin C. However, cooking it destroys most of it. Some people (me) will occasionally eat small pieces of raw beef liver (after being frozen for 14+ days).
For a much better article on this topic, please read For Vegans by Denise Minger. She is way smarter than me and brings up a few issues I was unaware of.
Sep 10, 2010 — 5:40 am
Excellent, well-researched post MAS! As a former vegetarian myself it’s difficult for me to conceive what a vegetarian diet would be like without grains and soy among other things. Both items should be avoided, I agree, but what is left after you exclude all the yummy animal products? One meal of fruit or salad after another I guess…
Sep 10, 2010 — 7:37 am
@Dhammy – Thanks. There are gluten-free grain options. I still eat steel cut oatmeal myself (after soaking). Vegans would need to load up nuts, coconut milk and avocados. Regular vegetarians can still eat eggs.
When I think back to all the bread, noodles and soy products I ate, I shudder. All this during my early weight training years. What a waste.
I have learned that many in the paleo community tried vegetarian diets in the past. We understood the dangers of factory farm meat, but not agriculture.
Sep 10, 2010 — 9:51 am
Thank you mike,
I appreciate this post. It is both thoughtful and insightful without being denigrating.
One thing i have noticed is that in my newfound vegetarian diet is lack of energy. I figured out on my own as well as through seeing the Paleo diet that the reason is fats in my diet; they were totally lacking. Without fats once that initial energy is depleted you feel drained. Just when I thought to start adding eggs that whole tainted egg controversy came up.
I recently went to a vegetarian seminar. The speaker was a total idiot. I told him I recently ate gfed beef to see if I still had the craving and for the fats. He looked at me like I was a Republican.
Anyway will probably start adding eggs. Are there any other vegfriendly fat sources you could recommend?
Sep 10, 2010 — 9:57 am
fats…other than avocado and coconut milk. Something that is cheaper too. I recently tried eating Text Veg Protein (like a granola) it gave me gas for 48 hours; not worth it. BTW, That first commenter totally burned you. HA!
Sep 10, 2010 — 10:29 am
@thomas – You definitely want to avoid TVP. It is a highly industrialized processed soy.
Pastured eggs cost $5-$7 a dozen, which sucks, another option is the Omega 3 enriched eggs at Costco. All other eggs – based off my research – should be avoided as the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is far too high. Duck eggs are another option.
Coconut milk (or cream) should be the #1 food for vegetarians. For a smoothie blend the coconut milk with some almond butter and ice.
Vegetarians – correctly – see the damage that factory farms are doing, but many fail to see the environmental and health damage from industrial soy, wheat and corn farms.
thomas or my nickname "bondi"
Sep 14, 2010 — 12:58 pm
Thanks again for the coconut milk recommendation. It is better than milk because it doesn’t give you that phlegmed up full feeling. I think that lacking any real fats in my newfound vegetarian diet definitely crippled my energy levels. I hope to get it back soon, thanks again.
Oct 29, 2010 — 11:01 am
Just a few recommendations from an Indian. We are cultural vegetarians so we do know from our ancestors how to survive on a vegetarian diet.
1) You cannot be a vegetarian if you cannot eat and digest without problems milk and dairy products. It is absolutely required for Zinc, B12 and K2. In India Raw Milk, Yogurt, and Ghee are considered to be divine and no religious ceremonies are complete without them.
2) You cannot survive without adequate sunlight all year round.
3) You need to combine your plant proteins. It is not enough to eat legumes, because they are not complete. Need to mix them with grains. The best alternative is to soak, grind, mix a blend of grains and legumes, and then ferment it. Later cook it at your leisure into any number of south indian dishes Dosa/Idly/Appam/Uttappam etc.
4) Use plenty of cheese to up the proteins. And Cream/Butter/Ghee to up the fats. Once you eat these more you will need less of carbs. Also the dairy fat contains a lot of short chain fatty acids that helps the intestinal lining deal with the lectins in the food.
Vegetarian diet is about a lot of dairy. If you don’t do dairy don’t do vegetarian.
I am not sure how you included Eggs in the Vegan section. I thought Vegan do not eat anything from animals.
Oct 29, 2010 — 6:46 pm
@anand – Good information. Thanks for the comment.
I added 100% grass pastured eggs in the vegan section – as a possibility – since many vegans avoid eggs and dairy because they feel the animal is being exploited. I don’t see how pastured eggs are in any way exploited since without a rooster – the egg will not be fertilized and it will drop anyway.
Dec 15, 2011 — 7:51 pm
Hi MAS, I’m new to your blog. I found this very interesting. Unlike many former vegetarians (myself included), you cleverly avoided being preachy or insulting. I did feel like you wrote out of true concern and a wish to share good information.
I am lucky enough to have room to raise chickens now, and if you asked my boyfriend whether the chickens are exploited, he would bust a gut laughing. He tells everyone they are the most spoiled chickens, and if he suspects I love my chickens more than him… well, let’s just say it’s an open question. I work hard to provide them an ideal environment.
We don’t have the capacity right now to do Polyface Farm-style mobile chicken houses on lush pasture (we’re still learning the ropes of pasture management with our goats), but our chickens have a large yard that I keep deeply mulched to absorb their poops and provide good habitat for bugs, and they get let out to the rest of the farm every day, so they do get plenty of grass and bugs and chances to engage in normal, happy chicken behavior. They express the essence of chicken, in Joel Salatin’s words.
In addition to paying extra for soy-free organic layer feed, I also sprout a quart or two of peas and seeds for them daily so they always have nutrient-rich fresh sprouts. I also make sure their water is clean and fresh daily, something many chicken-keepers fail to do, from what I’ve seen.
So do the hens feel exploited when I take their eggs? Only when they have gone “broody” do they get mad that I take the eggs. We only recently got a rooster again, and when we didn’t have one, those weren’t fertile eggs anyway, so no matter how long hens sat on them, they wouldn’t hatch (as I kept explaining to them… to no avail!).
We have harvested a couple of roosters, and that is the hardest part, but it’s the reality. We do it with tearful gratitude and total respect for the bird. Honestly, if we (or someone like us) hadn’t acquired these chickens for the chance to eat their eggs, they wouldn’t have had the chance to experience life at all. Vegans need to keep that in mind. There is not enough demand for chickens for pets (exclusively) for chicken populations to thrive without getting eggs or meat out of the deal for humans. It is a partnership that actually works very well for chickens, at least those that are cared for by people like me.
I can’t eat store-bought eggs anymore. Not just because of the lack of flavor and nutrition, but because I know how awful the factory farming system is and I don’t want any part of supporting it.
Thanks for the post
Dec 15, 2011 — 9:52 pm
@Jeanmarie – Thanks for the nice feedback and chicken info.
I put together this post partly because I was tired of seeing the battles online between vegetarians and Paleo folk. We share too many values and there is a lot of common ground. Much more than the average person eating the Standard American Diet.
Mar 1, 2012 — 2:22 pm
You mention kimchi being a good source of K2; are other fermented veggies and dairy just as good? (I love kimchi, but local, organic chinese cabbage is hard to find so I usually ferment other veggies. Also eat lots of yogurt and kefir.) Thanks!
Mar 1, 2012 — 2:36 pm
@Sarah – Here is a link to an excellent article on Vitamin K2.
I eat kimchi everyday, but when I was a vegetarian I never did. That may explain why I was sick more often back then. Vegans won’t be able to eat dairy, so their only option will be fermented veggies or natto.
Jan 18, 2013 — 8:01 am
Thanks for the post
What do u feel about Dr fuhrmans approach to a plant based diet? Unlike the others, he doesn’t advocate high starch or fat restriction. His general recs are:
1tbs flax or chia
1oz nuts or seeds (more if active)
1c starch. (grains or roots)
10 percent animal pro, if desired
Idk how paleo can be healthy, for a diet high in animal pro and fats seems clogging, acidic, and inflammatory. It seems that the more plant based, the better, due to the high nutrient content, fiber, and such
What’s hard is that many people deal with gi issues.. And the consensus for how to best treat this is all across the board.
What is the optimal macronutrient ratio, in ur opinion??
Jan 18, 2013 — 8:19 am
@Sherry – I don’t know what the optimal ratio is or even if one exists.
I disagree that animal fats are unhealthy, provided the animal is healthy.
I’m not a fan of grains or legumes. Find the diet that works best for you. What works for me, may not be best for you.
Jan 18, 2013 — 9:07 am
Sherry, a Paleo diet isn’t necessarily high in protein. If you’re a bodybuilder or a growing teenager, you may need more protein than the rest of us, but most of us now talk about “adequate” or “moderate” protein, high fat, and carbohydrates moderate or low depending on your activity level. There is no single, fixed macronutrient ratio that is suitable for all people at all times.
Animal foods are much denser sources of nutrients than any plant. I’m not slamming plants, but the truth of this has been distorted by places like Whole Foods that post ‘ANSI’ scores. That system of rating nutrient density throws out fat-soluble nutrients, which are arguably the most important vitamins (A, D, K) and which are needed for mineral absorption and protein digestion and absorption. Measuring moist foods (fruits and veggies) on a dry-weight basis is also misleading. And measuring raw grains instead of cooked, the only way they can be eaten by humans, is also highly misleading.
That said, we need plants along with animal products, but grains are problematic for many people for many reasons. Legumes as well. I have personally cut out grains except for white rice occasionally, and I eat few legumes anymore, but when I do, they are soaked for several days, changing the water several times, then slow-cooked, sometimes in chicken bone stock, and seasoned with Celtic sea salt and some sort of fat (topped with sour cream, etc.).
If you’re concerned about inflammation — and we all should be — then cutting grains and vegetable seed oils out of your diet (along with sugar) will go a long ways towards reducing it. Animal foods should always come from pastured, grass-fed animals (that is, those eating a biologically appropriate diet for their species), because feedlot animals, besides suffering cruel treatment, are eating an unnatural diet of grain that drives inflammation and illness in them and in us.
Our need fiber is somewhat exaggerated. People with damaged intestinal lining should cut back on fiber, especially insoluble fiber from grains. More than fiber, we need probiotics from lacto-fermented foods to give us healthy gut flora. The healthy gut flora digest some of the fiber, but don’t eat too much if you don’t have the healthy gut flora there yet. It will only cause trouble.
Did you know that the main macronutrient in a cow’s diet is actually saturated fat? Yes, that’s because the bacteria in their awesome digestive system eat the cellulose in grass and turn it into short-chain saturated fatty acids. Saturated fat is not the enemy. It’s where it comes from, how the food is raised and sourced. Quality over quantity.