Cooking Vegetarian author Vesanto Melina dispels myths about vegan diets and nutrition

It's easier than you think to eat well on a plant-based diet

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A long-time vegan, Vesanto Melina is highly aware that several myths surround plant-based diets. Two common misconceptions are that it’s hard for vegans—who eschew dairy, eggs, honey, and other animal products—to get enough protein, and that tofu is unhealthy for men to eat.

According to the registered dietitian and coauthor of such books as Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw, and Raising Vegetarian Children, another fiction is that cooking vegan food is difficult and takes a long time.

“Now, it is true that you do need to learn some new skills sometimes,” Melina, who lives in Langley, told the Georgia Straight in a Kitsilano coffee shop. “Because if what you were used to cooking was one way, you have to learn a few new aisles to go down in the supermarket and pick up different ingredients, and then what to do with them.”

With her latest cookbook, coauthored by Courtenay-based chef Joseph Forest, Melina is out to show everyone that homemade vegan food can be “healthy, delicious, and easy”. The second edition of Cooking Vegetarian, an update of the original 1996 book, was published last October in Canada. It was also released last month in the U.S. under the more precise title Cooking Vegan.

Spanning 274 pages, Cooking Vegetarian opens with informative chapters about ingredients and nutrients. There’s a vegan food guide outlining the recommended servings per day of vegetables (five or more), legumes (four or more), nuts and seeds (one or more), fruits (four or more), and grains (three or more).

Twelve menus each set out a day’s worth of meals using recipes in the book and meet the recommended intake for protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. There are raw vegan, gluten-free Japanese, and holiday menus, for example.

The recipe chapters cover breakfasts and beverages; dips, spreads, sandwiches, and snacks; salads; dressings; soups; entrées; side dishes; sauces and gravies; and sweet treats. Each recipe—including the cashew cheese lasagna and raw mango strawberry pie—comes with a nutritional analysis that lists the calories and nutrients in a serving, along with the percentage of calories derived from protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

Melina holds a master of science degree in nutrition from the University of Toronto and taught nutrition as a lecturer at UBC. She coauthored the 2003 joint position paper of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada on vegetarian diets.

“Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence,” the paper states. “Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.”

According to Melina, vegans often have an optimal body-mass index. She said this translates into lower rates of cardiovascular disease, colorectal and prostate cancers, and diabetes among people who eat a plant-based diet.

Tofu is an “excellent” protein source, as are legumes, nuts, and seeds, the dietitian noted. Low-oxalate greens—such as kale, broccoli, bok choy, and napa cabbage—are good sources of calcium.

“Those have [up to] twice the calcium availability of cow’s milk or of tofu, which are both at about 31, 32 percent,” Melina said. “Those are 40 to 60 percent, those greens. So they’ve got lots of calcium in them, and we get lots out of them. It’s well absorbed.”

Melina mentioned that other calcium sources include blackstrap molasses and fortified plant milks. Almonds also have calcium, while cashews contain zinc, and walnuts offer omega-3 fatty acids. In general, she encourages everyone to eat whole plant foods rather than processed foods.

Melina says that although the proportion of the population that’s vegetarian appears to be holding steady, she believes that the number of vegans within that category is growing.

“Many people who are vegetarian are thinking of being vegan,” Melina said. “What has also changed is the awareness of vegan. The major corporations, like Kraft, are considering that vegan eating is really a big trend, and they need to address it.”

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morgus

May 10, 2012 at 9:30am

Yet never in the history of the world has there been a vegetarian culture of any kind. And hardly anyone who tries the lifestyle stays that way because, surprise, surprise humans are not vegetarians and they end up making themselves ill.

R U Kiddingme

May 10, 2012 at 11:05am

@Morgus

Eh, I cannot draw any conclusions from the absence of a historic vegetarian culture. We happen to live in a time and place where we have the luxury of being conscious about what we eat. We can actually plan to live for 100 years, which is a new thing -- people tended to die between 35 and 65. We might as well.

If you're somewhat serious about living long and well, you are going to have to put some thought into what you eat. I see no harm in examining the vegan options, if not for everyday then once in a while to change up what the ol' colon has to process.

I don't think you have to be ill on a vegetarian diet. Look at Bill Pearl or Andreas Cahling, they are famous veggie bodybuilders. Admittedly, bodybuilders are the most conscious and picky of all eaters. They're not eating salad just to eat a salad.

Bud Green

May 10, 2012 at 12:47pm

Vegan and vegetarian cuisine is fun and delicious! I've read Melina's book and I love the recipes! She has a really useful website as well which is at www.nutrispeak.com

I have no idea why people would question such a healthy dietary choice! My favorite blog/website on the subject is called The Everday Veggie and it has a new vegan recipe every day! If you have kids or are cooking for people skeptical of the vegan lifestyle, you should try it out. Lovely food and really healthy way to live, eat and raise kids. That site is here: http://theeverydayveggie.com/

Hah! find me a bunch of meat eaters that would post useful info for other meat eaters to find fun and interesting recipes! Score!

Isla Kay

May 10, 2012 at 4:39pm

I know many people who have gone vegan and thrived (and stayed vegan). I have been vegan for three years and am stronger than I've ever been. I train for 3 hours a day, 6 days a week.

triciaperry

May 11, 2012 at 4:05am

"Official Samples" connects you with no-strings-attached free offers and samples from leading brands.

Dyell

May 11, 2012 at 1:25pm

I am happy to see more people attempting to change the way we think about food and what we are consuming– Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from and how animals are treated before they reach their plates. This is a good, short video to watch about this topic: MeatVideo.com. Or visit ChooseVeg.com for information on adapting a more compassionate lifestyle.

blueheron

May 12, 2012 at 10:01am

Veganism is not the same as vegetarianism.
Vegans don't eat eggs nor dairy products.
Vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds are delicious, but I add dairy products, eggs, rice, bread and fish to make up a more interesting and balanced diet. Variety is the key. And anyone who doesn't eat desserts at times is just plain dull and not someone I would want to BE around:)

Anton

May 12, 2012 at 3:19pm

Bud Green: I won't argue with your main point, but you don't seriously think that vegans are the only people who post and share recipes amongst themselves, do you?

Phil

May 13, 2012 at 2:27pm

Although adding a lot more plant based foods is a great idea, it's a myth that you get the same protein levels from plants. Also, the immense amount of sugar in fruits, some vegetables, and breads, have increased diabetes in vegans. It's irresponsible to give infants and kids a vegan diet as well.

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