Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Joy of (Pressure) Cooking

I felt that before posting a lot of recipes, which I do plan to do, I ought to address the subject of how to cook dry beans, in case readers were unfamiliar. Beans are a huge part of the average plant-based diet and provide much of the protein. If you're currently on an omniverous diet wherein your typical dinner consists of a meat, a starch, and a vegetable, in many instances you can simply swap out the meat for a bean and have a high-protein, much lower fat (and higher vitamin, mineral, and fiber) meal. When beans are combined with a grain or grain-based food such as rice, pasta or bread, the two foods work together to become a complete protein with the same amino acids as animal foods.

If beans are to be a staple of your diet, I strongly recommend you learn to make them yourself rather than buy canned. Canned foods tend to be ridden with salt and preservatives, and it is MUCH MUCH CHEAPER to make your own beans (ridiculously cheaper-- like $2 worth of dry beans yields enough cooked for about 5 meals.)

If you can manage to buy a pressure cooker, the process of making the beans will be greatly expedited. If you cannot obtain one, the process of bean-making detailed below is essentially the same only the cooking time is much longer. (I have read that cooking by the method below reduces bean-related flatulence but since this was never a problem of mine to begin with I make no guarantees.)

How To Cook Dry Beans
Step One: Soak in cold water overnight.
Step Two: Drain.
Step Three: Recover the beans with water in your pressure cooker or pot, add salt if you want.
Step Four A (Pressure Cooking): Bring pressure cooker to a boil, which you will know has happened because the little knob on the top of the cooker will start rattling, then turn heat down til the knob is not rattling violently and allow to cook for between 13-20 minutes. (Many pressure cookers come with a manual which recommends the time for different beans-- I usually do 13 min for a small, soft bean like black beans and closer to 20 for a stubborn bean like garbanzos.)
Step Four B (regular pot): Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cook until soft (unfortunately with a normal pot this can take up to an hour, which is why I suggest the pressure cooker.)
Step Five: Turn off heat. If using a pressure cooker you MUST wait at least 20 min before removing the lid or you can get burned by the steam.
See how easy? :)

I strongly suggest making a large batch of beans and then freezing them in smaller batches so you do not have to do the preparation more than once a month. Once they are defrosted they can be eaten as in, for example in a salad, or cooked up with spices and veggies in a plethora of meals. You will not believe how quick and easy vegan cooking is with your beans all ready to go, and how much your grocery bill will drop if homemade dry beans are a central part of your diet!

P. S. The pressure cooker is also fabulous for cooking potatoes, which are stubbornly slow to cook in a normal pot. However, potatoes are a starch which does NOT create a complementary protein. No reason not to eat them anyway!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Forks Over Knives Film: Eating For Health

Forks Over Knives is a compelling documentary which promotes a diet of whole, plant-based foods for optimum health. The film cites a host of medical studies which indicate that the animal products and processed foods which are prominent in the typical American diet are leading factors in diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, sexual dysfunctions, obesity, and cancer. What is even more important to note are the numerous studies performed by the doctors featured in the film wherein people who had these various ailments-- in some case, those who had not responded to medication or surgery and had been told they had less than a year to live-- were actually able to REVERSE these ailments by switching to a plant-based diet! There were instances where people on their deathbeds lived another 18 years after going vegan. The film also included studies done in other countries, such as China and the Philippines, where the correlations between meat and dairy consumption and a host of diseases also appeared. The film also profiled several professional athletes who were thriving in their professions on an entirely vegan diet and were NOT subsiding on supplements to "boost up" their diets.

I've seen several films about food in the past year which I felt were important in making the public aware of the many inhumane, unethical, and anti-ecological elements in the American meat industry (such as Food Inc), but Forks Over Knives is the first I've encountered which gives such a compelling argument towards a vegan or mostly-vegan diet purely from the perspective of good health.

The public needs to be aware that the government agencies which rant about the protein we need from meat and the calcium we need from dairy are the same agencies which do business with the companies selling those products. One need only look at the average public school lunch, approved by the FDA, to know that these agencies have some major deficiencies in their standards for healthy food. I would like someone to show me a documentary in which people eating an organic, plant-based diet of whole, natural foods are keeling over from horrible illnesses. My point here is not to judge people who eat meat and dairy or to say that every omnivore is condemned to a future of poor health, but simply to say that if you have considered going veggie but are put off by the endless propaganda that you will never possibly get enough protein, calcium, iron, B-12, or whatever else from eating a plant-based diet, I would strongly suggest you take the "risk" and see for yourself. There is no compelling evidence that people who don't eat meat are getting sick, and there is plenty of evidence that people who eat a lot of meat are.

If you have tried a vegan or mostly vegan diet and "didn't feel well from it," as I have heard the occasional person complain, I would suggest that one of the following factors may have been at play:
A. you were eating too many refined grains and processed foods (Oreos, for example, are vegan, and a host of processed vegan foods in the form of soy-based "fake meat"exist-- these foods should certainly be avoided or consumed in moderation)
B. you were not eating enough complementary proteins in the form of whole grains and legumes
C. you weren't getting enough fat (I had this problem initially, but it was easily resolved by adding nuts, avocado, and a little olive oil to my diet)
D. you weren't eating enough (I had this problem too and resolved it by carrying snacks with me so I didn't constantly get stuck in situations where the only available vegan food was potato chips.)
I am not a nutritional expert, just a common-sense eater who has done a lot of personal research. I am not denying the possibility that some people require some animal products due to a particular body or blood type or a specific health issue, but I would bet that the majority of people could eat the same diet advocated in Forks Over Knives and feel terrific.

I would declare with absolute certainty that someone who eats meat and dairy in every meal, as many, many Americans do, is grossly overdoing it and would be a happier, healthier individual if they reduced their animal product intake to a few times a week or less. It is my ultimate hope that this blog will move some people in that direction.

My husband and I never even catch a common cold, and I attribute it to out diet. We rarely take vitamin supplements and never take medications. We both have very demanding, physically active jobs. Our plant-based diet supports us 100%. As I went on a 10-year progression from omnivore to eating fish and dairy to lacto-ovo vegetarian to vegetarian who did not eat processed or refined foods to full vegan, chronic annoyances I had suffered such as migraines, joint pain, indigestion, congestion, fatigue, PMS, and mood swings gradually declined and disappeared-- and I had not ever been a junk foodist or a heavy meat eater.

As much as other factors besides health motivated me to make these various diet changes (concern for animal welfare and environmentalism being the primary two), it is predominantly my concern for the health of others which has motivated me to write this blog. I would love to start seeing myself surrounded by other people enjoying the same optimum health I do. We will be a stronger, more productive, happier population if we can rid ourselves of these unnecessary health epidemics plaguing our society.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fourth Street Food Co-op: NYC's best natural market

If you live in New York City, one place I cannot recommend highly enough is the Fourth Street Food Co-op on 4th street between 2nd and 3rd avenues. Everything sold there is organic, yet the prices are astonishingly low. Why? Because a co-op, by nature, is run by volunteers who also shop there, and thus, the overhead is very low and the members, who are the only "owners," are deciding the prices, not some corporate hierarchy which is out for profit. This co-op is unique in a few ways:

#1 It claims to be the only co-op in NYC which actually does not have ANY paid staff, hence the extremely low prices.
#2 It is open to members and non-members alike, so you need not commit to volunteering to shop there. However, if you have 2.5 hours a week to spare, you can become a working member and get 20 percent off already reasonable prices. Due to my busy schedule and the long commute from the Bronx, I decided on a non-working membership, which costs $25 annually and brings me an 8 percent discount.
#3 Virtually nothing is prepackaged. The dry goods such as rice and beans are in bulk bins-- you can bring a container from home (which is what I do to reduce waste) or purchase one there for about a quarter, and then your food is sold by weight after they deduct the weight of the container. When I am consistently shopping at the co-op and composting (working members may also drop off their compost at the store), I have almost nothing in my trash, which feels great.
#4 Not only is almost everything organic, local, and in the case of produce, seasonal, the co-op members have also researched each company they receive goods from down to the shareholders, and only do business with ethical companies which treat the Earth and the workers humanely and fairly. There is a list posted in the store with a number of well-known "organic" brands they do NOT do business with because they are actually owned by moguls such as Kraft and Pepsico.

The co-op sells dry goods and baking supplies, produce, a few organic dairy items from local farms, non-dairy milks and yogurts, spices, tea, fair-trade coffee and chocolate, soaps and cleaning supplies, a few packaged goods such as ketchup and salad dressing, local tofu, tempeh, oils, and the occasional treat such as tofu hot dogs. I find it to be well worth the trip from the Bronx (I either bring a rolling suitcase or my husband to schlepp the stuff back), and am thrilled to have a place to shop which not only meets my health standards and my budget, but also completely meets my standards for ethical consumerism, which is just as important to me as health.

For more information on co-ops and to find one near you, click here.
There are several in Brooklyn (sadly my favorite one on earth in the South Bronx is now closed), and the website above has a link to locating co-ops all over the country. Food justice now!!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Apple Cider Vinegar, Miracle Cure!

I woke up this morning with a slightly sore throat, probably due to the 40 degree temperature flux NYC has been experiencing this month. I immediately pulled out my trusty bottle of Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar, poured about a teaspoon in water and gulped it down. Five minutes later my throat is already improving.

What Is Apple Cider Vinegar Good For?
1. Throat and sinus health. After beginning to drink ACV daily, issues I had during the winter with chronic congestion and post-nasal drip went away completely. If I stop drinking it for a few weeks (as is the case today) sometimes the throat irritation will return (I do live in a thoroughly dirty city), but usually is healed within a day of drinking the diluted ACV a couple of times.
2. Skin health. When taking ACV for my throat, I noticed that my skin became clearer and clearer! One day I had a blemish and started rooting around online for skin home remedies. I discovered ACV was recommended on multiple blogs to be used as a facial cleanser! When I perform and have to wear stage makeup (on a daily basis I don't ever wear makeup), I use a mixture of ACV and aloe juice to remove my makeup and now do not experience any breakouts from the makeup clogging my pores.
3. Dry throats. A splash of ACV in water is an instant thirst quencher.
4. The website claims it also helps sore muscles, is rich in enzymes and potassium, promotes digestion and helps maintain weight, all of which I don't doubt.

Why Bragg's Brand?
Bragg's is organic and raw and also contains the Mother, which is "the dark, cloudy substance in the ACV formed from naturally occurring pectin and apple residues - it appears as molecules of protein connected in strand-like chains. The presence of the mother shows that the best part of the apple has not been destroyed. Vinegars containing the mother contain enzymes and minerals that other vinegars may not contain due to overprocessing, filtration and overheating." It's not terribly expensive (about $4 for 16 oz), so I would suggest going to a health food store and buying it rather than getting some generic brand. (You can also order it online with my link above.)

If you drink too much you'll get a belly ache-- I usually do a teaspoon in about 4 oz of water, which seems to do the trick. If you accidentally have too much you can neutralize the acidity in your tummy by drinking another glass of water with a pinch of baking soda.

Some people may find it doesn't taste good (I personally enjoy the taste), so you can add a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup to your drink if you find it too sour for a sort of lemonade-y flavor.

Other suggestions
If you're experiencing chronic phlegm you might want to reduce or eliminate dairy from your diet, which is a well-known phlegm producer. I felt a notable difference in my congestion level when I went vegan. Also, the Neti Pot nasal wash is a great all-natural tool for clearing out your sinuses. I also sometimes gargle with the ACV/water mix to clean out my throat. A tea called Traditional Medicinals is also helpful for minor ailments. Whatever you do, try to keep OTC medicine and worse, antibiotics to an absolute minimum. These so-called medicines often weaken your immune system and make you sicker in the long run. About a month ago my husband called me in a panic, convinced he had strep due to a red, swollen, painful throat. I advised him to cancel his hastily-made doctor's appointment, drink a nice healthy portion of the ACV, and clean out his sinuses with the Neti-Pot. About 4 hours later we were sitting down to a nice lunch and he was completely cured.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quick and Easy Healthy Cereal Recipe

My mom used to make this cereal melange when I was a kid and it is nutritious and yummy.

The Recipe
1 10-oz box Uncle Sam's Original Cereal
1 cup whole rolled oats
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried apple bits or other dried fruit of your choice
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds

Why It's Good For You
Uncle Sam's Cereal is unique in several regards:
*It uses the entire wheat berry and simply steams, rolls, and toasts them, so you're getting the maximum, least adulterated nutrition from the whole wheat 
*It contains flaxseed, which is an excellent source of Omega-3s, which are good for a lot of things, including reducing joint pain (FYI, you know how they make those "High Omega 3" eggs? They feed the hens flax. One can eliminate the middleman (well, middle-chicken) and eat flax one's self.)
*It only has two other ingredients besides wheat and flax: barley malt and salt. No chemicals, preservatives, artificial flavors, or other additives
 *It specifically states on the box that it is non-GMO verified, which unfortunately is now yet ANOTHER thing we health-conscious folks have to now monitor-- since a law has not been passed yet requiring companies to label foods which contain GMOs, our next best bet is to try to primarily purchase foods which explicitly declare they do NOT contain GMOs, until hopefully this lunacy ends.

The oats and dried fruits are good sources of vitamins and fiber (as are most raw, whole, plant-based foods), and the sunflower seeds are a good source of Vitamin E, a host of minerals, and also combine with the grains in the cereal to create a complementary complete protein. 

The cereal is not terribly sweet, so if you find it too bland I recommend adding fresh fruit such as a nice ripe banana or a drizzle of blackstrap molasses for an extra boost of iron and potassium.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Restaurant Review: Le Pain Quotidien

Restaurant choices for vegans in the area surrounding City Center, Carnegie Hall, and Columbus Circle are few and far between, with the emphasis being on upscale meat-based cuisines and ridiculously overpriced diners, which is often a nuisance for this vegan culturalist. The solution I have recently come upon is Le Pain Quotidien on 58th and 7th, which does serve meat but which has a number of tasty vegan options and clearly labels which items are vegan. This restaurant has multiple locations all over the city, but doesn't come off like a "chain."Most of the food is also organic, they are health-conscious enough not to serve soda, the wine is tasty, and the ambiance is very nice (I like the rustic wood decor). Additionally, considering the area, the prices are pretty reasonable. And, as one might expect, the bread is sublime. 

I had an avocado and chick pea tartine (basically an open-faced sandwich) on whole grain bread-- pureed avocado, very flavorful bread, not many chickpeas. A few tomato and cucumber bits garnished the sandwich. (It was so yummy I ate it before I remembered to take a picture.)

I was still hungry after eating it so I tried some of my mom's vegan lentil stew (I usually don't order soup in restaurants unless they are 100 percent vegan but this place is nice enough to be clear about what contains meat and what doesn't, unlike a lot of establishments).
The stew was thick, with very little liquid, lightly spiced, tomatoey-- a little Indian flavor. Very tasty.

I finished off with riz au lait for dessert, made with brown rice + soy milk. It was very unsweet-- too bland for a dessert. The fresh berry topping was the highlight. I like my own better, but it was nice to have a dessert available (my other option would have been a vegan cannelle, which is sort of a mini-muffin.)

After seeing a concert at Carnegie, I finished the evening at the Russian Tea Room, where there is absolutely nothing for a vegan to eat (and little for vegetarians), but the drinks, while expectedly exorbitant, are divine. The From Russia With Love, a mix of chocolate liqueur, Chambord, and champagne was a delectable end to a lovely evening.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vegan Banana Pudding

One day when stuck with a pile of overripe bananas, I decided to make a banana pudding. A google search for vegan banana pudding recipes resulted in a bunch of complicated recipes calling for silken tofu or agar agar; let me assure you these specialty items are unnecessary. My simple and absolutely delicious recipe is below. I originally used soy milk which worked wonderfully, my second attempt used almond milk which didn't thicken quite as well, but then I realized I hadn't put in enough cornstarch (trying to do everything from memory is sometimes a bad idea), so I think had I not screwed up the recipe almond milk would have been fine.

Bring to a boil:
2.5 cups milk (dairy or non as you prefer)
1/4 c sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
Splash of vanilla

Reduce heat to medium, stir until thick (maybe 10-15 min)

In a cake dish or bowl, layer sliced banana and broken up cookies of your choice (Nilla wafers are traditional, I used a healthier option and went for Graham crackers, vegan varieties of which abound). Cool pudding slightly, pour over bananas + cookies, cool in fridge about 30 min. 

Then try not to eat it all in one sitting.

Composting in New York City

Yesterday I made the schlepp down to Union Square to drop off my compost. If you want to compost in NYC and have no access to the outdoors, which is my predicament, your options are:
A. Get a worm bin, which is reported by worm bin enthusiasts to not smell or attract vermin, but I'm not taking the risk, or
B. Put your compostable items in your freezer until they have reached a sizable package (usually about once or twice a month in this vegan home) and then carry them to a composting site. I use a corn-based biodegradable plastic bag to contain my scraps so I can just dump the whole lot in. You can purchase these bags at  most health-food stores. For a complete list of sites which accept compost (and info on worm bins and everything else you could possibly wish to know on the topic), click here.

What You Can Compost
All things vegetable, no things animal, few things man-made, is the long and short of it. Fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds (filters too), and cooked food scraps of a non-meat variety can all be composted. Anything involving meat or milk, excessively greasy things, and other non-food garbage, cannot be composted.

Why You Should Compost
Unfortunately, once biodegradable waste is mixed in with non-biodegradable waste and placed in a landfill, it becomes part of the problem and also emits various undesirable toxins etc contributing to pollution. On the other hand, if it is made into compost, it enriches the soil which then grows more food, so it basically becomes the opposite of garbage. This is my unscientific explanation (for more science see my link above), but the bottom line is, composting is good for the environment and not composting is bad for the environment, even if most of what you're throwing out is, say, banana peels.

Where To Compost
For a complete list, see here. I go to Union Square, because, alas, there is not yet composting in the Bronx, and the other sites don't work with my schedule. While at Union Square I like to pick up some local, organic produce (although admittedly not much of it. The Union Square farmer's market is bloody expensive. The LES food co-op has much better prices, as do the outer borough markets, but few of them sell year-round.)

Additionally in the Union Square Farmer's Market is Body and Soul, a small vegan bakery stand with a number of gluten-free options. They also have a store in Brooklyn. I got a butternut squash molasses muffin with pecans for $3. It was tasty, but a bit sticky, which I think is the result of it being oil-free. Often vegan eateries try to cover a lot of ground at once by making their food low-fat, gluten-free, vegan, and organic simultaneously. I don't really agree with this logic: if you're a vegan, you need fat, and many vegans (like me) eat food with a lot of gluten (bread, seitan, wheat). I'm not sure that the markets sensibly overlap. But, being that I am too lazy to make many vegan desserts at home and am a sucker for baked goods, I'm grateful things like vegan muffins exist, fat-free or not. The muffin and the general ambience of the market, not to mention my positive impact on the environment, were well worth the trip on the 4 train with rapidly defrosting trash.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Food Dehydrator Experiment #2: Raisins!

Experiment #2: Raisins!
When I pulled out the bag of grapes my husband got really excited. There's something about making yourself something you normally would buy in the store that is really cool. This is definitely one of the reasons I wanted to get the dehydrator. I love the idea of starting with totally raw ingredients (if only I had access to grow them myself, but alas, in my area in NYC there is no possibility of gardening) and then making something one typically thinks of as a store-bought good. The grapes fit nicely on the dehydrator trays, and while the instructions said it could take from 8-36 hours to make raisins, I had high hopes.

Unfortunately, it really DOES take about 36 hours for plump, juicy grapes to shrivel into raisins, even after I raised the temperature to 160 degrees in desperation. I am already cringing with anticipation of my upcoming Con Edison bill. Apparently making raisins in the dehydrator is not terribly energy efficient. Too bad though, because they are the plumpest, yummiest raisins I've ever eaten in my life! Maybe over the summer I will try sun-drying them...

Food Dehydrator Experiement #1: Apples and Kiwis

Hopeless romantic that I am, I asked my husband for a food dehydrator for our 2-year anniversary, and tolerant soul that he is, he got me one. Dried fruit has long been one of my favorite snacks (as a pre-teen I told my mother I had obsessive-compulsive raisin eating disorder), but purchasing it is problematic for 3 reasons: one, aside from raisins, it tends to be extremely expensive, particularly if you buy organic; two, it often has sulfites, food coloring, added sugar and other undesirables. With my new dehydrator I can now make dried fruits exactly to my liking (and, apparently, a plethora of other foods can also be made in it, but more on that in a future post.)

Dried fruit experiment #1: dried apples and kiwis.
I got the apples for 99 cents a pound from this fantastic fruit market in Astoria. Regrettably they were not organic, but they were local (upstate New York.) The kiwis were from Italy, but I reallllly wanted to make dried kiwi as I had recently tried some and it was sublime. I washed everything really thoroughly and my husband helped slice them into thin slices. I didn't peel anything because I am lazy and because peel is good for you (obviously better for you if your fruit is organic, but I'm doing the best I can.) The instruction book which came with the dehydrator said to dry them for 4-10 hours, which was a rather unhelpfully wide range, so we set the machine to the recommended 135 degrees before bed and turned it off around 7 hours later.

Everything came out quite yummy, but in future I would dry these particular fruits for a slightly shorter time and cut them a little thicker so they are a bit chewier and moister.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Advice For Vegetarians

I have decided to write this essay as a response to bountiful questions I have received from my dance students regarding nutrition in the past few years, questions which ran the gamut from “I want to be a vegetarian but don’t know how to convince my parents it’s healthy” to “I don’t like eating animal products but all I can figure out to eat for protein is tofu” to “If you’re a vegetarian, what do you eat?” Often I direct these students to consult the classic vegetarian bible “Diet for a Small Planet,” but that book, while deeply informative, focuses predominantly on the socio-political/ecological reasons to become vegetarian, and due to its sheer length might be overwhelming for a beginner. Thus, this essay is meant to be a condensed version of information I have gleaned over years of personal research, with citations where possible, from sources such as the aforementioned as well as nutritional pioneer Adele Davis, food writer Michael Pollan, and numerous documentaries and internet sources. While I do not purport to be a nutritional expert I am hoping that the following information will be useful in guiding young people towards making their own sound nutritional choices with the assistance of their parents, whether vegetarians or not.
What To Eat
Two predominant problems I see befall young vegetarians are either an excessive reliance on one or two particular foods or an excessive consumption of processed foods. One of the wonderful aspects of a vegetarian diet is in fact its potential for variety: “There are basically 5 different kinds of meat and poultry, but 40 to 50 kinds of commonly eaten vegetables, 24 kinds of peas, beans, and lentils, 20 fruits, 12 nuts, and 9 grains… Though your average American restaurant would give you no clue to this fact.” (Lappe) The more variety in ones diet, the more nutrients one is consuming, and ideally one should be consuming only fresh, unprocessed foods. If you are going to eat a prepackaged food, and I don’t deny this is sometimes a necessity (few people have time to bake their own bread or crackers, for example) read the labels and try to avoid chemicals (long names you can’t pronounce or mysterious abbreviations like BHT or MSG), high fructose corn syrup, or refined grains: look for 100% whole wheat and understand that the word “wheat” without the word “whole” means “white.” “Enriched” is another misleading term meaning that the natural nutrients have been removed from the grain and a less complete number of synthetic nutrients have been put back in.
The grain thing is really tricky and really important because so many grains are refined in commercial American foods and the nutritional value lost when a grain is refined is huge. “Now that our breadstuffs are refined, no food rich in the B vitamins is ordinarily eaten daily. In fact, there are only four good sources of these vitamins: liver, brewer’s yeast, wheat germ [what is removed from the wheat to make white bread including breads like French and Semolina], and rice polish [what is removed from brown rice to make white rice]… The B vitamins appear to be equally needed by every cell in the body.” (Davis) Thus, a grain-rich vegetarian diet can be quite healthful if the grains consumed are whole and thus contain valuable vitamins and nutrients, additionally the high fiber content in these whole grains aid digestion and in my opinion, dispel the myth that one must “reduce carbs” to be at an optimum weight– if the statement were “reduce REFINED carbs including sugar” it would be more accurate. If you eat sweets aside from fruits, at least go for sweets which do not have tons of chemicals and additives and keep them to a minimum. One of the good things for me about becoming a vegan was that it reduced how often I was able to say, “oh I’ll just grab this sugary danish for breakfast.” Since most pastries contain eggs and butter, I found myself making healthier choices.
Good choices include whole wheat, brown or wild rice, bulgur wheat, bran, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, spelt, oats, whole wheat pasta, rye, and foods such as bread, cereal and crackers made up of these grains, along with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes such as beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats such as olive oil, walnut oil, coconut oil. Which brings us to topic number two…
Complete Proteins
What makes a food a protein is the amino acids it contains. There are 8 essential amino acids which must be present in a food we eat for protein for it to be considered “complete,” because those particular amino acids are ones our bodies cannot make themselves. Most plant foods do not contain all 8 amino acids, but they contain some, and the trick for vegetarians and especially for vegans is to combine foods which balance out each other’s protein deficiencies, aka “complementary proteins.” Without going into deep scientific detail (which “Diet for a Small Planet” does if the reader wants a deeper look), here is a simple and easy-to-remember chart:
Whole grain + legume= complete protein (i.e. rice and beans or a peanut butter sandwich)
Legume + seeds= complete protein (i.e. hummus if you make it yourself using chickpeas and tahini which is from sesame seeds, commercial hummus has so little tahini its protein content is nil, or a trail mix with peanuts and sunflower seeds, or a salad with beans and sunflower or pumpkin seeds)
Whole grain+ milk product= complete protein (milk and cheese actually are not complete proteins on their own)
Egg= complete protein on its own
So, even if you are a strict vegan it is possible to eat a variety of protein-rich meals provided you remember the grain-legume and legume-seed paradigm and try to include it in each meal and snack.
There are a few sources of single vegetable proteins containing all 8 essential amino acids, but their chemical balance of these amino acids is slightly different in proportions to animal proteins, nevertheless they should be considered. They are: soy (more on soy in a moment), quinoa, buckwheat (kasha), amaranth, and hemp (that I know of– might be a few more out there.) Quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth can all be used in place of rice for an extra boost of protein, and I use hemp milk as a milk substitute.
Regarding soy, while it is indeed high in protein and has been found to have many other positive effects on health, I feel I have to put a disclaimer on soy A. because it is often eaten in excess, especially by vegetarians/vegans, and B. because there is a lot of controversy around whether or not excessive soy consumption can be harmful. So about soy, I will say this: I think a good rule of thumb if you want to eat soy is to use it as your protein source no more than a few times a week (to ensure your diet has variety), and to stick to basic soy foods such as tofu and tempeh and avoid the wide variety of highly processed soy “meat substitutes” which are out there, except as an occasional treat. These processed soy foods are often also extremely high in sodium.
A quick note about nuts: the peanut is a legume, not a nut, and so falls fits into the legume+grain or seed paradigm. Other nuts are fine to eat and do contain some protein, but not an adequate amount to be focused on as a primary protein source (same deal with almond or cashew butter, almond milk, etc.) I did however find that when I went from vegetarian to vegan I lost a lot of weight due to eliminating milkfat, and eating nuts, which are rich in healthy fats, was helpful in maintaining my weight and energy level. It is important to have adequate fat in one’s diet for proper absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
Supplements and Brands to Consider
Vitamin B-12 is difficult to obtain whether you are a vegetarian or not, unless you happen to frequently eat liver, so a good supplement to increase your B-12 is either nutritional yeast (a powdered supplement which I put in smoothies and soups and don’t mind the taste of—kind of nutty) or brewer’s yeast (which I think tastes terrible but I know people who like it.) An iron deficiency is another potential concern for vegans, and iron can be easy increased by using blackstrap molasses as a sweetener (I put a bit on my breakfast cereal and use it in baking) and by eating dried fruits, particularly dates and dried apricots. If you are eating dairy then your calcium intake is probably fine, but if you aren’t I have found that most milk substitutes such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, or hemp milk have been enriched with both calcium and Vitamin D so that their quantities match that of milk (don’t forget that almond and rice milk are NOT protein sources, but can be drunk anyway as a source of vitamins.)
I recommend the Ezekiel brand bread and cereal, as these products contain combinations of grains and legumes rather than just grains, making them complete proteins, and have no additives. For vegans looking for a butter substitute the Earth Balance brand does NOT contain hydrogenated oils (which are TERRIBLE FOR YOU—don’t eat margarine!!) and is all natural, you can even sometimes get a soy-free variety. For cooking I generally just use olive oil in place of animal fats. If you want to try hemp milk Pacific Natural Foods brand has the highest protein content. All these things can be obtained in a lot of health food stores and probably Whole Foods, and often a small health food store will be willing to special-order something if you ask them.
I hope this information can be helpful to vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike, and will inspire YOU to do more research on your food choices. A simple Wikipedia search can be extremely informative, and I have cited my two sources for this paper below. Both authors have written numerous books which are easy, enjoyable reads, and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in food and nutrition.
Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit by Adele Davis (Published 1954)
Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe (Published 1971)
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (Published 2007) is another book which may be of interest although it is less specific about food choices and less geared towards vegetarians

Conquering the Myths of Healthy Eating

I have had a devout Mormon tell me my lifestyle was so strict it exhausted her. When the topic of my eating habits come up, as they do somewhat frequently given the social nature of food consumption, the fact that I teach dance and thus am constantly discussing the body, not to mention my semi-obsession with food, the reaction I get from most tends to border on flabbergastion and the assumption I must either be some kind of devotee or simply insane. To me, my food rules seem pretty simple: I don’t eat animals (haven’t for over ten years, never cheated, never wanted to,) I don’t eat foods which come from animals such as eggs and dairy (for the past year, with a few exceptions such as my homemade yogurt and a relatively few moments of weakness where I ate something like a cannoli), I don’t eat foods from cans (got this one from the Rastas), and whenever humanly possible I don’t eat foods which are refined (ie white bread, white rice), processed, or full of additives (which involves less reading labels and more simply choosing foods which are obviously foods.) Oh, and I avoid chain eating, which my mother hilariously interpreted as akin to chain smoking: “You mean when you eat and then immediately eat again??” That too, but, what I actually mean is that I try to avoid eating at chain restaurants such as Applebee’s (generally there is little in such establishments which meets the aforementioned standards anyway.)

I do these things for reasons of ethics as well as health, and also because I am really appalled that we as a nation have allowed something as important as food to become so utterly commercialized that something as simple as choosing to eat a natural, plant-based diet comprised of ingredients I can actually name often renders me an anomaly, even in a city where food options are plentiful and health awareness is superior to many other parts of the country. (I literally starve in Florida: there is gelatin, lard, high fructose corn syrup or MSG in pretty much any food which is not a raw piece of fruit.) So my stance is also political: my freedom to rise above the market and the pitiful standards of the FDA in order to own my health and morals is far more exciting to me than my freedom to the 5 seconds of pleasure I might glean from eating a Twinkie.
I know for some the joy of Twinkies reigns supreme, and for this I fault our ridiculous culture more than I fault the individuals. While I know that the converts to my diet may be few, I would like to at least dispel a few myths I hear consistently about healthy, natural, ethical eating and offer a few solutions.

Myth#1: Eating properly is too expensive.
It is definitely possible to be an extremely extravagant healthy eater, but it is also possible to do it cheaply (I do.) Whole Paycheck is NOT the only store on earth where you can get natural foods. Things such as brown rice, dry beans, whole wheat flour, whole oats, lentils, peas, natural peanut butter, whole grain pasta, olive oil– to name a few– can usually be gleaned right at your local supermarket, as well as fresh or dried fruits and veggies. I don’t deny the superiority of organic, but I do get that everyone can’t afford it or even find it all the time. This does not mean we should just throw up our hands and order takeout. The above-mentioned foods are pretty cheap and quite nutritious.
Processed foods are more expensive than whole foods, generally– compare a $1 can of beans vs a $1 bag of dry beans which yields 6 times the amount of food in the can, or a box of pre-seasoned “Spanish rice” at $3 for one meal’s worth vs a $3 box of plain brown rice which yields double or triple. And yes, admittedly, processed foods containing natural ingredients (say, a health food store pre-spiced Spanish rice which has organic ingredients and no MSG or modified food starch vs its generic counterpart) are more expensive than processed foods containing chemicals, but considering that processed food is not a necessity, I don’t buy this as a good excuse to continue eating Rice a Roni when one could just, um, eat rice.
An even more economical way to shop once you are in the habit of cooking from pure ingredients is to find a store which has bulk bins, as many health food stores do. Because you are not paying for packaging or advertising, this is an incredibly inexpensive way to purchase grains, nuts, dried fruits, legumes, and seeds, even organic ones. If a food coop is available (there are several in Brooklyn and one on the Lower East Side) this is the ultimate in frugality, because at a co-op you are also not paying for the store’s advertising and labor, and if you have a few hours a week to volunteer you can really get a bargain, even on some prepackaged organic items.
http://www.lesfoodcoop.org/ for more info on co-ops and to peruse products and prices.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I also want to mention these points:
1, The only way to drive the price down on healthier and organic foods is for more people to buy them.
2, The long-term costs of an unhealthy diet (e.g. getting sick, fat, or both) far outreach the immediate costs of a healthy one.
3, New Yorkers (as well as probably most of the nation) waste an unbelievable amount of money on things like coffee, which could be made at home cheaply, water, which is available for free, sports drinks, which are mostly sugar, and things like “energy bars” which could be cheaply (and more healthfully) replaced with actual food.

Myth # 2: Eating well is too time consuming.
Ok, I admit it: I do spend a lot of time dealing with food. Because I was raised eating whole foods made from scratch, I’m not sure how much LESS time the average person who eats premade and fast foods spends, but I do know that I have an extremely active schedule and still do manage to make time to shop and cook sufficiently to feed me and my husband 3 meals most days. I find cooking pleasurable, so for me it isn’t a terrible burden, but here are a few time-saving tips I have come upon.
Buying dry goods in bulk saves a lot of time on shopping– I generally do a big shopping for my grains and beans once a month and the rest of the time shop weekly for perishable goods such as produce and milk for my yogurt. In terms of cooking, two gadgets which have proved an absolute lifesaver are the pressure cooker and the crockpot. The pressure cooker cooks dry beans (soaked overnight) in about a quarter of the time of cooking them in a regular pot, and the crockpot can have a bunch of foods thrown into it and left to cook while one is out. I generally cook a few quarts of beans at a time and then freeze them in smaller portions, and then defrost as necessary throughout the month.
I usually designate one day a week to be my big cooking day, where I make a large portion of a meal such as rice and beans, and simultaneously a large stew, a salad, and whatever else needs making that week such as yogurt or salad dressing. These foods usually last most of the week for lunches, which I pack daily for both of us, and the rest of our diet is mostly composed of sandwiches, oatmeal or homemade granola, trail mix, smoothies, and fruit or raw veggies, all of which can be prepared quickly. I save more elaborate cooking for vacations or lighter work weeks. This policy of packing lunches and, if needed, also dinners, certainly saves an enormous amount of money as well if you consider the alternative of spending an average of $10 daily, if not more, on buying food out.
My preachy note on this one is that if your schedule is permanently so overwhelming that you don’t have time to feed yourself without relying on grabbing a bagel or a burger daily, then perhaps you need to examine places where you can get a little more “you” time, and recognize that taking control of your eating is as beneficial as any leisure activity.

Myth #3: Healthy eating is no fun.
If one is completely accustomed to the taste of over-salted, over-sweetened, and artificially flavored foods, it may take some adjustments to becomes used to the taste of natural, whole foods, but I assure you, it is absolutely not necessary for healthy eating to be bland and boring. I make all sorts of sauces, curries, marinades, and dressings, and have had many a diehard junk-foodist sheepishly admit that my food is fairly tasty. The wonderful thing about learning to cook from scratch is that YOU have the power to flavor food to your liking! And you will be amazed at the number of unique and delectable flavors which exist in nature and can be discerned by tastebuds not completely numbed by an overload of sweet and salt.
If the prospect of food preparation which goes beyond the microwave leaves you baffled, a simple Google search can now produce zillions of recipes. I usually scroll through until I find the simplest version of whatever I’m making. If you’re a beginner, look up recipes for several foods you enjoy, purchase whatever seasonings those dishes call for, and start from there. There is no reason to spend a ton of money on every exotic spice known to man just to make basic foods at home– my recommendation would be to keep garlic powder, onion powder, curry if you like it, a vegetable broth base and maybe some Italian or Mexican seasoning on hand and expand from there.
Additionally, I include in my list of unhealthy foods the huge variety of “diet” foods out there, most of which have reduced their calories and fat by replacing actual food with chemicals, resulting in them leaving you feeling like you just ate diet food, ie still hungry, and/or having other negative effects on your health. Due to my active lifestyle I have never had a weight problem, but I have had to focus on my weight periodically due to the aesthetic demands of being a dancer, and I can honestly say that my current diet of whole, natural foods is the only one on which I have consistently been able to maintain my desired weight without ever feeling hungry, counting a calorie, or craving “bad” foods. If I want sweets, I go for some dark chocolate with no additives, a vegan pastry from the health food store, a homemade rice pudding, some maple granola… The possibilities are not as small as one might imagine, but additionally, my diet is so fulfilling that I rarely crave sweets, and when I do, I truly have lost my taste for the Snicker’s bar or the Chips Ahoy– their flavor pales in comparison to the richness of a piece of organic chocolate from a fair trade cocoa farm in the tropics.

I truly believe that eating natural foods and embracing our own abilities to select and prepare them is an empowering choice which will improve one’s health, enhance one’s daily pleasures, help to refocus one’s time, and help one attain optimum weight without a constant state of denial. Far from exhausting, I find my relationship with food both physically and mentally nourishing, and I hope that some of the ideas in this essay may help others to experience some of the same joys.