I have one friend who is a vegan, and unlike my presuppositions about meatless wonders wasting away with black hollows under their eyes and thinning hair, she is the picture of health. She recently had a very healthy and happy baby boy. And while going vegan is on the opposite road that I’m taking, I know a few of you are considering go that route, so here’s some info you can use…
A Talk with Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and JL Fields
Authors of Vegan for Her
How can a vegan diet lower the risk of disease in women?
VG: Vegan diets are automatically free of cholesterol and almost always low in saturated fat, two factors that reduce risk for heart disease. But it’s not just about what’s missing in vegan diets, because plant foods offer so many beneficial compounds for women’s health. Antioxidants and other phytochemicals in plant foods may reduce risk for heart disease and breast cancer, and they also may slow skin aging.
What is “the Plant Plate,” and how does it help vegans meet their nutrient needs?
VG: I created the Plant Plate to offer vegan women a healthier and kinder version of the USDA’s food guide. The Plant Plate highlights foods that are important in vegan diets. A unique feature is that it shows very clearly that calcium is supplied by foods from all different types of plant foods—vegetables, fruits, soy products, nuts, and seeds.
Your book is for long-time vegans as well as those who are making the transition. Is that transition difficult? What advice do you have for new vegans?
JLF: Transitioning to a vegan diet is actually quite easy. Simply replace the meat on your plate or the milk in your glass with a plant-based alternative. For many, though, the complexities arise around family or social situations. We talk about this in the book and offer family-friendly recipes. My advice is to remember that the transition is not about perfection. It’s about doing the best you can.
VG: It’s true; the transition really does become easy when you take it one step at a time, and take advantage of options like soy and almond milk to replace cow’s milk, and veggie meats or bean-based dishes to replace meat. One of the things we’ve tried to do in Vegan for Her is to help new vegans use ingredients that reduce cravings for animal foods—JL’s recipes are great for this—and provide simple nutrition guidelines that will help new vegans feel comfortable about their food choices.
What kinds of challenges do women face when their children and spouses aren’t vegan?
JLF: I work with many women who are hesitant to go vegan because they may be going it alone. I suggest making “transition” meals that children and spouses may find familiar, such as sloppy joe sandwiches made with mushrooms and quinoa (instead of ground meat) or pizzas with vegan cheese and veggies. Engaging children in preparing a meal is a fun way to get them excited about eating something they made themselves. Setting boundaries with one’s partners is also key. For instance, I have been vegetarian for twelve years, three vegan, but my husband is neither. We have an agreement that I will not purchase animal products, or prepare them. It works for us.
You discuss vegan diets for women of all ages. Is there a specific period in a woman’s life in which it is most beneficial to eat vegan?
JLF: I think that whenever a woman goes vegan is the exact right time. Of course, as someone who went vegan at 45, I wish I had done so earlier and I am committed to helping women find their way sooner. For their health, the environment, and for the animals!
VG: It really is true that women of any age can benefit from a vegan diet. I hear from teens who are going vegan as well as women in their 70s. And they all say what JL mentioned—that it’s a decision they wish they had made earlier, but they are so happy they eventually found this way of eating that not only offers health benefits, but reflects the type of compassionate food choices they want to make.
How do soyfoods affect a woman’s breast cancer risk?
VG: At two stages of life, soyfoods may lower breast cancer risk. First, there is evidence that consuming soyfoods during puberty—when breasts are developing—may reduce lifelong risk for breast cancer. One theory is that this explains why Japanese women are less likely to get breast cancer; they’ve been consuming tofu, miso, and soymilk all their lives.
Second, a growing number of studies are finding that women who have had breast cancer have a better prognosis if soyfoods are a usual part of their diet. We’re not at a point where we can tell women that they should start eating soy if they have been diagnosed with breast cancer. What the research does tell us is that, for women who are eating soyfoods, there is no reason to stop if you’re being treated for breast cancer.
How can a plant-based diet enhance fertility?
VG: There’s very good evidence that overall diet and lifestyle can improve fertility. For example, diets that cause blood sugar (blood glucose) to surge can cause problems with ovulation. Choosing carbohydrate-rich foods that are more slowly digested can help to normalize glucose levels and improve ovulation.
Dried beans and peas are especially rich in the type of carbohydrates that cause a slower release of glucose into the blood, and these foods play a significant role in the diets of many vegan women. Beans are also rich in the B-vitamin folate, which seems to improve fertility. And there is evidence that getting protein from plant foods in general instead of from animal foods has a positive effect on fertility. Finally, the antioxidants in plant foods can improve fertility in women and in men.
Is a vegan diet safe during pregnancy? During breastfeeding?
VG: Like women eating any kind of diet, vegan women need to pay attention to good nutrition. When they do, they have healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies. It’s the same with breastfeeding. As long as women are eating a healthy vegan diet and taking appropriate supplements of vitamins D and B12, their infants thrive. In fact, there is some evidence that vegetarian women have lower levels of environmental contaminants in their breast milk—an advantage for their babies.
How can female athletes still get the nutrition they need on a vegan diet?
VG: Female athletes automatically eat more calories, which will almost always translate to adequate protein and fat to support athletic performance. Sometimes hunger doesn’t keep up with needs, though, so it’s important to do a little bit of diet planning to make sure you eat enough food. We provide some guidelines for this in our book.
It’s also important to emphasize protein-rich foods like soyfoods and beans and to avoid letting your diet get too low in fat. Finally, female endurance athletes in particular need to pay attention to getting plenty of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables because that enhances iron absorption.
JLF: I went vegan at the height of my post-40 athleticism. I had already progressed in my training over the short years I became active as a marathoner and a triathlete and I only felt stronger and faster with my plant-based diet. Eating grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit provided me everything I needed—and then some!
You describe veganism not just as a dietary choice, but also as a lifestyle. What does a vegan wardrobe look like?
JLF: A vegan wardrobe excludes any animal fibers or skin, including leather, wool, silk, and down. It’s so easy to find man-made, fashionable clothing and accessories these days. I absolutely love it when I’m wearing a fabulous pair of Novacas boots or carrying a Big Buddha and I get a compliment from a stranger. I of course thank them and mention, “No animals were harmed in the making of my wardrobe!”
VG: I was recently stopped by a woman at O’Hare Airport who asked about my handbag. I don’t think that ever happened to me before I was a vegan. Vegan fashion is definitely fun!
Your book notes that you started a community for vegan women. How can vegan women join that community and what will they find there?
JLF: We launched the website VeganForHer.com to support and augment our book. We offer articles with new content ranging from nutrition to recipes to vegan fashion written by Ginny and me, as well as respected guests. Within the site we host a discussion forum with a wide variety of topics to encourage women to support one another on their vegan journey.