Miami event promoter Allison Burgos lost 60 pounds, got off four medications for rheumatoid arthritis and got rid of her wheelchair. She credits it all to switching to a vegan diet. Burgos and her partner Michelle Gaber were so happy, they threw a party this fall, Miami’s first vegan bash, Seed Food and Wine Festival.
A vegan diet is “completely meatless. It’s a purely plant-based way of eating,” says Cathy Clark-Reyes, registered dietitian with Baptist Health Primary Care. It worked for Burgos. Vegan celebrities include President Bill Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres and Paul McCartney. But how do nutritionists view it?
• “The first question, how do you get your protein?” John Lewis laughs. Associate professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Lewis has a Ph.D in educational and psychological studies. A former athlete and competitive body builder, he’s been vegan for 18 years. There’s plenty of protein in plant-based foods, he says — especially beans (lentils have 18 grams per cup), whole soy products like tempeh and tofu, whole grains and nuts and seeds. Even vegetables, including broccoli, contain protein. What they don’t contain — cholesterol.
• Got kale? Calcium, an essential nutrient, isn’t just in dairy. There’s just as much calcium in beans, leafy greens (collards have over 350 milligrams per cup), nuts, seeds and whole soy products.
• Plant-based food also contains something animal protein does not — fiber. “It’s important to eat high fiber,” says Monique Biddle, registered dietician and certified diabetes educator at Memorial Regional Hospital’s Diabetes and Nutrition Center. “When a diabetic eats high-fiber food — vegetables, legumes — they don’t have blood sugar spikes.” Indeed, a 2007 study published in Diabetes Care, the journal of the American Diabetes Association, reported patients with diabetes lowered their glucose levels on a vegan diet. A 2011 Adventist study shows vegans have a 60 percent lower risk of developing diabetes than omnivores.
• A 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed people following a vegan diet tend to be thinner, have lower total and LDL cholesterol, and modestly lower blood pressure compared to all other groups tested, including lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who eat dairy and eggs).
• Eating red meat and processed meats like hot dogs and sausage ups your risk of mortality by 30 percent, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute.
• One egg contains 183 milligrams cholesterol — practically your whole day’s RDA. While eating eggs doesn’t seem to raise people’s cholesterol, daily egg consumption has been linked to increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
• B-12 — The one essential nutrient elusive in a vegan diet. It’s available in fortified nondairy milks like almond milk and hemp milk and in some brands of nutritional yeast. A yellow flaky powder, nutritional yeast also has the bonus of a cheesy flavor, and is a favorite ingredient in many vegan recipes.
“Make sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs,” says Clark-Reyes, 2005 Greater Miami Dietician of the Year. “Plan correctly. A lot of people like to call themselves vegan, they stay away from meat but eat Cheetos. They don’t have the slightest thought about how their meals are going to be planned.”
Lewis, who gave a 2013 TEDx Miami talk about the link between food and wellness, agrees. “We fail miserably promoting the value of nutrition, exercise and health,” he says. “If you don’t take care of you body today, your body is not going to take care of you later.”
Wanting to take care of her body — and take charge of her health — was enough to get a skeptical Burgos to try a vegan diet. “Living on a vegan diet really changes everything,” she says. “And the numbers don’t lie. My inflammation rate went from 100 (which is very high) to 20, which is remission. My cholesterol and glucose levels went down, as well. I wake up feeling great.”
The challenge both Reyes and Biddle see is whether patients can incorporate a vegan diet — often a drastic change from what they’ve been eating — into their hectic lives. Lewis has some advice — buy a blender. He starts every day with a smoothie made with leafy green vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. “It’s the healthiest meal you’ll ever make and it takes 10 minutes.”
Like Burgos, Lewis is a vegan true believer. Clark-Reyes remains unconvinced. “I don’t see the need of being 100 percent vegan. I like the term flexitarian, to be honest,” she says. “Eat more of a plant-based diet, but people can still have their meat.”
Biddle, though, is intrigued by what a vegan diet might mean to her diabetic and pre-diabetic patients. “We try to promote lower glycemic index food, high fiber food, less animal fat. We’re trying to help patients control all their lipid levels. A vegan diet would help the patient in everything.” Biddle pauses. “Maybe I need to promote patients to be more vegan.”
Ellen Kanner writes the Edgy Veggie column for The Miami Herald’s food section.