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The vegan diet, done right, can be healthier than most

Registered dietician Amanda O’Brien says that while a plant-based diet needs planning, it comes with many health benefits.
Registered dietician Amanda O’Brien says that while a plant-based diet needs planning, it comes with many health benefits. - Contributed
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Peter Jackson

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In the old days, milk was milk. It usually came from cows, or occasionally goats.

Today, shelves are full of substitutes. There’s coconut milk, almond milk, cashew milk, oat milk, rice milk, sunflower milk, seven-grain milk … you name it.

And don’t forget soy milk.

These alternatives are ideal for people who are lactose intolerant. They also perfectly fit the bill for vegans, who shun meat and anything else that comes from animals.

The vegan diet is a tricky one, but with the right balance, it’s easily as healthy or more healthy than any other regime.

For Marian Francis White, veganism wasn’t as common when she became one about 45 years ago.

“It was totally on the cutting edge, in certain pockets of the world. It never took off. It was very … not so much underground, but not very mainstream,” she says.

She laughs at the time she ordered a veggie pizza for pickup and asked that they not put cheese on it.

“So I went to pick up the pizza and they didn’t have it done,” she says. “They thought I was kidding. They thought it was a prank call.”

White — known for her Women’s Almanac that she put out for 10 years and a documentary titled “The Untold Story of the Suffragists of Newfoundland” — published a cookbook last November through Breakwater Books.

"Island Vegan" contains more than 100 purely plant-based recipes with photos.

White says she took an interest in plant-based diets early on, and attended a health institute in Boston to learn more about it.

As part of the old guard, however, she’s not wrapped up in the militant side of veganism.

“I’m one of those strange Newfoundland vegans who supports the seal hunt,” she says with a chuckle. “People that went out doing that extremely hard work were doing it out of dire necessity and, on another level, survival. So, who am I to question that?”

Proper nutrients

So how do you get a balanced diet without meat?

It’s not that difficult.

Registered dietician Amanda O’Brien of St. John’s says she doesn’t often consult with vegans, but she has a lot of useful advice.

“I know it can be a healthy way of eating, so it’s certainly not something I would discourage,” she says. “Sometimes it can be a little bit harder to get certain nutrients on a vegan diet, so you want to be careful.”

Vitamin B12 is one of the key issues, as is iron. Both help stave off anemia, and B12 is important for the nervous system. The latter is plentiful in meats, so O’Brien recommends vegans take supplements or foods fortified with it. Iron can be taken as a supplement, but is also contained in foods such as beans, peas, lentils and leafy greens.

Calcium and Vitamin D are important for bone strength.

She recommends fortified foods such as cereals, soy beverages and orange juice, although it does occur naturally in foods such as legumes, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds.

“It’s certainly a little bit easier to get it from dairy because the amounts are a little bit higher,” O’Brien said. “You’d have to eat a lot of leafy greens to get the same amount of calcium as from a glass of milk.”

But it can be done, she says.

“The bottom line is you just want to have careful planning to make sure that you’re getting these nutrients in your body.”

O’Brien admits plant-based diets pose advantages.

“You can include fish, meat and poultry in healthy ways,” she says. “There is research to say, though, that the vegan diets are higher in things like vitamins, fibre, antioxidants, and they usually tend to have less fat and cholesterol.”

That helps protect against chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, although O’Brien says other lifestyle choices such as exercise are equally important.

“It’s not just about food.”

No worries

Meanwhile, you may wonder if dairy farmers are worried about all those other alternatives on the shelves.

They’re not.

“I believe it is great that consumers have choices in terms of beverages and food they consume,” says John Moores, general manager of Dairty Farmers of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Of course, I love to see people choose milk, and during the last few months, we did see people wanting to make sure they have milk, cheese and other dairy products in their fridge during their stay at home.”

Moores said while he’s seen more of a shift toward solid dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, there’s plenty of room for everything.

“We understand that more Canadians are exploring different tastes and buy both milk and a bit of plant-based beverages,” he said.

Choice, it appears, is the overriding principle.

Peter Jackson is a Local Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram

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