There are many junk food vegetarians out there and I know because I was once of them.
My personal definition is a vegetarian who doesn’t have a balanced diet of vegetables, whole grains and legumes- but relies instead on meat-free products they enjoy. Often this happens by default because it might be the only foods they know how to prepare. This can mean surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cheese pizzas, pastas or more typically, overdosing on soy based products. I had a roommate once who only ate cereal, soy burgers and cheese sandwiches for every meal.
Because vegetarian soy based products can make easy replacements for protein, many vegans/vegetarians and even those with lactose intolerance often depend on soy products as the staple of their diet.
When I grew up as a young and eager vegetarian I told my mother I needed to start eating tofu and she learned how to be inventive with it; including it in my smoothies, making tofu ricotta for lasagne and even learning how to make delicious “cheese cakes” out of the silken soy variety. For years I used soy as my vegetarian clutch and found myself enjoying it in everything from my soy milk beverage to my veggie hot dogs. Soy burgers, chili with soy based meat, soy cheese, soy balogne, soy “meatballs” and soy ice cream. I probably would have continued to eat the stuff had it not been for the bloating and gas I was experiencing (which I considered to be normal). I couldn’t figure out what was causing it until I worked with my own Holistic Food Coach when I was at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She linked my heavy consumption of soy to the years of bloating I had suffered. When soy and I parted ways I felt tremendously better. Clearly eating replacement meat products instead of real whole foods was not part of a complete and varied diet for me.
So why do I bring this up now? Because soy is often touted as a miracle food thought to heal everything from easing menopausal symptoms to lowering cholesterol, while even preventing cancer and heart disease. On the other hand, there are findings which claim soy is a health hazard blamed for possibly causing fertility problems and increasing our cancer risk. The other issue to consider is the fact that a very large percentage of soy, over 90%, is genetically modified. You can read more about clinical studies on soy conducted at Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Half a century ago, Western food technologists saw the value of the common soybean as a cheap viable protein. Bypassing the traditional and arduous preparation steps, they created new soy foods. Very shortly thereafter, soy became the cheapest protein source in virtually every country. Soy contains an enormous amount of protein. However, it also contains enzyme inhibitors, which interfere with the digestion of protein (two exceptions are black soy and immature soy: edamame). If you try eating a bowl of soybeans cooked for dinner you may understand what I mean. Our bodies are not able to easily extract the protein from them, so we end up with indigestion and gas. Over 3,000 years ago, Asian cultures who pioneered soy bean agriculture arrived at different techniques of fermenting soy to make it more digestible. They discovered how to increase soy’s digestibility and flavor by soaking, fermenting and sprouting the beans. This eliminated the enzyme inhibitors, making soy easier to digest and the nutrients easier to assimilate, thereby boosting soy’s nutrition.
Fermentation simply means “breaking down into simpler components”, in effect much of the work of digestion will be done for you through the act of fermentation. Examples of fermented soy products include tamari soy sauce, shoyu, miso paste in Japan, natto or Indonesian tempeh. They are dramatically different from one another, but what they all share is the protein of soybean is pre-digested into amino acids which makes it easier for our bodies to assimilate.
I have noticed that most Vegetarian or Vegan diet books tell vegetarian “newbies” to replace animal products with soy ones without distinguishing the whole food (fermented) soy products from the processed ones (such as soy chicken, TVP and soy butter).
Lesson #1: A product is not necessarily healthy if it contains soy, especially if it contains a hundred other unidentifiable ingredients on the label.
As Michael Pollan points out on his website, he doesn’t have beef with fermented soy (cheeky I know) rather, he has an issue with the “new” soy in town, modified soy products. As he points out,
Today we’re eating soy in ways Asian cultures with a much longer experience of the plant would not recognize: “Soy protein isolate,” “soy isoflavones,” “textured vegetable protein” from soy and soy oils (which now account for a fifth of the calories in the American diet) are finding their way into thousands of processed foods, with the result that Americans now eat more soy than the Japanese or the Chinese do.
When Alicia Silverstone was on Oprah to promote her book, “The Kind Life”, she took the audience on a virtual grocery tour. As she dumped Soy Delicious ice cream and breaded soy nuggets into her basket, she exclaimed, “These are like chicken breasts, but they aren’t chicken breasts- so you don’t have to sacrifice taste…or think about giving anything up.” For the record, at least you know what is in the chicken (if you are a conscientious consumer and buy from your local organic farmer) but when you replace real meat with processed corn and soy laden fake meat, the ingredient list become increasingly longer with unidentifiable or unpronounceable ingredients that you cannot be sure are safe for you (or how they will affect later on in life.)
For example, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) is not a complete protein and is usually made of soy flour and “other concentrates”, Wikipedia describes the process of making TVP this way,
TVP is created through the process of extrusion causing a change in the structure of the soy protein which results in a fibrous spongy matrix that is similar in texture to meat. The defatted thermoplastic proteins are heated to 150-200°C, which denatures them into a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids. As the pressurized molten protein mixture exits the extruder, the sudden drop in pressure causes rapid expansion into a puffy solid that is then dried.
Even more recently on Oprah, guest Kathy Freston, an author of a book called “Veganist” talked about the benefits of veganism for everyone. Oprah even challenged the audience and her own staff to a seven day vegan diet. What do you think her dietary recommendations were? Freston suggested that instead of chicken and mashed potatoes we try, “Gardein chicken and mashed potatoes made with Earth Balance, non-dairy butter and soy milk.”
After researching what the heck Gardein Chicken was, I discovered it was a company that produced foods such as Buffalo Wings and Orange chicken- vegetarian style of course. In other words, the ingredients consist of soy protein and vital wheat gluten to get it to have the texture and consistency of meat.
Lesson #2: Vegan margarine is still margarine. Stop using margarine and “butter spreads “and try using products our ancestors have used for over hundreds of years such as organic grass fed butter for the vegetarians. Vegans and the lactose intolerant can try healthy Omega 3 fat oils such as olive oil and flax oil. In baking, they can replace margarines with coconut oil or coconut butter. (You can read more on “vegan” margarine on a local blog, Midnight poutine)
I’m not saying you can’t enjoy the occasional soy-sage or vegetarian meatball- of course you can, it’s a free world! As a holistic food coach I do not preach any diet one way or another. Whether you chose to be a vegan, vegetarian, raw foodie, wild forager or omnivore- you need to eat what works best for your individual body and lifestyle. If you feel amazing on the foods that you are currently ingesting, good for you! Stick with it as long as it is working for you. If on the other hand, you are suffering from symptoms such as stomach aches, gas, bloating, painful periods, fatigue, irritable bowel… then take a look at your diet. Those symptoms are a sign that something is not working for you, and you can benefit from a change in your diet. You might also find relief if you reduce or eliminate soy from your diet.
Lesson #3: Instead of trying to replace your former carnivorous diet with soy based products, why not enjoy a wide range of nutritious whole foods?
Avoid: Soybean derivatives such as soy flour, textured vegetable/soy protein (TVP), partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and soy protein isolate. These highly processed soy products are a result of multi-stage chemical processes which have now become a top ingredient in many pre-packaged or fast foods.
Enjoy: Fermented soy products that have been eaten safely for centuries, and chose organic when you can. Try tempeh, edamame, soybean sprouts, soy sauce, miso paste and fresh organic tofu. Cultures that traditionally used soy products in their diets also included sea vegetables (seaweeds) so if there’s any worry about mineral absorption from eating soy, the iodine and minerals in sea vegetables will make up for it. Try eating a variety of leafy greens, soaked or sprouted whole grains, beans and legumes. For a different kind of protein, try vegetarian (but not vegan) protein such as bee pollen. If you are looking for a “cheesy” alternative, try nutritional yeast which is high in B vitamins.
By preparing whole foods yourself rather than relying on the manufactured versions, you will have the added benefit of knowing exactly what goes into your meals as well as into your body.You can start by trying your own lentil burgers that you can freeze for later, or enjoy tempeh bacon rather than relying on the manufactured products.
If you need support transitioning out of, or into a vegetable based diet, you can schedule a 30-minute Veggication Breakthrough Session with me over the phone. That is after all what I’m here for. Please feel free to contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, stay tuned for my vegetarian cooking class series starting in Montreal in March!!! I will announce it in my upcoming newsletter.
My Top Vegetarian Cookbooks recommendations:
- How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
- Moosewood Collection, any cookbook by Mollie Katzen
- Supernatural Cooking by Heidi Swanson
- For more on the good and bad of soy, read part 3 of Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food”
- For the darker side of soy read, “The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food,” by Kaayla T. Daniels Ph.D., C.C.N.
- For the pros of soy, see http://www.thechinastudy.com/