Take it or leave it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I often get asked by those who are unable or unwilling to adopt a diet of strictly plants whether I might suggest a middle ground. In other words a diet of, say 80% plant foods with some animal protein included. These people either really enjoy eating meat or wish to gain more muscle than they believe can be achieved with beans and greens. Or both. While I disdain to endorse the inclusion of any fowl, beef or pork, and believe that the cons of dairy consumption far outweigh the pros, I am not averse to the idea that a person could eat some eggs and fish and be considered healthy, look good, run fast and lift heavy. 

Let's say a vegan eats 3,000 calories per day and includes a can of beans for the protein and 1/4 cup of chia seeds for omega-3s. These foods can be replaced with some eggs and wild-caught fish, and what you lose in fiber you gain in protein and more omega-3s. If you include 2,500 calories of fruits and vegetables, the breakdown is about 80% carbs, 10% protein and 10% fat. (If as many vegans do, you eat a lot of avocado and also consume nuts, then both your protein and fat intake will rise substantially, fat more so than protein, and the percentage breakdown looks more like 55% carbs, 15% protein and 30% fat.) And since 100 calories of plant foods contains around 4 grams of fiber, then 2,500 calories has 100 grams. Which is 2.5 times the recommended intake for males. So your fiber requirements are met. You really don't need beans and seeds to supply added fiber. What the bodybuilder and endurance athlete does arguably require however is more protein than can be found in either of these foods. Enter eggs and fish. Three whole eggs and 5 oz of fish, either canned tuna or canned salmon or grilled versions. The calories are the same.

One 16 oz can of garbanzo beans, for example, has 430 calories, 4 grams of fat, 80 grams of carbs, 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber. It contains 10% or more of 11 essential nutrients, but no vitamin A, B12, D, E, niacin, riboflavin or thiamin. Garbanzos are also low in choline, which is hard to get in a strictly plant-based diet.

In contrast, 3 whole eggs and 1 5-oz can of white tuna in water contains 435 calories, 20 grams of fat, 1.2 grams of carbs, 60 grams of protein and no fiber. This quantity of animal protein supplies 10% or more of all the nutrients found in beans, except vitamin C and manganese. But eggs and fish provide 25% or more of vitamins A, B12, D, E, niacin and riboflavin, all of which beans lack. And it has three and a half times as much choline, an important nutrient for brain function.

By making such a substitution you have a net gain of over 40 grams of protein. You don't get any fiber but as mentioned the other plant foods you've eaten all day, fruits and veggies, provide more than enough of the daily requirement to keep you beyond regular.

You can even substitute out the chia seeds, that important plant source of omega-3s, since salmon and tuna are high in a more bioavailable form of omega-3, the important DHA and EPA, while chia seeds only provide ALA, which your body must then convert to the aforementioned omega-3s. One quarter cup of chia contains 240 calories, 12 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbs, 20 grams of fiber and 12 grams of protein. The equivalent in a vegan protein powder (for example, Spirutein, which is pea, rice and non-GMO soy) contains 250 calories, no fat, 27.5 carbs, 2.5 grams fiber and 35 grams of protein. It also contains 100 percent or more of most major nutrients, since protein powder is often fortified. The result is a net gain of nearly 25 grams of protein, with the loss of fiber that you don't really need.

By substituting 3 whole eggs and 5 oz of tuna for a can of beans, and a couple scoops of protein powder for 1/4 cup of chia, you have increased your protein consumption by 65 grams for the same number of calories. This is important for athletes, whether runners or bodybuilders, who should strive for Arnold Schwarzenegger's ideal of 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight. If you weigh 150 lbs, you are nearly halfway there. Add the 95 grams of protein in eggs plus fish to the 65 or so grams inherent in the 2,500 calories of plant foods you are also consuming and you're at 160 grams. Which may be about what you weigh in pounds. If you weigh more, add some grilled salmon and voila, mission accomplished. It's when you start tipping the scales at 200 plus pounds that the protein requirements become harder to reach and call for additional protein shakes or more animal food, which I'd rather do without. It's costly, gas-producing and tough on the tummy. Another reason to stay lean.

Oh yes there is the deal of cholesterol. Three whole eggs contain over twice the maximum recommended daily intake of this non-essential nutrient. But I have heard of studies showing that three eggs a day produces no increase in cholesterol levels, and having followed a vegan diet myself for 7 years was astounded to see that my cholesterol level was somewhat high. 

And yes, even wild-caught fish is high in the chemicals that inundate our oceans, like mercury and other residues. But life is toxic, is the platitude I stand by. I have had mercury fillings for most of my life and I may be crazy but I'm not the guy haranguing you on the street corner while hitting you up for change. Of course it helps to keep the rest of the diet super clean, organic, drink lots of water, and sweat as much as you can. And keep stress to a minimum, through meditation and good sleep hygiene and avoidance of having kids if you can. Like Kathryn Hahn's character once told Leslie Knope of Parks & Rec: "I can do whatever I feel like, whenever I want, because I'm not somebody's parent." But I digress. So, for the sake of change if nothing else, to quote Ben Stiller: DO IT. Oh, and choose fish with low mercury, which means sardines and salmon and chunk light tuna over albacore. And eat only organic eggs, it goes without saying.

This quick switch is so appealing I may have to give it a try myself. Ooops, I already have! The result is 10 extra pounds, which I'm happy to carry around - that is, until I'm not.

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