The Protein Question

The Vegan Files

One of my coworkers, the most friendly, helpful guy you could hope to know (and a computer whiz, to boot), recently mentioned that he is on insulin but is still having difficulty keeping his Type 2 diabetes under control.  I was a bit surprised, as he is tall, exercises (not only goes to the gym but also has a job that keeps him running around our building like a banshee all day) and is not morbidly obese like me.  I related that I’ve had reasonable success at controlling my blood sugar since I went vegan a little more than two years ago.

He seemed busy, but I spent a minute or two explaining about the vegan diet before he had to run off to put out the next fire at work.  Funny thing is that there is no one “vegan diet.”  Every vegan eats differently.  The baseline that most of us have common is that we do not eat animal products.  This includes a ban on meat, fish and seafood, dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.), eggs or honey.

As most Type 2 diabetics know, the finest foods in life are starches.  I knew that even in my carnivore days.  When you have to watch your carbs, it is easy to dream about bread, potatoes, bread, pasta, bread, cereal, bread, bagels, croissants and tortillas.  Did I mention bread?

Most of these beloved starches are vegan (although you always have to watch the ingredients on the labels of commercially prepared products).  But those of us who are both vegan and diabetic are faced with a double challenge.  It is easy for vegans who eat on the run to overdo it on the starches, a disaster if you’re a Type 2 diabetic.

So I’m not surprised that among the most common questions that I’m asked about my vegan diet is how I get my protein.  “You don’t even eat eggs?” my coworker asked me.  I know where he’s coming from.  As I’ve been blessed with naturally low cholesterol, I used to eat a lot of eggs.  If I had a boiled egg (or two) for a snack, at least I didn’t have to add it to the carbohydrate tally for the day on my diabetic diet.  A single egg gives you 6 grams of protein, so egg lovers who go vegan will likely need to search for a replacement source of protein.

Then again, maybe not.

Don’t ask me how much protein you should consume each day.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it’s an individualized thing in that it supposedly depends on your body weight and how much you exercise.  For another, there appears to be little consensus among the medical community regarding how much protein we need.  Lots of folks out there wag their fingers at meat-loving Americans, warning that we’re getting too much protein and that this can cause us to gain unhealthy amounts of weight and even result in kidney disease.  Then there are others who believe that we don’t get enough protein and would, in fact, do better to indulge in more as a replacement for a lot of the refined sugars and starches that Americans are so enamored with.  All in all, however, I believe we’re probably better off dumping the excess carbs and replacing them with vegetables (both the green and orange varieties).

Starch does have its place, however, even for vegan Type 2s.  It’s a matter of achieving balance, which I grant is not the easiest thing when you spend your life running hither and yon.  I am definitely not a good role model in the area of balance, as I seem to have developed a potato fetish on a scale that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  As far as I’m concerned, a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine.  If I don’t have my baked potato, I get positively grumpy.  But you know what?  A baked potato (if it’s not a giant one) tends to have about 90 to 110 calories.  You could do worse.  And starches do fill you up, which can leave you less hungry for the junk food that is forever calling my name.

So I let my coworker know that, while carnivores may have concerns about eating too much protein, vegans (particularly diabetics) have to be concerned about eating too much starch.  Making a point to eat protein at one meal each day is quite sufficient for many of us.  I ticked off a list of some common vegan protein sources:

  • tofu
  • seitan
  • beans and legumes (including hummus)
  • nuts
  • soy milk
  • commercially prepared vegan products

In this last category I include items such as vegan burger patties (Boca burgers, for example) and veggie dogs, vegan “lunch meat” (my favorites are Yves “bologna” and Tofurky’s “oven roasted turkey”) and vegan frozen items (my favorites are Gardein’s “fish,“ “chicken” and “meatballs” and Amy’s bean burritos).  These convenience foods are probably not as healthful as whole foods such as beans and legumes, but they taste great and I never have to worry about a quick protein source to throw in my bag.  A few minutes in the microwave at work and lunch is served!

Of course, protein choices have to be modified to personal preferences.  For example, I happen to detest seitan (sprouted soy), which, at least to me, tastes like dirt.  I rarely drink soy milk, as I prefer almond milk, which has very little protein (but is wonderful in a cup of hot Earl Grey).  I do, however, enjoy tofu and beans, particularly chick peas (which here in California are popularly known as garbanzos).  Everyone has to come up with the mix that works for them.  It’s particularly tough for those transitioning from a meat-eating lifestyle, because many of these products may be totally foreign to them.

It’s also worthwhile to bear in mind that many foods that you already eat contain protein that you might not be aware of.  A packet of instant oatmeal, for example, which I always think of as a starch, typically contains 3 grams of protein.  If you throw two of those in a bowl with some hot water in the morning, you have the same amount of protein as there is in an egg.

The bottom line is that protein is not at all difficult for vegans to come by, particularly with all the commercial products available on supermarket shelves these days.

I just hope that my coworker decides to give it a try.

 

Type 2 Vegan

The Vegan Files

My octogenarian mother is appalled at my strange eating habits, which is how she characterizes my vegan diet.  More times than I can count she has asked me why I feel I have to “do this.”

“It can’t be for your health,” she’ll offer, a reference to the fact that I am obese and have been so since childhood.  The implication is that, if I wanted to improve my health, I’d lose weight, not go vegan.

The truth, however, is that my health has improved since I went vegan a bit over two years ago.  You see, like a few million of us out there, I have Type 2 diabetes.  While this is an equal opportunity malady, it hits particularly hard on those of us with major weight problems.

It has now been almost exactly 30 years since I was first diagnosed.  Initially, I ignored the problem and, surprise, surprise, it did not go away.  Eventually, I ended up with a nasty case of cellulitis in one of my gigantic legs.  As we’ve nothing better to do, let’s spend some time at the local hospital, shall we?

That’s when I was told “you’re in big trouble, buddy.”  I have been on a series of glucose lowering medications ever since, in addition to more pills to try to keep my blood pressure within reason.

My visit with the nutritionist at the hospital was not pretty.  If you want to see a grown man cry, just show him the proper portion size of, um, anything.

You mean I can only eat that tiny piece of cheese and that’s a serving of protein??!!  I blubbered like an infant.  This was truly the end of the world.

“How can this be happening to me?” I thought.  After all, my diet is nowhere near as bad as some people’s.  True, I have a penchant for ice cream and chocolate, but I don’t chow down on chips and pretzels and Ho-Hos in front of the computer.  Not only that, but I had been a pescatarian for the past seven years.  That means that I ate fish, but no meat or poultry.  So you can imagine how I felt when a doctor tried to make me feel better by telling me “Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you can’t go have a cheeseburger once in a while.”  It’s a good thing I’m not a violent person.

I started out counting my starches, my proteins, my fruit, my milk.  No more than six starches a day.  That was the hardest part of all.  Every morning, my first thought when I woke up was “What can I eat today?”

Vegetables were essentially “free” in that I could eat as many as I wanted, within reason.  Of course, starchy vegetables (the only kind I really liked) didn’t count.  I’d eat a few ounces of tuna and a slice of bread with a salad in the morning (I never cared for cereal and thought it was a waste of my starch allocation).  I’d take a sandwich and another salad to work along with a piece of fruit.  For a while, I was as good as gold, and I even lost a bit of weight.  But I didn’t like to exercise and I figured out creative ways of “cheating” on my prescribed diet and convincing myself that it was okay.

But it wasn’t okay, and my blood sugar got way out of control in just a few years.  The doctors started discussing having me inject insulin, but were afraid that I’d only end up gaining more weight.  I ended up taking more and more oral medication, felt depressed about it and used the only method I knew of making myself feel better — eating even more.

Then, at the age of ten, one of my nieces may have accidentally saved my life.  She asked me why I still ate fish if I truly believed that all animals had the same right to a full life that we humans do.  She had called my bluff.

I knew immediately that she was right, and all the more after I read about what the atrocities committed by commercial fishermen.  I knew I’d have to go vegan one way or other.  But it wasn’t the prospect of giving up my beloved fish that bothered me half as much as the thought of no longer having eggs, cheese and milk.  As I already did not eat meat, I indulged in a great deal of dairy products.

First, I tried going vegan for three days just to see what it would be like.  It was rough.  No cheese sticks.  No canned tuna.  No fried egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches.  When the three days were up, I knew I’d have to think about this some more.

A few months later, I decided to try again.  I had been reading about how dairy cows are kept pregnant for as many years as possible so that they continue to produce milk.  When they “go dry,” I learned, they are slaughtered.  What is wrong with this picture?  Such cruelty just for money?

This time, I went from three days all the way to three months.  The problem was that my blood sugar levels did not improve at all and I felt like crap much of the time.  The problem, I knew, was that without my fish, cheese and milk, I wasn’t getting much protein.  Instead, I was eating way, way more starch than I should.  As every Type 2 knows, A1C don’t lie.

I told myself that going back to eating fish and dairy was an act of self-preservation.  After all, I didn’t want to end up in the hospital or worse, did I?

After a few months, however, I tried being a bit more honest with myself.  I knew there are plenty of vegetable based protein sources, if only I’d avail myself of them.  I’d tried veggie burgers and soy-based deli slices many times, and found them to be decent.  So when I was laid off at work and we ended up moving 600 miles to the opposite end of California, I decided the time was right to do this once and for all.

I haven’t looked back since.

And a funny thing happened.  Without even trying, I lost 70 pounds.  Could this have something to do with all the milkfat I no longer consumed?  Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I rarely ate anything fried anymore.  Could be related to the fact that I no longer went out for all-you-can-eat fish dinners on Friday nights and stacks of pancakes at Denny’s on Sunday mornings.  It may also have had something to do with the fact that I ate a lot more salads, rediscovered the joy of carrots and broccoli and stayed away from most of my favorite baked products because they contained dairy.

My blood sugar level miraculously went right back down to where it was supposed to be.  And I was able to feel good about what I knew was the right thing to save our planet and care for our fellow creatures.

It may not have been my initial intention, but yes, Mom, you would be correct to say that I “do this” for my health.

 

Passover Pity Party

chocolate silk pie

Take my advice:  Don’t — I repeat, do not — attend a party during Passover.  Not if you’re the least bit observant, anyway.

And I mean any kind of party — a 5-year old’s birthday, a retirement shindig or even a humble pot luck in the break room at work.  I know you have good intentions and the reason you’re there is to support the honoree or the spirit of the occasion.  But face it:  You are not going to be able to eat the cake (not even the fashionable sliver so coveted by dieters), you are not going to be able to drink the champagne and you are most certainly not going to be able to eat any of that lovely food so colorfully taunting you from the buffet table.

What you will do is bring a piece of matzah in a baggie.  And cry.

For observant Jews, our Passover food restrictions are quite severe.  If it contains an ingredient that came in a bag, a box or a can, it is likely off-limits due to the presence of corn syrup or soy products.  Explaining this to anyone who did not grow up with it is futile.  They will look at you as if you hail from the lower depths, then smile wanly and slowly back away.

I am reminded of the way I occasionally explain the challenges of starch limitation that is the life of a Type 2 diabetic.  “What do you mean, starch?” they will ask.  “Think about any kind of food you really enjoy, without which your life would be greatly diminished,”  I reply.  “That food is starch.”

Passover is kind of like that.  If you like it, forget it.  Better start crossing the days off your calendar now.  And there are eight of those days, bucko.  Eight looooong days until you can have pizza and beer again.  Eight looooong days until you can have tacos and quesadillas again.  Eight looooong days until you have donuts and ice cream again.

You can quit your whining now.  Shut up and eat your matzah.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t eat meat.  And just what do we eat during Passover?  Besides matzah, I mean.

Meat.

Lots of meat, lots of fish.  Eggs in the morning, eggs in the evening, eggs at suppertime, tra la.  Being a semi-vegetarian, my staples include tofu, veggie burgers, veggie dogs, veggie sausages and fake lunch meat made of textured vegetable protein (TVP).  In other words, soy, soy and more soy.  None of that may be eaten during Passover.

Fortunately for me, I have been conducting a long-running, lurid love affair with the tuber they call the potato.  I would go so far as to say that, during the eight days of Passover, the potato is my savior.  Baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, potatoes fried in olive oil, garlic potatoes roasted in the oven.  Between the potatoes and the matzah, suffice it to say that I will not be checking my A1C glucose level any time soon.  If my doctor complains, I’ll shove a piece of matzah down his throat.

Well, today I broke what I thought was my hard and fast rule.  I attended a party on the second day of Passover.  That’s right, it’s only the second day!  Six more days of this!  Ugh.

I daintily picked at the fruit bowl.  I ate a carrot stick, but couldn’t dip it in the ranch dressing.  And I swear, the tortilla chips and guacamole were mocking me.  The cute little rounds of French bread surrounding the spinach dip were jeering at me.  And I’m pretty sure that sound I heard was the plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies giving me the raspberry.

As if that weren’t enough, a pie was brought out and placed in the center of the table to be the star of the show.  A pie with lovely little tufts of whipped cream fluted around the edges.  Oh no, not any pie.  After all, it’s Passover!  We wouldn’t want to serve a plebeian apple or cherry pie, now would we?  Some kind of plain Jane everyday pie at which I could smile wanly and slowly back away?  That would never do.  No siree, Bob.

Someone had to bring a… chocolate… silk… pie.  From Claim Jumper.  Aggghhhh!

I guess it could have been worse.  It could have been a chocolate mountain cake with Neapolitan ice cream.

Excuse me, I’m going to eat a piece of matzah now.