Cooked by Rasoterra restaurant in Barcelona

Veganism beyond clichés

In the midst of extreme confusion about healthy eating, we come across the vegan diet, a diet that’s as old as humanity, which totally excludes animal products and has more and more followers, but is surrounded by all kinds of prejudices, unfounded myths and doubts: the most important one is if it can be considered a healthy diet

Detox diet, intermittent fasting, green smoothies, food with super powers, alkaline, paleo, ketogenic diets… Madness has certainly run wild in the world of healthy eating. In our eagerness to discover the philosopher’s stone of diets to free us from all evil without hardly any effort, it seems that anything goes and it is very difficult to separate the (green) wheat from the chaff.

In this context of extreme confusion we come across the vegan diet, a diet that’s as old as humanity, which totally excludes animal products and has more and more followers, but is surrounded by all kinds of prejudices, unfounded myths and doubts: the most important one is if it can be considered a healthy diet. We’ll talk about that right away, but just as a preview, yes, it is.

THE GREEN FASHION

Plant-based diets have become fashionable and just walking around the centre of Barcelona is enough to confirm that its most radical expression, veganism, is becoming normal and that we have stopped considering it an extravagance to become just another option. There are more and more restaurants that proudly announce their veggie options on their doors and in some of them, you can actually eat quite well, even very well. According to a 2016 Lantern survey, the number of vegetarian and vegan establishments in Spain has doubled in the last five years and now there are almost 800. According to the Gremi de Restauració’s ‘Veggie Vegan Barcelona’ guide, there are more than 40 vegetarian restaurants in the city, of which about 14 are vegan, although most of them offer vegan dishes. In addition, decent vegetarian or vegan options are easy to find in many conventional restaurants.

Vegetarianism is a flourishing international business which will be worth €5,000 million in 2020, according to Lantern consultancy.

Thus, veganism is a trend and followers of this diet no longer have to resign to fishing cold meats out of their salads when they go out or accept that, at Spanish bars, veggie sandwiches always include chicken or tuna (why?): vegan no longer rhymes with Martian. It seems that the vilified tofu has found a place in the Spanish diet and has been democratised, especially since we can now easily find it in supermarkets such as Mercadona. It’s a goldmine: vegetarianism is a flourishing international business which will be worth €5,000 million in 2020, according to Lantern consultancy.

But who in their right minds would want to renounce the pleasures of the flesh to feed on herbs alone? There’s a variety of reasons that lead people to embrace veganism, also called strict vegetarianism. The data are somewhat elusive, but most surveys agree: the main reason by far (75-80% of surveyed people) is related to animal rights, according to data from a 1997 macro-survey conducted by the Vegetarian Journal and the most recent one by the vegan website Vomad, in 2016. Although after programs like the recent ‘Salvados’ on La Sexta about pig farms, it’s quite probable that that figure has increased in our country. The other important reason is related to people’s health, followed closely by environmental reasons. According to these two publications, the typical vegan is usually under 40 (80%) and university educated, most have finished a bachelor’s or master’s degree or a doctorate (almost 9 out of 10).

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VEGANS IN SPAIN

In our country, of course, it’s difficult to find reliable numbers. There are some, but they’re about vegetarians in general and not only about vegans: according to the First National Survey of Dietary Intake (in Spanish, ENIDE), published in 2011, approximately 1.5% of the Spanish population is vegetarian, so about 700,000 people. These figures are more or less the same to those in a Lantern survey last year, which offered a photofit portrait of the Spanish vegetarian: 1.3% of Spaniards are vegetarians, of which only 0.2% are vegans; 51.2% live in cities, two out of three vegetarians are women and one in ten women in Spain has decided to stop including animals in their diet.

What’s interesting is that almost 8% of the respondents declared that they only ate animal products occasionally, so the tendency to reduce meat intake is increasing. In countries like the UK, for example, the number of vegans increased 350% between 2006 and 2016.

Diets that partially or totally exclude animal products can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

IS THE VEGAN DIET HEALTHY?

Absolutely yes, and it is not an opinion. Although some may be surprised by this fact, nutritional science proves it and there is no controversy: a few years ago, in 2009, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics from the United States and the Dietitians of Canada Association published a famous positioning paper on vegetarian and vegan diets that should have settled the debate forever. In it, they made it very clear that a well-planned vegan diet was perfectly healthy and “appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, as well as for athletes.” Pregnancy. Childhood. Athletes. Dearie me, our arguments are being knocked down so fast our prejudices are getting ruffled.

And not only that, the paper also states that diets that partially or totally exclude animal products can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. So, in short, not only can one survive by only eating plants, but one can also live as well or better than an omnivore.

Despite this document and the overwhelming number of studies and data on the benefits of this type of diet, many, including a few clueless nutritionists, continue to claim without even blushing that a vegan diet doesn’t contain enough protein, calcium or iron, and if any mother or father happens to tell their paediatrician they have opted for a vegan diet for their child, in many cases, they’ll have to stoically endure an unfounded reprimand about the importance of meat, dairy products or anything the doctor considers doesn’t match with the textbooks they used 30 years ago.

However, we do have to take certain precautions: the vegan diet, like all diets that restrict a food group, can be difficult to follow and if you’re not sure what you’re dealing with, you could be facing nutritional deficiencies. Having said that, the same thing can happen –and indeed happens, and very often– with the omnivorous diet: all diets have to be well planned, not just the vegan one. From time to time, we hear about isolated cases of “vegan” parents who are responsible for nutritional atrocities, as if the problem was the diet, and not poor planning or lack of information. To bring the debate into its proper context, we must remember that one of the worst health problems in history, obesity –which is related to all types of diseases, from diabetes to cardiovascular problems– is the result of a poorly planned omnivorous diet and nobody seems to scream and shout about that nor does it seem to be used to write four column headlines. In addition, a vegan contributes to improving the environment and avoiding animal abuse through their dietary choice, so let’s be a little more serious about the subject.

The only nutrient a vegan should take into account is vitamin B12 and every specialist without exception insists that taking supplements regularly is indispensable. Otherwise, we can develop megaloblastic anemia or irreversible neurological damage, which can be avoided by just taking a supplement. Besides that, calcium, iron and other nutrients can be obtained easily and in sufficient quantities from plant foods; yes, proteins too. In fact, a person who weighs around 70 kg only needs 56 g of protein a day –to be more precise, 0.8 g of protein per kg– something that’s quite manageable: 100 g of tofu contains around 10 g of protein.

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WILL THE FUTURE BE VEGAN OR NOT AT ALL?

According to a study by the University of Oxford from 2016, if most humans adopted a plant-based diet, by 2050 we’d avoid 8.1 million premature deaths every year, reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases by 70% and we would save 1,000 million dollars every year in health care worldwide. In addition, WHO recommends drastically reducing our red meat intake, especially processed meat, which can be carcinogenic, and most experts recommend not eating red meat more than two or three times a month. So perhaps it is not necessary for everyone to become vegan –although whoever does will be very welcome– but it is imperative that we reduce the consumption of meat drastically not just to improve our health, but also the planet’s.

Infographics

MEAT, BAD BUSINESS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

There are about 4,200 million farm animals worldwide, which are a serious sustainability problem because:

– According to FAO, more than 70% of cereals and grains grown in developed countries are used to feed farm animals, which could be for human consumption.  Experts like Jean Meyer, a nutritionist at Harvard University, believe that if meat production were reduced by 10%, there would have enough cereals to feed around 60 million people.

– They occupy large blocks of land that could be used for crops, forests or jungles.

– They use huge amounts of water. The figures are brutal: to produce 100 g of beef you need 7,000 litres of water. Producing a 225 g steak used as much water as one person’s showers for a whole year, based on 5 minute showers at a rate of 8 litres/minute. In Catalonia we eat 50 kg of meat a year on average: do the maths.

– Seven litres of crude oil are needed to produce one kilogram of meat.

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TYPES OF VEGETARIANS

  • Vegetarian: generic name we give to a person whose diet is based mainly on vegetable products.
  • Ovolactovegetarian: a vegetarian who eats eggs and/or dairy.
  • Vegan: pure vegetarian. They don’t take any animal products, not even honey.
  • Absurd vegetarian: the ones who don’t eat animal products, but pig out on ultra-processed foods and products that imitate bacon, chicken, etc.

BEYOND VEGANISM: RAW DIET

The raw vegan diet has also become fashionable. Based on vegetables, it proposes that all foods be eaten raw and that they should not be processed or excessively altered from their natural state, although it does allow cooking that never exceeds 42 oC or 45 oC to avoid heat degradation of vitamins, enzymes and phytochemicals. It also allows other types of “cooking”, such as macerated in salt or acid substances such as lemon juice or vinegar. It’s not recommended by experts, although including their recipes in a vegetarian diet is interesting.

CALCIUM IN THE VEGAN DIET

One of the most established myths about the vegan diet is that only a diet that includes dairy products contains the right amount of calcium. While it is true that dairy products, especially cheeses, contain large amounts of bioavailable calcium, they are not the only source of this mineral: some plant foods can provide interesting amounts of calcium and, in addition, a greater bioavailability than milk, especially vegetables such as collard greens, cabbage, bok choy or kale. Another interesting source of calcium for vegans is found in nuts, seeds and legumes, with absorption below that of milk, between 17 and 24%.

In addition, many other factors are involved in the absorption of calcium, such as vitamin D, vitamin K and magnesium levels or salt intake.

EATING VEGAN AND WELL IS POSSIBLE

Vegan cuisine has reached high levels of sophistication and the sad vegetable gastronomy of yesteryear has now kicked the bucket. These are some of the best restaurants with vegan menus in Barcelona and in Catalonia.


Café Blueproject. 57 Princesa. One of the benchmarks of raw vegan food in the city, with spectacular dishes, such as their cosmic pizza. 100% ecological and local sourcing.

Aguaribay. 95 Taulat. Vegetarian cuisine with vegan options in Poblenou, with simple quality dishes and excellent curries, vegetable soups and desserts.

Rasoterra. 5 Palau. The flagship of slow food in Barcelona; they offer very good vegan dishes with organic and locally sourced ingredients.

Teresa Carles. 8 Jovellanos. The restaurant that taught us that vegetarianism could be cool. Good vegan options.

Flax & Kale. 74b Tallers. They also belong to the Teresa Carles group. Although they include blue fish in their menu, they have surprising and delicious vegan dishes. It’s advisable to book in advance.

In Girona. Restaurant B-12. 11 Plaza del Vi. Located in front of the town hall, it has a daily menu and does excellent vegan burgers.

In Tarragona El Vergel. 13 Calle Major. Purely vegan, a pioneer in the city, with affordable menus and attractive dishes.

In Lleida. Casa Albets, s/n. A hotel and ecological and vegan restaurant located in the small town of Lladurs (Solsonès), with a thoughtful and delicious cuisine.

DOCUMENTARIES ON VEGANISM

Earthlings, Shaun Monson, 2005

Cowspiracy: The sustainability secret, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, 2014.

Forks over Knives, Lee Fulkerson, 2011

Books

How not to die, Michael Greger and Gene Stone, Paidós, 2016.

Más vegetales, menos animales, Julio Basulto and Juanjo Cáceres, Punto de lectura, 2016.

Eating animals, Jonathan Safran Foer, Seix Barral, 2011.

Vegetarianos con ciencia, Lucía Martínez Argüelles, Books4pocket, 2017.

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:  An Introduction to Carnism, Melanie Joy, Plaza y Valdés, 2013.

 

All dishes have been cooked by Rasoterra restaurant in Barcelona