Saturday, 30 March 2013

...And Popeye's Addendum

I had a friend ask for a little more information about properly balancing iron in a plant-based diet, so I thought I'd tack a post script to my comments about protein.

Iron is a very tricky mineral. Too much of it creates toxicity within the body, but too little can lead to anemia.

Essentially, the majority of iron already in our bodies exists within the hemoglobin - the protein of our red blood cells. It helps transport oxygen to tissues and assists in cellular growth. Iron also exists within enzymes and aids in food digestion.

There are two types of food iron: heme and non-heme. Meat sources provide 40% heme iron and 60% non-heme iron. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin, and is therefore found in animal sources but not in plant sources. Vegan and vegetarian diets are completely without heme iron sources, but this does not automatically equate to an iron deficiency. In fact, studies have shown that those on plant-based diets are at no greater risk of developing iron deficiency than omnivores.

The CDC lists Recommended Daily Values for iron at 15-18 mg/day for teens and women up to menopause, and 8 mg/day post-menopause. Women require so much additional iron before menopause to recoup for mineral loss during menstruation. Men, other than teens between 14-18, require an average of 8 mg/day throughout their lives.

In addition, vegans and vegetarians should give themselves a nice buffer around that average and aim for approximately twice the RDV to compensate for the lack of heme iron.

The Vegetarian Resource Group provides a great list of non-heme iron sources:

Iron (mg)
Soybeans,cooked1 cup8.8
Blackstrap molasses2 Tbsp7.2
Lentils, cooked1 cup6.6
Spinach, cooked1 cup6.4
Tofu4 ounces6.4
Bagel, enriched1 medium6.4
Chickpeas, cooked1 cup4.7
Tempeh1 cup4.5
Lima beans, cooked1 cup4.5
Black-eyed peas, cooked1 cup4.3
Swiss chard, cooked1 cup4.0
Kidney beans, cooked1 cup3.9
Black beans, cooked1 cup3.6
Pinto beans, cooked1 cup3.6
Turnip greens, cooked1 cup3.2
Potato1 large3.2
Prune juice8 ounces3.0
Quinoa, cooked1 cup2.8
Beet greens, cooked1 cup2.7
Tahini2 Tbsp2.7
Veggie hot dog, iron-fortified1 hot dog2.7
Peas, cooked1 cup2.5
Cashews1/4 cup2.1
Bok choy, cooked1 cup1.8
Bulgur, cooked1 cup1.7
Raisins1/2 cup1.6
Apricots, dried15 halves1.4
Veggie burger, commercial1 patty1.4
Watermelon1/8 medium1.4
Almonds1/4 cup1.3
Kale, cooked1 cup1.2
Sunflower seeds1/4 cup1.2
Broccoli, cooked1 cup1.1
Millet, cooked1 cup1.1
Soy yogurt6 ounces1.1
Tomato juice8 ounces1.0
Sesame seeds2 Tbsp1.0
Brussels sprouts, cooked1 cup0.9

There are two main reasons vegetarians and vegans often don't have low iron levels:

1.  their diets tend to include foods with much higher iron contents

For comparison's sake - 100 calories of roasted chicken breast has only 0.6 mg of iron, whereas 4 ounces of tofu contains 6.4 mg of iron.

2.  their diets are also generally higher in vitamin C, which greatly increases the absorption of non-heme iron into the body

Red and green peppers, kiwis, canteloupe, papaya, guava, strawberries, mangoes and pineapple, cauliflower, pea pods, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts are all high in vitamin C.

There are even a few foods like broccoli and kale that provide great levels of both iron and vitamin C in one delicious little package!

Simple combinations like baked tofu and broccoli, or raw peppers and cauliflower with chickpea hummus are easy ways to keep your body well-stocked in both non-heme iron and vitamin C.

A final word about iron supplements...

If you're feeling weak, tired, unable to concentrate or constantly cold, talk to your primary care physician and before jumping on the iron supplement ship. A doctor can perform necessary blood tests to assess your current iron levels, and help you determine the best way to increase your iron stores.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Protein? Protein!

"So, where do you get your protein?"

This is, by far, the most common question asked by non-vegans. It's a legitimate question, and it deserves a closer examination.

Here is the most recent update of Canada's Food Guide:


We're all fairly familiar with the four basic food groups, but there is a lot of confusion about where to find specific minerals, vitamins and nutrients, especially when looking beyond these guidelines.

Ask anyone about the most commonly accepted food truths and they'll likely say:

"Milk will give you healthy teeth and bones!"

"Meat is the best source of protein!" (the hacksaw is a particularly nice touch)

"We need to drink orange juice to get enough vitamin C!"

The list goes on...

These ideas aren't exactly incorrect, but they present specific foods as the only viable option to achieve optimal health and wellness. The traditional Western diet narrows down our our appreciation of food into limited, structured categories and it's only recently that we've begun broadening our understanding beyond these classic dietary proverbs.

Let's take a look at protein.

Broadly speaking, protein provides structure to the cells in our body.  When digested, these proteins are broken down into amino acids. There are nine amino acids the body requires from food sources, whereas the other eleven are created within the body itself.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Reference Intakes chart, the average man requires approximately 56 grams of protein per day, while a woman needs about 46 grams.

I think it's safe to say that North Americans have become a little protein-obsessed.

Yes, protein is important in our diets, and yes, some vegan/vegetarian diets are decidedly deficient in protein. But it's a fallacy to believe that protein needs to be at the centre of our diets.

Beyond the realm of meat, there is a huge variety of high-protein foods vegans and vegetarians can add to their diet to achieve healthy intake levels.

Here are a few examples of super vegan protein sources from No Meat Athlete:

Corn - 3 gm
Sun-dried tomatoes - 4 gm
Soy beans - 4 gm
Soy milk - 11 gm
Navy beans - 8 gm
Peas - 8 gm
Lima beans - 5 gm
Brussell sprouts - 6 gm
Spinach - 6 gm
Broccoli - 6 gm
Potato - 4 gm
Asparagus - 2 gm
Apricots, dried - 3 gm
Peaches, dried - 3 gm 
Cereal, Bread, Grains & Pasta
Oat bran - 5 gm
Oats - 5 gm
Wheat flour - 4 gm
Spaghetti, whole wheat - 8 gm
Buckwheat - 4 gm
Couscous - 4 gm
Bulgur - 3 gm
Millet - 3 gm
Bread, pumpernickel - 2 gm
Bread. whole wheat - 4 gm
Bread, white - 2 gm
Rice, brown long grain - 5 gm
Rice, white - 4 gm
Pita bread, whole wheat - 3 gm
Pita bread, white - 3 gm
Nuts & Seeds
Pumpkin seeds - 5 gm
Walnuts - 7 gm
Pine nuts - 4 gm
Almonds - 6 gm
Pistachios - 6 gm
Sunflower seeds - 5 gm
Peanuts - 7 gm
Cashews - 7 gm
Hemp seeds - 11 gm
Let's see...a breakfast of oatmeal, walnuts and dried apricots, a lunchtime smoothie including soy milk, spinach and hemp seeds, plus dinner with whole wheat pasta and sun-dried tomatoes.

Voila! That's already 54 grams of protein without a ton of effort or out-of-the-box meal planning.

The bottom line is that protein is just one piece of the nutritional puzzle. We also have to consider other key macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat and fiber as well as vitamins like A, C, D, K, B12 and minerals like calcium, iron and sodium.

In the end, it's all about balance.

My food philosophy is simple - eat what you love, and love what you eat!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Easy Peasy Avocado Brownies & Mint Chocolate Frosting

Oooooh, baby.

Welcome to Chocolate Town.

My husband has a sweet tooth the size of Texas, and is well-known for his decadent (non-vegan) baking. I thought I'd give him a run for his money with my own over-the-top vegan creation. This recipe did not disappoint.

The avocado brownie recipe is super easy (hence the name), and you probably already have a lot of the ingredients in your pantry right now.

The icing is also a snap to prepare, and the mint kick is so delicious on top of the brownies.

This is not exactly a healthy dessert, but man, they are good.

Easy Peasy Avocado Brownies

Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 20 minutes

Serves 12-16, depending on the size of your brownies


1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup water
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 avocado (approx.1/4 cup)
1/8 cup dark chocolate, roughly chopped (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and lightly coat an 8x8" pan with cooking spray

2. Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl

3. Puree avocado and olive oil in a small bowl with a hand mixer on low

4. Add pureed mixture to dry ingredients, then add water and apple cider vinegar

5. Mix everything together until smooth, then fold in dark chocolate (if desired)

6. Pour mixture into greased pan and bake for 17-20 minutes*

7. Remove from oven and allow brownies to cool completely before frosting

*These brownies can quickly morph into cake if over-baked, so remove them before the batter sets completely. The middle should be moist but not runny when a toothpick is inserted.*

Mint Chocolate Frosting

Prep time: 10 minutes


1/4 cup Earth Balance margarine, slightly softened
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp peppermint extract
1/4 cup soy milk


1. Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl

2. Add margarine, peppermint extract and soy milk

3. Blend with a hand mixer on low

4. Let mixture stand until ready to spread on brownies

That's it! So simple.

Frost the brownies once they're totally cool, then add a sprinkle of chopped dark chocolate on top just for fun.


Recipes adapted from Gimme Some OvenBabble

Monday, 25 March 2013

Red Lentil & Cauliflower Curry

So I was in full multi-task mode while trying to prepare this recipe, and didn't have time to test it before running out the door. Instead I packed up a serving and brought it with me for dinner.  Fast forward a few hours, and I was getting pretty excited to dig into some delicious curry. I sat down at the dining room table and cracked open the container about a inch - literally a inch - and my husband immediately exclaimed, "What is that SMELL?"

It was then I remembered the Cardinal Rule - there are certain foods should should only be eaten:

1. the comfort of your own home
2. a restaurant

In other words, it is extremely inadvisable to dig into a big bowl of curry in a neutral (non-curry) environment.

Curry combines so many strong flavors; it smells fantastic when simmering on your stove or in an Indian or Thai restaurant, but it's basically the equivalent of a food nuclear bomb when eaten anywhere else.

Lesson learned. Needless to say, my curry dinner went uneaten.

But! Luckily curry actually tastes better the next day since the flavours have a chance to get nice and rich, so I was able to give this recipe a real test today.

I adapted this recipe from the mighty Veganomicon by the inimitable Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.

It's a hearty, spicy dish with lots of great flavours - just maybe think twice before bringing leftovers to the office for lunch!

Red lentil & cauliflower curry

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes

Serves 4-5


1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
1/2 head cauliflower, broken into small florets
1 large parsnip, peeled & sliced into matchsticks
2-3 stalks celery, sliced (add/sub other veggies as desired)
1 cup red lentils, rinsed & sorted for any small stones
1 Tbsp. high-heat oil (safflower, canola, grapeseed etc.)
2 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. each turmeric, cinnamon, coriander & cumin
1 tsp. lime juice
2 cups low-salt vegetable stock
2 cups water
1 Thai chili pepper, thinly sliced*
1-2 Tbsp. cilantro garnish (optional)

*I prefer Thai chili peppers, which are smaller, hotter and more flavourful than jalapeno or serrano peppers; choose a hot pepper based on your comfort level, and add as much/little as you'd like. Take a look at the Scoville Scale for more information about hot peppers.*


1.  Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat

2.  Add onions and stir fry for about five minutes, or until onions are a little soft

3.  Add ginger and hot pepper and cook for another minute

4.  Sprinkle spices over the onion mixture, stir to coat and allow cook for about one minute

5.  Add lentils, stock and water, bring to a boil then partially cover and reduce to medium-low heat

6.  Cook lentils for about 10-12 minutes, or until they are soft and mushy

7.  Add cauliflower and veggies, stir to coat then partially cover and simmer for another 12-15 minutes*

8.  Remove pot from the heat, add the lime juice and stir to combine

9.  Cover and allow mixture to sit for a few minutes, then serve with a side of rice and a sprinkle of cilantro

*I prefer my veggies with a little more bite, so I only cook them for a few minutes at the end. Feel free to extend the cooking time to suit your taste, but note that you may need to add more water if the lentils are starting to stick to the bottom of the pot.*


Friday, 22 March 2013

Vegan Basics 101

Let's get down to brass tacks and look at some essentials.

The concept of veganism itself is plagued by half-truths, misconceptions and over-zealous puritanism.  I think a lot of people new to veganism feel completely overwhelmed, not only by the constantly changing and often contradictory dietary information (need I mention the word "soy"?), but also by self-righteous, insolent vegans who believe their brand of veganism is The Vegan Diet.

Unfortunately these people are sometimes seen as mouthpieces for the entire vegan community, which only does a disservice to the rest of us who struggle with negative stereotypes about our lifestyle choices.


As with anything that goes against accepted social norms, veganism has received a lot of flak over the years, but I truly believe it's starting to get a little more street cred. Vegans are no longer only hippies who live off the grid and grow pot on their communal farms. There are still plenty of ultra-crunchy granola types out there, but they're now joined by people of all walks of life, all around the globe, which effectively increases exposure and interest in veganism.

So, what is veganism?

Simply put, veganism is the conscious choice to abstain from the use of any animal products in daily life.

A quickie list animal-based foods include:
  • meat
    • poultry
    • pork
    • beef
    • fish
    • game (caribou, elk, deer, etc.)
  • milk 
    • milk (skim, evaporated, condensed, powdered, etc.)
    • cheese
    • ice cream/gelato
    • butter
  • eggs
  • honey
In addition to avoiding consumption of the above, most vegans also identify with the concept that animals are sentient creatures capable of emotions. There is a growing body of evidence to back up these claims: scientists have found that cows have best friends, that fish have individual personalities and that pigs are emotionally sensitive.

We've long denied the possibility that animals are capable of so-called "high-level" intellect and cognition, but it's becoming more and more difficult to ignore the possibility that these animals are acutely aware of their experiences before ending up on our dinner tables.

Many vegans also avoid clothing and home items made with animal products, including wool, leather, fur and suede.

What do vegans eat?

This is a question most vegans have heard at least a few times. It's been so deeply ingrained into our culture that a proper meal must include meat to be "balanced" and "healthy" that many people have a hard time imagining what could possibly be left without it.

But look! Behold the cornucopia of nature's bounty!

The number of things vegans choose not to eat is so unbelievably small compared to the awesome variety of plant-based foods available:

  • legumes/pulses
    • azuki
    • lima
    • kidney
    • pinto
    • lentil
    • chickpea
    • soy
  • cereal grains
    • rice
    • barley
    • millet
    • oat
    • wheat
    • quinoa (not technically a grain, but...)
  • fruit
    • gourd
    • berry
    • citrus
    • stone
  • leaves
    • lettuce
    • kale
    • spinach
    • bok choy
    • mustard greens
    • watercress
  • roots
    • carrot
    • radish
    • beet
    • parsnip
  • tubers
    • potato/sweet potato
    • taro
  • shoots/stems
    • celery
    • bamboo
    • ginger
  • bulbs
    • onion
    • garlic
  • flower buds
    • cauliflower
    • broccoli
Okay, I'll stop there. I think you get the point. The list is enormous and I've really just scratched the surface. The vegan diet has as much variety as your average grocery store (and then some). Basically if you see it in the produce section, we eat it, and usually lots of it.  

How "vegan" a person is really depends on personal choice. You can go hardcore into raw, macrobiotic veganism, or just keep it simple with a fantastic variety of fresh, local (non-GMO & organic) food and a balanced diet. 

P.S. I really do feel like my senses have been improved since becoming a vegan. I've gained a new appreciation for the actual taste of food. Without the numbing mask of The Big Three (fat, salt and sugar), foods have more satisfying and complex tastes than before. I find I can smell individual scents with much more clarity - particularly herbs and spices, and I pay closer attention to the texture of my food. 

Maybe that sounds a little nutty, but then again, maybe other vegans out there have had similar experiences.  Have you?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

My (Abridged) Vegan Story

Since this blog is still in its infancy, I thought it would be the ideal time to backtrack a little and talk about what brought me to this point.

I became a vegan on January 1, 2012 out of sheer desperation. I had been a vegetarian on and off since high school, but had never been able to find a good balance in my diet. My weight fluctuated more often than I'd care to recall, and my body was telling me that things just weren't right. I spent far too long writing off my headaches, digestive upset, lethargy and general poor health as inevitable realities of getting older. In reality, I was avoiding the obvious signs that it was time to clean myself up - inside and out.

One of my darkest food secrets is that I'm a binge eater. I've struggled with stress and depression since my teens, and I've had a love/hate relationship with food as long as I can remember. Sugar, fat and salt were (and still are) huge temptations for me, and years of over-indulgence were taking their toll. I decided it was time to break up with junk food and see what my body felt like in its real, natural state.

With that in mind, I sought out advice from Registered Holistic Nutritionist Heather Nauta at Healthy Eating Starts Here. Heather was able to map-out a dietary plan that helped me gently detox my body of all the processed, sugary and unhealthy foods in my diet. Within a few weeks I noticed an incredible shift in my mental and physical well-being. I slept more soundly, had more energy, and felt better than I had in months - maybe years. Her advice grounded me and set me on my current path.

People often ask why I became a vegan, and sometimes I wish I could say it was primarily to advocate for animal rights. I've always made a point to be aware and well-informed about animal abuse, factory farms and the environmental woes of Big Agriculture. I care deeply about these issues, but my initial reasons for becoming a vegan were a little more selfish. This was a choice for me, and it's a decision I credit for improving my life every single day.

In the last fifteen months I've grown into a passionate food advocate. I love browsing farmers' markets for fresh, local produce, experimenting with new recipes and honing my cooking skills. I spend hours sifting through piles of cookbooks, blogs and websites looking for new tidbits of information - my desire for knowledge is insatiable.

I've often wondered aloud how to turn my passion for veganism into a career, and my best friend's advice was, "Just write". It reminded me of the "If you build it, they will come" philosophy from Field of Dreams, and it makes perfect sense. It's a little intimidating to put my thoughts out there for public critique and scrutiny, but I so wholeheartedly believe in these ideas that I'm willing to take the risk.

I have stayed up many nights making laundry lists of things to write about. Once my brain gets going on a plan like this I simply can't turn it off.

Even as I type these words I have five or six other topics milling around in my mind...

The big question is, which one to choose next?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Why Blog?

Veganism and vegetarianism are two topics getting a lot of attention these days. People are becoming so much more engaged and aware of what goes into their bodies, and how our choices affect ourselves, each other and the earth.

It's no longer possible to avoid addressing the systemic health problems running rampant throughout most of the world: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, stress...

Many of these issues are treatable and even preventable with a focus on healing the whole body through proper nutritional and lifestyle choices. It's time for a change, and people are finally realizing that pursuing a meat-free diet is not as radical and unorthodox as was once thought.

There are literally thousands of websites and online resources covering every plant-based topic under the sun. The wealth of information available with a simple Google search of the word "vegan" is mind-blowing.

With that in mind, you may be wondering, "Why do we need another vegan blog?"

Or maybe even more importantly, "Why should I read your vegan blog?"

The answer to both questions is simple. I have things to say and ideas to share. I'm an information junkie and love both learning and teaching. I'm passionate about veganism and love helping people open doors toward a healthier life.

A blog gives me the opportunity to speak openly about the issues that concern and inspire me, and allows me to participate in the information flow within the vegan community in a proactive way.

I have no intentions of reinventing the wheel, but I know my content and approach are unique. The Essential Vegan will be an amalgamation of topics I love to think, read and learn about every day - it's a kind of written record of my internal monologue.

Come have a look inside my mind - there's lots of great stuff in here!

Well, Hello There!

Welcome to the first edition of The Essential Vegan!

There are tons of good things in store, so let's get started.

My name is Lisa Clements, and I'll be your guide as we navigate through the sometimes murky waters of veganism and holistic nutrition. It's so easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available on the internet, so I plan to provide key bits of knowledge I've gleaned through lots of personal experience and extensive research.

Readers can expect posts covering any number of issues related to veganism, physical and mental well-being and environmentalism. Please feel free to post suggestions about potential topics, feedback, critiques and comments.

My goal is to develop this website into a meeting place for all vegans - new and experienced alike - to rendez-vous, share, and discuss. I hope you'll join me!