Thursday, March 13, 2008

Book Review: Becoming Vegan

My fabulous feeling after the juice fast has propelled me to read more about reducing the amount of eggs, fish and dairy that I eat. I came across Becoming Vegan, hoping it wouldn't just be a diatribe about how moral it is not to eat animals; and it didn't disappoint me.

In Becoming Vegan, Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina attempt - and succeed - to give an intelligent, nutrition-savvy reader a concise collection of all the information he or she needs to plan a vegan diet. While their style may seem a bit dense for readers who know nothing about nutrition, it is refreshing to read a food book that does not dumb down, or simplify, matters for the readers. The book is loaded with recent scientific findings about nutrition, and does not gloss over the possible deficiencies of vegan diets as some others do.

The book assumes that its readers have chosen to explore veganism due to ethical considerations, and its opening chapter provides a short history of vegan movements and organizations. I'm sure this is helpful for many people who might otherwise feel completely alone in their food choices. It then proceeds to tackle the big nutritional questions of enough plant protein, healthy carb choices, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. In doing so, the book maintains a healthy balance between numerical tables of nutritional values and practical, down-to-earth advice. Calculating our protein needs is simplified by a formula, and various options are suggested for doing so.

The book goes beyond offering the information, and actually makes menu suggestions for people with different caloric needs, ranging between smaller, inactive folks (1,600 calories) to athletes (4,000 calories). It has a special chapter designed for athletes, which provides good advice on nutrition during training. It also has fabulous information for pregnant and lactating women, which does not gloss over the concern about nutritional deficiencies and emphasizes the importance of feeding babies properly. Other specialized chapters are those aimed at seniors (with lots of practical ideas for simple vegan meals) and at people who are overweight, underweight, or suffer from eating disorders. These are very thorough, and they maintain rigorous scientific objectivity; at no point do readers feel that they are being lectured to, but rather respectfully offered useful information.

One quibble I have has to do with the book's overreliance on prepared commercial "fake meats". I understand the book focuses on the transition to veganism, a stage at which it might be easier for folks to look for store-bought substitutes for stuff they are used to buying. I also understand why such folks might be turned off by the usual vegan/raw literature that might push them to sprout, soak and dehydrate stuff, all of which is fine and good, but isn't very practical on a daily basis. And, I also understand that, in some cases, commercial processing might make some nutrients more easily available, as in the case of calcium. Nevertheless, in recommending lunch "meats", for example, the book neglects to acknowledge that some of them contain lots of wheat gluten and might be problematic for folks suffering from celiac or other intolerances. Perhaps some attention can be given to "the next step" of veganism in the next editions. Another issue has to do with the advice on "vegan diplomacy" offered at the end of the book, which might work in some social situations but not in others.

These are, however, very minor quibbles for an otherwise excellent and helpful book. I think anyone transitioning to veganism, or just in the process of minimizing animal products, would enjoy this book and get lots of benefits from following its information and advice closely. In a publishing market full of hype, superficiality, and dumbing-down, it's great to be regarded by authors as a responsible adult who can read tables, make choices, and personalize information.


Shunra said...

That's particularly apropos for me - I've been making the change from vegetarian to vegan recently, and finding the transition far easier than I had expected.

I think the biggest challenges have involved quitting coffee (because without milk-based stuff, coffee tastes icky to me, and because I was waaaaaay too hyped-up for my own good), which meant I needed to figure out another good "while we're out" drink (steamed soy rocks, especially when the soy is Organic Valley; they do good things with beans) and how to replace eggs in baked things (veganyumyum has been Teh Helpfulness in that; there seems to be nothing relevant in dead tree media, despite my having spent hours staring glumly at the shelved offerings in the local woowoo haunts).

Thanks for the book review!

Hadar said...

Re the cafe situation: I usually do steamed soy and add some cinnamon and nutmeg on top. It's a good "while we're out" drink, because it feels like a treat while not being bad for ya.

Recently, I was invited to a baking party at work. I was going to whip up something wheatless and vegan, using some rice flour etc, and then it dawned on me: People Don't Think This Stuff Is Tasty. I settled for raw date/nut/raisin/coconut rolls with some spices and they were a big hit. I think baked goods are not really where the strengths of vegan cuisine lie.

Hadar said...

Oh, and the book has a table telling you how much vegan substitutes you need to substitute for various non-vegan ingredients. It's very useful.