Dina Aronson: VegFamily's Registered Dietician and columnist for Ask a VegFamily Dietician
I have invited a guest today from VegFamily, the online magazine for vegetarians and vegans, to talk to me about vegetarian and vegan diets. I'm not a vegetarian. I have been carnivorous for the majority of my life but during my time of fasting I did not eat meat and have since instituted a practice of incorporating some meatless meals into my diet—maybe a day a week fasting from meat in general. Joining me is Dina Aronson. Dina is a vegetarian and vegan dietician. She is also the dietician from Ask a VegFamily Dietician at VegFamily. She's here to talk to us about vegetarianism, veganism and about food allergies. I know these are really big issues for moms. We are always trying to make sure that we provide our children with adequate nutrition.
Interviewed by RadioMom
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Joining me now is Dina Aronson from Mont Claire, New Jersey. Dina is a registered dietician specializing in vegetarian and vegan nutrition. She's authored several publications on the subject of food allergy management and chronic disease prevention. She's here today from VegFamily magazine to talk to us about the many benefits of plant based whole foods diets.
Hi Dina and welcome to the RadioMom Show.
Hi! thank you so much.
I'm sure that many of our listeners already know about veganism if not practicing vegans themselves. But I do realize there are places in the world where veganism may not be understood as well. For our listeners who are tuning in from such a place can you give them an intro to veganism, a Veganism 101?
Absolutely. A vegan diet is a diet that focuses on plant foods and avoids animal foods. It's quite simple. A healthy vegan diet is composed of whole grains, vegetables fruits, and legumes—legumes being seeds nuts and beans. And that really is in a nutshell what a vegan diet is. But most people take veganism one step further from diet and also shun the use of animals in their lifestyle. They will not wear leather, they won't buy products tested on animals. and other things like that.
Well I know there are many people who adopt vegan lifestyle for a reason. Some not wanting to contribute to mass meat production, maybe to lessen their footprint on the earth. I think it's really interesting to know what it is that inspires someone to adopt that lifestyle.
I totally agree. It is true that going more towards that plant based existence, that natural existence, is always going to be beneficial. You don't have to be a strict vegan to make a big difference. I find also that in the vegan population that no matter what your reason for becoming a vegan, the other reasons fall into place and make sense. For me it was about animal cruelty. But soon after I learned about that I discovered Wow! A vegan diet is so healthy! And it reduces the impact on the environmental damage being done and everything about it is so exciting and so positive.
I would imagine you have come across a fair amount of misinformation about veganism. Can you say something about some of the common misconceptions about a plant-based lifestyle?
Being a dietician I hear about these all the time. There are some questions I get over and over. I guess the most common question I get is 'Where do you get your protein?" When people think about protein they automatically think about meat, chicken and fish. And while these are super sources of protein, they're not necessary for human survival. There is a rule of thumb I like to say and that is, if you're getting enough nutrients, enough calories from a variety of plant sources, you're automatically meeting your need for protein. For example, the percentage of protein in broccoli is higher than the percentage of protein in meat. But who's going to sit down and eat ten bunches of broccoli? Nobody. But if you mix and match all your plant foods and you're getting enough energy from your food, your protein needs are taken care of.
That's really interesting because you do hear that a lot "Where are you going to get protein if you're not eating meat?"
There is a way to mess it up. There are some vegans that don't get enough protein. Those are the ones who eat a lot of junk food or subsist on bagels and refined sweets, and sugars. It's definitely possible to be an unhealthy vegan. But it's hard. (laugh)
Dina, beside the issue of protein, what are some of the other common misconceptions about a plant based diet?
Being vegan means you don't drink milk. A lot of people believe if you don't drink the milk of a cow that you cannot possibly get enough calcium. If you really think about this on an intellectual level, it doesn't make any sense. Why would humans require the milk of another species in order to be healthy? It just doesn't make any sense. As it turns out, we can meet all of our calcium requirements through plant foods. We do have to maximize our consumption of calcium rich foods. Calcium rich foods are really really good for us, so why not? We're talking about almonds and figs and oranges, and leafy green vegetables—all the things we should be eating.
One question I'm sure a lot of people have—what do you do about cheese? There are a lot of cheese lovers out there. What do you do about cheese?
I think cheese is having a rebirth in the vegan community. There's suddenly all these vegan cheeses out there! Some of them make me want to turn my nose away. Others are delicious! Look for them online, look for them at the health food store. Some of them even melt. But you know, it's a whole different way of looking at life, in my opinion. A vegan diet is not about what you take away, it's about what you include. It's not a restrictive diet. I eat more of a variety of foods now than before I went vegetarian. So to focus on those things that are vegan and delicious you stop missing the cheese. If you want to do something that usually has cheese, like a pizza, start with the whole wheat crust, put on that tomato sauce, top it with roasted vegetables. I don't think you'll miss the cheese. But if you do, throw on a little vegan cheese, a little vegan parmesan. I really don't think the cheese will be missed.
In know that you're a mom to a twenty month old son. Did you know right away that you wanted to raise him as a vegan?
Yes, but it never really was an issue in our household because like most people we were going to give our son the kind of diet we eat as a family. My husband is a vegan as well. It's just natural that we will give our son the foods that we eat and know they are good for us.
One of the challenges both new and experienced mothers face is trying to ensure that their children receive adequate nutrition. Is it harder to do so with a vegan diet?
In this culture, yes, I think it is harder to do. Not because it's hard to get nutrients from those foods but because of the exposure the children have. My son is in a daycare situation part time. He sees what other children eat. The school does provide lunches that are not, in my opinion, healthy. I think the challenges lie within trying to compete and avoid being defensive with other moms. But as far as meeting nutritional needs, if you are educated and you talk to a registered dietician who knows about vegan diets, it's really not difficult to meet the needs of a growing child.
Out of curiosity, what were your son's first foods? What are some of the things that he enjoys as a vegan infant?
Well, first it was breastmilk. And I love it when people say 'Well, breastmilk isn't vegan!" (laugh) That's my favorite. So, of course breastmilk was a first. What's interesting is that most babies are vegan the first year of their lives. You don't see three month holds chopping down a steak. Vegan babies thrive if they are given the right foods.
Are there any specific things that mothers raising either vegetarian or vegan children should be especially mindful of?
Yes, but not especially. A lot of the advice I have for vegetarian and vegan moms is the same for any mom. Introduce your child to a variety of foods—as much variety as possible early on. They do develop preferences before the age of two. Not giving them a lot of cookies, for example, as opposed to fresh fruit, or veggie burger as opposed to beans and brown rice—these types of things, and giving them a lot of variety and choice is really really important.
One of your areas of expertise is food allergy management. Lets talk about food allergies in general. What's the difference in a food allergy, a food sensitivity, and a food intolerance?
These terms are often used interchangeably. Food sensitivity is the blanket term for all problems people have with foods. So to say you have a food sensitivity doesn't mean really anything. An allergy specifically involves the immune system. There?s a response in your immune system to a food. A food intolerance doesn't necessarily involve the immune system. It could be a gastro-intentinal response to a food.
If you give your child something and they start vomiting, and have some gastrointestional problems and they are really cranky and gassy, is that a food sensitivity or a food allergy?
The symptoms you just described are likely to involve a food intolerance rather than an allergy. An allergy will likely involve the skin or the respiratory system. An allergy like my son had to sesame, I knew it was an allergy because he got a rash all over his face and his neck. Luckily he didn't have trouble breathing but that is a symptom in a lot of children. But when it is gastrointestinal and there's gas or diarrhea, that's usually an intolerance. But there's really no way for you to know. So it's important for you to go to a doctor and get tested.
What sorts of things moms should look out for. Are there a Top Five Food Allergens?
There's actually a top eight. And if I don't remember them all—uh oh! [laugh] The top food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy, wheat, dairy products, eggs. Is that eight? I lost count. They're called The Big Eight. I co-wrote a book called Food Allergy Survival Guide and the book does cover these eight allergens as well as a whole bunch of other common allergens and a natural way to approach diagnosis and management.
You mentioned soy. There's a lot going on with soy right now. Can you say something about the current debate on soy?
Soy beans are just one food. It's interesting. You can do so much with soy beans. You can make them into tofu, and soy dogs, and soy protein isolates, and supplements. You can overdo soy, absolutely. Is soy a dangerous food? Eaten in moderation? Absolutely not, unless you do have a particular food sensitivity. But if you look at diets in Japan, for thousands of years soy has been a mainstay in the diet. And they have optimal health for their soy intake. I give my son soy, I recommend it as a healthy food but to depend on it and use more of the isolated sources of soy? I don't recommend that. For example, give whole soy beans, cooked and mashed. Do miso and tofu rather than fake meats. Balance it out rather than give soy at every meal. two to three servings a day. And really any food in excess is not a good idea.
As a vegan, weaning your child from breastmilk—did you wean to soy, to rice? What did you do?
I weaned to soy milk. I prefer a particular brand. It used to be called Silk Enhanced. Now it's called Silk Plus Omega DHA. It is a soy milk that has calcium. It has vitamin D and other nutrients as well as DHA which is an essential fatty acid. I think vegan children get a lot of great nutritional benefit out of this particular product.
Dina, how can moms decrease the risk of their children developing food sensitivities?
This is controversial. We don't have a lot of information about it. But research is showing that avoiding foods that you have a family history of allergy to during pregnancy might help. For example, if your sister has a peanut allergy don't eat peanuts or peanut butter during pregnancy. it's not necessary for all women to avoid peanuts for example but looking at the family history might help.
Having a natural childbirth seems to help. Women who deliver vaginally versus c-sections have children with fewer allergies. Eating a whole foods healthy diet during pregnancy and not eating a lot of junk and processed foods can help as well. To keep your body health means you are growing a healthy baby.
One thing I wanted to ask you about is your Ask the vegFamily Dietician page at VegFamily magazine. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about the resources at VegFamily offers?
Sure, VegFamily is an online magazine. It comes out monthly. It's really wonderful for parents and families who are already veg*n or want to develop a veg*n lifestyle. It's got wonderful recipes and expert advice from people who raise veg*n families. It's not just nutrition. It's social issues, environmental issues. They cover things like circumcision, and all kinds of approaches to natural living.
Even for families who are not veg*n families but who want to decrease their meat consumption, maybe do a vegan day once a week, or something like that—they have resources there.
Yes, and that is such a wonderful idea. I have a lot of friends who are not vegan. But the ones who are open to the idea and try it once in a while, it's so wonderful. It's a wonderful resource for people who want to learn more about it or, like you said, have a vegan day once a week. Or even once a month.
Are there recipes at VegFamily?
Tons of recipes. And mostly kid-approved [oh yeah!]
Well Dina thank you so much for joing me today on RadioMom.
Thank you for having me. It was so much fun!
Moms, if you have any questions be sure to go to VegFamily—Vegfamily.com. And look for Dina's Ask a VegFamily Dietician page.
This interview is also available as an audio file which you can listen to: http://theradiomom.audioacrobat.com/deluge/cf0894b3-5849-dc97-e242-53a37cec401f.mp3.