What Veg*ns Can Learn from Traditional Foods

While the traditional foods movement seems to focus heavily on the inclusion of high-quality, pasture-raised meat and dairy products and is, indeed, a largely animal food-based diet, that doesn’t meant that it offers no guidance or dietary wisdom for vegetarians.  Indeed, there’s a lot that vegetarians can glean from the traditional foods movement and, in many ways, the practices advocated by traditional foods enthusiasts and organizations like the Weston A Price Foundation and the Price Pottenger Nutrition Foundation might prove even more important for vegetarians and vegans who rely on grains and legumes for much of their foods.  From soaking and souring grains and legumes to fermenting veggies and eating healthy fats, here’s five things that vegetarians can learn from the traditional foods movement.

1. To soak, sour or sprout grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and beans.

Grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes often make up the foundation of a vegetarian or vegan diet.  For this reason, it’s critical that vegans and vegetarians learn to prepare these foods to reap the greatest nutritional reward from them.  To prevent premature sprouting until conditions for plant growth are optimal, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans are potent sources of antinutrients which include phytate and enzyme inhibitors.  These antinutrients cause reduced mineral absorption and reduced ability to properly digest foods.  Since vegans and vegetarians forgo mineral-rich meats and bone broths, deriving much of their mineral intake from plant-based sources, one of the most significant and beneficial actions an adherent to a plant-based diet can take to maximize nutrient intake would be to soak, sour or sprout all their grains, nuts, beans, legumes and seeds – a traditional practice that renders the nutrients in these foods more bioavailable1.

Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains, nuts, beans, seeds and legumes activates the enzyme phytase which neutralizes phytate, and these traditional processes help to free up minerals otherwise bound in a raw, untreated state.  Indeed, once phytate has been adequately degraded, legumes can become good sources of both iron and zinc2.  The simple act of sprouting and roasting oats, or malting, before preparing a breakfast porridge has been shown to increase zinc absorption by 55% and iron by 47%3.  Sprouting mung beans followed by a simple fermentation increases the absorbable iron by over 70% compared to the untreated bean4.  Simply choosing to bake whole grain sourdough bread over regular whole grain bread not only reduced antinutrient content, but significantly increases the availability of magnesium5.  Incidentally the process of souring grains as required in sourdough bread appears to naturally increase the levels of folate by as much as three-fold13.

In a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet you miss out on animal foods as a dense source of minerals, for this reason you can do your body a favor by making sure to properly prepare grains, nuts, beans, seeds and legumes to maximize the availability of iron, zinc, magnesium and other minerals. Read more about soaking grains, beans and legumes.

2. To only consume traditionally fermented soy products and with iodine-rich companion foods.

For many vegans and vegetarians, soy and soy foods make up a base of the diet: soy milks and yogurt, tofu, texturized vegetable protein, soybean oil, soy-based protein powder, cooked soy beans and other soy foods. Unfortunately, soy foods, much like all beans, are a potent source of antinutrients.  Soy’s potent isoflavones can also interfere with human endocrine function, particularly the function of the thyroid and reproductive health of both men and women and may have broader implications for the population as a whole7.  Properly prepared through traditional means of fermentation (note that soaking and germinating on their own prove inadequate), as in traditional soy sauce and tempeh can reduce phytates found in soy almost completely.  Also, by serving small condiment-sized portions of soy foods with traditional iodine-rich accompaniments like seaweed, one may help counteract soy’s antithyroid properties.

3. To eat healthy fats, including monounsaturated and saturated fats.

Fat plays an enormous role in health and well-being and the  traditional foods movement focuses heavily on the liberal use of fat, particularly animal fats and this may rub some vegetarians and vegans the wrong way, particularly those who adhere to a low-fat vegetarian diet or attempt to adhere to a no-fat vegetarian diet.  Fats help us to absorb vitamins and offer other health benefits as well.  In a recent study, women who ate the most fat (particularly saturated and monounsaturated fat) suffered from fewer signs of aging than those who ate the least8.  A look into history will illustrate that peoples who consumed their unprocessed, native, traditional foods enjoyed good health9 and that their diets ranged upwards of 80% of fat by calorie10.  Moreover, vegetarians should remember that while they should continue to consume vegetables liberally, a recent Swedish study indicates that fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to a reduction in the risk of heart disease only when combined with a diet rich in full-fat dairy11.  Whether a vegetarian feels dairy meets his or her needs or preferences, we could all do with making sure to consume healthy, wholesome traditional fats.  Healthy fats that are suitable for vegans may include unrefined olive oil (see sources), unrefined coconut oil, ethically and sustainably harvested palm kernel oil, almond and other cold-pressed and unrefined nut oils while a vegetarian might also include butter and ghee (see sources).

4. To learn how to culture vegetables and make naturally fermented probiotic beverages.

Meat and animal foods are rich sources of B vitamins, particularly vitamin B12 which is not found in plant-based foods with the exception of fermented and cultured foods and beverages.  For this reason vegetarians and vegans are at risk of B vitamin deficiency; indeed a 2002 study analyzing the B12 status of vegetarians found that more than 60% of vegetarians suffered from stage III B12 deficiency12. Fermentation of vegetables and beverages, as in the case of kombucha and water kefir, can provide B vitamins though reports of B12 in fermented foods are largely unreliable so vegetarians and vegans should not rely on kombucha, water kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods as a source of B12; however, they do present an excellent source of other B vitamins.

Nutritional yeast, which is not strictly a traditional food, can be a source of vitamin B12 as well as other B vitamins and is also produced through fermentation.  Incidentally, it is a source of free glutamic acid and those sensitive to MSG might do well to avoid it altogether.

Beyond the benefit B vitamins, fermented foods and beverages present an excellent source of beneficial bacteria and live food enzymes.  Beneficial bacteria work in conjunction with the immune system, keeping the body alert, healthy and keep pathogens at bay15, and may even show promise in alleviating inflammation in the gut16.

5. To find a source of raw, enzyme-rich protein and eat it every day.

In populations adhering to their traditional, native diets, people consumed at least some form of raw, enzyme-rich protein every day.  For many people this meant eating meat, milk, eggs, butter, cream, fish or roe raw and for traditional foods enthusiasts who drink raw milk liberally.  While the thought of eating raw meat or egg yolks may turn a  vegetarian’s stomach, one might, instead, choose to eat fresh sprouts – while the protein offered in fresh sprouts is minor by comparison to that offered in fresh meat, it still offers an opportunity to consume an enzyme- and vitamin-rich food daily.  Sprouted mung beans are a popular traditional food in Asia.  For vegetarians who aren’t opposed to the inclusion of some animal foods in their diet, raw egg yolk from pastured hens mixed into a salad dressing or mayonnaise offers a great source of vitamin-rich, raw protein and fat as well as fresh butter, milk and cream.

1. Hotz, et al. Traditional food-processing and preparation techniques to enhance the bioavailability of micro-nutrients in plant-based diets. Journal of Nutrition. April 2007.  2. Sandberg. Bioavailability of minerals in legumes. British Journal of Nutrition. December 2002. 3. Larsson, et al. Improved zinc and iron absorption from breakfast meals containing malted oats with reduced phytate content. British Journal of Nutrition. November 1996. 4. 5. Lopez, et al. New data on the bioavailability of bread magnesium. Magnesium Research. December 2004. 7. Doerge, et al. Goitrogenic and estrogenic activity of soy isoflavones. Environmental Health Perspectives. June 2002. 8. Nagata et al. Association of dietry fat, vegetables and antioxidant micrnutrients with skin ageing in Japanese women. British Journal of Nutrition. January 2010. 9.  Price. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. (6th Edition) Keats Publishing. 2003. 10. Cordain. Saturated Fat Consumption in Ancestral Human Diets. Phytochemicals: Nutrient-gene Interaction. 11. Holmberg et al. Food Choices and Coronary Heart Disease: A Population Based Cohort Study of Rural Swedish Men with 12 Years of Follow-up. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. October 2009. 12. Herrmann & Geisel. Vegetarian lifestyle and monitoring of vitamin B-12 status. International Journal of Clinical Chemistry. December 2002. 13. Kariluoto, et al. Effects of yeasts and bacteria on the levels of folates in rye sourdoughs. February 2006. 15. Gorska. Probiotic bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract as a factor stimulating the immune system. 2009. 16. Isolauri, et al. Probiotics effects on immunity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  February, 2001.