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.




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What people are saying

  1. Lisa Z says

    Wonderful, Jenny. I hate how at odds vegetarians/vegans and traditional foods folks can get–from either side. Having gone through stages, just listening to my own body, where at times I eat a lot of meat/animal products and at times very little, I can see that different diets work for different people at various times. This is great information for those who eat vegetarian/vegan. I will share on FB.

  2. says

    Excellent article! Thank you for summarizing how vegans and vegetarians can benefit from traditional foods! Ironically, I was just discussing this very topic today with a colleague when he asked how I was going to cater my traditional foods philosophy to the vegetarians who might attend my prenatal nutrition workshops. Although I personally have a strong belief in the WAPF’s work I also respect the fact that we are all biochemically unique with different constitutions and beliefs that require different diet and lifestyle choices. The common thread between them all however is QUALITY. To me, quality is of utmost importance no matter what type of dietary philosophy you adhere to!

  3. says

    As a vegetarian I really appreciate this article. I feel very drawn to the real foods movement but also very much an outsider, because from the perspective you just wrote about, it works for me and makes sense, minus the meat, which for me is an issue of ethics. Anyhow, I thank you for writing it, and for including people with values like me that swim against the tide of WAP.

  4. says

    What a well written article. I’m not a vegetarian nor am I a 100% traditional foodist but if I lean any direction it’s toward traditional foods. This article has inspired me to get back to some of my old practices.

  5. says

    As a food explorer and walker on the path to good health, I have experienced nutritional protocols are varied as raw veganism and macrobiotics. I feel that the nourishing traditions lifestyle does have a whole lot to offer vegans. Unless vegans really work at balancing their diets and finding good sources of b12, protien and saturated fats, they can become very unhealthy. The traditional practices really address a lot of these issues except for the b12 one, which folks are still debating and searching for the answer. Using sea vegetables and algae are also good for vegans. I appreciate this article tremendously because I see it as an effort to reach out to diverse groups of people. Food is a religion after all to some, and inclusion is key to understanding and acceptance of all viewpoints. Cheers Jenny!

  6. Kitty says

    thanks for this article! I subscribed a few wks ago because I have been vegetarian/then vegan for over 2 decades. I’m starting to believe strongly (due to severe grain allergies) that my body is demanding a rethink on my views. Also, I think what served us in our 20’s may not be the same as we getting older, and some ways may not be sustainable in the long term for all. thanks for including people like me.

  7. says

    Great article! I know my body demanded a re-think on my gung-ho vegan/raw path and that it’s been very, very grateful for the traditional food steps I started taking 7 years ago. Kinda hard to not be gung-ho on the traditional food now :)


  8. says

    Great post, Jenny! I worry that those while so many people embrace a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle for health that they are actually doing harm to their bodies. I especially worry about young children consuming processed soy products given to them by their well-intentioned parents. Those who eat this way for reasons of humane practices could learn a lot from FRESH! the Movie and Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth. But I digress. Keep up the good work!

  9. says

    Great article! As a vegetarian myself I find it a bit hard to believe that “most” veggie folks don’t already know this stuff (with the exception of fermented soy) but maybe my path was different. Still, I think vegetarians, vegans, raw foodists, and natural hygiene enthusiasts come to these realizations before their meat eating counterparts do usually. Soaking nuts and grains and sprouting is veg food 101. B12 is always a primary concern unless they came to veggie eating by way of activism for animals and give health no real thought. There are so many good vegan supplements available that it doesn’t have to be a problem.

    The soy issue is a biggie though… I don’t usually eat tofu or other fake meat foods made with soy or even soy milk. Maybe once every couple of months I might have a couple morning star veggie sausages that have some soy but that is about it. Most veggie folks that I know also make kombucha, water kefir, coconut kefir, sauerkraut, Kimchi, etc. It was from the vegan and raw foods movement that I first heard of any of that stuff.

    As for protein, I think it is waaaay overblown. But I get tons of protein from green smoothies, nuts, seeds, and eggs. Occasionally some raw milk or cheese but my body reacts to dairy with stomach aches and by breaking out (acne) which tells me my body doesn’t like or want much dairy. Healthy fats are not lacking in veg based diets either in my experience.

    I think you might be surprised by how health savvy the veg folk are because all you hear is the bad stuff by people who approach it badly.. like the author of the book The Vegetarian Myth who made bad eating choices and then tries to act like all vegans make the same poor choices she did, including eating almost no healthy fats. Other people eat tons of soy and develop problems. Some of us take it seriously and can be seriously healthy. 😉

  10. says

    I am so grateful for your article! Thank you! I love cooking traditional foods and I’m a vegetarian. I’ve often felt that vegetarians/vegans have been put in a very negative light by many in the traditional foods movement. It has long been a source of frustratin for me. Your article clearly lays out that there are a lot of health benefits of traditional foods for vegetarians too!! There are vegetarians who realy enjoy cooking and eating this way..with positive articles like this I think even more may be introduced to these traditional ways of cooking. Thank you for writing a positive article combining vegetarianism and traditional foods! Wonderful!!

  11. Robin says

    As a former vegetarian/vegan, I can tell you there is alot of ignorance out there about how to live the ‘lifestyle’. In addition, not everyone is built to forgo meat. I, for one, need protein, LOTS of it, and minimal vegetables and almost no starch/carbs. That’s the diet my body craves, and keeps me slender. When I was a vegetarian, and then a vegan, I wound up with Reynaud’s Syndrome and incredible bowel problems, even taking the steps listed above.

    Thanks for posting this info! Even better, everyone owes it to themselves to respect and nourish their bodies, no matter whether they are ‘meatitarians’ (like me), or vegetarians, raw foodists, fruititarians, or vegans.

  12. says

    Great article. I’ve been doing a lot of research on vegetarianism while seeing how it compares to a traditional foods approach. This was exactly what I needed!

  13. Loki says

    That’s interesting, I’ve always thought of vegetarianism and traditional foodism as being almost the opposite of at odds. I mean, for most of human history, at least in agricultural societies, the majority of people have lacked the resources to consume meat in nearly the mass that we do today. It is a lot more efficient to grow grains than it is to raise animals after all, or to raise animals for eggs and dairy. In addition, there are certain parts of the world (for example certain regions of india) where traditional food is vegetarian, though probably not so much vegan. Also, many fasting traditions restrict meat (like in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church).
    This is a misconception that I see a lot, probably because the wealthy people in Europe historically ate a whole lot of meat.

  14. Tatiana says

    Thank you for posting this. I am a vegetarian who has recently stumbled upon the WAPF. I find all the articles on their site fascinating and have been trying to adapt as much as I can into my diet, but I do feel like an outsider at times. I appreciate your inclusiveness and agree that as a vegetarian it is very important to care for the proper food preparation.

  15. says

    Great post. Actually iam not a vegetarian, but my mother has been vegetarian for last 2 years. I will put this information for her, I think she will like this article too. Thanks

  16. says

    Thanks for this. I’m vegan and eat whole foods. I’ve often felt attacked by traditional foodies (not personally but generally)… it’s nice to come to site and not feel ostracized while I look to improve my recipe box & health.

  17. nhairek says

    I cracked up when I read the first comment. Really? Vegetarians/vegans and traditional food folks at odds?
    I mean what, people like fight over this stuff?
    By the way, I am sorta-vegetarian (which means I don’t eat meat and sea-food, but will eat chicken occasionally – like once a month. The reason is that I do not like meats/sea-food at all – and not because I’m some animal-rights activist, so it would be nice of people to stop assuming). I would love to eat meats, but I hate the texture and knowing that whatever I’m eating had had lifeblood flowing through its veins once. I also don’t like eggs, which sucks (though I will eat them as long as I can’t taste them).
    I’d really love to only eat organic stuff too and stop with the preserved foods, but sadly I’m still living with family, starting uni soon, and don’t have the money to buy my own foods etc.
    I am making some changes though, as so far I’ve been pretty unhealthy food-wise. My diet was pretty much made up of pastas, breads, soup and some legumes.
    As I’m not vegetarian by choice (I’m just a picky eater), it’s hard to find stuff I like… but I’m trying. I guess some of it is acquired taste, so I’ll have to get used to it. Any tips with vegetable dishes would be appreciated. I need to incorporate a whole lot more veggies into my diet.

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