Nutrition Q&A with Matt Ruscigno
Will I get enough protein? Do I need to take vitamins? What about calcium? For our 2013 US VegWeek, we enlisted Registered Dietitian Matt Ruscigno to field all of your questions about nutrition to help ensure you’re eating a balanced diet throughout US VegWeek (and beyond!). We’ve compiled your questions (and Matt’s answers) below!
About Matt Ruscigno
Matt Ruscigno is not just a Registered Dietitian—he’s a vegan of 16 years, Past-Chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and a contributor to best-selling cookbook Appetite for Reduction with Isa Moskowitz. Plus, Matt races in marathons, ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons, and 24-hour mountain bike races (see his incredible athletic resume). Matt also co-created the Day in the Life documentary series, highlighting vegan athletes accomplishing astounding goals. For more guidance on eating health-promoting vegetarian and vegan foods, contact Matt for one-on-one personal consulting services. He can advise based on your particular situation and lifestyle, and is available via email, phone, and Skype.
1. I’ve recently started a low-carb diet of ~ 1200 calories/day. I’ve never eaten vegan or vegetarian food before—are there guidelines I should follow? (Lori, Waukee, IA)
First off, if you are eating healthy carbohydrates from whole grains, beans and vegetables there’s no reason to exclude or limit them in your diet! Whole grains contain fiber, protein, and many micronutrients. If you are limiting your calories for weight loss and still want to do low-carb, I suggest eating nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables daily along with high protein plant-based foods like nuts and seeds. Try adding hemp or pumpkin seeds and toasted walnuts to your salads. Additionally there are many meat alternatives that are very high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Gardein and Field Roast are two popular brands.
2. I have a toddler and a 10 year-old. What is the best milk alternative for them? I’m familiar with soy, almond, and rice milks. Also, do we need a vitamin B12 supplement, or other supplements? (Cathy, Clifton, NJ)
One important distinction between non-dairy milks is that almond, rice, and coconut have only a small amount of protein, which is very important for your children, compared to soy and hemp milks which are great sources. Almond, rice and coconut milks usually contain nutrients like calcium and vitamin B12, but it’s always best to read the label so you know for sure what you are getting. B12 is an important nutrient for everyone and vegans need to pay special attention because it is only found in animal foods and fortified plant foods. Because amounts of fortification vary, I recommend that vegans take a daily B12 supplement. Most multivitamins contain B12 and will suffice.
3. What is the best way to cook veggies to preserve nutrients? I don’t want to eat raw all the time, have heard that steaming/sautéing can destroy the proteins and nutrients. (Nicole, Spokane, WA)
Great question! Sautéing or boiling vegetables in water pulls the water-soluble vitamins (like riboflavin and thiamin) out of veggies and into the water—which is a problem if that water is discarded. I recommend sautéing veggies in a small amount of olive or canola oil until they are soft but still crisp. Fat carries flavor (which is why we add onions and garlic to the oil before the veggies) and has the additional benefit of increasing the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins- A, D, E and K. I don’t want to eat all of my veggies raw either! Go ahead and sauté them without guilt.
4. I am a new vegan. However, I have Celiac disease and am allergic to soy. What are some healthy, vegan, gluten-free, soy-free recipes? (Patricia, Stanhope, NJ)
Congrats on making the change! Fortunately you are not alone, as a significant number of vegans limit or exclude soy and gluten. Therefore, many vegan cookbooks clearly indicate which recipes do not have these ingredients. For example, I contributed to a cookbook, Appetite For Reduction by Isa Moskowitz, which is mostly soy- and gluten-free. Allyson Kramer’s Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats is another great choice.
5. Are there vegan, gluten-free meat alternatives? (Hope, Springfield, OH)
Plenty of gluten-free options exist for vegetarians these days! Remember that whole grains like quinoa and rice do not contain gluten, and products like tortillas and pizza crust that are normally made from wheat now have gluten-free options. Meat alternatives usually contain a mix of soy and gluten, though Beyond Meat chicken-free strips are gluten-free, and Gardein is coming out with wheat-free options as well. Another option is Butler Soy Curls, a dehydrated soy-based meat that is very simple to prepare. Tofu Pups are a gluten-free hot dog, and Trader Joe’s carries a few gluten-free veggie burgers. Beyond that, you’ll need to read labels closely to find gluten-free options.
6. Are cravings a result of nutritional imbalance? (Lora, Oakland, CA)
This is a very good question, but one that does not have a clear answer. For the most part, our cravings have more to do with our psychological association with foods. Most of us grew up eating meat and it’s not unusual for us to crave animal products despite wanting to avoid them. But there is very little evidence that these cravings have anything to do with a nutritional deficiency. I recommend reading Salt Sugar Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us to learn more.
7. I currently workout several days a week, of which, three of the days are weight training. I know I need healthy proteins. What would you suggest? I am also trying to lose weight, and I don’t want to find myself eating too many carbs and fat. (Kimberly, Cincinnati, OH)
Rest assured that there is plenty of protein in plant foods, and there’s no need to complement proteins by having to eat certain foods together. Also, the term ‘incomplete protein’ is misleading; whole plant foods contain all of the essential amino acids. The key is to have variety in your diet and not overly restrict any type of food. Be confident that if you are eating a few servings of whole grains and legumes every day you will get plenty of protein for working out. If you still want extra, veggie burgers are protein packed, and there is a huge variety of vegan bars and protein powders with lots and lots of protein.
For myself, I don’t eat any protein powders even when I’m weight training.
8. I’m an ovo-lacto vegetarian. Little by little, I’ve been moving away from dairy products. I am past 70 and am concerned about how much protein I will be needing if I give up dairy products and eggs, entirely. I already eat lots of nuts and seeds, take B12, and eat a lot of black beans, brown rice, and grains, along with a diet heavy on veggies. What are some additional foods for protein? Soy is not an option for me. I am very active, still working part time and operating a fairly large animal rescue, so protein is very important. Any suggestions would be appreciated. (Patricia, Wichita, KS)
It sounds like you are eating all of the right foods to get adequate protein! And remember that for day-to-day physical activity, carbohydrates are most important because they are the fuel our bodies use. See my other response for more on protein, and if you are still unsure I recommend making an appointment with a Registered Dietitian so you can have a nutrient analysis done and know for sure how much you are getting each day. And thank you for the work you do at an animal rescue!
9. I went to a plant-based diet one month for many reasons which includes weight loss. Since I’m new to this whole plant-based diet, are there foods high(er) in fat or high(er) carbs that I should avoid or limit to help with my weight loss? (Laurie, Long Beach, CA)
One mistake I see new vegetarians make is relying on foods high in refined flours and sugars. These foods can lead to weight gain because they don’t fill us up, and we tend to overeat them. That’s why whole grains, fruits and vegetables should make up the bulk of our diet. Also, nuts and seeds are very good for us; they are filled with protein, healthy fat and micronutrients, but they are also very calorically-dense. One ounce of walnuts, which is about 7 walnuts or a handful, has 185 calories. There’s no need to avoid them, just be familiar with how many calories they, and all, nuts and seeds, contain.
10. I’ve been vegan for almost a year and a half. I do my best to include a variety of vegetables and other foods in my diet to get the appropriate amount of vitamins and nutrients that I need. I always feel absolutely great, but I sometimes wonder is it necessary to include supplements in my diet? (I carefully watch my B12 intake.) What is your opinion on supplements? (Jessica, Portland, ME)
With the exception of B-12, which you already seem knowledgeable on, you can get all of the vitamins and minerals you need from food. And you are right, it is ideal to get them from foods. One nutrient that takes some extra work, in my opinion, is Omega-3 fatty acids. I use small amounts of flax oil most days of the week to make sure I am getting enough and that my ratio with Omega-6 is ideal. Whole walnuts, flax seeds and chia are also good sources of Omega-3. If you want to look more closely at what foods have which nutrients, I recommend the site Nutrition Data, the book Vegan For Life and/or a personal consultation with a Registered Dietitian.