VeganMoFo, Day 14: Frugal vegans think outside the box (plate?).

October 14th, 2009 8:25 pm by mad mags


When people criticize the “prohibitive cost” of a vegan (or even vegetarian) diet, what they’re really saying is that specialty vegan foods are expensive. And you know what? They’re right. Meat analogs, soy yogurt made from non-GMO soybeans, gluten-free gourmet vegan ice cream and “melts like cheese!” non-dairy cheeses, when purchased on a regular basis, can really drive up your grocery bill. (There’s a reason vegans not-so/jokingly refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck”!) The good news is that one can adopt a nutritious, healthy and cruelty-free diet without consuming any of these things (although they’re all perfectly yummy and affordable when eaten in moderation!).

The “typical” American diet is heavy on protein (mostly in the form of animal flesh), sugar, saturated fat and processed grains and contains woefully little fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts. The average adult requires between 40 and 70 grams of protein per day, with needs varying according to age, gender and lifestyle. Women 14 years and older generally need about 46 grams, while men of the same age require slightly more – 52-56 grams. During pregnancy, a woman’s nutritional requirements change (obviously!); a woman eating for two should consume about 71 grams of protein per day. Estimates vary, but there’s a general consensus that Americans eat far too much protein (between 50 and 200% more than is necessary or healthy), while protein deficiency is a rarity.

When transitioning from an omnivorous to a vegan diet, it can be tempting to simply replace animal-based products with vegan substitutes: in place of bacon, Smart Bacon; instead of Yoplait, Whole Soy; in lieu of Kraft Singles, Tofutti slices – and so on and so forth. But, while you may be treating non-human animals compassionately by recreating a vegan version of an unhealthy diet, you are not being kind to your own body. Or – more pertinent to this discussion – your pocketbook.

Instead of reenacting the “traditional”* American meal of two overly-processed side dishes flanking an oversized centerpiece of “meat,” why not rethink how and what you eat? One of the unexpected benefits of veganism is the new-found culinary creativity, borne of necessity. When one is forced – or rather, compelled – to give up so many “staples” once taken for granted, you’ve got to learn new ways of doing things. And the dysfunctional composition of the American “fast food” diet should be the first (well, second) thing to go.

Many newbie vegans are concerned about protein intake. In fact, this is due in no small part to cultural indoctrination; “where do you get your protein?” is perhaps the most common question asked of vegans. While many faux meats and dairy substitutes do contain a large amount of protein, so too do raw, unprocessed and relatively inexpensive foods (what I call “naturally vegan”).

Naturally vegan foodstuffs that are rich in protein include:

– Lentils

– Beans: Chick peas, kidney beans, lima beans, soy beans, mungo beans

– Tofu (regular or silken)

– Nuts: peanuts, soy nuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, Brazil nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, acorns

– Seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds

– Nut & seed butters: peanut butter, soy nut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower butter

– Cowpeas (Black-eyed peas, Yardlong bean, Catjangs)

– Oats

– Broccoli

– Mushrooms

– Mustard greens

And that’s just for starters! See, for example, this list of 100 protein rich foods at SmarterFitter (and just ignore the items resulting from animal exploitation, of which there are thankfully few).

Naturally, some of the items are more expensive than others; you can buy a 3 pound container of Peter Pan peanut butter at Sam’s Club for the price of a 16 ounce jar of organic cashew butter at a natural foods store, for instance. But, browse through any list of protein-rich foods, and it’s plainly obvious that many of the vegan items are goods that non-vegans already consume on a daily basis (albeit not in the recommended quantities, but you get my drift). In fact, a great deal of common American foods are already “naturally vegan” – well, until diners pile on the cheese and butter! Many omnis imagine vegan diets as “weird,” “foreign” or “granola” (though I don’t know why any of these should be negatives), when vegan diets actually consist of many of the same foods omnis eat every day.

Anyhow, rather than replacing animal-derived foods with their vegan counterparts, think outside the box (or plate, if you’d rather). Instead of a heaping of faux meat surrounded by a few measly mounds of veggies, try a Big Salad of dark green, leafy veggies, topped with beans and a dollop of tahini dressing. Add extra nutrients to your morning oatmeal by mixing in a little protein powder and dried fruit. For lunch, try hummus on pita bread. In between meals, snack on fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds. Make your own granola, trail mix or Chex mix – it’s much cheaper than buying the packaged stuff, with the added bonus of total ingredient control – discover your own special blend!

(Of course, it’s great if you can afford to buy organic, local, fair-trade items on a regular basis – as these are “vegan” in the ethical sense of the word – but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposal. If you can afford to do so one week but not the next, then have at it! And don’t be afraid to grow your own organic goodies in season.)

While I think that most of the mythconceptions re: the expense of vegan diets stem from pricey “faux animal” products, the supposed “foreignness” (or unfamiliarity) of vegan foods also plays a role. Ingredients that are less common in American kitchens – for example, chia or quinoa flour instead of white or whole wheat – can certainly cost more. However, there’s a very simple workaround: avoid those recipes which require ingredients that you don’t usually have on hand! Or, if you’d like to try something different, buy only as much of the unfamiliar ingredients as is necessary – for example, from the bulk foods section of a natural or international grocer.

If you stumble upon a recipe that you’d like to try, but find yourself short one ingredient, try substituting in a similar ingredient. I’ve been unable to find pastry flour in my regular grocers, so I’ve taken to using white or whole wheat flour instead. No complaints (yet!). When in doubt, the internets are your friends: just search for “substitutes for pastry flour” or similar, and you’ll soon find out whether a cheaper substitute is a wise move or a recipe for disaster.

No discussion about the expense of vegan foods is complete without noting that the price a consumer pays for any given good at the cash register is rarely indicative of the true cost of the item. Water and air pollution, deforestation, the degradation of the world’s oceans, “bycatch” and the genocide of “pest” predator species, climate change – none of these are reflected in the price of “meat” and dairy. And yet, they’re costs we all shoulder, whether we choose to consume animals and their secretions or not. The greatest cost comes at the expense of the animals themselves, who pay with their lives and deaths, to the tune of 10 billion a year.

* Scare quotes because this is a rather recent invention; for much of our history, “meat” was a luxury item, reserved for those with class and gender privilege (read: people of wealth and the men of the house).


Photo credits, top to bottom:"> / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0"> / CC BY-SA 2.0"> / CC BY-NC 2.0"> / CC BY-SA 2.0"> / CC BY-NC 2.0



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5 Responses to “VeganMoFo, Day 14: Frugal vegans think outside the box (plate?).”

  1. The Voracious Vegan Says:

    Such a great post! People always seemed shocked when I tell them that it is NOT expensive to be a vegan and that we DON’T eat mock meats and tofu at every meal! Great info, thanks! Love that last picture, by the way.

  2. Shannon Says:

    You’ve got me stoked to read Carol Adams’ “Pornography of Meat,” which is on its way to me from Amazon. :)

  3. Kelly G. Says:

    @ V.V. – Thanks! The cow is a cutie – minus the ear tags, of course.

    @ Shannon – Good choice, you’ll love it! I read The Sexual Politics of Meat a looooong time ago, and found it a little dense – but The Pornography of Meat is much more accessible. With oodles of pictures, too!

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