Update 7/2017 : I did make it through school with my veganism intact. Unfortunately, in 2012, a health situation not described here on the site forced me to begin to include limited animal based foods. I still use the principles below along with a chiefly plant-based diet, and still believe that – for some people – being vegan (short term or long term) can be entirely healthful. That said, not everyone seems to thrive on a vegan or even vegetarian diet. Food and eating is a complex topic worthy of exploration – what follows are some initial thoughts I had while I was a student. I think the basic principles still hold up!
In my years interacting with the Chinese medicine community, only one thing has really irritated me about it. You may guess by the title that it has something to do with veganism. Many professors and students I have interacted with have claimed that being vegan is not healthy, not balanced, or otherwise out of step with Chinese medical philosophy.
One student went so far as to claim that I would absolutely not be able to maintain a vegan diet as I progressed through the program! I have not found this to be the case, and in fact, my appreciation for veganism has simply grown the more I’ve learned about the human body and Chinese medicine principles.
Before continuing, I want to make clear that I am not a militant vegan – I do not interfere in the personal business of others. Further, I am not prepared to claim that veganism is the right diet for everyone. However, I do believe it is a more humane choice, on balance, and I do believe that for the average American it may represent the best shot at creating an optimal diet.
I have never been able to extract many coherent arguments from folks who are opposed to the diet I have thrived on for 8 years (and that my daughter has thrived on nearly all her life) but below is my attempt to articulate and then refute what points I have managed to round up.
Make sure to include warming foods
I have heard the argument that vegan diets are too cooling. This is because the majority of fruits, vegetables and grains of are a cool or cold nature, thus a diet consisting of many fruits, vegetables and grains will naturally be on the cool side. Because the Stomach requires a warm/hot environment, dumping a bunch of cold on top of it is not likely to result in good digestion. Poor digestion will eventually harm the whole body. So, don’t abandon veganism – just warm up your diet!
Here’s a partial list of my favorite warm foods: mustard greens, members of the onion family (garlic, onion, chive), parsnips, winter squash, cherries, oyster mushrooms and chestnuts! The onion family is probably the easiest and most useful group, because they can be added to almost anything!
Cook your food
Even if foods are cold, cooking methods can increase their warmth. I don’t want to step on any raw foodist toes, and I know that many people have had great results with that diet. But, given the conversations I’ve had with mentors and colleagues, from a Chinese medicine perspective the inclusion of cooked food in the diet is essential for the long-term health of the Spleen/Stomach. Stir-frying, baking and slow cooking will all impart a Stomach-sparing warmth to your food that can help bring balance to a vegan diet.
Use the five elements to create balance
One way that I have been working to maintain my balance is by using the five elements to balance the colors and flavors in my diet. I wrote a post on the subject that may be of use to you – “See how easily you can use 5 element theory to eat optimally.”
Alter your diet with the seasons
For people who live in relatively isolated locations, following a vegan diet can be difficult. This difficult has caused some vegans to find a few meals they can easily create and stick with those. While this is an admirable survival method in a difficult situation, it can do little more than help you to merely survive. To experience the full benefit of a vegan diet, in line with Chinese medicine principles, you must adapt your diet to the seasons. This means eating relatively less and lighter in the spring, relatively more and heavier in the winter. It means finding in-season fruits and vegetables and enjoying them. It may mean growing a garden or visiting a local farmer’s market if you are lucky enough to have one nearby. Allowing nature to guide your eating habits is a great way to stay in balance.
Avoid processed foods
In situations as described in #4, sometimes people end up eating a lot of processed foods. This includes the obvious ones like dehydrated mashed potatoes and white pasta, but also those that are less obvious like tofu and soymilk. While processed soy and wheat products make getting the essential nutrients so much easier, they should not be relied upon too heavily. Get back to basics – whole grains like brown rice and quinoa combined (at the same meal or not) with legumes like black beans is a time honored way to fulfill many of your body systems. These whole foods, the fresher the better, are much more likely to contain good Qi, which will nourish your body much better. Processed, de-vitalized foods – while sometimes chemically identical to whole foods (due to addition of synthetic nutrients) they are not identical energetically.
Use Qigong and nature study to appreciate the energy of animals
One objection I have heard is that a vegan diet fails to absorb the important energy of animals, which is for whatever reason important to human health. While I don’t understand this argument, if you can call it an argument, I will point out that there are other – perhaps superior – ways to absorb the essence of something. Using Qigong or various meditation and energy work methods, one can easily interact with the energy of anything, animal or not. This gentle and non-obtrusive interaction when done from a place of respect can definitely help you to feel the vitality of the animal and incorporate it into your energy body.
Biomedical tips: Pay attention to B-12, protein
A list of this kind wouldn’t be complete without the requisite nod to the helpful reductionism of Western science. Using the tips above will help you to create a quite balanced diet, but as a check and balance, be sure to investigate where you are obtaining B-12 and protein. The B-12 debate rages on, but it is my understanding that the only significant natural sources are animal related. I consume Red Star Nutritional yeast, which is fortified with B-12 and I also take a sublingual B-12 supplement every 2 or 3 days. While I wish I could obtain this important nutrient from a more natural source, I am content to continue as I am. With regards to protein, if you follow the guidelines above and combine them with the glut of easily available information on veganism – you will have no problems. Just be smart and enjoy your food – you’ll be fine.