Advice on healthy eating from an imperfect vegan.
story and photos by Naomi Johnson
Think the four food groups are key to a healthy diet? Think milk builds strong bones? With these and other bits of common nutritional wisdom, Amy Lanou, Ph.D., would beg to differ. Lanou, who has taught nutrition in the health and wellness department at UNC-Asheville since 2005, has devoted much of her career to parsing reams of data on such topics, and from her point of view, the answer is clear: most are myths.
The ideal diet for promoting health? Well, Lanou hesitates to use the word “vegan.” “People are calling it a lot of things these days. A whole-foods, plant-based diet,” she says. “‘Vegan’ has this connotation that there’s also some ideology with it, and for some people there is, but for some people, there isn’t.”
Advocating for a diet that’s such a radical departure from standard American fare has led Lanou to tackle a number of (ahem) sacred cows of our culture. Take calcium and dairy products, the focus of Lanou’s book Building Bone Vitality. Women in particular are often advised to drink milk and supplement calcium in an effort to stave off osteoporosis; for Lanou, whose mother and grandmother both had the condition, it’s a personal concern. Reviewing over 1,200 peer-reviewed studies, Lanou’s book calls into question the connection between milk—or indeed, any form of dietary calcium, including supplements—and strong bones. From her perspective, it’s all about “creating an internal environment that supports bone over the course of your lifetime.” To create such an environment, she enumerates four recommendations:
• Focus your diet around whole foods.
• Move. Walk every day.
• Eat more fruits and vegetables: 6-9 servings a day.
• Limit or avoid foods that are rich in animal protein.
For support in the low-animal-protein recommendation, she points to the work of her Cornell colleague, professor T. Colin Campbell, author of the influential book The China Study. His work is also the subject of the recent documentary film Forks Over Knives, which has the stated goal “to do nothing less than redefine what we think of as good nutrition.” His book details an epidemiological study of health and diet in rural China, where, Lanou says, the traditional diet is almost entirely animal-protein-free. In Campbell’s analysis, this lifestyle staves off many of the diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes) that plague Western cultures.
Lanou’s stance is not without controversy. She spent five years as Nutrition Director for the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, an organization that promotes vegan eating and has been accused of advocating for animal rights in the guise of human health. For her part, Lanou hasn’t eaten an animal product in 16 years, except by accident. “Occasionally, when I travel. someone will slip some dairy into something and I’m not aware of it. If there’s a little chicken stock in a gravy or something, it’s not the end of the world. I’m not a perfect vegan, and I don’t have any need to be.”
In her work at UNCA, Lanou counsels moderation and an incremental approach to changing diets. “If I get someone who’s eating meat or dairy with every meal go down to 7-10 meals a week, I’ve probably done them more good than helping a vegetarian go vegan,” she says. If you’re interested in reducing your animal-product consumption, she offers some basic advice: “Think of plant foods you’re already eating that you like. Could you eat more of those? Are there any meals you eat in a week that don’t have any animal products in them? Could you increase that?” She reels off further suggestions: start a home garden, investigate local tailgate markets for new veggies, dine out with vegan friends and try meat substitutes. “Here in Asheville, there are so many great options,” she says. “My mouth is watering just talking about it.”
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