9

How a lazy eater went vegan

I went vegetarian in college, and had wanted to go vegan ever since I read Julia Galef's article on why eating eggs may kill more animals than eating meat. But I was nervous about the potential health consequences of going vegan, and a lot of the guides to going vegan made it sound like a ridiculous amount of work. Some guides seemed to assume you loved spending lots of time cooking. Or they'd recommend other things I just couldn't see myself doing, like eating 6 cups of leafy greens per day for calcium. (6 cups may not sound like a lot, until you go to the grocery story and realize the big bags they sell there are only 2.5 cups. Try to imagine yourself eating two or more of those bags every day.)

Eventually, though, I worked out a diet plan that would be both healthy and easy to follow. Cooking effort is minimal; everything can be made with a microwave and rice cooker. I don't claim the following diet is nutritionally optimal a la Soylent or MealSquares, but I do think it's probably healthier than the diet of the average American omnivore:

  • Plan on getting most of your calories and protein from a mix of cereals (bread, corn, rice, etc.) and legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, soy, etc.)
  • Keep fruit and vegetables around to snack on. A handful of baby carrots per day will take care of all your vitamin A needs.
  • Adding a moderate amount of iodized salt to your meals is probably good idea, for both nutrition and taste.
  • There are just two nutrients that you'll really need to get from supplements (or foods fortified with them): calcium and vitamin B12. 
  • I also take a vitamin D3 + K2 supplement, but that has more to do with not getting much sun than with veganism.
  • So that your diet isn't completely boring, keep an eye out for good vegan and vegan-friendly grocery stores and restaurants. Chipotle and Trader Joe's are two examples of good vegan-friendly national chains.
Looking over these bullet points, part of me doesn't believe it's really that simple... but it's what I'm doing, and I have no major worries about my health or ability to be happy with this diet over the long haul. You should be aware that iron is an issue for some people, but most people don't have to worry about it. Also, there may be benefits from making an effort to consume creatine and omega-3 fatty acids, but if worrying about them seems like too much of a hassle, you'll probably be fine.

Since many in the Bay Area effective altruist community are into low-carb dieting for weight-loss purposes, I should address that. The most prominent low-carb advocates, like Gary Taubes and the late Robert Atkins, have made claims that simply have no scientific basis. For example, both have claimed that people can eat unlimited amounts of fatty foods and not gain weight, because only carbs cause weight gain. I've never heard Taubes give a coherent account of how this is supposed to be true; Atkins claimed it was due to excess calories being excreted in the urine as ketones, but urine ketone levels are too small for this to be possible.

Some studies comparing low-carb diets to other diets have found essentially no difference in terms of weight-loss, while others have found modest benefits for low-carb diets over low-fat diets. Based on my own personal experience, and reading Yoni Freedhoff's book The Diet Fix, I suspect any benefits of low-carb diets come from the fact that they also tend to be high-protein. I've found that eating high-protein plant foods like soy and lentils works wonders in terms of my ability to eat in moderation without feeling hungry. For the past couple of weeks, I've actually been making a conscious effort to eat more calories, mostly to avoid having to buy new pants again.

A final point to note is that there may be an ethical case for eating bivalves. I haven't tried this yet, mainly out of laziness (see the title of this post). However, it's something I may do in the future.

Comments (38)

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 09 October 2014 05:42:18AM *  8 points [-]

(I apologize in advance for a downer of a comment, especially for the parts that are poorly argued.)

In general, I think the risk of important but unknown nutrient deficiencies from cutting out a whole class of foods is probably much more important than the animal welfare benefits if you are spending much of your life working on good projects. This is a concern with vegetarianism, but it seems much more severe for veganism.

I haven't looked into the literature in creatine in any depth (largely because my diet is long on creatine), but the evidence for material cognitive effects looks weighty enough that I would want to be careful before considering returning to a low-creatine vegetarian diet. It seems like this should probably get more weight, unless everyone else knows something I don't.

Based on rough estimates it seems like being a vegan is not going to be worth it on consequentialist grounds, at least for those who would e.g. be willing to pay an additional factor of 2 premium to eat meat periodically. For such people the question is: if raising an animal generates $X of economic value, can you generate a welfare offset for a small multiple of $X? It would be quite surprising to me if this weren't possible (e.g. just subsidizing the creation of a small number of more humanely raised substitutes should work, which I would guess is orders of magnitude less effective than realistic approaches). I haven't thought about this at too much length, largely because I think that the effects on animal welfare today are not too important either on contractarian grounds nor on utilitarian grounds (since they seem to have a minimal long-term impact, and the direct impacts are small compared to long-term considerations). But I do think that given the basic economic logic the burden of argument rests with the vegetarian advocate.

If it's a bad idea on consequentialist grounds, I'm not convinced it's a useful signaling exercise. Alternatives like "cut out the worst offenders," "reduce consumption by 90%," and "buy humanely produced products" seem much better both on consequentialist grounds and (consequently) also signaling grounds.

I second the recommendations for powersmoothies elsewhere (though I drink mine with milk, which I find more delicious and seems probably better health-wise).

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 09 October 2014 10:30:16AM 5 points [-]

Creatine is cheap and readily available as a supplement. Ultimately, foods are made up of chemical building blocks, and it seems arbitrary to consider the division "animal/non-animal" as especially nutritionally salient.

Also, "caring about lesser minds" is a good meme to promote, especially considering FAI, CEV etc.

Comment author: Larks 10 October 2014 12:22:49AM 4 points [-]

it seems arbitrary to consider the division "animal/non-animal" as especially nutritionally salient.

I don't think this is actually arbitrary. Humans are animals, not plants. As such, it seems prima facie plausible that animals would contain the nutrients we need, as they are presumably largely the same nutrients the animals need. Humans did not evolve to only eat plants though, so it's plausible that there are some nutrients that we need that are both absent in plants and that we are unable to metabolize from plants.

Also, "caring about lesser minds" is a good meme to promote, especially considering FAI, CEV etc.

The point about CEV is that it is extrapolated - if you have a good argument for vegetarianism, CEV would take that argument into account, whether or not you actually made the argument to anyone. So there's no need to evangelize now.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 20 December 2014 11:34:56PM 1 point [-]

Humans are animals, not plants. As such, it seems prima facie plausible that animals would contain the nutrients we need, as they are presumably largely the same nutrients the animals need.

Holding calories constant, the foods richest in micronutrients are plants, not animals.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 09 October 2014 03:25:27PM 2 points [-]

I agree that creatine is easy to get, but given that I object to a description of how to be a vegetarian that says "if it's too much trouble don't bother."

Animals and non-animals are quite different nutritionally, and it seems quite likely that there are some things you need to supplement as a vegan, or at least that you need to be quite careful about.

The question of whether you can get by without meat at all then seems quite similar to the question of whether you can get by without any fruits or vegetables if you take all of the relevant nutrients via supplementation, for which the consensus appears to be "maybe, but don't count on it given our limited understanding of nutrition." Do you see a relevant disanalogy (other than scope, which may be somewhat larger for veggies than meat)?

Comment author: DanielFilan  (EA Profile) 12 October 2014 12:38:22PM 2 points [-]

The question of whether you can get by without meat at all then seems quite similar to the question of whether you can get by without any fruits or vegetables... Do you see a relevant disanalogy?

According to Wikipedia, the national dietitians' associations of the USA, Canada, and Australia claim that well-planned vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for everyone, while the German Society for Nutrition warns against it, especially for children, the elderly, and the pregnant. On balance, this is much more positive than I imagine their opinions would be on a carnivorous + supplementation diet.

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 13 October 2014 12:07:19AM 1 point [-]

There are surveys about this – for example U.S. News & World Report's's annual survey of dietitians. Vegan diets are always rated as much more healthful than meat heavy diets like Paleo, and presumably paleo in turn is better than "meat + supplements".

So transitively, it seems like experts do perceive a relevant disanalogy.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 09 October 2014 04:26:54PM *  1 point [-]

I'd say B12 is the only really critical supplement needed as a vegan (and even then, lots of plant milks are fortified with it, so it's quite hard to avoid). To be on the safe side, you can take a 1 a day supplement tailored for vegans, like: https://www.vegansociety.com/shop/supplements/veg1-orange-90s Although I've recently noticed that I've gone nearly a year without this (was going to try a soylent recipe instead, and didn't, and forgot to restock!), and have not suffered any ill effects. In actual fact, I've had a pretty rubbish diet for large parts of the last year (marmite sandwiches, crisps, cereal) and have been fine. Maybe I'm pushing my luck though!

If you look at all the foods eaten in the world, the vast majority are of plant origin, so meat is narrow in scope from that view (it just seems central from a modern-day Western perspective); perhaps the scope is large enough for the analogy not to hold with fruits and vegetables together, but either fruits or vegetables might make a comparable analogy to meat.

My point was mainly that it's possible to synthesise very close analogues of animal products from plants and it's not much trouble to get them (Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods are state of the art, but stuff like Fry's vegetarian is widespread and easy to get). More data is needed for things like Soylent and Power Smoothies, although people have been living for months on them now I guess.

Comment author: RyanCarey 09 October 2014 06:40:28PM *  0 points [-]

I've recently noticed that I've gone nearly a year without this (was going to try a soylent recipe instead, and didn't, and forgot to restock!), and have not suffered any ill effects.

Well, I would say you haven't suffered any noticeable ill effects. You don't actually know how healthy you would feel if you were an omnivore so it's hard to say that you have not suffered any adverse health effect.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 09 October 2014 09:38:55PM 0 points [-]

I don't remember feeling or being any more (or less) healthy when I was an omnivore (I was one up until age 2004 (age 23)). But note that I've never reached an optimal level of physical fitness as an adult - maybe one of these years I'll stick to an exercise regime for long enough!

Comment author: GMcGowan 12 October 2014 09:45:15AM 1 point [-]

I think this kind of argument is interesting and important, but often rarely talked about.

I would be interested if you or anyone else were to make a top level post on this issue, to elaborate on your points and allow broader discussion. Failing that, does anyone have any links or book recommendations that argue things similar to this?

Comment author: [deleted] 09 October 2014 05:51:16PM *  7 points [-]

Several comments raised the concern of unknown health issues with a veg/n diet. While I think unknowns are exceptionally important in nutrition given the low-quality evidence that exists overall in the field, I don't think that's a strong argument against veg/nism because so many veg/ns have already lived and been as healthy, if not healthier, than non veg/ns. And we can say the unknowns cut both ways here, both with unknown benefits and unknown drawbacks to veg/nism.

In general, I think we should have added skepticism for arguments against veg*nism due to the high self-serving bias we have to continue our current diets.

Also, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/04/vegetarians-death-premature-longevity-live-longer_n_3380781.html

Comment author: Larks 10 October 2014 12:37:46AM 4 points [-]

we should have added skepticism for arguments against veg*nism due to the high self-serving bias we have to continue our current diets.

And we should have added skepticism for health-based arguments for vegetarianism that are made by people who are vegetarians for non-health reasons, as it would be extremely convenient if making a massive dietary change for non-health reasons turned out to have no major health issues.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 October 2014 02:37:33AM 2 points [-]

I don't see it as a massive dietary change. If anything, it's closer to our historical diet (which, AFAIK, generally consisted of lots of plants with little animal products). Also, I don't expect most dietary changes of a similar scale to going veg/n (say, cutting out grains or cutting out fruits) to have major health issues. So it's not "extremely convenient" to me.

Also, it might even be extremely convenient if making a massive dietary change for non-health reasons turned out to have no major health benefits!

Comment author: Jess_Whittlestone 07 October 2014 07:38:50AM 4 points [-]

Thanks for posting this Topher. When I was vegan, my diet was very similar to the one you described, and all in all I didn't find it that difficult. You'll notice the "was" in that sentence though - the thing that got me was eating out or eating socially with friends - I found it very difficult to maintain a vegan diet then, and so I found myself slipping. I'd be interested in how you deal with this - do you stick to a vegan diet even when eating out or going to friends houses, and if so, how difficult do you find it?

My solution for a while was to have a strict rule that I am entirely vegan in what I cook and by for myself, and vegetarian in other situations - like eating out - where being vegan is very difficult or inconvenient. This worked pretty well for a while. It's harder now because I'm living in a house with people who frequently cook together - which has a lot of benefits of saved time, money, and being more enjoyable and sociable - but aren't vegan. So I've slipped back to just being vegetarian across the board, but I feel somewhat uncomfortable about it.

Comment author: lincolnq 08 October 2014 02:28:26AM 7 points [-]

Currently, I beemind (using a Do Less goal) "non-vegan meals per week". This has provided the mild positive pressure for me to choose to be vegan for most of my meals but allow myself to eat a few meals a week with friends without paying a social penalty.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 08 October 2014 12:05:14AM 1 point [-]

For eating out, it's nearly always possible to get a vegan version of a non-vegan dish, even when there isn't anything vegan listed on the menu (e.g. pizza without cheese). However, it does perhaps take a bit of effort/practice to get over the "I'm being difficult" feeling - keep in mind that veganism is a positive thing, not something to feel guilty about. Failing that, chips and salad is a fallback option :-) As for eating at friends houses, I guess it's similar: you have to feel comfortable with requesting vegan food (or otherwise limiting your options). I've never been that into food, so these things don't bother me that much.

Comment author: BenSix 07 October 2014 10:46:42AM 3 points [-]

All I'd add to your recommendations is to try to get some omega 3 fats from walnuts, flaxseeds or even a supplement.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 09 October 2014 10:50:56AM *  0 points [-]

For those in the UK, this is probably the best buy for vegan Omega 3 supplements: http://www.nuique.com/algal-omega3/

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 07 October 2014 02:24:37AM 3 points [-]

For Advanced Lazy Mode, prospective vegans who are wary/grossed out by Soylent could also try Power Smoothies, which require only one appliance (a blender) rather than two, taste quite good, and are somewhat faster/lower-effort than cooking things. You can substitute the whey protein in the recipes there for some kind of vegan protein and have a completely vegan meal.

Power Smoothies are gradually taking over my house and have converted two formerly-skeptical roommates so far, so I recommend trying one before you decide that they probably taste bad or something.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 06 October 2014 09:02:07PM 2 points [-]

Can't you get good amounts of calcium via fortified soymilk?

Comment author: TopherHallquist 07 October 2014 01:35:31AM *  3 points [-]

Yes, hence "or foods fortified with them." I don't particularly like soymilk, but sometimes drink calcium-fortified orange juice.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 06 October 2014 09:08:50PM 2 points [-]

Silk advertises itself as "50% more calcium than dairy milk", so I'd say yes. Most brands of soymilk I've seen have at least as much calcium as dairy milk. But I don't know if your body absorbs it as readily from soymilk as from dairy milk.

Comment author: Amanda_Jane 11 October 2014 07:20:49AM *  1 point [-]

Hi all - love this discussion :)

I'm a vegetarian and a pretty serious athlete. I have a great relationship with my GP, have been tested for several dietary insufficiencies that I now take supplements for (iron, B12, zinc) and all is swell. I'm actually a medical student and have looked into the literature on vegetarian diets and can't see any problem with them as long as those supplements are taken.

I accept ethical arguments for veganism, HOWEVER given the amount of exercise I do I'd love advice from anyone on here how to get enough protein as a vegan! Right now most of my protein comes from eggs and whey-based protein powder and I absolutely could not give these up. If someone can solve this for me you've got yourself a new vegan!

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 14 October 2014 09:49:37AM *  1 point [-]

According to Google, oats have more protein than eggs by weight (17% vs. 13%), and porridge is quick and easy to make in the microwave. There are also lots of vegan protein powders. Maybe try soy, as pea doesn't taste very nice.

Comment author: RyanCarey 06 October 2014 07:16:04PM 1 point [-]

Relevant links:

I broadly agree with your advice. Basically, I think that for a vegan, the main nutritional challenges are going to be:

  • B-12, which must be supplemented
  • Calcium, which can generally be obtained from fortified soy milk or - failing
  • Protein, which will take more effort

Most of the rest can come from eating a few different vegies.

Comment author: TopherHallquist 07 October 2014 01:46:50AM 5 points [-]

I've come to think protein is somewhat over-rated as a concern for vegans. Unless you're trying to be a body builder, I think it's pretty easy to get enough protein through the sources mentioned in the OP (cereals and legumes are complimentary in terms of their amino acid content).

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 06 October 2014 07:37:14PM 3 points [-]

Protein, which will take more effort

Vegans can easily get arbitrarily high levels of protein by supplementing with pea or soy protein isolate.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 06 October 2014 11:29:29PM 2 points [-]

As long as you aren't feeling hungry most of the time, you're probably getting enough protein. So I would say it doesn't really take any extra effort. e.g. If all you eat was bread, you'd be getting enough protein. I think most people in the west probably eat more protein than they need.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 07 October 2014 04:41:28AM 1 point [-]

This is likely true if you're mostly sedentary, but if you work out (especially if you're building muscle) then you probably need to pay attention to your protein intake.

Anecdotal evidence: Before I started tracking my protein intake, I was getting around 50-100g of protein a day. To build muscle, someone my weight needs more like 120g.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 October 2014 10:32:33PM 2 points [-]

there's others too e.g. brown rice protein. They mostly taste bitter and grainy though!

Almond butter seems like a winner, especially in smoothies, but also added to sauces or eaten with celery etc.

Comment author: RyanCarey 06 October 2014 08:15:15PM 0 points [-]

Ah, good point. I haven't met anyone doing that before. People seem to prefer protein shakes, maybe because protein includes significant calories and most people want it to feel somewhat like 'food' when they're consuming a lot of calories.

Comment author: davidcomanhidy 06 October 2014 09:14:52PM 1 point [-]

There are many sources of calcium that can be well absorbed in a vegan diet. Here's a helpful chart: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.php

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 12 September 2015 02:52:23AM 0 points [-]

Now that GiveWell's done a research review on the carbs hypothesis, you could edit this article to reference it since I bet a lot of EAs would find this more credible than most other forms of evidence you could cite.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 13 October 2014 07:22:44PM *  0 points [-]

-nevermind-

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 14 October 2014 09:51:53AM 1 point [-]

Deleted because.. bananas?

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 14 October 2014 01:45:25PM 0 points [-]

No, because of broccoli. Bananas don't give you enough potassium.

Comment author: PeterMcCluskey 08 October 2014 10:39:23PM 0 points [-]

Ambronite sounds healthier than any other vegan diet, although it's unclear whether the B12 in it is bioavailable.

I don't trust nutrition science enough to trust a fully vegan diet, but oysters and/or insects would add enough to make the diet seem safe enough for me.