Earth-friendly diets

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina

Some people are saying, “Take extinction off your plate.” What? I already take shorter showers. Every week, I deposit my recycling into the right bins. I walk whenever I can. I ride my bike a lot, when it’s not so icy I’ll kill myself. I car-share. Isn’t that enough?It seems not. Agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions – greater than all transport put together – and our current dietary choices are propelling us toward extinction.

Rearing livestock for animal products requires far more land, water and energy than producing plant foods. Producing a kilo of beef generates 27 kilo of CO2, compared to 0.9 kg per kilo of lentils. That’s 30 times as much! While new technologies for animal farming are available, a recent study found they only reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 9%.

One kilo of beef delivers 194 grams protein; one kilo of lentils: 246 grams protein. According to a 2016 Oxford study, adopting vegan diets globally would cut food-related emissions by 70%. That’s an excellent reason to order falafels or curried chickpeas rather than a burger or fried chicken. But how can you make lentils taste even remotely as good? One can start by picking up a veg. cookbook or doing a web search for “vegan lentil recipe.” You’ll find 825,000 tasty results within 0.51 seconds.

The Scientific Committee of the Dietary Guidelines – a conservative group – now provides evidence that diets with more plant foods and less animal products are linked with less environmental damage. Many scientists are calling for a great reduction in livestock production to reverse climate change and to use less water, fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics makes the point that, compared with producing 1 kilo of beef protein, 1 kg protein from kidney beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times fewer pesticides. Beef production generates considerably more manure waste than other animal or fish farming, but they are all strong polluters. Pig farming creates immense toxic manure ponds. The Environmental Protection Agency states that about 70% of all water pollution in rivers and lakes in the US results from animal farm waste.

The 620 million chickens slaughtered every year in Canada – plus 9 billion each year in the US – create a lot of chicken shit before they die. And that’s not counting the waste that comes out when they travel down the conveyer belt as their throats are slit and tumble into what workers call fecal soup. No wonder chickens are linked with salmonella food poisoning.

The use of antibiotics as growth promoters and to prevent and treat farm animal diseases generates antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance passes to humans, causing difficult-to-treat illnesses, resulting in greater morbidity, mortality and health care costs.

Does this situation strike you as crazy? By relying on meat and other animal products, we make ourselves obese; raise our risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cancers; and then destroy our planet. Want to really make a change?

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian ( and a member of Meatless Meetup.

EVENT: February 24, 7:15 PM: A showing of the documentary Cowspiracy should make for an interesting discussion afterwards. Register at

Speaking of the environment

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina

» A decade ago, climate change and global warming seemed somewhat theoretical to some of us, but evidence is now showing up in our everyday lives. In many parts of the world, these changes are being linked with the rising frequency and severity of extreme weather events: floods, storms and droughts. Warmer temperatures tend to produce more violent weather patterns. Events of concern in BC include heavy rainfall and snowfalls, heat waves and drought. These have led to floods, landslides, water shortages, forest fires, reduced air quality, damaged property, and illness and mortality. Since 1983, payouts by Canadian insurance companies for damages resulting from natural disasters have doubled every five years.

Read moreSpeaking of the environment

The carnitine controversy

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina

• Carnitine is an amino acid, important for our body’s transportation of fatty acids to the area in the cells where the fatty acids can be burned for energy production. For this reason, carnitine has been marketed as a fat-burning support. A very small number of people – about one in 40,000 – have a genetic condition in which they cannot move carnitine to the areas where it is needed. One resulting symptom is muscle weakness, which may have led to the idea that carnitine can improve athletic performance, as carnitine has been marketed as a sports supplement. So far, research has not established its effectiveness.

Read moreThe carnitine controversy

Core beliefs about a plant-based diet

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina


portrait of Vesanto Melina•  I recently took out – from our wonderful public library system – a set of CDs entitled This I Believe. They are based on a popular NPR (National Public Radio) series that invited people to write a 500-word essay on a core belief that guided their daily life and to then read their essay on the air. (See website at the end of the article). After listening to a selection and wondering, “What is a core belief for me?” I recognized that mine centres on a shift towards a plant-based diet.

Pythagoras and his community adopted a vegetarian diet 2,500-years-ago. He derived the idea from Asians, who had adopted these practices as part of their Hindu or Buddhist faith. In North America, in the early and mid 1800s, a gradual interest in diets of whole plant foods included a reaction against food adulteration: chalk and plaster in milk and flour and dirt, sand and leaves in coffee and spices. Subsequently, dietary reformer Sylvester Graham’s emphasis on whole grains led to the current graham cracker and John Harvey Kellogg inspired a popular line of cereals. By 1850, vegetarian associations had formed in England and North America and vegetarian restaurants became popular.

Scientific backing was gained in the mid 1950s when Harvard-based research clearly established that adults could get all their necessary protein and amino acids solely from plant foods. However, we were not certain about deriving every one of the essential nutrients until after the last remaining vitamin, B12, was isolated in 1949. The origin of B12 is neither animal nor plant, but bacterial. This vitamin is present in animal products, originating from bacteria that are present, but it is not in clean plant foods.

By 1987, questions about the suitability of plant-based diets were addressed when the maternal care records and birth outcomes of 775 vegans showed that the mothers’ vegan diets did not affect birth weight. In fact, health advantages were noted. In 1989, the growth of vegan children was assessed by the Centers for Disease Control and found to be within the normal range. The families involved ate a plant-based diet centred on vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, fortified soyfoods), grains, seeds, nuts and vitamin B12 supplements. From conception to old age, they were thriving.

The National Academy of Sciences, 2016, says that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 27% if we followed global dietary guidelines – eat more fruits and vegetables; eat less meat, sugar and calories – ?and by ?70% if we ate a vegan diet. A global shift to a plant-based diet is strongly urged?. Forward-thinking China is already encouraging its citizens to eat 50 percent less meat – for environmental and health reasons.

Over the course of my life, I have been at most of the places along the spectrum, from meat eating to vegan, though for the last half, at the plant-based end. We can be healthy at many places on this spectrum. You, too, may have experienced a gradual shift towards a more plant-based diet for any number of very sound reasons.

To return to our original theme, what is a core belief of yours?

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and author. To read essays from the This I Believe series, see

It’s the Year of Pulses

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina MS, RD

portrait of Vesanto Melina

• The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has named 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Pulses are edible seeds that grow in pods – peas, beans, lentils. They are also known as legumes.

Pulses are packed with nutrients, especially B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc). Their high iron content is especially beneficial for women and children who might be at risk of anemia. They are a fantastic source of protein without the accompanying fat of animal products.

For people trying to control their weight, they can be a great way to keep blood sugar level while boosting protein intake. They have a low glycemic index due to excellent fibre content. Pulses are gluten-free and contain phytochemicals that are protective against cancer, diabetes and heart disease. One dietary feature of the longest-lived population groups in the world – Okinawa Japan, Sardinia, Italy and the Seventh-day Adventist vegetarians in Loma Linda California – is their regular consumption of pulses.

Pulses are important agriculturally as they are closely associated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and thus play a key role in crop rotation and soil enhancement. In Canada, they are a very important crop as we are the largest exporter of lentils in the world.

Cooked lentils, beans and peas can easily be pureed and stirred into soups, stews and even sauces. It’s fine to use canned ones; nutrient content is retained. They not only add depth and flavour, but they also help thicken soups and stews to make them heartier and more nutrient-rich. If you are unaccustomed to eating pulses, start with smaller ones such as lentils – red, green, grey, French – in small amounts. Here are some very quick ways to boost your protein for the day:

Heat up a bowl of green peas (fresh or frozen).
Snack on fresh peas in the pod.
Add a pea-based protein powder to your smoothie.
Spread toast with peanut butter (peanuts are pulses).
Grab a handful of peanuts.
Serve tacos (see recipe).
Check out recipes at, and get gold medallist Ron Pickarski’s The Classical Vegetarian Cookbook,

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian.,, 778-379-5377.

Timesaving tacos

Makes 10 tacos; serves 3 to 5 people

This nutritious meal is almost instant. Just warm the shells and beans, chop the veggies and set out the colourful fillings in pretty bowls. If you prefer burritos, replace taco shells with soft tortillas. For mixed dietary choices, a meal of tacos is welcome as you can include non-vegan options such as grated cheddar. (Recipe from Becoming Vegetarian and from Cooking Vegetarian, Harper Collins)

10 taco shells
1 can vegetarian
refried beans
2 cups shredded lettuce
1 cup chopped tomato
1 carrot, grated
1 ripe avocado, chopped
1 cup salsa
1 cup grated non-dairy cheese (such as Daiya pepperjack)

Put the refried beans in a small pan and warm through (or heat in bowl in microwave). If the beans are too thick, mix in a tablespoon of water. Warm taco shells in a 250o F oven for 1-2 minutes, or in a microwave. Put the shells and beans, along with lettuce, tomato, carrot, avocado, salsa and cheese in serving bowls. Leftover fillings can be refrigerated in covered dishes and used at another meal.

Plentiful plant protein

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina, Grace Yeh and Sharon Voong


Portrait of Vesanto Melina•  Why does protein matter? As a component of muscle, bone and all body tissues, proteins are essential for structure and movement. They protect, coordinate body functions, help replace and maintain cells, and as enzymes facilitate biological reactions. People following plant-based diets need to be careful they get enough protein from the right sources to satisfy their body’s needs.
Whether you are an omnivore, vegan, vegetarian or are considering a more plant-based diet, you might ask, “Where can I get adequate protein, if not from meat?” Many North American diets rely on animal products such as eggs, meat, seafood and cheese for protein. Yet all plants – vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts and grains – contain good amounts of protein. Fruit is an exception, with less protein. Plant based diets can offer quality proteins while also providing a plethora of other beneficial nutrients.
Protein requirements: The recommended dietary allowances vary with age: 0.8g protein per kg body weight per day is generally recommended for a healthy adult. Nutrition experts sometimes advise those on plant-based diets to consume slightly more – 0.9g/kg/d – because fibre in plant products decreases the digestibility of proteins. Overall, fibre has beneficial effects on blood sugar and cholesterol levels and intestinal health. Therefore, high-fibre foods should not be avoided due to their small impact on protein digestibility. It is not difficult to meet and exceed protein intakes on plant-based diets. Typically, a mixed diet that includes legumes, seeds, grains and vegetables within a 24-hour period easily provides adequate amounts of all essential amino acids.

Plant protein options
Examples of plant protein are provided below with grams per serving.
Food Protein (g)
Firm tofu, ½ cup 20
Black beans, pinto beans, split peas, cooked, ½ cup 8
Chickpeas, black-eyed peas, great northern beans, kidney
beans, lima beans, mung beans, navy beans, cooked, ½ cup
Peanut butter, 2 tbsp 8
Pumpkin seeds, ¼ cup 10
Almonds, hulled sesame seeds, black walnuts, ¼ cup 7-8
Note: To increase protein digestibility, soak or sprout legumes, seeds and grains


Five tips to increase your plant protein consumption:
(1) Garnish salads with beans, nuts, seeds or tofu. (2)Toss steamed vegetables with creamy sauces made from tofu or nuts. (3)Add chopped nuts or seeds to whole grains or oats. (4) Spread nut butters on toast. (5) Discover some great tofu marinades and add cubed tofu to stir fries, stews and soups
For local restaurants serving plant protein-rich plant foods, see

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian (, For more on vegan proteins, see Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (or the Express Edition) both with Brenda Davis. Grace Yeh and Sharon Voong are third-year UBC dietetics students.

Dairy-free and delicious

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina & Dave Shishkoff

Portrait of Vesanto Melina• Last month, I had the pleasure of being a presenter at the Dairy-Free Living course – complete with tastings – at Vancouver’s Central Library. One thing is now clear: there is an abundance of delicious, healthful dairy alternatives.

Vancouver is home to several independent non-dairy milk and nut-based companies that produce a pleasing array of cheeses. There’s also a completely vegan ice cream shop: Nice Vice. Many ice creameries offer vegan alternatives, including Ernest Ice Cream, which serves outstanding lemon and chocolate vegan options.

While in the past, non-dairy cheese could be pretty dismal, very appealing products are now found in mainstream supermarkets and natural food stores. One can find Earth Island products, other non-dairy cheeses, mayo and even cheesecakes. Also explore the Parthenon Supermarket’s wonderful assortment on West Broadway.

One highlight is Miyoko’s Creamery, which sells products online. Their highly acclaimed, cultured, nut-based (organic, GMO-free) cheeses offer a taste experience enjoyed by even the most critical dairy fans. Textures include hard and soft cheeses with rich and compelling flavours. I had the opportunity to attend a vegan ‘wine and cheese’ party in San Francisco, catered by Miyoko herself, and was amazed that the flavours of many dairy-based favourites have been replicated or even surpassed. While sampling, I realized it is not milk that makes cheese what it is, but the culturing process. Alternatives can be based on cashews – most frequently used – that are carefully cultured and seasoned. Check out the variety of products at

People often confide they would like to go vegan, but they just can’t give up cheese. Some are uncomfortable with the distress experienced by cows and calves when separated after birth so humans can have the milk. A few are aware that, after a dairy cow’s high productivity drops, she is sent to the slaughterhouse, typically to become hamburger meat. Her lifespan is about six years instead of the normal 18 or so. Dairy production involves repeated, forced impregnations. The male calves, unable to become milk producers, experience short, confined lives before becoming veal. Environmentalists are becoming aware that choosing to rely on animals for food can have a negative impact even greater than our transportation choices.

Yet when delicious, satisfying and sustainable alternatives are available that neither harm animals nor boost one’s cholesterol levels – it’s win-win-win!

Another lively new trend is the booming popularity of tasty and quick vegan restaurant food. The two locations of Meet (on Main and now in Gastown) are packed most nights with people enjoying their award-winning veggie burgers and comfort food.

The demand and growth of vegan foods is apparent at major chains as well. Nearly all grocery stores stock non-dairy milks, ice creams and meatless products like Gardein. It used to be a real feat to find a pizza place with vegan cheese; Now, there’s Vegan Pizza House, Panago’s and more. frequently hosts events in Vancouver and sometimes in the Tri-Cities, Surrey and Richmond. People who don’t intend to go vegetarian, but who want to lower their eco-footprint are also very welcome.

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver based registered dietitian., 778-379-5377. Dave Shishkoff is an athlete and the founder of

Dairy-free dilemmas

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

Portrait of Vesanto Melina• It is the oddest thing that, until fairly recently, the fluid that cows produce to grow their calves to 450 pounds or more in a year was recommended in our national food guides as the basis of an essential food group. It was an assumption on the part of Health Canada and nutritional scientists that humans of all ages require these bovine secretions on a daily basis.

Only about a decade ago did the “milk and milk products” group become “milk and alternatives,” making room for fortified soy milk as the single alternative. Such food groups have important practical implications. For example, Canada’s gradually evolving food guide has long been the basis for planning meals in institutions, hospitals and schools. But for many, the food guide’s insistence on dairy has been problematic. Consider that worldwide, seven out of 10 people experience some degree of lactase insufficiency, the problem of digesting the milk sugar known as lactose.

For about eight decades, Canadian legislation has permitted cow’s milk to be fortified with vitamin D. This addition has significantly reduced a disease of childhood known as rickets, which involves softened and malformed bones. Vitamin D can be considered both a vitamin (essential to life and required in the diet) and a non-vitamin (if we have adequate exposure to sunlight, our bodies can make this substance). At the northern latitudes, and with the limited sun exposure we experience in Canada, vitamin D production is low and insufficient throughout the winter. Thus, the vitamin D levels of many Canadians are low or borderline, especially in winter and spring.

The vitamin D fortification of cow’s milk, viewed as a commonly consumed product, was considered a simple way for Canadian children and adults to avoid vitamin D deficiency and rickets. However, no parallel provision was made for those within our population who experience lactose intolerance: people allergic to milk protein, vegans and others who do not use cow’s milk. Canadian legislation did not permit soy milk companies to fortify their non-dairy beverages with vitamin D until about 1997.

In the last two decades, living a dairy-free life in excellent health has become easier. Now, supermarket shelves display an assortment of non-dairy beverages fortified with vitamin D. Among the non-dairy beverages, fortified soymilk is the best choice for growing children due to its content of protein and fat. The isoflavones present also appear to reduce the risk of breast cancer in later life among girls who consume soy; a similar situation may exist for boys who consume soy, lessening the likelihood of prostate cancer later.

Without consuming one drop of dairy, we can derive all the nutrients found in fortified cow`s milk. For example, we can get abundant calcium from plant sources – as our non-milk-drinking ancestors did before the herding of animals became common practice. We can obtain sufficient vitamin D from a mix of sun, fortified non-dairy beverages and supplements. And we can find some extremely tasty dairy-free alternatives to cheese and ice cream.

EVENT April 3, 2PM: Vesanto Melina co-presents “Dairy Free Living” at Vancouver Central Library, 350 W. Georgia, Alma Van Dusen Room. Register at

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian, author and consultant., 604-882-6782.

The food fairy: explaining healthy food choices for children

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina MS, RD, and Claudia Lemay

Portrait of Vesanto Melina
• I know a little girl who is obsessed with candy; it is ironic, given her mother is a dietitian. “What have I done to deserve such a fussy daughter?” she would lament, confiding that Amelie would ask for candy for snacks and for breakfast, lunch and supper. At 3-½, Amelie wrote a grocery list for her mother, listing only a single item: candy. In contrast, her brother would eat anything and everything.

As a dietitian, Amelie’s mom is well aware of the importance of providing her family with healthy food choices. And while she knows she is responsible for what is served at meals, she also learned that “Because I said so” is not always the most effective answer when a child asks, “Why can’t I have candies for dinner?” The old guideline of “Parents decide what is served; children decide how much to eat” may not suffice. Children sometimes need explanations. So what is a parent to do to get their child to eat – and hopefully like – vegetables?

As we discussed the situation, we recalled it could take 10 exposures to a new food for a child to decide to try it. Then, it could take just as long for that child to like it. Thus, a parent’s role is to simply keep offering a variety of healthy foods, including vegetables, without falling into power struggles and, of course, to clearly show enjoyment at eating those same foods.

In the end, this mom found her path to success by inventing a story she told to her daughter. She used the metaphor of building a house to explain why candies were not served for dinner. The building materials of the house are the food groups. Milk products and dairy alternatives form the home’s framework or structure. Meats and alternatives are the bricks. Grains provide both energy and tools for the builders, whereas Fruits and Vegetables are lasers for the Pilot Elves to shoot from their planes and scare away the Mayhem Monkeys, which represent diseases. All food groups have important roles in building the house.

Amelie became quite attached to the story’s main character, Lucie, a little girl who, like her, only wanted to eat candies. Like Amelie, Lucie likes to be healthy and energetic. The concepts of “good” or “bad” were not part of the story, as these terms could tint the eating experience and create eating problems in the long term. Teaching a child to follow his or her hunger cues, while finding healthy foods that will satisfy, is key in developing healthy eating habits. When

Amelie’s mom saw her daughter’s eyes light up, she realized they were on to something. So a story was written for parents who also struggle at meal times. The story can help parents explain why they are not making a marshmallow stew tonight or tomorrow night. Amelie still asks for candies, but not so frequently. Parenting, after all, is a process.

The mother’s dietetic background helped make her story scientifically correct while her experience as a parent helped form a story that is interesting and fun. Her beautifully illustrated book is called Stargold the Food Fairy. It is available on or at

April 3, 2pm: Vesanto Melina co-presents “Dairy Free Living” at Vancouver Central Library, 350 W. Georgia, Alma Van Dusen Room. Register at

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian, author and consultant., 604-882-6782. Surrey-based Claudia Lemay is a registered dietitian with a special interest in developing materials that inspire children to eat well. She is working on a second nutrition book for children.

Healthy snacks offer benefits

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina MS, RD

Portrait of Vesanto Melina• Can snacking be a key ingredient in a healthy lifestyle? If your first response was “No!” here’s a chance to update your perceptions. Some of us were raised with the advice to “never eat between meals,” which makes sense in protecting our teeth from sweets. Yet there can be significant advantages to snacking on healthy foods. Researchers have found that eating frequent mini-meals offers health benefits. Dr. David Jenkins and colleagues at the University of Toronto have reported some remarkable advantages with grazing.

In one study, participants were randomly divided into two groups and both groups were given the same types and amounts of food over a two-week period. One group consumed three meals a day. For those on the “Nibbling Diet,” food was divided into 17 mini-meals a day. After two weeks, the Nibblers had reduced their blood cholesterol levels by more than 15 percent. Cortisol, a stress indicator, was reduced by 17 percent. Nibbling proved to keep blood glucose more constant without the extreme valleys and peaks in blood glucose that occur before and after big meals. Average serum insulin levels of Nibblers were reduced by 28 percent. With less insulin, the body is less likely to convert the load of calories into body fat.

Granted, the typical North American way of snacking can’t be considered healthy. Grazing on concentrated sources of fat or sugar (or both) will pack the weight onto your body. However, see below for some examples of healthy snacks:

Raw veggies are particularly rich in vitamins and protective phytochemicals. It’s worth spending half an hour each week chopping an assortment of colourful, crunchy crudités: celery, carrots, peppers, cucumber, jicama, zucchini, snow pea pods or sugar snap peas, broccoli or cauliflower florets and cherry tomatoes. When you’re ready for a snack, they’ll be at the front of the fridge, making health an easy choice.

Hummus is the easiest way to get protein and enjoy the blood sugar-levelling effect of legumes.

Salsas are rich in lutein, a phytochemical found in tomato products. Researchers link lutein with protection against cancers, especially prostate cancer. Salsas are low in fat and high in vitamins.

Soynuts are a high protein snack food, which can also be added to a salad – like croutons.

Nuts are high in fat so keep portions moderate. However, the fat comes packaged with a wealth of minerals and protective substances. For growing youngsters, high-energy adults, athletes and those who have difficulty maintaining their weight, nuts are a great solution.

Dried fruits (raisins, currants, apricots) help you stock up on iron. If you tend to get cold in winter, keep raisins handy (in your briefcase, backpack, desk or car). When your blood sugar drops, you’ll have an instant remedy. (Keep a toothbrush handy, too.) Fresh fruit is also great choice.

Cereals, such as granola, aren’t only for breakfast. They can be high-energy, tasty snack foods. Look for organic, GMO-free products with little or no sugar.

Chips have a bad reputation, but if you look, you can find products that are organic, GMO free, moderate in fat content and free of hydrogenated oils. In addition to different colours of corn, chips are made from black beans, rice, taro and vegetables.

Chocolate: Since it is February, we must mention dark chocolate. After all, it comes from a bean.

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian, author and consultant., 604-882-6782.