Dr. Harriet Davis loves to tell people that she “eats like cow.” Not because she’s packing it away like there’s no tomorrow. But rather, she’s literally eating like a cow – no meat.
For the last 14 years, Davis — who just happens to be a bodybuilder — has been eating a plant-based diet. “It was just one of those things,” she said. “I didn’t intend to be vegan, I just wanted to feel better.” The problem: her digestive tract.
Diet became a focal point for Davis as a young girl when her father had a heart attack. Her mother changed the family’s diet and food choices became a “big deal” in her home. Her father died when she was just 10.
As time passed, Davis found that the standard American did not sit well with her digestive system. “When I went to college, I made a conscious decision to cut out beef, chicken and pork, just for the simple purpose of trying to improve my digestion,” she said.
So, with the absence of animal flesh from her diet, including fish, Davis began to realize the effect dairy products were having on her system.
“It was the opposite effect. As long I consumed both meat and dairy, everything was too slow. But once I cut out all the meat, every now and again I would have something that would just really upset my stomach, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
It wasn’t long before Davis identified the culprit. “I found out it was eggs. If they were baked in a cake it didn’t bother me at all, but if I had scrambled eggs, sometimes that would just make me sick.”
After years of fighting with a fickle digestive system, Davis removed all animal-sourced foods from her diet, and, in 2007, she came to the sudden realization that she was unintentionally following a vegan diet.
For her, the exclusion of animal-sourced foods has improved:
- Mental clarity and sharpness
- Healthy skin
And that’s just the short list. I asked Davis if she could confirm my assumption that veganism actually helps ease or reverse bone and joint aches and pains, as some reports claim.
“Directly and indirectly,” she said. “It really depends on what you’re eating, but lots of times you’re going to get more of the phytonutrients, more normal trace minerals and other things that help to support the muscles that are supporting your joints. So, your calcium is always going to be high because we (vegans) eat a lot of green leaf foods. Manganese helps with your muscles; vitamin D is important. But I would argue that any healthy diet is going to support your bones and joints as long as you’re not doing a lot of inflammatory foods like cheese.”
What about those carnivorous cravings?
As a practicing vegan for almost a year, I’ll admit, occasional yearnings for barbecue ribs or fried chicken wings gnaw at me at times. So, I asked Davis, of Mint Hill Family Medicine, her advice on how to help ease these cravings.
“If you’re going to indulge, stick to the plant-based option. Do your research, there are recipes out there (like those on Dr. Davis’s blog). And if all else fails and you just have to have it, eat it and try to get back on track. But typically, once people have fully transitioned, when they eat something that’s animal product, they don’t feel good,” she said.
Not feeling good could mean anything from having GI symptoms, including indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, or headaches and sluggishness … basically all the pre-vegan feelings one suffers beforehand.
V is for vitamins
Since my vegan journey began, I’ve been reading a lot about vitamins, and how vegans are said to not get enough. So, I asked Davis for her guidance.
“You probably get more (vitamins) because we eat more raw foods, so we’re not cooking out all the nutrients. The only thing you need to take when you fully transition from animal products is B12. Everything else, if you’re eating colorful foods, you’re going to get most of it from your dark greens and a lot of it from your berries and fruits and those things,” she said.
So, what foods would a professional vegan doctor and bodybuilder suggest?
- Tofu: It’s organic, high protein, a great source of calcium.
- Grains – quinoa or rice.
- Sweet potatoes.
- White potatoes.
- Tempeh – a fermented soybean.
- Lots of greens.
- Textured vegetable proteins, like pea protein to make vegetable burgers, etc.
And, as for the myth that vegans can’t build muscle? Davis is still bodybuilding and said there are lots of vegan bodybuilders who are competing.
“It’s awesome to see different people in different divisions of bodybuilding who eat a plant-based diet,” she said. “I was vegan before I started bodybuilding, so all the muscle that I’ve built has been as a vegan.”
Her advice for new vegans or people considering making the transition?
“There’s no rush. Just listen to your body and take your time,” Davis said. “And if you remove things from your diet and you feel worse, a vegan diet may not be for you. In the same sense, if you don’t have any food intolerances and you’re not healthy, then you definitely should consider it.”
For vegan recipe inspiration, Dr. Davis’s blog has a delicious selection of animal-free options like these:
Cauliflower Buffalo wings
1 large head cauliflower, chopped into piece
1 bottle or preferred amount of your favorite hot sauce
1/4 cup plant-based butter spread
1 cup nondairy milk
3/4 cup chickpea flour
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
- Preheat the oven to 450 F.
- Lightly spray a large nonstick baking sheet with oil.
- Combine the flour, paprika and onion/garlic powder in a bowl and stir until well combined.
- Coat the cauliflower pieces in almond milk and then with the flour mixture. Place on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until crispy.
- While the cauliflower is baking, combine the hot sauce and plant-based butter spread in a small saucepan on the stove and heat over low heat until the butter spread is completely melted.
- When the cauliflower is looking crispy and lightly browned, pull it out of the oven and place it in a large bowl. Pour the hot sauce mixture over it and toss to coat.
- Bake coated cauliflower for an additional 8-10 minutes, or until cauliflower is crispy and sauce looks absorbed.
- Remove from oven.
- Let cauliflower bites set out for at least 20 minutes before serving.
- Serve with dairy-free blue cheese dip!
Tuna-less “tuna” salad
Chickpeas are versatile, delicious and incredibly nutritious. They are a staple item for many vegans and vegetarians. In this recipe, chickpeas are being substituted for the meat (tuna). Seaweed flakes are also used to give the salad a scent and taste of the sea.
2-15 ounce cans of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
1/4 cup red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
1/4 cup of diced sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons seaweed flakes (I prefer Dulse)
1 cup vegan mayonnaise (I prefer reduced-fat Vegenaise)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1/2 teaspoon of Old Bay Seasoning
12 slices bread, lightly toasted
6 large, crisp lettuce leaves
12 fresh tomato slices
1. Place garbanzo beans in a large bowl and mash them with a potato masher or the back of a fork, or use a food processor and pulse two or three times to roughly chop.
2. Then add the onion, celery, pickle, seaweed flakes, vegan mayonnaise, salt, black pepper and Old Bay Seasoning into the garbanzo beans. Pulse two or three times more to combine thoroughly.
3. Lightly toast the bread. Spread the salad on one slice and stack with a lettuce leaf, two tomato slices, and another slice of bread. Cut sandwiches in half and serve.
If you’re like me and looking for a gluten-free way to eat it, take that lettuce leaf and use it like a slice of bread. Or roll it in the lettuce leaf and eat it as a lettuce wrap!
The “tuna” salad mixture should hold up nicely in the fridge for at least three days. Consider adding in a dash of lemon juice and water once it has been in the fridge for a day (this will keep it from drying out).
This recipe was inspired by: Allison Samson, Solveig Berg Vollan and VegNews.