Vegan for Her – A Must-Read!

by L Matthews on September 27, 2013

Vegan for Her Virginia Messina nutrition bookI really can’t say enough nice things about Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, by Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and J.J. Fields. I’ll start, however, by simply saying that it takes until the 135th page before the word ‘paradigm’ is used, which I thoroughly appreciate at a time where this word is thrown around willy nilly. As a copywriter, the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ gives me chills. Please. Everybody. Stop.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Singing the praises of Vegan for Her.

Some of the best things about this book include how Messina (the Vegan RD) doesn’t shy away from the tricky questions that face us as vegans. It is all too easy to avoid the hard facts of vegan nutrition pitfalls and pretend all is rosy in the vegan garden but this doesn’t do anyone in the vegan movement any favours as we’ve all seen how those who are sick and who happen to be vegan are lampooned for ‘bringing it upon themselves.’

Wonderful Exposition of How Scientific Analysis Can Sometimes Fail Us

As an example, Messina notes on page 187 that while vegan diets tend to be naturally high in things like vitamin C and magnesium, they “sometimes fall short of meeting calcium needs.” She then goes on to give a wonderful summary of how sometimes scientists, researchers, and nutrition analysts can get things woefully wrong and how difficult it is to eradicate a pervasive myth about health. The case she presents is one that I had the pleasure of hearing about at Vida Vegan Con earlier this year, as she details the data that led to a proposed association between animal protein and poorer skeletal health.

If you’ve been vegan for a while then you’ve probably come across this argument that animal protein leaches calcium from the bones and puts you at risk of osteoporosis. However, Messina explains how, while this may have some degree of truth in regards to the effects of a high protein diet and calcium excretion, on balance such diets provide more than enough protein to make up for the losses and that something else is going on to create this association. For a data and nutrition nerd like me this is fascinating stuff!

Wonderfully Entertaining!

If you’re less into such things then don’t worry because Messina is so wonderful at explaining complex issues that you’ll barely even realise that you’ve just learnt a significant lesson in statistical analysis and presumptive epidemiology! Seriously, she’s wonderful at making this stuff interesting for the layman, and entertainingly educational and memorable.

Compassionate – Why Can’t All Nutrition Books be Like This?

Another thing I particularly enjoyed about Vegan for Her is the unfailingly compassionate approach that Messina takes (and J.L. later on in the book!). The authors don’t over-egg (sorry, I couldn’t resist) the health benefits of veganism, nor do they jettison compassion when discussing the possible problems of veganism. This compassion isn’t just for animals either, they extend it to notes on self-care, discussing, however briefly, activist burnout and compassion fatigue which are real issues for those working hard for animal rights and human rights every day.

A Non-Preachy Vegan Guide

The tone of Vegan for Her is never preachy, which is, frankly, rare in both books on nutrition and books on veganism. Following the theory that the important thing is ‘What you do most of the time’, Messina is firmly encouraging to new vegans, potential vegans, and those who are old hands at veganism who might be flagging a little when faced with the overbearing omnivorous worldview.

If nothing else, I strongly encourage all vegans and potential vegans, as well as all women and basically everybody to read pages 3-40 and Chapters I and II. These are just wonderful and cover the following:

  • Going Vegan: An Easy Transition
  • Vegan Nutrition: A Primer
  • Beyond Nutrients: One Healthy Diet

And, then, in part two, Healthy Eating for All the Times of a Woman’s Life Messina covers a range of topics including:

  • Understanding Research on Vegan Diets and Women’s Health
  • Diet and Hormones Throughout a Woman’s Life
  • A Plant-Based Plan to Enhance Fertility
  • Nutrition for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
  • Powered by Plants: The Vegan Female Athlete

When I bought my copy of this book I bought an extra one for my girlfiend who had an upcoming half marathon, just signed up for the marathon, and who is planning on having babies soon. She turned vegan last year and I think this book is perfect for the intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate new vegans out there to help in avoiding some of the possible problems that may arise in the early vegan years.

Such problems not only include health issues from things like low calcium intake, insufficient B12, and low-fat diets that some vegans espouse, but also things such as basic confidence in approaching a menu or a social situation where you’re the only vegan at the table and you’re an introvert who wants to blend into the background and not have to constantly form cogent arguments in defence of every thing you order or don’t order. Simply having this book exist in the world makes me much happier as I can direct people to read this instead of simply persisting in badgering me when I am really just too tired to cite my nutrition qualifications and rely on my degree in logical argument! Sometimes, you know, you just want to drink your mimosa and eat your tofu benedict without scrutiny.

Other things I enjoyed about Vegan for Her include the concentration on different life stages for women, making it a must-read for younger vegans who are being proactive about their health as well as older vegans who are actively pursuing pregnancy or have a pregnant partner, or those already dealing with osteoporosis, chronic pain, or other health issue. This book gives you practical, scientifically sound approaches to optimising health throughout life, not just in the first few months of being vegan.

HAES and Body Image

Another thing that reminded me of panel discussions at Vida Vegan Con was the focus on the Health at Every Size ethos. There are very few triggers in this book (at least in my opinion) for those with eating disorders and/or who suffer daily with fatphobic comments, which is pretty unheard of in nutrition textbooks where weight loss is pretty much used as shorthand for health. Messina does use the term ‘overweight’ which is, for good reason, frowned upon by those who recognise how damaging this term can be and how unhelpful it is in regards to health for most people. However, I’m cutting the author some slack here because there is a medical definition of this word, just as there is for obesity, and so I don’t think there is a value judgement behind its use that extends beyond the medical realm, even though its ubiquity in general dialogue has blurred this distinction.

Messina’s comments on page 129 touch on something said in a panel on body image at Vida Vegan Con where a fellow vegan blogger who openly discusses her history of eating disorders remarked how veganism had helped her in her recovery because it put food back in a context outside of the self and the idea of control. Food can be activism, it can help us be healthy (or unhealthy) but it also about so much more. Our food choices make a difference to our local communities and the global community, to animals, fellow humans, and the environment. Readers are encouraged to join the Vegan for Her forum online as a way of finding and offering support from and for fellow vegans, which is a wonderful example of health in social media and the ways that practicing nutritionists and health professionals, as well as activists, can offer an off-page experience to their readers that has lasting benefits.

A few final thoughts on Vegan for Her:

The format is excellent, easy to read, the references perfectly presented at the back, some great recipes and thoughts on veganism beyond the plate by J.L. in the final chapters, and each chapter has a handy summary (which I love because I sometimes find that I’ve dreamily skipped over sections of a book and only realise I’ve missed important things when summaries point out those gaps. Ooops).

The book is also well indexed which can be a real downfall of many lower budget books on veganism and plant-based nutrition. Now my first novel’s published and the second one is in the ether waiting for literary agents to get back to me, I’m currently writing a non-fiction book (on nutrition!) and the idea of finding an indexer or doing it myself is quite daunting.

Vegan for Her is wonderful and should be on your bookshelf if it isn’t already. Ask for it for Christmas, buy it from Amazon right now, and get an extra copy for a lovely woman in your life. This isn’t just for nutrition nerds, it is super accessible, compassionate, entertaining and, importantly, scientifically credible.

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