"Eating clean" is dangerous to your health

Clean eating salad Since becoming vegan last spring, I have found myself immersed in the “clean eating” community. There is a natural tendency, when you are constantly reading labels to figure out if there’s whey hidden in that loaf of bread, to become a little fixated on the contents of your food. I’ve witnessed--and granted, this is all online as I’m not overwhelmed with an abundance of vegan friends--a shift from reasonably avoiding animal products to becoming obsessed with eliminating every potential source of non-vegan ingredients. Sometimes, this obsession morphs into not only following a hyper-strict vegan diet, but avoiding GMOs, non-organic foods, artificial sweeteners, or anything else that can be perceived as impure.

But vegans aren’t the only people who are susceptible to buying into the idea of “eating clean.” And yes, I will continue to use quotation marks around it because I think the term is, well, bullshit.

The creeping realization that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a major contributor to our problems with obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes means that Americans are becoming increasingly health-conscious. About 1 in 5 Americans are on a diet at any given time, many of whom may be motivated by vanity but certainly some want to become healthier. Americans privileged enough to have the choice have been turning away from convenience foods and choosing “cleaner” options. Even Wal-Mart sells organic items now that many Americans are convinced that GMOs are dangerous to consume (even though scientists believe they’re safe to eat).

This focus on purity is troubling. It’s easy to go from wanting to do what’s best for your body to severely restricting your diet to becoming obsessed with consuming only the “cleanest” foods. The very idea that some foods are “clean” implies that some foods are “unclean”--and we’re not talking about bacterial contamination or visible dirt. This devolution is called orthorexia--an unhealthy fixation on health which can be characterized by an obsessive desire to “eat clean.”

Because orthorexia isn’t an official mental illness, I haven’t been able to find any statistics about the number of people who suffer from it. What I have found is an abundance of examples of people who demonstrate behaviors that are in line with the symptoms of orthorexia. As a woman in her late twenties who is (1) working in public health, (2) vegan, and (3) a trained cook always searching for a great recipe, I stumble upon what looks like orthorexia all the time. Fitness bloggers, oil-free vegan YouTube stars, and fitspiration creators on Tumblr and Pinterest all espouse eating philosophies that focus on finding only the “cleanest” foods.

The obesity crisis exacerbates this issue. Particularly in public health circles, there is an emphasis on encouraging healthy diets and plenty of exercise as a way of curbing Americans’ collective weight gain. In fact, I began my MPH thinking I would become a nutrition and food educator (though my focus has shifted over time). Because obesity-related health conditions are a strain on quality of life and an economic burden, public health has rightfully invested resources in reducing obesity in our population. But the constant messages to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” can easily become, in the minds of those who are vulnerable to obsessive thinking, “The only way to eat clean is to only eat fruits and vegetables” or “Oil is evil.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be eating more produce. Absolutely, Americans should be. But I believe there’s a need to be sensitive to the diverse way healthy eating messages will be interpreted. The dangerous concept of “eating clean” is rampant and can have negative consequences for anyone concerned with achieving or maintaining health. Public health professionals should keep this in mind.

And if you’d like, I’m happy to make you some vegan chocolate chip cookies with real sugar, white flour, and lots of fat. I may not eat animal products, but that doesn’t mean I "eat clean."

The Conclusion of Teagan Goes Vegan


So, the month of “Teagan Goes Vegan” has come to a close. In this episode, I talk about the experience: what I ate, what I missed, how my friends reacted. And I reveal whether I will be staying vegan or not!

Action Phase is on iTunes. Subscribe so you never miss an episode. Ratings help other people find the show and have the added benefit of giving me a little ego boost!

You can also stream the episode here.


Action Phase Podcast Episode 27

VforVeg1004_400I talk with Lydia Chaudhry of the Humane League, sponsors of the first ever Philly VegFest. She tells me about her journey into veganism and animal activism and the Meatless Monday campaign. We also discuss vegan dining out and which restaurants we love.

Action Phase is on iTunes. Subscribe so you never miss an episode. Ratings help other people find the show and have the added benefit of giving me a little ego boost!

You can also stream the episode here.


Action Phase Podcast Episode 26

johnrossi_headshotJohn Rossi is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Bioethics and Public Health Ethics as well as a veterinarian. He gives me an excellent introduction to animal ethics and the public health implications of animal agriculture, as well as sharing his personal story of following a vegetarian/vegan diet. Special thanks to Phoebe for connecting me with John.

Action Phase is on iTunes. Subscribe so you never miss an episode. Ratings help other people find the show and have the added benefit of giving me a little ego boost!

You can also stream the episode here.


Vegan restaurant review: Charlie was a sinner.

As part of Teagan Goes Vegan, I’m taking a little step outside my normal public health topics to tell you about my experience at the new vegan bar/restaurant in Philadelphia called Charlie was a sinner.  

Pros: delicious food, impeccable service.

Cons: dimly lit, loud music.

Charlie was a sinner

When I heard that a new vegan bar opened last week, I recruited my foodie friend for a visit. The bar/restaurant is at 13th street and Sansom and is called Charlie was a sinner. (yep, that’s the correct capitalization and the period is supposed to be there). It’s owned by the mastermind behind HipCityVeg, Nicole Marquis, and the kitchen is headed up by Mike Santoro.


When I got there at 5:45pm the dining room was mostly empty. My server came to my table immediately. He asked if I preferred still or sparkling water, and brought me a carafe of fizzy water stuffed with fresh mint leaves. It’s a really lovely touch that will only be more appealing as the summer heats up. I got a Unibroue Ephemere Apple, one of my favorite beers, which was not only on tap but very reasonably priced. The cocktails, though they looked delicious, were out of a grad student’s price range at $12 each.


I caught the tail end of happy hour, so I ordered some half-price toasts: Our Ricotta and Wild Mushrooms & Barley. The Our Ricotta toasts have a tofu-based ricotta spread drizzled with sweet jam and served alongside tender, crisp bread. Very tasty—most people would have trouble identifying it as non-dairy. The Wild Mushrooms & Barley toasts were by far the best dish we had. The ale sauce was rich and savory, the mushrooms were tender and earthy, and the barley provided chewy texture.


My friend ordered the Potato Croquettes. She declared that they were more like tater tots than croquettes because they were made of shredded rather than pureed potatoes. She’s right, and a simple menu change would fix that misleading name. The smoked paprika aioli rivaled any mayo-based sauce, and was perfectly spiced.


We finished up with the Chickpea Fries. They were disappointing. They looked and smelled like frozen French toast sticks, and tasted oddly sweet. The spring garlic aioli was bland, almost like a dollop of plain Vegenaise.


The service was even better than the food. Our server not only kept our glasses full and our plates cleared, but he took a few minutes to tell me about the history of the building—it was a brothel, and then a seedy hotel—and to talk with me about veganism. He recommended books and a podcast to help me in my vegan experiment. After my friend arrived, he was attentive but knew to hang back and not interrupt our conversation too much (a part of service often lacking in Philadelphia's restaurants).


The restaurant was unnecessarily dark. The music was also turned up a little too high, especially as tables filled up and patrons talked loudly. These are both simple fixes that could be quickly addressed, and certainly shouldn’t dissuade you from going.


Though it’s only been open a few days, by the time we left, every table was full. I suggest trying Charlie was a sinner. as soon as you can, because as more people hear about it, it’s going to be tough to get a table after 6pm. I will definitely be back.


You can check out their menu here.

Teagan Goes Vegan Week 1: Eating Well, Making Decisions

I made it through the first week of Teagan Goes Vegan. I thought you may be interested in how things are going.  

So far, I haven’t had many food cravings, probably because I’ve been eating full meals and being sure to snack. During the first two days, I was really hungry, but I think I’ve rectified it by having bigger, more calorie-dense breakfasts than I’m accustomed to eating. I have been carrying around little packs of almonds, Larabars, and baby carrots just in case hunger strikes. Something tells me that if you look in any vegan’s backpack, you’ll find those same foods.


I’ve been tracking my food intake to be sure that I’m keeping a balanced diet and that I’m meeting my calorie needs. According to the USDA and DHHS Dietary Guidelines for adults:

  • 45% to 65% of calories eaten should come from carbohydrates.
  • 20% to 35% of calories eaten should come from fat.
  • 10% to 35% of calories eaten should come from protein

I’ve been aiming for staying in the middle of these percentages—50% from carbohydrates, 30% from fat, 20% from protein. So far, I’m doing pretty well hitting those goals. Here are two screen shots of my nutrition profile from Thursday, May 8.

vegan_calories_wk1 vegan_nutrition_wk1

I’ve also been taking a B vitamin supplement, since B12 is the one vitamin that cannot be found in plants, only in animal products. The other major supplements that vegans often take are calcium/vitamin D, iodine (usually through iodized salt), and iron. I’m not planning to supplement those at this point, though I'm following my intake closely and if I find I'm low on more days than not, I may start.


Grocery shopping has been an adventure. I started at Whole Foods, because I knew I could get lots of vegan products there. Though I’ve been a label reader for years now, I realized how closely I have to read them now. This meant I had to make some decisions about what I was going to avoid.


I chose to:

  • I am avoiding foods that may contain milk or eggs, even if there is no discernible milk or eggs in the ingredients list, but not avoid foods that have been processed in a facility that processes dairy or eggs.
  • I am not avoiding some of the additives that can be animal-derived, such as lecithins and monoglycerides.
  • I am not buying convenience foods just because they’re vegan. I didn’t eat chicken patties, frozen pizza, or breakfast sandwiches before I started this experiment, so I shouldn’t start now. I did buy some vegan soups in case of emergencies.
  • I will still consume non-vegan alcohol. For example, many brewers use isinglass, derived from fish swim bladders, to clarify beers. As my friends know, Nathan and I keep a well-stocked bar in our house, and a girl can only make so many changes in one month.
  • I will also consume processed sugar, even though some refined sugar is processed with bone char, though in general I try pretty hard not to eat too much added sugar.


This week has gone well. I’m eager to see how Week 2 shakes out. Want to know more? Ask me questions in the comments and I’ll be happy to share my experiences.


Teagan Goes Vegan

Or, Why a burger-loving lady is going to learn how to grill tempeh  

This will be my vegan bible.

I love food. I love cooking, I love eating, I love entertaining. I grew up around chefs and servers and sometimes made cookies in professional kitchens just for fun. In college, I majored in Religion and created a course just about Judaism and Food. Before I started my MPH, I worked as a catering cook and personal chef. Preparing and eating food has been, and likely will continue to be, an integral part of my happiness.


And I’ve always been a voracious meat eater. In elementary school, my mom would make chicken in lemon sauce and I would eat my whole plate before she even sat down. Burgers are my #1 favorite entrée to order in restaurants. Just last week, I declared that the only thing that would fix my bad mood was a Wawa meatball hoagie.


But morally, I’m evolving. As my college friends can attest, I had an awakening when I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. After a brief corn obsession, I turned my attention to factory farms. I became vegetarian. I loved it—I felt like I was making a good choice not only for myself, but also for animals and the environment. However, I fell back into eating meat after a series of family crises, moving halfway across the country, and starting a new job. I was unstable in just about every way, and being vegetarian seemed like too much work.


Now, I feel solid. I’m about to graduate with my MPH and have a job lined up already. I’m getting married in September. I’m managing anxiety and learning healthy boundaries. I am strong, and now that I am strong, I want to be compassionate and responsible for my impact on the world.


Raising animals for food has significant public health implications. Infectious diseases like MRSA and influenza thrive in factory farms and are easily transmitted to humans. Antibiotics are used as prevention rather than treatment because the animals easily fall ill, and this indiscriminant use is the major contributor to antibiotic resistance. The massive amounts of waste produced in these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) contaminate water, air, and soil.


The animals on factory farms are treated as commodities rather than living beings. A quick Google search will lead to graphic videos and images of slaughterhouses (euphemistically called “processing plants”) that will haunt you. The abuse inflicted upon these animals is outrageous.


I had believed that ethically sourced meat was the best option for me, since I really like eating meat but have trouble with the ways in which it is produced. But alas, a student budget does not allow for pasture-raised steaks and farmer’s market eggs. I found myself eating way more meat than I wanted to be, and it was all from factory farms.


So I’ve decided to do an experiment. From yesterday, May 6, through June 3, I am going to eat a vegan diet. I plan to keep the blog updated about my experiences. Maybe I’ll throw in a recipe or two if I make something really tasty. I am tracking my food intake so I can share what I learn about balancing macronutrients and calorie consumption while eating vegan. I hope to have a series of guests on the podcast who can talk about the public health and ethical issues around this topic. The first episode, with Allyson Kramer, vegan and gluten free cookbook author, will be up tomorrow.


I hope you’ll come along on this adventure with me. It should be fun, it will probably be difficult, and it will hopefully be interesting.