Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Vegan SuperDog, or How to Get Your Dog Eat Healthier Than Most People Do

Ava for Martha Stewart Magazine
I have a very special dog: meet Ava, a real Super Star, a model (for Nordstrom, Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Target, Elle Magazine, among others), actress (Saturday Night Live along Ann Hathaway), and an amazing being. She meditates with us and, most importantly, is vegan. Yes, she eats vegetables by choice. This Halloween she's on the cover of Martha Stewart magazine rocking one of Martha's funky halloween dog costumes for PetSmart. She loves people, attention, her job and also loves apples, coconuts and raw broccoli (?!?!? who would have ever thought a dog would eat raw broccoli?@?@?) For 4 years now she's been on purely vegan diet and has been in the best of shapes of her entire life (can you believe she's almost 9 years old in this picture?!?)

Growing up, I remember the rule of thumb for dog feeding: never allow your dog to eat human food. Why is that? Dogs have lived with humans for thousands of years, and have eaten food scraps from people's plates: animal bones, cartilages and sculls - whatever was left after the owner's feast.

With the economic development and refinement of human lifestyle and nutrition, most foods people eat have become poison not only for dogs, but for humans themselves: incredible amounts of sugar, refined wheat, processed meats filled with hormones, antibiotics and other chemistry, fruits and vegetables covered with pesticide residue and containing dangerous chemicals from fertilizers and pollution.

My friend has recently lost 17 pounds by just cutting wheat out of his diet. Yet, most known American Diet Association puts bread, pastas and other wheat-based products at the base of their food pyramid stating that wheat is an essential element of human nutrition. Why is that? Why do we consciously harm our bodies (and bodies of our pets)? It's easy: bread is cheap, filling and gives energy. Along with rice and corn, it's the most popular "bulk" food: we would stuff ourselves with bread not to feel hungry for a long time. But does it do us any good?..

Ava for Redbook Magazine
We treat our dogs like children and try to take good care of their health and well-being, thus trying to avoid feeding them toxic substances like sugar, chocolate, salt and spices. But we still feed them lots of processed and toxic things that are not so obvious. Commercial dog food producers put wheat, starch, corn and rice derivatives in almost all dog brand foods, boil them and process them, and then fortify with vitamins - Same as they do with human foods!.

Many people think that putting a dog on a vegan diet is animal abuse: "animals SHOULD eat meat", they say; "dogs cannot survive without meat", "they would never choose vegetables over meat", etc. etc.... Take the ingredient list of the most popular commercial dog food, and you will most probably find sneaky things like corn (starch), wheat&rice (gluten, gluten, gluten!), "chicken meal" (crushed chicken heads, legs, carcasses and sometimes feathers) or "bone meal"(those same carcasses), animal fat - nasty stuff that would make you throw up should  you look at it in its original (non-processed) form. Where is meat, I'm asking you? Somewhere towards the end of the endless list! Meaning that the amount of actual meat in standard dog food is miniscule. Why should your beloved pet be subjected to eating this? Just because it's cheap and has a nice label with a happy puppy on it? Yes, dogs are carnivores, but what does corn starch and wheat meal have to do with carnivorism? Most owners think they feed their dogs animal based food, whereas in reality more than 90% of the dog food is already "accidentally vegan" ... so it would be easy anyway to make the step towards veganism and healthy dog nutrition if the dog has never eaten a bone in her life to start with ("greenies" are not bones and are very harmful to your dog's health)... Dogs these days die of same exact diseases as their owners, cancer being on top of the list: no wonder, their food comes from the same supermarket!

When you start eating healthy, it turns out your dog CAN eat from your plate. As long as the foods are not toxic for dogs (onions, garlic, spices, chocolate, sugar and pastry, grapes, some nuts, etc -here  and here are longer lists, and here is another list with lots of details and explanations), wholesome, non-processed, not salty, not spiced, non-GMO and organic, your pet can share them with you.

Ava for Elle Magazine
It's been widely considered for a long time that dogs cannot survive without animal feed. It's more difficult to convince dog owners to turn their dogs vegan than to convince them go vegan themselves: the idea is so deep in the culture and science that it seems almost impossible to even conceptualize an idea of a vegan dog. They have a different digestive tract: true; they don't have enzymes to digest plant-based food: wrong, they have the same digestive enzymes to break down fat, carbs and protein as humans. Enzyme balance in a healthy animal basically depends on the kind of food they eat (raw natural organic foods maintain healthy enzymatic balance), and the body depends on the enzymes - so it's important to keep a well-balanced diet for your dog - same as for yourself. The question is whether to go vegan or stick with flesh as source of enzymes.

I've always fed my dogs premium dry dog food (even when I was eating Chinese noodles to save money, Ava has always eaten the same brand of premium "healthy" dog food) and tried to keep them in the best shape, and good quality kibbles, with addition of some raw or dried boneless chicken and bovine bones and organs seemed an acceptable and convenient option. But when Ava got Lyme disease and went on a month-long course of harsh antibiotics, I decided to keep her on mild vegan food for a while to help her already stressed stomach. After her antibiotics were done, I just didn't feel like going back to commercial food. I researched and researched, looked at other vegan dogs and created a custom diet for her. It basically consisted of one part dehydrated fruits and veggies (The Honest Kitchen Preference), one part plant based protein like non-GMO sprouted tofu or lentils, and one part of organic steel cut oats, or rice, or quinoa, or lentil puree, topped up with a spoon of organic coconut oil. When we started to travel and custom diet became too challenging, I switched her to V-Dog, the vegan kibble widely recommended by different vegans. I also discovered this vegan cartilage/joint support supplement  and added it to Ava's routine. The result? She is exercising more willingly, grew muscle tissue and reduced fat. At 10 1/2 years of age she looks young and energized. She actually looks better now than when she was 3!

As snacks, she LOVES apples, raw broccoli, baby carrots (a crunchy bone substitute), cashew nuts and pretty much all fruits (no walnuts or grapes - they're toxic for dogs). I also buy her a dry commercial sweet potato dog snack that looks like dehydrated chicken breast. Dogs don't need as much food variety as humans, and it's better not to switch their food too often. They're creatures of habit and thrive on the same food if it's well-balanced and healthy. It's especially important for senior dogs to go vegan since they don't require as much protein as youngsters.

I don't want to argue with owners of mastiffs and rottweilers who cannot even think about not feeding their dogs meat and bones: I don't know if it's even possible to feed a rottweiler a non-meat-based diet - though it looks like this pit bull mix is healthy and happy...  I believe it is (elephants are vegetarians, even though they're big and muscular)... All I can say is that it works for my small 14-pound terrier, and her happiness and health are of utmost importance to me. There are human bodybuilders who've been vegan during their entire bodybuilding careers, so theoretically and practically it's possible to feed muscle mass with grass and plant-based proteins. You can at least try to add vegetables to your dogs' diet, get them off nasty commercial kibble and see how it works for them.

Despite the differences in our digestive tracts, dogs have more in common with us than we think: they die of cancer, organ failure and diabetes same way as humans, and mostly due to unhealthy nutrition. Lots of neutered cats get kidney failure from commercial dry foods. Also, for those who believe we should eat same meals as our paleolitic ancestors, and that pet dogs should eat the same meals that their wolf ancestors: our stomachs and our physiology in general has changed drastically since the Stone Age. It's naive and unhealthy to eat what ancient people used to eat out of necessity. Science has leaped in understanding the body and nutritional needs of humans, and the healthiest of all, in my opinion, is to trust unbiased scientific research, not prehistoric ape choices. Some people say that "the dog knows better what to eat" - another false statement; if you put mac'n'cheese in front of a dog, she will gladly swallow it - same as humans devouring McDonalds fast food, just because it tastes so good (and not because it's good for them, or healthy). I remember when we were kids, my best friend decided to experiment on how much her dog would actually eat: she bought a 5-kilo sausage and was feeding her dog until the dog couldn't eat anymore and started to vomit. She wouldn't stop though and after she vomited, continued eating...does it ring a bell? Why do you think there are so many overweight dogs in this country? Obviously not because dogs can make the right food choice...

I know for sure that a diet of organic raw pasture-raised meat would cost a fortune for a rottweiler or a similar-sized dog - but feeding your dog commercial farm-raised meat filled with hormones and antibiotics is worse abuse to an animal - or a human - than any vegan diet, and I'm a strong believer in that.

For those dogs who eat raw meat daily the transition would be more difficult and should be more gradual than for commercial food eaters (start adding vegetables little by little to meat meals, and in a couple months you will be able to substitute the entire meal with vegan ingredients if you decide to); if you believe your dog's health will improve, why not give it a try. Here is a good resource that will help you understand real nutritional needs of your pet. 
You can always go back if your puppy is not happy. Mine is.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sprout: A Cheap and Easy Super Food

Today in the gym a lady asked me about sprouting seeds. She was extremely interested since she never heard of micro greens before, but at the same time was thinking, why bother? Her logic was, if, for example, sprouted radishes taste the same as the vegetable itself, why not just buy radishes ? Why bother sprouting?

The difference between sprouted seeds and fully grown vegetables is the same as between a newborn baby and a 70-year-old man: in essence they're the same person, but are they?...
The first ever nutritional study of microgreens was done in the summer of 2012 by the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Maryland ,[1] indicating promising potential that microgreens ... have particularly high nutritional value compared to mature vegetables. (source: Wikipedia)

Sprouted seeds are like a vitamin and micro element explosion: they give us maximum of what healthy food can give - a super concentrated cocktail of goodness and newly born energy. Superfood at its best. The livelihood of micro-greens is insane. At times I can even hear them singing :)

A little bit of science: 
Seed -> sprout -> micro green 
-> baby green -> grown plant

When a seed is dormant, it has a lot of starch (fuel for the possibility of growing). When the seed "wakes up", it finally starts using that starch and transforms fuel into nutritional goodness. Composition of the seed changes completely, and all the "bulk" becomes supercharged with vitamins and energy. It's like burning fat and transforming it into energy for a 26-mile marathon. The sleepy 
giant is finally awake!

When the root and the first pre-leaves (cotyledons) show up from the hull, the germinated seed is turning into a sprout; when sprout grows the first pair of real leaves, it is turning into a micro green (microgreen) and is becoming a plant (1” to 1½” including the stem and leaves). If it grows even further, it becomes a "baby plant" - small and juicy (that's what most fancy salads are made from: baby arugula, baby spinach, baby kale, other baby greens...)

How To Sprout?
The most important here is to get high quality organic sprouting seeds. You can sprout regular supermarket raw seeds and beans/legumes as well, almonds, quinoa, alfalfa - you can sprout pretty much any raw seed or nut that tastes good to you. Some seeds are not regularly sold as a meal but taste great when sprouted so i buy my radishes, mustard seeds, alfalfa and such at - he has a wide selection of affordable organic seeds, and they grow very well. This store is also not bad at all.

You can find sprouting directions all over the Internet, but here are great detailed instructions for each species. In a nutshell, nothing can be easier: you just put seeds in a bowl, jar, sprouting tray or any other no-leak container and completely cover with filtered water. 
Next day drain the water (you can use a strainer, mesh lid, muslin), wash your seeds and keep them covered. High quality fresh seeds start sprouting almost immediately - my buckwheat usually sprouts the next day, but it also depends on the kind of seed. Most seeds germinate on day 2-7, so if you're making a seed medley, try to combine the seeds that germinate at about the same time.  If you buy special seeds for sprouting/microgreening, the sprouting time is usually stated on the baggy. 

It's important to use filtered water in everything you're going to eat, especially sprouts and microgreens... If you wonder why, read here.

Cute Bioset Germinator Kit
There are some really cute and easy sprouting kits, like this one for example, or the one in the picture (if you buy a sprouting kit, directions on growing will be included).
Be careful, do not allow your seeds to ferment or rot - it can cause poisoningTo keep the seeds fresh, wash them daily (twice a day in warm seasons/climates) and since they have a tendency to get smelly. To prevent that, you can keep your sprouts in a fridge. If they do get smelly and slimy and washing doesn't help, and you feel like there is no way you can eat anything that stink so bad even after you wash them, just plant them instead and eat as baby greens a couple of weeks later. Protect your seeds from fruit flies (they love sprouts!) - cover the container with muslin or a lid with tiny halls.

Growing microgreens is easy and rewarding: microgreens taste almost exactly the same as the final fruit/vegetable, especially flavorful kinds like radishes, sunflower seeds, russian reds and mustards. So it's easy to have an array of flavors and  greens in less than 10 days. You can grow micro greens either hydroponically (without soil) or with soil. The first method is obviously less messy, but the soil planting will give you a feeling of a "real" garden, even in winter. Some species (like sunflower seeds) can only grow in soil, some prefer hydroponics, so read directions for every specific plant. recipe
Sprouted seeds start changing taste from nutty to greeny, salady as soon as the sprout develops chlorophyll and becomes green (turns into a micro green). If you like to keep the taste of the original seeds, eat them while the sprout is small and white. Keep them away from sunlight.

Enjoy your seeds and greens in salads, as decoration to main dishes, as a garnish, in smoothies or shakes, or even as a main dish itself. I often eat them bare and raw - they're flavorful enough to give you a full taste satisfaction! - or cook them for a "real" course. 
My most favorite "cold" (raw) recipe rocks white sprouted chick peas (garbanzo beans), nutritional yeast, sunflower oil and soy sauce mixed together as a salad. 

My almost-daily meal

The hot favorite of all times includes quinoa, lentil and buckwheat medley grown for 3-5 days mixed with  chopped baby zucchini, baby kale, chard & spinach sprinkled with soy sauce, olive or coconut oil and a dash of dried shredded seaweed, nutritional yeast, turmeric powder, freshly ground black pepper and sizzled on high heat for a couple minutes.

Do you sprout? Let me know in the comments where you buy your seeds, which container you use and what your favorite sprouting flavor is.