On Nutrition

My inbox has been filling with some excellent questions that don’t warrant entire columns, but that I know other people are wondering about as well, so I decided to answer three of them this week. Without further ado …

I’m interested in eating more meatless meals. Do I need to make sure to combine the right foods to make a complete protein?

No. It’s true that most plant proteins — unlike animal proteins — are not complete because they don’t contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Those are the amino acids that you must get from food because your body can’t make them. Soy and the pseudograins quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat do contain all nine, but most plant foods are missing or extremely low in one or two.

The good news is that you don’t need to get all your essential amino acids from the same food. If you eat a variety of protein-rich plant foods each day, you’ll get everything you need. Not all plant foods are missing the same amino acids, so eating a variety easily fills in any gaps. Beans, nuts, seeds and soy foods are the most protein-rich plant foods. Grains and vegetables contain smaller amounts of protein, but even these smaller amounts can add up quickly when you make plants the foundation of your meals.

Is someone who doesn’t eat any animal foods really a vegan if they still wear leather or wool clothing?

Not quite. A vegan dietitian I know cleared this up for me a few years ago. If you don’t eat animal foods for ethical reasons, then you will also avoid consuming any products of animal origin (or products tested on animals) in clothing, furnishings, cosmetics and so on. That’s what vegan means. If you avoid animal foods for health reasons or because you don’t enjoy them, you are simply eating a strict plant-based diet. That doesn’t make you vegan.


My personal trainer says I should drink an extra glass of water for every cup of coffee I drink, but I thought I heard that this isn’t true. Who’s right? Oh, and what is the right amount of water to drink?

You are. The myth that coffee dehydrates you is an enduring one, but while caffeine does have a diuretic effect — it can make you urinate more — research shows that if you drink coffee regularly, you develop a tolerance to this effect. Even if you didn’t have this tolerance, the water in the coffee more than makes up for it.

As for how much water you need, a good baseline comes from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which recommends that adult females get nine cups of fluids a day and adult males get 13 cups. That fluid doesn’t all have to come from a cup, glass or bottle — it’s possible to meet a big chunk of our fluid needs from food. If you eat a lot of juicy fruits and vegetables and include a lot of soups and other liquid-rich entrees in your diet, then you’re getting a lot of water.

The best way to determine whether you need a drink is if you’re thirsty or not. You can also check out the color of your urine. If it’s clear or colorless, that means you’re definitely well hydrated, so there’s no need to keep filing your water glass. If it’s medium yellow, you’re still fine. However, if your urine is dark yellow or syrup-colored, that means you need to drink something.