"Fitness" and "veganism" are two words that when spoken together tend to trigger one of two images: The vision of a frail, pale figure too weak to work out in the gym or an individual of firm conviction who believes that veganism is actually the path to optimum fitness, especially in an obese society that consumes far too much meat.
But there is another word that Eve Prang Plews, a Sarasota nutritionist for 20 years and former vegetarian, says matters the most when it comes to being a healthy, fit vegan: "beans."
"To be a healthy vegan, you gotta be a bean-eater -- and I don't mean a little hummus on a celery stick," Plews says. "You've got to be a bean-eater every day. You cannot have integrity of the tissue long term without having significant amounts of beans in your diet."
Beans are the only plant-based food that provides a form of amino acid, lysine, that most Americans obtain by eating meat, she says. Lysine is essential to creating protein, which fuels energy and muscle growth.
Plews says it's important to eat all kinds of beans and other legumes, and not just soy. Lentil, fava, pinto, green, black, white -- the greater the variety, the better. Without beans as a regular component of their everyday diet, vegans end up "cannibalizing their muscles," or consuming their muscles rather than the basic fat stores that are natural for all of us, vegan or carnivore.
"American vegans often don't eat the way vegetarian societies eat," Plews says. "They tend to just take the chicken off of the plate, and just eat the vegetables and potatoes. But actual vegetarian societies are bean-based."