A diet and lifestyle that excludes animal products.
The word vegan was coined by Donald Watson in 1944. A vegan diet excludes all animal products: meat, milk products, and eggs. Many vegans extend this approach to other lifestyle choices, and refrain from using wool, silk, and leather. Additionally vegans commonly seek to avoid products that were tested on animals.
As recently as the 1980’s, a vegan lifestyle was comparatively difficult to follow. At the time, vegan cookbooks were scarce, restaurants were unaccommodating, and persistent misinformation about protein and other nutrients made the diet appear risky and fringe. Starting in the 1990’s, the number of vegan-oriented books and food products mushroomed, making this once ridiculed diet increasingly mainstream and easy to follow. Many large cities have at least a few all-vegan restaurants, and vegan offerings at conventional restaurants are both more common and more prominently marked than in the past.
There are three main reasons why people choose a vegan diet:
• Concern for animals. Vegans often oppose factory farming, and question the ethical acceptability of killing animals for food.
• Environmental issues. These include the depletion of fisheries, and the destruction of range land by cattle.
• Health. Vegans tend to be leaner and less at risk of heart disease and certain cancers than omnivores.
Some vegans credit their choice to just one of the above reasons, while many others have become vegan for a variety of reasons.
Some lifelong meat eaters decide to become vegan overnight. Others ease into becoming vegan, either by gradually reducing their overall consumption of animal-derived foods, or by eliminating certain animal products one-by-one.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when transitioning to a vegan diet is to focus on continually sampling as many vegan foods as possible. Many aspiring vegans mistakenly believe that a successful transition is all about having sufficient willpower. In reality, a successful transition is not about cutting out animal products; it is about crowding them out. The idea is to make a point of constantly discovering new vegan foods that are healthy and delicious. Each time you make such a discovery, you’ve added yet another food you can regularly include in your diet. Over time, your diet will become increasingly diverse, healthy, and interesting.
So if you find yourself eating cereal and soymilk three times a day, or otherwise feeling that your new vegan diet isn’t sufficiently interesting, it’s a sign that you need to do more to discover new vegan foods. There are a number of ways to encounter a greater diversity of foods. You can:
- Purchase vegan cookbooks and try out new recipes.
- Eat out at vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants, trying menu items that are new to you.
- Sample unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. Farmers’ markets and good natural food stores are the best place to discover new produce items.
- Try various vegan packaged, refrigerated, or frozen foods sold at your local natural foods store.
- Check the bulk section of your natural food store for grains, rice, beans, nuts and other items that you can incorporate into your diet.
Being vegan is all about the joy of continually discovering delicious new foods. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not making sufficient effort to try new foods!
Nutrition (note: this entire section is incomplete and yet to be vetted by a nutrition professional)
There are some potential health advantages that come with eating a diet free of animal products. You’re likely to eat less fat, and much less saturated fat. Food safety risks can be markedly reduced. And chances are, you’ll be eating more fruits and vegetables than the average omnivore.
With these sorts of things in mind, some vegans fall under the mistaken belief that they need not give nutrition a thought — that vegan diets are by nature healthier than omnivorous diets. This is a dangerous belief to have, because the truth is that vegans do indeed need to pay attention to nutrition. In fact, there are several nutrients that can be lacking on an improperly planned vegan diet, and deficiencies can lead to serious and sometimes irreversible health damage.
This nutrient is produced by bacteria, and is abundant in all meat products — and present to a lesser degree in milk and egg products. Vegan foods, by contrast, contain essentially no B-12.
The trouble with B-12 deficiency is that it can creep up on you. A lifelong omnivore may have several year’s wroth of B-12 stored in his liver. Upon switching to a vegan diet, unsupplemented with B-12, he may exhibit no signs of deficiency. But month by month, those reserves of B-12 are being depleted. When they’re finally gone, irreversible nerve damage may result.
B-12 deficiency is therefore not something to screw around with. The good news is that it costs only a few dollars a year to buy supplements that will guard against deficiency. Specifically, it’s wise to take a daily multivitamin that contains at least 100 percent of the RDA of B-12. Keep in mind that much of this B-12 won’t be properly absorbed, so it’s additionally wise to take a weekly B-12 lozenge, and let it dissolve under your tongue.
Omega 3’s and DHA
While Vitamin B-12 can’t be found in unfortified vegan foods, the situation is similar with Omega 3s. Most vegan foods are lacking this important kind of fat. In fact, the typical American gets most of their Omega 3s from fish caught from cold ocean water.
Since fish aren’t part of a vegan diet, this means that unless vegans go out of their way to take in Omega 3s, they are certain to consume far less of this fat than would be ideal.
There are only a few vegan foods that are rich sources of Omega 3s: flax seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Of these, flax is by far the richest source. A couple tablespoons of ground flax stirred in your morning soymilk or smoothie will provide you with a day’s supply of Omega 3s. Some people find flax oil to be a more convenient source, although it’s much more expensive, prone to rancidity, and must therefore be kept refrigerated and used quickly. People relying on flax oil for their Omega 3’s, need only take one tablespoon of this oil each day.
Insufficient Omega 3 consumption is associated with inflammation in various parts of the body, as well as the lack of an important brain chemical called DHA. It’s been shown that some people, particularly the elderly, can’t readily turn the Omega 3s they consume into DHA. Happily, there are vegan DHA supplements available at reasonable prices: they cost about $10 a month.
While animal products don’t naturally contain large amounts of iodine, this nutrient is nevertheless of greater concern to vegans than to omnivores. That’s mainly because an iodine-based disinfectant is widely used in the dairy industry. Since the body needs only tiny amounts of iodine, and some of this disinfectant gets into the milk, dairy products end up providing a substantial portion of the iodine consumed by many Americans.
There are very few foods that are naturally rich sources of iodine. In fact, about the only reliable vegan food source of iodine is seaweed. So unless you’re eating vegan sushi several times a week, it’s wise to supplement your iodine. Most multivitamins, if taken daily, provide sufficient iodine; be sure to check the label of the brand you use. Iodized sea salt, used regularly, can also help satisfy your body’s iodine requirements.
Like B-12, iodine consumption is not something to take lightly. Symptoms can take years to arise, but once they do can be disfiguring and irreversible.
Just as dairy products don’t naturally contain iodine, they don’t contain Vitamin D either. But the industry has long exposed its milk to ultraviolet rays, which cause the formation of this vital hormone. Dairy products therefore account for a large percentage of the Vitamin D consumed by people in developed countries.
Since vegans don’t consume dairy products, and since Vitamin D doesn’t appear naturally in food, it’s important to ensure you’re getting adequate Vitamin D. A daily multivitamin can usually accomplish this. It’s also wise to consume foods that have Vitamin D fortification: soy milk and many brands of energy bars are often fortified with Vitamin D.
Finally, a short period of daily exposure to direct sunlight will cause your body to produce Vitamin D. But since exposure to sunlight is associated with skin cancer and premature aging of the skin, this may be an undesirable solution for most people.