What is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet is, put simply, similar to a vegetarian diet, but with more restrictions. This is a very simple way to describe it indeed, but a vegan diet is more than that. To be a vegan is a way of life rather than a simple dietary choice.
Vegan vs Vegetarian
Some vegetarians choose their diet for ethical reasons and some simply because they don’t like meat. A vegan diet is generally chosen for ethical reasons and often by those who vehemently oppose animal cruelty.
A vegan diet is not just merely one without meat or animal products, such as dairy and gelatin. There are many other things to consider too.
In fact veganism is more of a philosophy which is embraced by people who believe that animals are not a commodity but are creatures we should live in harmony with.
History of Veganism
Vegetarianism began to grow in popularity in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Concerns by some within the Vegetarian Society about the treatment of chickens and cows led to a discussion about dropping dairy products from their diet. The society refused and so one of their members, Donald Watson, invented the word in 1944 and also founded the Vegan Society in the United Kingdom. World Vegan Day is every 1st of November each year and is the anniversary of the founding of the Vegan Society. An AMerican Vegan Society was formed four years later and interest began to grow worldwide.
The vegan diet was initially just seen as non-dairy consuming vegetarianism, but evolved to be against any exploitation of animals whatsoever.
What are the foods that a vegan can’t consume?
All meat, whether land, air or sea-based is obviously off the menu as well as egg, milk, cheese, yogurt, cream, etc.
Gelatin is another animal product that is to be avoided, which isn’t as easy as it seems as it turns up in a lot of things. A true vegan will read the label on every foodstuff they purchase for safety.
Honey is another food that cannot be consumed.
And it’s not just the edible that needs to be taken into account. Any soaps, shampoos or other products that have been tested on animals are not allowed.
Wool, silk, leather and any other animal products are not allowed in clothing.
Some flu vaccines are disallowed because they are grown in chickens’ eggs.
And there are more things which contain products derived from animals that many people may not be aware of, but vegan’s need to be on the lookout for. The list includes, but is not limited to:
- bone china
- yellow grease
Following all of these makes a strict vegan diet and vegan way of life is considered difficult but not impossible.
What are the foods that a vegan can consume?
For those who decided to try a vegan diet, although there are many products to avoid but there are many alternatives which are vegan-friendly. There is also a whole host of healthy and tasty ingredients that can be used to have a nutrient-filled vegan diet.
Seeds, legumes, grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and mushrooms are all very common in most meals, but there are more inventive ways to fill your vegan diet plate.
Tofu, which is soybean curd, is one of the most popular staples of a vegan diet, soybeans being a source of complete protein and ably filling the place that meat occupies in a carnivorous diet. It comes in various textures from hard to soft to silken and can be used in a variety of meals from stir fry to salad and even protein shakes.
Mock meats, known as meat analogues, are also usual staples and are generally made of soybeans and shaped into the likes of sausages or burgers.
Being a complete protein, soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids which people need for their full protein intake.
Tempeh and textured vegetable protein (TVP) are also ingredients which are created using soybeans.
Not all milk comes from dairies. Not all milk even comes from cows or goats. There are a variety of plant milks which are suitable for vegans.
Soy, hemp, almond, rice or coconut milks are all adequate substitutes and are generally available from most major supermarkets. The protein level in these milks are only marginally lower than that in dairy milk.
There are widely available vegan diet alternatives for butter and mayonnaise too, although you may need to visit your local health food shop for these.
Cheese, too, has vegan varieties. Many of these are made using soy, coconut oil, tapioca and nuts it tastes like dairy cheeses and can also be melted in the same way.
There are vegan egg substitutes as well, so it doesn’t need to be as hard as you might think to move towards a vegan diet. Soy flour and bean brine are just two of the things that vegan recipes incorporate to simulate eggs, the latter being excellent for making a vegan meringue.
“New” Four Food Groups
Similar to the omnivore’s diet that has four food groups – meat, milk, fruit and vegetables – a vegan diet has its own four food groups – fruit, legumes, grains and vegetables.
The recommendations for each group are as follows:
- 3 or more servings of fruit
- 2 or more servings of legumes
- 5 or more servings of grains
- 4 or more servings of vegetables
Vegans get all the protein they need from plants, compared to omnivores who only get a third of it from that source, so a real variety is needed to avoid monotony.
Examples of great sources of protein for a vegan diet are nuts, chickpeas, seeds, hummus, quinoa, rice corn and wheat.
This is a bacterial product which helps cell division, DNA synthesis, the formation of red blood cells and to maintain nerve function.
Great vegan sources of vitamin B12 include rice, radishes, butternut squash, pumpkin, turnip and the edible seaweed, nori.
Calcium helps maintain strong and healthy bones. Omnivores generally rely on dairy products for this and, curiously, vegans can rely mostly on dairy substitute products for the same.
Other high-calcium foods include tofu, hazelnuts, almonds and kale.
Vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and the growth of healthy bones. Vitamin D is found in many animal products, so for vegans this is a harder one to achieve.
Exposure to sunlight gives a vitamin D boost and it is also found in some mushrooms.
Supplements can also be taken in a pill form if necessary.
Iron is another mineral meat eaters will have in abundance. It is said by some that those on a vegan diet will struggle to maintain healthy levels of iron in their bodies, but this is simply not true.
Great vegan sources of iron include blueberries, black beans, tofu, chickpeas, black strap molasses and spinach.
Found in fish, this is also easy for vegans to get hold of.
Omega 3 fatty acid is found in nuts, leafy green vegetables and flaxseed oil.
There are also a variety of vitamin supplements available if you struggle to maintain the body’s required levels of any of the nutrients that was mentioned above by adhering to the diet alone. It is always recommended that you consult a health professional before embarking upon any radical dietary change.
Health benefits of a vegan diet
The benefits of being a vegan are not only limited to lessening the suffering of animals and a decreased environmental impact, it is also good for the body.
Experts agree that a vegan diet is generally higher in fibre, vitamins C and E, iron, folic acid and magnesium and lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. Studies have also shown that it can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and other types of chronic illness and diseases.
Despite much scepticism it has also been proven that a vegan diet is appropriate at any age – it does not hinder the development of infants in any way, nor it is harmful for a pregnant mother or her fetus.
Other health benefits of a vegan diet include, but are not limited to, a reduction in the risk of:
- high blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
Studies have also shown that a vegan diet significantly reduces the risk of cancer, although further studies are ongoing on a wider scale to ensure this is totally accurate..
Many vegans are animal rights advocates or activists and they believe that their non-consumption of animal products decreases the environmental impact of the human race.
This is true to a large extent.
Large scale commercial farming occupies much of our land, forests having been decimated to make way for farms and slaughterhouses.
Fewer people consuming meat or animal products removes the need for an increase in farming and stretches the planet’s resources a little less.
Popularity of the vegan diet
Many factors have increased the profile of veganism.
The better availability of ingredients that were once considered obscure is definitely helpful and the number of celebrities who live on a vegan diet helps to influence others too. Pamela Anderson, Russell Brand and Emily Deschanel are all card-carrying vegans.
The interest in vegans has been on the up since the late 1960s and early 1970s and by 2010 many restaurants catered solely for vegans or at least offered vegan diet options on their menu. As the next generation became more accustomed of different cuisine, so many people are experimenting with vegan diets now, if not permanently then at least temporarily.
It is estimated that in the West (although there are no accurate figures to fully support that) that as many as 2-3% of people are now active vegans.
And while many omnivores have spoken out against veganism, many of them getting their facts wrong, it comes down to a simple choice of how an individual wishes to live their life. Living a life of eating a vegan diet can be ethical and it can save the planet one small step at a time, but it’s ultimately every person’s choice.
Or more simply put: to eat meat or not to eat meat, that is the question to be answered by you.