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A vegan diet plan is a lifestyle choice that completely eliminates animal products from the diet as well as from the lifestyle. There are a vast number of reasons why individuals opt to eat a vegan diet. Below we will take a look at what the vegan diet plan is, including: foods that are “forbidden,” acceptable food substitutions and some key facts that everyone should know about a vegan lifestyle.
What is Veganism?
Coined in 1944 by Donald Watson in England, the term vegan initially meant a non-dairy vegetarian who also did not eat eggs. This broad definition actually replicates the modern day definition of a vegetarian (not to be confused with an ovo-lacto vegetarian, an ovo vegetarian or a lacto vegetarian.) In 1951 the term vegan was expanded to represent the more modern day understanding: “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.” This not only includes the exploitation of animals for food, but it also includes the use of animal products such as leather. Since 1994 every November 1st has been celebrated as World Vegan Day. November 1st was the date on which the British Vegan Society was established in 1944.
The American Vegan Society
In 1957 the son of a Mumbai Parsi, H. Jay Dinshah, visited a slaughter house and scoured the available literature on veganism written by Donald Watson. Dinshah took the message of veganism to heart and deciding to give up all animal based products he founded the America Vegan Society to help spread awareness. Dinshah founded the AVS in Malaga, New Jersey and incorporated the idea of “ahisma” in to the society. Ahisma is the belief that no living being should harm any other living being. Today this is the most widely accepted form of veganism; however, some still use the term veganism to refer to a diet that is composed only of vegetation.
What Animal Products Are and Are Not Acceptable in a Vegan diet?
Assuming that the accepted definition of a vegan is someone who rejects the consumption and use of any animal based products, there is still a small degree of variation in what is and is not acceptable in terms of animal products. These “rules” tend to vary based upon individual vegan societies with the UK Vegan Society and the American Vegan Society tending to agree.
What Classifies an Animal Product?
Animal products are any items that are derived from animals. These animal products include: meat, seafood, poultry, honey, dairy products, eggs, fur, leather, silk, wool, bone char, beeswax, carmine, bone china, cochineal, casein, isinglass, gelatin, lanolin, lard, rennet, tallow, shellac, whey and yellow grease. Many times manufactured and prepackaged foods include animal based products such as the ingredients listed above so vegans are always advised to check labels.
The Vegan Society in the UK
The vegan society in the UK will only approve of a product for vegan consumption if it is completely free of animal involvement as much as practical and as much as possible.
The Vegan Action and Vegan Outreach
The Vegan Action and Vegan Outreach programs differ from the Vegan Society and the American Vegan Society in that they are more lenient on their approved foods list. These two organizations believe that the use of certain animal products is personal choice since animal involvement is not considered unethical. These products include honey, silk and other insect products.
Where Can Animal Products Be Found?
Some types of animal products are easily identified such as meat and fur; however, a number of other animal products are less identifiable. Animal products can also be found in toiletries, clothing and cosmetics. Some less known animal products include: woolen clothing, camera film, vaccinations and silk items.
Are there Vegan Alternatives to Everything?
Becoming a vegan means giving up many foods and everyday items; however, there are many available alternatives with the increase in vegan awareness. With the rise in veganism, pre-packaged vegan foods have become more readily available, but more than likely these items come with a higher price tag. Fortunately, a good part of the vegan diet consists of fresh produce which is available worldwide so vegan eating even when traveling is easy and affordable.
Nutrition and the Vegan Diet Plan
The original food pyramid for non-vegans and non-vegetarians was replaced in 2011 with the “MyPlate” infographic. This infographic was created by the United States Department of Agriculture to advise non-dieters of healthy eating recommendations. This infographic recommends that the non-dieter divide their daily food intake between 30% grains, 30% vegetables, 20% fruits and 20% protein. Additionally a small portion of the daily diet should include dairy products. When it comes to the vegan diet plan the MyPlate infographic still stands but the foods that make up these food groups differ. It is important to understand however, that there is much more variety in non-vegan foods and if care is not taken with the vegan diet, nutritional deficiencies may occur.
Common Food Sources for Vegans
Proteins and fats are the main source of concern for vegans in addition to dairy since these two categories are derived from animal products.
Proteins that are frequently eaten by vegans include: soybeans, lentils, black beans, tempeh, seitan, veggie burgers, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black eyed peas, lima beans, tofu, quinoa, textured vegetable protein, peanut butter, protein powders, soy milk, spinach and broccoli.
Fats that are frequently included in the vegan diet plan include: avocados, peanuts, other varied nuts, olive oil, flax seeds, margarine, nut butters, coconut and seed butters.
Dairy is obviously off limits as an animal product; however, it is still important that vegans obtain the nutrients that are found in dairy products, most commonly calcium and vitamin D. Sources of calcium for vegans include: dark green vegetables, orange juice and soy milk. Some vegans may also choose to take a calcium supplement to ensure strong bone growth. Sources of vitamin D for vegans include: fortified orange juice, fortified rice milk and fortified soy milk. Vitamin D can also be obtained through exposure to sunlight.
One vitamin that is of particular concern in the vegan diet is B12. For non-vegans B12 can be obtained readily from food products that come from animals including: milk, eggs, milk products, beef liver, turkey giblets, ray Pacific oysters, king crab, cheese and fish. For non-vegans, there are a number of sources of B12 including: fortified soy products, fortified cereals, nutritional yeast and fortified energy bars. Many vegans also consume B12 supplements to ensure that they maintain healthy levels of B12.
Why is it Important to Maintain Healthy Levels of B12?
Vitamin B12 is important because it helps the body to form myelin, a fatty material that the body produces to insulate nerves. B12 also helps the body to produce hemoglobin which carries oxygen through the body to fuel cells. Without adequate oxygen levels delivered by hemoglobin individuals frequently experience severe fatigue. B12 also helps to produce energy within the body from metabolizing protein and fat. B12 helps the body to regulate maintenance, reproduction and growth within the body’s cells. Finally, B12 is responsible for reducing the level of homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine is responsible for preventing a number of serious diseases including: cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and various other degenerative diseases.
Signs of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
As a vegan it is important to maintain healthy levels of B12. If you are new to the vegan diet plan, you may have trouble doing this to begin with. This is why you should be familiar with signs of B12 deficiency so that any deficiency can be rectified. Signs of a B12 deficiency include:
- Numbness and tingling in the arms or legs
- Chronic fatigue
- Megaloblastic or macrocytic anemia
- Anxiety and irritability
- Poor hair health
- Sore tongue
- Loss of appetite
It is important to understand that these symptoms do not necessarily indicate a B12 deficiency and could indicate a number of other health conditions. For vegans though, it is important to look to a B12 deficiency when these symptoms occur.
Beginning a Vegan Lifestyle
Making the choice to begin a vegan lifestyle is a commitment that requires a lot of education if veganism is not how you were raised. There are many products that contain animal based ingredients that are not apparent to those who don’t know what they are looking for. Before making the choice to live a vegan lifestyle it is important to understand just what veganism means. You may find that perhaps you are more well suited to a variety of vegetarianism, but this choice is yours based upon your beliefs and foods you feel you can or cannot give up. One of the best ways to determine if veganism is for you is to research the many reading materials that are available in local libraries as well as online. There are also many local groups of vegans who are more than happy to answer questions and provide information on veganism.
Veganism for Weight Loss
While veganism is founded on a belief that all living things should be treated fairly and should not cause pain to other living things, many people turn to veganism as a weight loss method. There are a number of reasons why veganism works as a weight loss method.
One of the reasons why veganism works so well for weight loss is because it encourages healthy eating habits and discourages unhealthy foods. Many people find that they have gained weight as a result of eating fast foods such as burgers, sweets and candy, the good majority of these fast foods contain animal based products. By choosing to eat a vegan diet you are eliminating these choices and consequently reducing the amount of refined “junk” that goes in to your body. Anytime refined foods are reduced weight loss will occur in an otherwise healthy individual.
The many vegetables and fruits that vegans eat provide the body with essential nutrients that are often missing from the everyday diet of non-vegans. When our bodies are not provided with the daily essential vitamins and minerals needed to function properly, we may experience symptoms which lead to weight gain. Some of these symptoms that contribute to weight gain include: lethargy, bloating, water retention, aching joints, weak muscles, shaking and even degenerative disorders.
Reduced Calorie Consumption
Unlike other “diets” that focus on reduced calorie consumption, this is something that comes naturally in the vegan diet. When comparing the average calorie count of a vegan specialty food with that same product in a non-vegan variety, there is generally a stark difference. One of the biggest reasons for this is that non-vegan foods are generally high in fats and sugars. While vegan foods may at times be high in sugars, they are generally low in fat and more naturally produced foods meaning that they contain naturally occurring sugars like fructose.
The fiber content in foods is important when looking at weight loss and vegan diets contain a good number of high fiber foods. Fiber is not only good for cleansing the body of various toxins and increasing bowel movements, but it also important in giving the sense of fullness. Individuals who eat foods that are high in fiber have been proven to experience a sensation of fullness much longer than those who eat lower fiber snacks or meals.
Is the Vegan Lifestyle Easy?
Maintaining Proper Nutrition
A good number of people believe that living a vegan lifestyle is easy, that all that the diet consists of is eating fruits and vegetables. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Vegans must ensure that they consume all of the necessary vitamins and minerals in their diet to stay healthy. Where most people don’t think twice about what they are eating, vegans must be particularly watchful due to their limited food selection.
Eating on the Go
It can also be particularly difficult to follow a vegan diet plan with our nation’s dependency upon fast foods. Fortunately as veganism has increased in popularity more and more restaurants are offering vegan food choices. It is always advised by “veteran” vegans that vegans should pack their own snacks and meal stuffs when possible to ensure the availability of approved foods. As a vegan it is always your responsibility to take charge of your eating options and not expect others to simply accommodate you.
While protein deficiency technically falls under “maintaining proper nutrition,” protein is generally not considered as a vitamin or mineral, rather it is a dietary compound. Where non-vegans have a considerable amount of variety in their protein choices (take a look at the meat section of any grocery store), vegans are much more limited and tend not to consume these choices in any significant quantity. A vegan diet that is rich in protein contains a wide variety of beans and fortified veggie products such as veggie burgers.
The Expense of Veganism
Depending upon your style of living, veganism can be on the expensive side. If you are used to eating at restaurants for every meal then it is not likely this will be a concern. However, if you are used to grocery shopping for prepared/frozen meals ,grocery shopping will become expensive. To combat this expense many vegans shop every couple of days for fresh produce and prepare their own meals. It is not only the expense of food that vegans must consider, they must also consider the investment of time required if you are going from a fast food or frozen meal omnivorous diet to a fresh food preparation vegan diet. Finally, there is also the expense of supplements and vitamins which may be necessary to maintain overall health on a vegan diet.
Is a Vegan Diet Cut and Dry?
There is a considerable amount of debate when it comes to whether vegetarians are still vegetarians if they consume dairy products, eggs or fish. The general consensus is that someone is not a vegetarian if they consume fish but if they eat dairy products of eggs then they are a lacto-vegetarian or ovo-vegetarian or both. When it comes to veganism, there is little debate. The term vegan includes all animal based products whether that includes clothing, toiletries or food. While there are exceptions to the vegetarian “rule,” there are no exceptions to being a vegan. A vegan who still chooses to use or wear products derived from animals is a vegetarian and not a vegan at all. So yes, a vegan diet is a cut and dry decision.
Is Veganism Always a Healthy Choice?
Many people opt to become vegans to lose weight because they believe that it is a “healthy choice.” There are a few mitigating factors in this statement however. Just like any other diet, veganism can result in a healthy lifestyle and weight loss but it can also result in poor health and wellbeing. A vegan who depends upon pre-packaged foods and processed faux meats is going to be just as unhealthy as a non-vegan consuming only processed meats and pre-packaged foods. Both of these individuals are going to lack proper nutrition. Veganism can be a healthy choice if you are dedicated to monitoring nutritional intake and increasing physical activity (two things that an omnivore should do as well.)
When is Veganism a Poor Choice?
There is a considerable amount of debate over when veganism is a poor choice or whether it is ever a poor choice. The answer to this question tends to depend upon the individual answering. There are those who claim that many religions have been living a vegan lifestyle for thousands of years without poor health effects. There are also those who claim that feeding a young child a vegan diet will result in poor nutrition and slowed development. The truth is that no one can determine whether veganism is the right choice for you besides you and your doctor. If you are considering becoming a vegan, consult your physician or dietician and perform due diligence research to determine whether it is the right choice for your nutritional needs.
Common Concerns for New Vegans
Starting new diet plans can be difficult for anyone, but making drastic changes such as from eating meat to no longer eating animal products can be a little more complex. Making the change from being an omnivore to being a vegan requires plenty of research to ensure that you are getting appropriate nutrition from your new diet. Below are some of the biggest concerns for new vegans that should be considered in addition to B12 deficiency and protein deficiency.
Meat eaters have relatively few problems getting enough iron in their diet because of their consumption of red meat. Red meat, egg yolks and liver contain the most easily absorbable iron source. None of these foods are vegan, vegetarian or ovo-vegetarian friendly. Vegans and ovo-vegetarians are at less of a risk for iron deficiency however because they avoid dairy foods which can inhibit the absorption of iron. Vegetarians however, are at considerable risk for iron deficiency due to low iron intake as well as dairy intake. Regardless of whether you are a vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian or vegan, it is important to get adequate iron intake, this can be done through consumption of plenty of leafy greens like spinach. Spinach has the highest amount of iron for any plant with 15.7mg of iron per 100 calories. Iron is necessary to carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. Symptoms of low iron levels include: fatigue, weakness, difficulty maintaining body temperature, chest pain, shortness of breath, reduced immune function and decreased performance in work or school.
Zinc is another important element that many vegans, vegetarians and ovo-vegetarians lack in their diet. Zinc is crucial for development and growth and a diet low in zinc can result in growth retardation. Fortunately, there are a number of vegan friendly foods with high zinc content including: rye, durum wheat, Spirulina, cashews and pumpkin seeds. According to the American Heart Association it is recommended that the average adult take in between 15 and 18 mg of zinc daily. Overdosing on zinc can result in additional health concerns such as reduced copper absorption and a weak immune system. Symptoms that may occur as a result of low zinc intake include: lowered testosterone production, diarrhea, lowered appetite, motor function impairment, cognitive function impairment, pneumonia, vitamin A and D deficiency and hunger.
Not all vegans have trouble with taurine deficiency from a vegan diet, but some do as a result of low levels of taurine intake. The most common source of this organic acid is animal tissue that is obviously absent from the vegan diet. Taurine is necessary for healthy functioning of skeletal muscles and a healthy liver. Taurine levels can be tested with a simple blood test at your general practitioners office. Vegan friendly foods that contain taurine include: sea weeds, egg whites, Spirulina, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. Individuals with low levels of taurine are more likely to experience heart disease, muscle problems, eye problems and decreased endurance.
DHA is produced by the human body as a result of converting short chain omega 3 fats. The best means of dietary DHA intake is through eating fish; however, this is not a viable option for vegans. The best means of DHA intake for vegans is through consumption of walnuts and flax. DHA levels can be tested via a simple blood test. DHA is a good fat that supports brain development and protects neurological function. Someone who has low DHA levels may experience depression, learning disabilities, eczema, arthritis, heart disease and obesity.
Are These Deficiencies Common For Vegans?
Many people who are considering a vegan diet for the first time find themselves asking if these deficiencies are common for vegans. The fact of the matter is however, that these types of deficiencies are common for everyone in this day and age. Where the majority of the United States eats fast food, frozen food or nutritionally void foods, the fresher sources of these nutrients and minerals are commonly overlooked.
How Can These Nutritional Deficiencies be avoided?
Nutritional deficiencies like those listed above can be avoided in a number of ways. If you are concerned about any one of these deficiencies you can consult a nutritionist or your general practitioner to get a blood test. This blood panel will tell your doctor if you are lacking certain vitamins and minerals. Even if you are not concerned with a deficiency however, you need to ensure that you maintain healthy levels of vitamin and mineral intake in your vegan diet.
A Balanced Diet
The best way to avoid any deficiency is to ensure that you are consuming a varied and well balanced diet. Whether you are a vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or anything else you can think of, it is important to incorporate plenty of variety in to your diet. If you have questions about how to create a well rounded vegan diet there are a good many online resources available. You may also benefit from talking with a nutritionist who can help you to cater a meal plan to your individual needs since some groups are more likely to suffer from certain deficiencies than others.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation
A second way to avoid nutritional deficiencies that occur through consumption of a non-balanced diet is to supplement with daily vitamins and minerals. Many health food stores carry vitamin complexes designed specifically with the vegan in mind. Additionally, these stores often have fellow vegans and vegetarians on staff who can help you to choose a vegan friendly supplement that will work for you.
Fruit Juice and Smoothies
Another great way to supplement missing vitamins or minerals is to consume fortified fruit juices that have become increasingly popular. These juices combine multiple fruits and vegetables and are also packed with various vitamins and minerals while also being tasty. These types of juices and smoothies are not however, very financially friendly so it is always best to combine this supplementation method with another.