Going on the vegan diet has become the hip thing to do these days. Many people do it because they sincerely believe that it’s ethical and helps solve the planet’s growing sustainability problem.
Others become vegan because they want to be healthier and live longer. A few do it because their favorite celebrities are vegan.
A lot of facts and ideas regarding the vegan diet have floated around over the years. Some of these facts are supported by science. Some seem like they have been plucked out of thin air.
This guide to the vegan diet is meant to be a primer on veganism, the beliefs and the science behind them. The article focuses on the health aspects of the diet. Our aim here is to help you understand whether the vegan diet is truly a healthy diet you can sustain for the long term.
Overview and history of the vegan diet
The vegan diet is not a new thing. It existed in one form or another since ancient times. World religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Shinto encourages followers to eat only vegetables and avoid using animal-derived products. Doing so promotes their belief that all life is sacred.
Greek philosophers from classical antiquity, on the other hand, embraced vegetarianism to practice nonviolence against animals. Many early and medieval Christians were also vegetarians.
Veganism as we know it today largely comes from how the Vegan Society has defined it in 1979:
“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose, and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
The Vegan Society, by the way, is a British charity organization formed in 1944. It started out as a collective of non-dairy vegetarians who also didn’t eat eggs led by animal rights activist Donald Watson. It was Watson who coined the word “vegan.” He formed it from the first and last syllables of the word “vegetarian.”
So, if you’re going on the vegan diet, you’ll need to stop eating all forms of meat and animal-derived food products. This includes fish and seafood.
However, if you intend to go full-on vegan and adopt a strict vegan lifestyle, you’ll have to do more than getting rid of meat from your grocery list. You’ll have to use non-animal alternatives to your toiletries and makeup, household cleaning products, and even your clothes, shoes and accessories.
Main purpose and goal of the vegan diet
People get on the vegan diet for many reasons. Some purely have their health in mind. They believe that eliminating meat and meat products from their meals can help them lose weight. They also think that the vegan diet can help them prevent or cure dangerous illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer.
Some people, on the other hand, get on the vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons. They believe that eating meat and animal-derived products is a violation of animal rights.
Additionally, they consider meat-eating as harmful to the environment. That’s because not all manufacturers of meat products observe environment-friendly business practices.
Others follow the vegan diet for religious reasons. People who practice Jainism or belong to certain sects of Hinduism and Buddhism don’t eat meat and meat products. Some Christians, Jews, Muslims and Taoists don’t eat meat as well. There are other religions that encourage followers to limit their consumption of meat, though some more strictly than others.
Who is the vegan diet ideal for?
Anyone can get on the vegan diet. If you want to lose weight, following a vegan diet can help you shed off the pounds. But you may want to consider this diet more seriously if you’re at risk of or have ailments like diabetes or heart disease. A vegan diet may help you prevent or manage these conditions.
How easy is it to implement the vegan diet?
Starting and sticking to the vegan diet can be a challenge, especially if you’ve been eating large quantities of meat for a long time. It may take you some time to get used to eating only vegetables. You may also have to learn new ways to prepare your meals without using meat or animal-based ingredients.
Another concern you may find yourself facing is the availability of meat substitutes in your local supermarket. Buying fresh vegetables probably won’t be an issue for you. However, the same may not always be possible for meat, dairy and egg substitutes. Not all supermarkets carry stocks of tofu, vegemeat, chia seeds, soy milk and other vegan diet essentials. You may have to do some research to find stores where you can buy the products you need locally. Or you may have to buy them online.
Dining out and socializing may also become issues when you go on the vegan diet. You’ll have limited options for dining out. There are restaurants that specialize in vegan food, but the person you’re dining out with may not want to eat there.
If you do have to eat at a regular restaurant, call the restaurant ahead to ask if they have vegan options. If you call ahead, the chef may accommodate you by preparing a special meal for you. Or you can choose to dine at an ethnic Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern or Ethiopian restaurant. They usually serve vegan food.
As for socializing and attending parties, you’ll have to inform your host that you’re vegan so they can make a special vegan dish for you. Otherwise it can result in an awkward situation where the host keeps plying food at you that you can’t eat.
Foods that are part of the vegan diet
Despite the absence of meat, seafood, eggs and dairy from the vegan diet, you have a lot of choices when it comes to what you can eat. But what you can eat depends on the variation of the vegan diet you’re observing. Some of the most common vegan diet variations are:
- The whole foods vegan diet, where you may eat whatever vegetable or plant-based food you want to eat as long as they are whole and went through very little processing.
- The raw food vegan diet, which requires that you eat your food raw. If you have to cook your food, you need to make sure that your food was cooked at no more than 48°C or 118°F.
- The Raw Till 4 vegan diet, where you may eat as many raw fruits and vegetables you want until 4 PM. After 4 PM, you may eat a vegetarian dinner cooked without oils.
- The 80/10/10 vegan diet, where 80% of your meals should consist of carbohydrates from raw vegetables and fruits. Plant-based proteins and fats should make up 10% each.
- The Starch Solution vegan diet, where 70% of your food should come from starchy plants like potatoes, rice and corn. Vegetables, on the other hand, should make up 20% while the remaining 10% should be from fruits.
Generally, you may eat the following on the vegan diet:
- Fruits and vegetables, especially green and leafy vegetables
- Algae, which are good sources of protein and iodine
- Fermented plant foods like kimchi, natto, miso, pickles and sauerkraut
- Grains, cereals and pseudo-cereals such as rice, amaranth and quinoa
- Legumes such as beans, peas and lentils
- Nutritional yeast
- Nuts like peanuts and almonds, as well as nut butters
- Plant-based proteins like tofu, seitan and tempeh
- Plant milks such as almond milk and soy milk. Includes dairy products made with plant milk such as vegetarian yogurt.
- Seeds like hemp, flaxseeds and chia
Foods that are to be avoided on the vegan diet
It goes without saying that you may not eat meat, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood when you go on the vegan diet. You’re also not supposed to consume foods sourced from animals. Animal-sourced foods include:
- Bee products – honey, royal jelly, bee pollen
- Dairy – milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, ice cream, butter
- Other animal-sourced ingredients like whey, carmine, shellac, egg white albumen, lactose, casein, gelatin, Vitamin D3 and Omega-3 fatty acids
How effective is the vegan diet overall?
Advocates of the vegan diet claim that this diet can improve your health in many ways. You can lose weight by adopting the vegan diet. You can also prevent, manage, or even cure dangerous diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
It’s entirely possible for you to lose weight on the vegan diet. Researchers have observed that vegans tend to be thinner than meat-eaters, even when they are allowed to eat as much as they want. The researchers have attributed this to the fact that vegans eat more fiber than meat-eaters. So they feel full much more quickly.
A number of studies also suggest that a vegan diet can help you prevent obesity and type-2 diabetes. Among the explanations given is a diet made up completely of plant-based foods helps improve insulin sensitivity. They also have better glycemic and lipid control. The high fiber content of a typical vegan meal also prevents blood sugar from spiking.
Vegan diet advocates typically point to the results of a study led by physician and author Dean Ornish in the 1990s. Dr. Ornish had found that a vegan diet, coupled with a healthy lifestyle, can prevent heart disease.
These claims make the vegan diet seem like the healthiest diet around. But is it really so? For example, proponents of the diet usually point out that eating meat causes diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
However, there are studies suggesting that eating non-processed red meat has no direct connection to the development of diabetes or heart disease. Additionally, the connection between cancer and meat seems to have more to do with the way the meat is cooked.
It’s also possible that giving up meat isn’t the only reason why vegans appear to be healthier than meat eaters. The reason could also be that vegans tend to be more health-conscious and follow a much healthier lifestyle than the regular carnivore.
This was suggested by Dr. Ornish’s study itself. A healthy lifestyle is one of the important factors in the Ornish study. It doesn’t explore if vegans are still less at risk of developing heart disease if they don’t make time for exercise or proper rest.
In fact, this study indicates that there isn’t a big difference between vegans and non-vegans when it comes to risks of developing heart disease.
The vegan diet is as healthy a diet as they come. But to claim that you can be healthier and live longer simply by going on a vegan diet is not conclusive. Your lifestyle choices may affect the outcome of your diet as well.
Potential mistakes to avoid on the vegan diet
When you go on the vegan diet, you need to be extra careful with what you eat and how you prepare your foods. You can accidentally put an ingredient made with animal products in your food.
Thus, you need to put in more effort on reading labels before buying a food product. Buying your food exclusively from health stores, vegan shops or online isn’t a guarantee that your food is 100% vegan.
You may find socializing on a vegan diet to be tricky as well. In gatherings where food is served, you may end up not eating anything at all because you’re not sure how the food was prepared. You can’t even safely eat the salad because its dressing may be made with animal-based ingredients like regular mayonnaise or yogurt.
To be safe, you should inform your host ahead of time of your dietary requirements. A good host should be able to consider their guests’ dietary needs when preparing their party menu.
How healthy is the vegan diet?
As healthy as the vegan diet sounds, it’s not without flaws. Its biggest flaw is it restricts you from consuming essential vitamins and minerals that you can get mostly from animal products. These vital nutrients include Vitamins B12 and D, Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc.
To get around this issue, you have to plan your diet carefully. Doing so will prevent you from suffering from nutrient deficiencies that can arise from a poorly implemented vegan diet.
There are a number of ways you can do this. One is by consuming only vegan foods fortified with these nutrients. Another is by taking supplements.
Learning a few vegan cooking techniques can also help you prevent nutrient deficiency. For instance, fermenting or sprouting foods can increase their zinc and iron content. Eating seaweeds and seasoning your food with iodized salt can boost your iodine intake. Consuming iron-rich vegan foods and foods containing Vitamin C together will help your body absorb iron more efficiently.
You need to be extra careful about avoiding possible nutrient deficiency if you’re pregnant. Your baby needs Vitamins B12 and D, as well as calcium and iron.
As mentioned earlier, these nutrients are found mostly in animals. You must increase your intake of plant foods containing these nutrients so your baby will develop normally. Before you consume any supplements, you should consult your obstetrician first.
The vegan diet is a healthy diet. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s not a perfect diet. You have to plan your meals well and take extra precautions so you can make the most out of going vegan.