What Does it Mean to be Vegan?

February 18, 2011

Most Americans eat a variety of foods, but not vegans, they avoid animal products completely. Is this safe?

Most Americans eat a variety of foods, and may only eliminate certain tastes they don't like or particular foods to which they are allergic or sensitive; but not vegans, they avoid all foods, products, and clothing that uses or comes from an animal. They don't eat meat, nor eggs, or milk; no cheese, mayo, or whey. Certainly no gelatin, and maybe surprisingly no honey either. Vegans avoid fur, leather, wool, silk, down, and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals.  This by most standards is a highly selective and specific diet, but seems to be moving mainstream - what exactly does it mean to be vegan and why are more and more people adopting this way of life?

Veganism is a few steps further than vegetarianism (some vegetarians eat dairy products, eggs and sometimes fish), and although the term was coined in 1944, the concept of eliminating all animal products can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean cultures. Vegetarianism was first mentioned by Pythagoras around 500 BCE; the Greek philosopher and mathematician who promoted benevolence among all species, including humans. Followers of Buddhism, and Hinduism also advocated vegetarianism, believing that humans should not inflict pain on other animals.

According to a study published by Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, follow a vegetarian-based diet. Approximately 0.5 percent, or 1 million, of those are vegans. Slightly fewer than twenty three million people (about 10 percent of US adults) say they largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.

So back to veganism, is a vegan diet nutritious? Yes, following a vegan diet can be very nutritious but definitely takes a lot of careful planning and preparation. Vegan diets include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, which are low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are rich in fiber and nutrients.

Vegans get their protein from legumes including, beans, tofu, peanuts, and grains like rice, quinoa, corn, whole wheat breads and pastas. How do vegans get calcium? Leafy greens like broccoli, kale, collard greens, as well as tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, fortified juices and soymilk contain a significant amount of calcium. According to the American Heart Association, studies show that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than non-vegetarians. What about iron? Chickpeas, spinach, pinto beans, blackstrap molasses, and soy products contain iron (which is best paired with vitamin C rich foods for optimal absorption) Fortified foods or supplements provide vegans with B12.

Overall a vegan diet can be very nutritious but as mentioned can take a lot of planning.

Another interesting fact about vegetarian diets that the American Heart Association points out is that, many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer. That being said, vegetarian and certainly vegan diets are not for everyone!

As always please speak with your physician before making any changes to your diet.

For some more resources on a vegan or vegetarian diet visit the USDA.