"A vegan diet can be very healthy," says Vesanto Melina, coauthor of the book Becoming Vegan, although, she adds, "like any diet, it has to be well designed." But what does that mean, exactly? Here's the scoop on veganism, from what it means and why people choose it to how to make sure it's healthy.
What does vegan mean?
While vegetarians choose not to eat animals -- including poultry and fish -- vegans omit all animal products from their diets, including dairy, eggs and even honey and gelatin. True vegans also exclude any food products that were made using animal products, such as refined sugar and beer (both of which tend to be made using animal charcoal filters) and maple syrup and molasses (for which lard is often used in processing). They also restrict use of animal products in nondietary aspects of their lives -- examples include leather, fur, beeswax, wool and down.
Why go vegan?
There are a number of reasons people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle. One of the more obvious is respect for animal welfare; vegans believe that humans should not be harming animals for their own benefit. Another is environmental; the cultivation of plant foods uses far less land, energy and water than the production of animal foods. In addition, studies continue to demonstrate the health benefits of a vegan diet; it has been shown to benefit those with diabetes and prostate cancer and to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and colon cancer, says Melina.
Ensuring a vegan diet is healthy
There are no nutrients your body needs that cannot be found in an animal-free diet, but for those of us in the Western world, it often takes a bit of effort to make sure we're including certain vitamins and minerals. For instance, most North Americans get vitamin B12 from animal foods, since while this essential vitamin does exist in soil, our vegetables are usually so well washed that the B12 levels are negligible. Instead, Melina recommends that vegans get vitamin B12 from supplements or B12-fortified foods (such as soy milk or imitation meats). She also advises that vegans pay attention to the calcium in their diet by making sure to include green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale -- in fact, she notes, humans absorb calcium twice as well from such vegetables as they do from cow's milk -- and other foods such as almonds, sesame seeds and blackstrap molasses, which is also a great source of iron.
And what about protein? Well, the idea that it's hard for vegetarians (and vegans) to get enough protein is a myth, says Melina. "We get protein from veggies, from grains, from nuts and seeds and particularly from legumes," she says, adding that these foods are all good sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre, as opposed to animal products, which tend to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. In fact, she notes that "vegans tend to get about the optimal amount of protein," whereas many people eating a typical North American diet actually take in too much.
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Making veganism part of an omnivore life
Veganism isn't necessarily an all or nothing decision. It's possible to make some lifestyle choices that are based on vegan philosophy -- whether your reasoning is ethical, environmental or health-based -- while not giving up animal products entirely. Here are some suggestions:
• Eat lots of whole plant foods: whole grains, fruits, veggies and legumes. Many of the health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets have just as much to do with what people do eat as with what they don't.
• Cut back on your consumption of animal products. Make some of your meals vegetarian or vegan, and when you do use animal products, make them an accent to your meal rather than a focus. Explore cuisines and recipes that focus on plant foods.
• When using animal products, recognise where they came from and use them accordingly: don't waste food, and use everything you purchase to its fullest potential (e.g., making soup stock from bones and taking care of leather goods so that they last longer).
• When you do buy animal products, consider where they came from: think about choosing free range and organic.
Vegan meal planning
It's not hard to plan vegan meals -- it just requires a shift in perspective. One option is to use substitutions for animal ingredients -- a wide range is available, from vegan cheese and sour cream substitutes to imitation meats. But you can also choose to prepare meals that are based around plant foods -- Asian cuisines, such as Chinese and Indian, are especially plentiful in animal-free dishes.
Try the following recipes to get started:
• Tabbouleh Salad
• Minty Warm Rice and Vegetable Salad
• Vegan Bean Soup
• Carrot and Lots of Garlic Soup
• Baked Tofu with Braised Baby Bok Choy
• Braised Shallots and Squash Stew
• Bulgur-Stuffed Acorn Squash
• Lentils and Tomato Sauce with Pasta Shells
• Baked Beans with Apples
• Tofu and Broccoli in Peanut Sauce
For more on veganism, check out the following resources:
• Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina
This detailed guide to vegan nutrition, written by two registered dietitians from British Columbia, offers information on how to plan a healthy, balanced vegan diet, including special consideration for infants, children, seniors, pregnant and lactating women and athletes. Also check out Becoming Vegetarian, by the same authors, which includes a chapter of vegan-friendly recipes.
• How it all Vegan! by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer
This popular cookbook is a must-have resource for anyone considering a vegan lifestyle. In addition to the extensive recipe section -- which covers both food and household goods, including cleaning products and cosmetics -- the authors have provided a comprehensive listing of nonvegan ingredients, from adrenaline to wool.
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