Veganism 101

Get to know veganism, from what it means and why people choose it to how to make sure it's healthy.

What is veganism?; Why go vegan?; Ensuring a vegan diet is healthy

"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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