What is a Vegan Lifestyle?
This is another label that gets thrown around a lot but the label is not always applied in the spirit it is intended. Let’s chat about what a vegan lifestyle and diet really are about.
For starters, Veganism is a much different approach to consumption than vegetarianism. Vegetarians avoid meat products but typically eat eggs or dairy and use items produced by animals. Vegans do not use any animal products -- either those made from animals such as meat or gelatin or produced by animals such as honey. This includes being careful not only about the foods we eat but in all the products we use in our daily life (for example, clothing cannot contain leather, wool, or down feathers as they are sourced from animals).
Why Go Vegan?
Most people choose to go vegan for a combination of health reasons and ethical reasons – primarily to avoid participating in the exploitation of animals or the planet. A true vegan diet excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy products (including whey, casein, or lactose), eggs, or honey but also excludes ingredients derived from animal products such as certain additives, flavorings, and dyes (such as shellac, cochineal, or castoreum); gelatin or isinglass (used in beer or wine); Omega-3 fatty acids; and Vitamin D3. The mainstay foods of a vegan diet are plant-based including: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and soy.
Because the vegan diet is plant-based, it is packed with nutrition and – compared to a typical Western diet – provides much more fiber, antioxidants, probiotics, and low-calorie foods. When carefully planned, vegan diets are often higher in some minerals and vitamins (potassium, magnesium, folate, and Vitamins A, C, E, and K). In addition, many vegans choose to shop locally and organically which adds the extra bonus of eating clean without chemicals or GMO foods.
Just a few of the potential benefits from going vegan:
- Weight loss. Because vegan diets eliminate fatty and calorie-rich foods, most vegans will shed pounds over time. It is important, though, when starting a vegan diet to carefully plan out the menu so you are packing your meals with high-quality, nutrient-dense foods. It is still possible to eat junk food on a vegan diet!
- Effective prevention or management of chronic illnesses such as:
- Type 2 Diabetes: vegans usually have lower blood sugar levels and higher insulin sensitivity. In some studies, a switch to a vegan diet improved diabetic neuropathy symptoms and kidney function.
- Lowers LDL cholesterol and improves blood pressure, both risk factors which may lead to heart disease.
- Found to potentially lower the risk for some cancers (colorectal, breast, and prostate).
- Can reduce pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
- You may have more energy throughout the day and general mood improvement. The vegan diet eliminates a lot of foods that drain our energy – sugar, processed foods, and non-nutritious ingredients such as white flour. When those foods are replaced with healthful choices, you will have more sustained energy throughout the day, less hunger, and just feel better all around.
- You might save money! Meat and animal-based foods are often the most expensive item in your cart and by replacing them with locally-sourced, plant-based foods you will likely cut your grocery bill.
- Veganism is much gentler on the Earth than animal-based and even vegetarian diets and lifestyles. Animal farming has a large environmental footprint: massive land use for grazing or crop production; large amounts of water needed for cleaning and animal health; pollution and fuel use due to transportation of animals and the finished meat products; and pollution caused by aggregating animals in confined spaces.
For example, the production cycle of dairy products – especially cheese, butter, and yogurt – requires a lot of water and electricity. The University of Wisconsin estimates that it takes 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese – equivalent to 12 kg of CO2. Plant-based crops require much less resources through their entire production and delivery cycle and this impact can be cut even further if sourced locally.
Drawbacks of Going Vegan
The benefits of going vegan far outweigh the negatives but it does require a shift in eating habits. Until you become familiar with the diet plan, you will need to read every label and carefully plan your daily intake so you get the right amount of nutrients. This applies especially to nutrients you would normally get from animal products such as iron, protein, zinc, fatty acids, calcium, and Vitamins D and B12. Many of these are critical to brain, bone, and body health so you cannot skimp on them. While many of these nutrients can be found in plant-based foods, they are not as readily absorbed by the body (compared to meat, dairy, or eggs) and some are only available through animal-based products or sunshine, as in the case of Vitamin D. To fulfill these nutritional needs while on a vegan diet, look for fortified foods (such as orange juice with calcium) and consider supplements for certain Vitamins such as B12.
As with any major diet change, always check with your doctor first and educate yourself well before jumping in. Check reputable vegan websites for more information – most have meal planning suggestions and tools to ensure your success.
Want to give vegan snacking a try? Check out our Vegan Snack Box here for a tasty sampling of curated vegan snacks.