But What Am I Going To Eat? Creating Your Vegan Diet
People go on a vegan diet for so many reasons. For some there are the many health benefits that appeal to them.
For others, they may have religious or ethical reasons for preferring a vegan lifestyle. Some begin eating vegan because of a close friend or loved one who is vegan.
Some become vegan as adults. Some have an experience in childhood or puberty that helps them choose to be vegan.
And still others are raised as vegans and never know any other way of eating.
But one thing that everyone agrees on is the importance of a well-balanced vegan diet.
It’s not enough to just leave off meat and dairy and call it a day. You need to ensure that you are eating a balanced, healthful, and mindful diet to ensure that you are getting all of the health benefits of veganism and that you are supplementing those elements of the diet that cannot be derived from plants alone.
Fortunately, because the vegan diet is so well-regarded and because there are so many health professionals who have studied its benefits, there is a great deal of research available to ensure that your vegan diet is as healthful as possible.
And because of the many long term studies of vegans and vegan communities, there are guidelines for eating optimally for a lifetime of health benefits.
Ethical Convictions Behind Vegan Diets
For some people, the vegan diet is more than just a healthy way of eating. Concerns about the way that factory farms treat animals create ethical considerations about the way that animals and animal products are treated and derived.
For others, the act of using an animal for its products or of consuming an animal’s flesh creates a moral imperative to begin a vegan diet and lifestyle.
They may make this decision in childhood upon first learning where their food comes from.
This may be a gradual transition throughout life, as they become more aware of the industrial treatment of animals.
It may be a rapid transition due to a sudden awareness or the impact of a book or documentary on their thinking.
For many environmentalists, a meat-eating diet is incompatible with their beliefs about the treatment of the natural world.
They may also be driven by an awareness of the impact of factory farming of animals on the environment, the environmental impact of feed grown for the support of large herds of livestock, the use of antibiotics in animal feed and its impact on human health, and many other environmental concerns.
Whatever the belief system that leads to a decision to eat vegan, studies have shown that an ethical basis for veganism has an impact on how faithfully the vegan diet is followed. Vegans who choose their lifestyle out of ethical concerns tend to be more careful with what they eat and continue to eat a vegan diet for longer than those who choose veganism for purely dietary reasons.
Many people think of the vegan diet as highly restrictive, but in fact vegans eat a wide variety of foods that non-vegans eat.
While some vegans are more careful than others about the quality of the food they eat, and some prefer a minimally processed diet, there are many food options for vegans.
Vegans enjoy a variety of grains. Some grains may be restricted if the vegan is also gluten-free, but grains are vegan.
Some processed foods like baked goods or flavored rice products may require that you check for additional non-vegan ingredients.
Lentils And Beans
Many of the protein requirements can be derived from beans and legumes, and indeed many vegans enjoy these foods in a variety of preparations. Hummus provides a convenient, on-the-go option for obtaining protein, and is a popular choice for that reason.
Many vegans enjoy a variety of nuts including walnuts, cashews, and almonds. These tend to be good sources of not only protein but also the healthy Omega 3 fats that are so healthful.
The combination of a vegan diet with a traditional Mediterranean diet is thought to be so healthy in part because of the emphasis on nuts in both.
Meat And Dairy Substitutes And Alternatives
Because of the many people who eat a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle for health reasons, there is a large industry that has grown up around providing vegan alternatives to meat and dairy based foods. While some vegans find these essential in allowing them to eat what they think of as a “normal” diet, many vegans do not eat these products.
There are a variety of reasons for rejecting these substitutes, ranging from the fact that they tend to be highly processed to the argument that meat substitutes are no more appealing than their meat counterparts. For those who are vegan because of food aversions to meat and meat-derived products, those aversions often accrue to substitute foods as well.
For some people, the vegan diet seems rather complicated. For others, they (wrongly) assume that only meat and dairy in their most straightforward forms are avoided. But what do vegans not eat?
- Meat, poultry, and fish: Unlike vegetarians who may still eat a variety of meats and meat-derivatives, vegans do not eat any meats, including that of fish and shellfish.
- Animal-based dairy products: Again, unlike vegetarians who generally do not restrict products produced by animals, vegans do not drink milk produced by animals included cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or sheep’s milk. They also do not consume foods produced by those dairy sources including butter, cheese, or ice cream.
- Honey: Because honey is made by bees for bees, and because their health suffers when honey is harvested, most vegans do not eat honey.
- Jell-o, Marshmallows, Gummy Bears: Foods that are made using gelatin, which is derived from the processing of animal collagen, are not part of the vegan diet.
- Worcestershire Sauce and Caesar Dressing: Because many of these are made with anchovies, a type of oily fish, vegans generally do not consume these or other sauces which include anchovies.
- Products fortified with Omega 3s: Many products like fruit juices that are supplemented with additional Omega 3s use fish sources rather than the vegan algae sources of this healthy fat.
A healthy vegan diet is a well-thought-out vegan diet. In order to ensure that you are eating a well-rounded diet, a vegan needs to incorporate a variety of food sources for the proteins, vitamins, and fats that contribute to a healthy diet.
Protein is an important part of every diet, and is required for optimal muscle and bone health. It is also an important part of the digestive and hormonal systems, as well as being necessary for cellular regeneration.
Vitamins and minerals are the building blocks of every system in the body. Their sheer variety of types and functions speaks to the many ways that they are an essential part of any healthy diet.
One of the most vital minerals, calcium is important for growth, bone health, and many other aspects of wellness.
Although demonized in the Western culture as a source of bodily fat, healthy fats are essential for not only weight loss, but for general health. Omega fats in particular are important for good health and longevity.
Fortunately, all of the elements of an essential diet can be found in a well-planned vegan diet.
Plant protein sources in the vegan diet provide all of the protein and amino acids needed for optimum health.
However, sufficient quantities of protein and amino acids come from a well-thought out diet.
According to vegan dietician Ginny Messina, the variety of protein sources is important.
For example, it would take 14 cups of brown rice per day to give the amount of lysine needed for an adult woman.
The addition of legumes, however, allows for sufficient protein and lysine with much less food consumption.
Because so much of a well-balanced vegan diet includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, vegans generally have no problem meeting daily requirements for vitamins and minerals with one exception. Vitamin B12 cannot be derived from plant sources, so vegans require a B vitamin supplement or B12 fortified food in order to ensure optimal levels.
Many people think that calcium is a product of animal-based dairy sources, but in fact calcium is found in many foods and vegetables, and often accompanied by higher levels of other nutrients like iron.
This means vegan sources of calcium often contribute to a better overall diet than traditional animal-derived sources.
Many excellent sources of healthy Omega 3 fats are found in the nuts and seeds that make up a large part of most vegan diets. DHA, a healthy fat that is often recommended for infants and lactating mothers, can be derived in a supplement form from algae as required.
One of the things that can be a challenge for vegans is finding restaurants, fast-food chains, and convenience foods that allow them to travel, eat out, and live an active lifestyle while still maintaining their vegan diet. Fortunately, there are many options available that will ensure great vegan nutrition and convience.
- Baskin Robbins: Enjoy dairy free and gelatin free options like ices and sorbets
- Bruegger’s Bagels: Bruegger’s offers a variety of excellent options in both bagels and toppings; vegetarian sandwiches can be made vegan by leaving off cheese and dressings
- Burger King: fries and hash browns are fried in vegetable oil and french toast sticks and fried apple pies offer sweet options; garden salads are available.
- Cheesecake Factory: vegan options include vegan burgers and pasta dishes
- Chipotle: vegan options include sofritas, an organic tofu cooked with peppers and onions for a good protein option
- Johnny Rockets: The Streamliner is a vegan Boca burger which can be topped with vegetables like grilled onions, lettuce and tomato
- Little Caesar’s, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut: Vegan crusts and sauces are offered at all of these chains which, by adding vegetables and leaving off cheeses, can create great vegan pizza. Add vegan cheese at home and melt under the broiler for authenticity if you wish.
- Mellow Mushroom: An entire vegan menu is available at this chain’s restaurants.
- Noodles & Company: A variety of vegan dishes, including Asian and Italian flavor profiles
- Olive Garden: Believe it or not, those famous breadsticks are vegan as are many of the pasta dishes, salad, and minestrone
- PF Chang’s: An entire vegan menu is available at this chain’s restaurants
- Taco Bell: By leaving off the cheese, many of this chain’s options can be made vegan
- TGI Fridays: A number of vegan options exist here, and even their Jack Daniels and BBQ sauces are vegan.
- zpizza: The availability of vegan cheese as well as specifically vegan pizza and salad options make this an easy place to eat vegan whether choosing pizza, salads, calzones, or sandwiches.
At one time, being vegan was considered an unusual choice, and there were many challenges to maintaining a vegan way of eating.
There was also a lack of options which made eating vegan considerably more difficult. Even finding vegan products in grocery stores and restaurants could present considerable challenges.
Now, however, there are many resources for helping vegans find ways to incorporate their healthy diet into an active lifestyle of work, activity, and travel. With some care in planning, shopping, and choosing options that support a vegan diet, vegans can find themselves maintaining and enjoying their choice.
- Hoffman, Stallings, et al. “Differences between health and ethical vegetarians. Strength of conviction, nutrition knowledge, dietary restriction, and duration of adherence.” Appetite. 2013 Jun; 65:139-44. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.02.009. Epub 2013 Feb 15.
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