Understanding vegan diets

Vegetarianism in America has evolved over the year with approximately 3.2 percent of adults in the United States or 7.3 million people who follow a vegetarian-based diet.  When a person states they are a “vegetarian” you have to ask “what type” as vegetarianism can take many different forms.  

This article simply looks at vegan diets and the people who call themselves “vegans.”  

1.      What is a vegan? 

A vegan is a person who consumes no animal products at all relying totally on a plant-based diet.  They have chosen to not eat any beef, pork, fish, shellfish, chicken, veal, eggs, or dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt, or cow’s milk.

2.      How is a vegan different from other vegetarians?

Many forms of vegetarianism exist.  Many vegetarians choose to avoid meats and fish of all forms but still eat eggs and dairy foods (lacto-ovo vegetarians).  Others who consider themselves vegetarians will eat meat, dairy foods or eggs on occasion.

3.       Why does someone become a vegan?

People often have very personal reasons for selecting a vegan way of life.  Some believe it is a healthier eating pattern.  Others have concerns about the environment, including the raising of livestock or use of chemicals and antibiotics in meat production.  Many choose veganism for religious reasons or because they object to the raising of animals for human consumption.

4.       What are the advantages of a vegan diet?

Vegans have lower intakes of saturate fat, cholesterol, and higher intakes of fiber and several important vitamins and minerals because they are consuming more fruits and veggies.  People who are vegans usually have a lower body mass index (BMI), decreased incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. 

5.      Can a vegan diet meet a person’s nutritional needs?

Yes but a vegan will need to do careful planning to meet their nutritional needs if they want to maintain good health.  Studies have shown some vegans have lower intakes of nutrients that are high in animal food sources such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Protein is a key nutrient for vegans.  Animal sources provide a majority of our protein needs but vegans can rely on plant foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk for this. 

Calcium needs are generally met by consuming dairy foods.  For vegans they will need to make sure they are consuming nuts, dark-green leady vegetables and beans or use fortified food sources of calcium such as orange juice fortified with calcium, breakfast cereals or soy milk products.

6.      Do vegans need to shop at special stores?

Over the years, veganism has gone more mainstream so it is much easier for them to find the foods they need at a regular supermarket.  A variety of soy foods including soy milk, tofu, and soy-based vegan burgers, hot dogs, and sausages are now available.  Food co-ops and specialty markets or larger grocery stores will have an even greater variety of vegan foods. 

7.      My teenager has become a vegan.  Do I need to supervise what my child eats?

A parent should discuss with their teenager their reasons for choosing to become a vegan.  The primary nutrients of concern for teenagers are calcium, protein, iron, and vitamin B12. As long as they understand how to follow a vegan diet by getting in sufficient nutrients to support growth and health, it can be a healthy manner in which to eat. 

A parent should supervise their food intake by providing nutritious foods that are adequate in the nutrients of concern for teenagers.  If their teenager shows any signs of losing excessive amount of weight, becoming lethargic, or getting sick more frequently, they should take them to their doctor to be evaluated.