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Plants are just the best, right? Plants give us so much, from food to oxygen. And of course, joy from watching them grow. Many people recognize this and have started embracing the vegan lifestyle. If you are thinking of making the change, here’s a rough guideline on what to expect to help you prepare and increase your chance of success. First, let’s explore some concepts.
Is being Vegan a lifestyle or diet?
Both! But veganism is a lifestyle as a whole. A lifestyle is a way in which people live. People practicing veganism believe that all species are in this world for a purpose. They believe in a world free of cruelty and suffering for all humans and animals.
The vegan lifestyle seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, whether for food, clothing, or any other purpose as defined by the Vegan Society. Veganism also promotes the development of alternatives benefitting animals, human beings, and the environment.
What does a vegan lifestyle consist of?
The vegan lifestyle is powered by plants! When you adopt a vegan lifestyle, it commonly starts with a diet change and slowly influences all aspects of life.
Defending the welfare of animals.
Most vegans support and join animal welfare organizations fighting for animal rights. They know what goes on in the cows and cattle industry and are actively involved in animal welfare campaigns against these practices. They question the boundaries between which species we can and cannot eat, or use for animal products. An example of such an organization is PETA.
There are a lot of ingredients derived from animals that we use daily. Some common examples are:
- leather from cows used for shoes, sports equipment, etc.
- animal hair in blankets, mattress, brushes, furniture
- animal bone ash to make white sugar
- wool, silk, fur, suede in clothing
Veganism also means boycotting the honey industry because the bee’s health can be sacrificed when the honey is harvested by humans. The cosmetics industry is also controversial for testing on animals. Most vegans support transparent brands that feature cruelty-free cosmetics and favor those with natural ingredients. They look out for mistreatment or any acts of cruelty to animals. Volunteering to a rescue organization, fostering animals is one way of connecting with the animals and the cause itself.
Veganism also affects consumer habits by purchasing fewer animal products in clothing. The means of sourcing the raw materials often causing suffering among animals and are unsustainable. Vegans opt for substitutes, like the faux leather made from cactus as eco-friendly fabric popularized by the brand Desserto.
Veganism has potential health benefits. A 2009 study on the health effects of vegan diets includes a lowered risk of heart disease and cancer. Eating more fruits and vegetables that contain fiber and folic acid, is associated with lower blood cholesterol and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and heart disease. Plant-based diets with more fresh produce contain antioxidants that protect against cancer.
On the other hand, a diet of red meat and processed meat are consistently associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. The use of eggs also shows a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. More benefits could be achieved with a plant-based diet and further research is needed to study its direct relationship with cancer.
Some also choose veganism over concerns about the hormones from the consumption of animal meat and products. Animals in modern factory farms are injected routinely with synthetic hormones and stimulants which increases the production of milk and to gain weight faster. More weight means more meat, and ultimately, more profit for the producer. When you ingest animal meat, you can assume that their hormones may affect you as well. How significant the effect is and how much it hurts us, no one knows yet, according to WebMD.
A plant-based diet can also help control body weight as studies showed a link in vegan diets have a lower body mass index. Some also perceive veganism trends like shopping for bio, or all organic and use all-natural ingredients to be better. Some are prone to believe misconceptions about the lifestyle but often get better informed as they delve deeper into the principles of a vegan lifestyle.
Raising environmental issue awareness
Veganism also sheds light on the environmental concerns of the world that is our dwelling both for humans and animals. Veganism is directly linked to environmentalism aiming to adopt practices towards protecting the environment. Some see it as their contribution to help combat the climate crisis by minimizing their ecological footprint.
A review of a 2006 study by the UN states that animal meat production generates 18% more greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the transport sector. Also, 45% of habitable land is used for animal farming and by-products from animals account for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. This makes animal agriculture unsustainable.
The fashion industry producing wool, fur, and leather from animals’ skin or fur also pose hazards to the environment according to PETA. Overall, the carbon emissions and pollution humans produce need to be reduced to combat climate change. There is a feeling of empowerment in contributing to a cause that could impact society and the environment.
What are the benefits of a vegan lifestyle?
Here are known benefits you could experience when you shift to a vegan lifestyle.
Lowered risk of disease.
Some believe that a vegan diet is healthier than a standard diet. A study in 2013 compared the health-related behaviors and outcomes among vegans. There is evidence that a vegan diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Normal BMI and healthy food and lifestyle practices are common among most vegans. Women and girls might also experience fewer PMS symptoms.
A healthy gut.
With a significant increase in the vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fresh produce you eat, you notice more than usual bloating. Not to mention more frequent toilet visits. This is due to the high fiber content of your new diet.
A review by the Nutrition Program of the City University of New York explored evidence that links strict plant-based diets to having health advantages over other diets. Their findings show that the vegan gut profile has several unique characteristics compared to other diets. There are fewer pathobionts (microorganisms that can cause harm) and more protective species. There are also lower levels of inflammation which may link the vegan gut microbiota to positive health effects.
Gut health shows an association with skin health. You will see shiny hair and strong, healthy nails, clear skin, and complexion.
With a well-balanced plant-based diet, that is. We all know those energy spikes after eating highly processed foods and refined carbohydrates. We also dread the energy slumps that follow.
Incorporating more whole plant foods in the diet helps in achieving consistent energy levels. Energy production from whole foods is a lot slower, supplying you with the reserves needed throughout the day. These foods will also help regulate blood sugars and reduce cholesterol. More whole food means you will be less likely to be hangry (hungry + angry) throughout your day!
A caveat: everyone is different.
All these benefits are achievable with well-balanced vegan diets designed specifically for you. Some experience having dull and brittle hair which is the effect of loss of protein and amino acids in hair. Some also experience breakouts from the change in diet. Our bodies are unique, and the effects of a change of lifestyle could vary from one person to another.
Better relationship with food and mindfulness
There are studies on how one’s relationship to food can be an important factor that contributes to overall well-being but could also lead to eating disturbances. Disordered eating has been linked to veganism according to some research. However, shared personal experiences on social media have shown that adopting a vegan lifestyle can promote a healthier relationship with food when you are passionately engaged in the lifestyle as a whole, and not just the diet.
One of the many benefits of this lifestyle is mindfulness eating. You will naturally pay more attention to what you put into your body. This will more likely extend to other parts of your life. Begin to question what harmful things are you introducing to your body. Slowly progress from a personal point-of-view and gradually develop a more global perspective: what are its effects on the environment or the planet?
How do I start a vegan lifestyle?
Shifting lifestyles is tricky. Here’s a rough guide to help you navigate better.
Which products are vegan?
The real battle begins when you first go shopping. You have to learn the science of distinguishing vegan from non-vegan choices. Learn how to read food labels and be familiar with ingredient lists. It is easy for items labeled vegan, but that is not always the case. Some products may be labeled dairy-free or plant-based but may have non-vegan ingredients included. Here’s a list of animal ingredients that could be in your food. Not all grocery stores have dedicated aisles just for vegan-friendly products. Some manufacturers veer away from marketing products as vegan because of some misconceptions about the vegan lifestyle.
As always, It is recommended to ask a registered dietitian or a nutritionist what would be the best nutritional plan, especially if you have specific dietary needs before going full-vegan.
Learn a lot
Stay open to differing ideas and opinions. Join a community that can support you. Read a lot of informative magazines, blogs, and peer-reviewed health journals. Watch documentaries like Forks Over Knives and What the Health tackling controversial issues related to veganism. But be vigilant and critical of the media you consume.
It is good to seek support and join a local or online community to keep you motivated. As you learn more, you might find yourself questioning some long-held beliefs and conditioning on the social aspects associated with being vegan. It is okay.
Human beings are naturally curious and would inevitably ask you questions. So better be prepared to answer hard, controversial ones. Many people will challenge your choices just because it’s different. Sadly, some extreme vegans may shame you for not being perfect. So be mindful of your actions and slowly build your confidence.
Nutrition on a vegan diet
The vegan diet is not as straightforward. Many variations exist depending on how much change you are willing to implement.
Whole-food vegan diet vs. plant-based diet
A whole-food vegan diet focuses on consuming a wide variety of whole plant foods like vegetables, non-processed whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. On the other hand, a plant-based diet is essentially the same as whole-food vegan diets. However, you can decide whether you want to consume animal products or not. The focus is on mostly eating foods that come from plant sources. Here’s a beginner’s guide to a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Vegan diet vs. vegetarian diet
The vegan diet excludes all meat and animal products (meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs). The vegetarian diet is similar but may choose to consume dairy and eggs.
What can you eat as a vegan?
One common pitfall is placing too much emphasis on what not to eat. This elimination mentality supports a scarcity mindset which would not help your case.
What not to eat?
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, cream)
- Meat and poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Bee products (honey, beeswax)
- Animal-based ingredients (whey, lactose, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids, etc.)
- Sources of protein: beans, tofu, tempeh, legumes (beans, lentils, peas)
- Nuts and nut butter
- Seeds (chia and flaxseeds) for omega-3 fatty acids
- Whole grains like quinoa and cereals (for complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and proteins )
- Fruits and green leafy vegetables (for iron and calcium)
Meat substitutes are veggie meat like the impossible meat from the Impossible Foods line made from soy and potato proteins. However, there is another pitfall with these types of alternatives.
Vegan junk food
Vegan does not always mean healthy. There are also vegan junk foods like heavily processed mock meats, vegan cookies, and potato chips. These are high-calorie but low-nutrient choices. It is always better to stick to whole foods.
Be aware of marketing ploys riding the latest trends. These are often low-quality products that contain artificial sweeteners, white sugar, and corn syrup to name a few.
Avoid going full-on vegan all at once. Make one change at a time and focus on progress, not perfection. Practice the principle of adding before subtracting to your diet. Make a list of the non-vegan ingredients you enjoy, and look for substitutes. The process is all trial and error and seeing what works best for you.
In addition to reading labels and ingredient lists, you also have to learn nutrition basics. A common struggle for new vegans is not having enough variety in their diet. Or worse, end up eating junk food or not eating enough at all! With a curious mind and enough preparation, this is avoidable.
Do not fear the lack of protein
A common misconception among non-vegans is there will not be enough protein when replacing meat. But there are numerous plant-based substitutes such as beans, soy foods, legumes, and even whole grains. If you feel like you are always hungry, it might be a sign that you need more protein. Honor thy body and listen to hunger cues!
Sadly, not everything we need to be well-functioning human beings come from plants. Practitioners of the vegan lifestyle are advised to take dietary supplements and consumption of fortified foods.
Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D
Vitamin B12 is found only in animals such as fish, shellfish, meat, and dairy. We need vitamin B12 for healthy functioning blood and nerve cells. Include vitamin B12 fortified foods or take regular supplements.
Similarly, vitamin D is in animal products such as oily fish, red meat, liver, and egg yolks. A lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities or conditions with bone pain. The production of vitamin D comes naturally to us from direct exposure to sunlight when outdoors, unlike Vitamin B12. However, if you live somewhere with long winters, taking supplements or eating fortified foods is imperative.
Fatty acids, Iron, Calcium, and Zinc
A 2009 study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on the health effects of vegan diets identified the lack of polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, and zinc as potential nutritional shortfalls. They recommend taking daily vitamins and supplements in addition to plant sources.
Meal plan to achieve a balanced diet
Meal planning helps prepare the ingredients needed to make nutritious and tasty creative meals that you will enjoy. Research the recommended amount of macronutrients needed. A balanced vegan diet should give your body what it needs to thrive!
Eating the same old things can get boring. Make a conscious effort to experiment with different ingredients! There are a lot of great online resources for plant-based recipes like:
- Oh She Glows cookbook
- Sweet Potato Soul also has video tutorials
- The Beet has recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snacks and desserts!
In the process, you would ideally develop a better relationship with food. You might begin to love cooking (if you don’t already). Get creative with the substitutes and alternatives, and recreate your favorite non-vegan recipes! Imagine all the colorful meals you’ll come up with.
If you can take anything away from this, may it be:
- Go slow and focus on making progress. Remember that you don’t need to go vegan all at once. Experiment and find what works best and feels right for you. Listen to your body!
- Everyone is unique, and the effects of a lifestyle change may vary. Join a community you love that gives full support. You don’t have to go through this alone.
- Stay curious and be mindful of the choices you make. At the end of the day, what you do with your body is always a personal choice. Remember your why when it feels difficult. Assess if the teachings align with your values and beliefs. In the process, you will get to know yourself even better.
The most important thing is that you are empowered with your choices, keep harnessing plant power, and have fun along the way!