So what is veganism and how is it different from just being a vegetarian?
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude (as far as is possible and practicable) all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. It involves a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat, dairy, eggs and even honey, as well as products like leather and those tested on animals.
A vegan diet can be richly diverse and comprise all kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, beans and pulses – all of which can be prepared in endless combinations – but it does require a whole lot of commitment and getting used to. Curious about giving an animal-free diet a real shot? Consider these 9 aspects to know if you’re ready:
1. New protein sources
Every meal should contain protein, say vegan dietitians, because they break down into amino acids that promote cell growth and repair. Adults are recommended to get at least 0.8 grams of protein daily for every kilogram of body mass—that’s about 54 grams for a woman who weighs 68 kgs. Sources of vegan protein include natural soy, beans, dals, chickpeas, green peas, nuts and quinoa.
2. A B12 supplement
Vitamin B12 keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA – but occurs naturally only in animal foods. Deficiencies can lead to tiredness, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, weight loss (the bad kind), nerve problems, and depression. To find out if you need to up your intake, ask your doctor for a simple blood draw.
3. And an iron supplement
Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme, which makes up about 40% of the iron in animal foods, is easily absorbed by the body. Vegan diets contain only non-heme, which is less readily absorbed, so you may need to ingest more iron if you want to get the same benefit. Good vegan iron sources include legumes, sunflower seeds, dried raisins, and dark, leafy greens. Vitamin C-rich foods like red peppers, citrus, and broccoli aid iron absorption.
4. The danger of junk replacements
Swapping out meat for white bread, pasta, and other packaged foods sets you up for failure on the vegan diet. It’s not a good idea to trade in animal products, which contain protein, vitamins, and minerals, for processed foods that provide little nutritional value other than calories. The result: hunger, weight gain, and a grumpier mood.
5. Easing up on soy-based products
Though scientists are still arguing over the effects of soy on cancer and heart health, one thing is for certain: consuming too much soy-based vegan ‘meat’ is arguably worse (than) consuming high-quality animal products. Meat substitutes are often highly processed and loaded with sodium and preservatives, so read labels carefully. The healthiest sources of soy are miso, tofu, soy milk, and edamame.
6. You don’t have to make the switch at once
You won’t just wake up one morning vegan. It takes work, so it should also take time. Start by adding more plant-based foods to your diet, while at the same time cutting back on animal products, especially those that are non-organic, and more importantly processed, refined foods. Making gradual changes and assessing how you are feeling along the way is key.
7. Food labels
If you’re serious about being vegan, checking food labels and verifying ingredients is a must. Just because a food product is not glaringly non-vegan doesn’t mean that it’s suitable for a vegan diet, and vice versa. Casein and whey, which come from milk, are present in many cereal bars, breads, and granolas, while gelatin and tallow (also known as suet) are derived from meat. Then there’s Natural Red 4 (also known as carmine, cochineal, or cochineal extract), which is a food coloring derived from the dried bodies of female beetles. Head spinning yet? The Vegetarian Resource Group’s list of common food ingredients can help.
8. Your calcium needs
Adults between the ages of 19 and 50 are recommended to get a minimum of 1,000 mg of calcium a day, but a European Journal study found that when vegans consumed at least 525 mg per day of calcium, their risk of bone fracture was no different than that of non-vegetarians with similar calcium intakes. The key is eating a variety of naturally calcium-rich foods such as spinach, ladies finger, saag (mustard greens), broccoli, bok choy, almonds, soy beans, figs, and garlic, as well as calcium-fortified foods such as cereals, plant-based milks, and tofu made with calcium sulfate. Bonus: soy, leafy greens, and most fortified foods are also high in vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium.
9. You may feel happier
Animals won’t be the only ones happy with your vegan move. You will too! One reason why: compared to vegetarian diets, omnivorous ones contain more arachidonic acid, which can spur neurological changes that drag down mood, according to a 2012 Nutrition Journal study.
This post has been adapted from an article on Health.com
Image credit: Melanie Richards