Thinking about going vegan? You’re not alone!
While the exact number of vegans is hard to measure, roughly 3% of the American population is vegetarian in some way. And about half of them self-identifying as vegan.
Whatever the exact number, it's a growing demographic. More and more people are adopting vegan diets. But what is driving this interest in veganism? Is going vegan healthy?
As is often the case, the answers to these questions aren’t clear-cut.
Today, giving you an extended 101 look at the vegan diet. As with any choice, going vegan is something that’s best done after learning the facts. Since there’s no time like the present,
let’s dive in.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
In plain terms, a vegan diet contains only food made from plants—vegetables, grains, nuts, fruits, etc. This is distinct from a vegetarian diet which does not include animal flesh, but does include animal products, such as milk, cheese, and eggs.
There are a lot of subgroups to veganism you can discover if you dig deep enough. For example, there are vegans who only eat raw or barely cooked foods. Another more extreme example are vegans who only eat fruits, nuts, and seeds. In general, these types of vegans are all putting extra restrictions on their diet for health, cultural or ethical reasons—or in some instances, just preference.
For the purposes of this post, a vegan diet includes anything plant-based, with no animal products involved whatsoever.
Reasons to go Vegan
There are numerous reasons an individual may decide to go vegan.
For some, animal ethics is the primary factor. They don’t want to consume any product that may have exploited, harmed, or killed an animal.
For others, the natural environment is of the utmost concern. In this instance, the large carbon footprint left by the meat industry is unignorable. The beef industry in particular is known to release concerning amounts of methane into the air.
For some people vegan is the default, as there are cultural and religious groups that have strains of veganism within them—most notably Jainism, with its precepts against harming life.
Increasingly, health is becoming the primary reason many are turning to veganism. Veganism has been linked to weight loss, primarily due to the fact most vegan food is low in saturated fat.
Why is Going Vegan Becoming More Popular?
For anyone in the food or nutrition industry, the rising numbers of vegetarians and vegans are worth noting. The vegan industry is estimated to top $31 billion by 2026.
There are a few reasons the trend is on a steady incline. In many ways, the increased number of people going vegan is the result of certain factors reaching “critical” masses. For example, obesity has become not just a concern but an epidemic. Similarly, the effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced, causing people to pivot towards environmentally-friendly habits and diets.
In other ways, the growing commercial success of veganism is simply the result of the ball picking up speed. As more vegan restaurants open, and more vegan foods can be found in grocery stores, it becomes easier for an average consumer to go vegan. The rise of vegan cooking has always managed to break the stigma of vegan food being “boring” and “bland”. There has even been a move to create vegan substitutes for meat products, thus targeting people who would have gone vegan if not for the fact that they can’t live without a hamburger.
More subtly, this rise is also a case of culture and demographics. Millennials are much more likely to adopt vegan diets than older generations, whether permanently for ethical reasons, or in the short-term for health reasons. As more and more people begin to take up vegan diets, it is becoming increasingly normalized, especially in North America and Europe.
The industry itself is changing as well. While companies catering to vegans traditionally were plucky start-ups, more and more major food companies are interested in developing their own line of vegan products. Today, you can’t go to a fast-food chain or grocery store that doesn’t have entire menus or sections catering to vegetarians and vegans.
Were Humans Made to Go Vegan?
By this point, some readers have already been scared away by the mention of “no animal products”, no matter how exciting the vegan market might sound. Many people are proud of human’s status as carnivores and will claim that going vegan is inherently unhealthy. Conversely, some vegans will claim that veganism is the “natural” state of humans.
So which is right? As you probably guessed, the answer is a little bit more complex than that and requires us to dive into our biology. Like most members of the hominid family of primates, our digestive system has adapted to be omnivorous. That said, exactly how omnivorous we are is a matter of debate. Generally, it seems like meat was historically a high-energy bonus for early humans, supplementing a vegetarian diet. But that does not discount the ability of humans to survive without animal byproducts.
In truth, people all over the world adapted to different diets depending on what their environments offered them. This is the reason why some people are lactose intolerant and others aren’t—some people had ancestors who herded cattle and integrated dairy into their diets while others didn’t. Uncontrollable genetic factors like this can be an important part of the decision to go vegan. After all, if someone never consumed dairy due to lactose intolerance, dropping dairy isn’t a big deal.
In short, yes, humans can go vegan. Whether this is a wise nutritional choice needs further exploration.
Effects of a Vegan Diet
While a radical change in diet will bring some radical nutritional shifts, the following is a summation of some common features of going vegan.
It should be remembered that, generally, these effects will take awhile to fully manifest. That said, there have been some studies that show even a short vegan diet could begin to have immediate health effects.
Pros of a Vegan Diet
Lower Risk of Heart Disease: Vegan diets have been tied to lower cholesterol levels and the reduction in risk of heart disease. Vegans do not consume any animal products which are known to contain high amounts of saturated fat (especially in pork and beef).
- Weight Loss: The lack of saturated fat in vegan diets has also been linked to weight loss. Since adopting a diet often has to do with weight concerns, this is one of the most popular reasons for going vegan.
- Diabetes Management: A vegan diet also tends to help you better manage sugar levels in your body. This can mean that it's a great benefit for those with diabetes, or with a genetic predisposition to getting diabetes.
- Reduced Risk of Cancer: Because a vegan diet is generally low in cholesterol and high in fiber, some studies have shown it to help reduce the risk of many kinds of cancer. Some estimates put this reduction as high as 15% less.
- Ethical Fulfillment: Whether spurred by personal, spiritual, or religious reasons, vegan diets can provide ethical fulfillment to those who are sensitive regarding harm towards animals, or exploitation of animals in general.
- Environmental Contributions: As mentioned, vegan diets tend to be much more friendly to the environment, helping you reduce your carbon footprint.
Cons of a Vegan Diet
- Nutrient deficiencies: Out of all the downsides to a vegan diet, this is the biggest one. Cutting out meat and dairy products from your diet can make it more difficult to get certain nutrients. If you want to go vegan, you’ll have to do your research and make sure that foods with these nutrients are on your menu. Deficiencies in any of these minerals and vitamins can have a negative impact on your health: Iron, B12, Protein, Vitamin D, Calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids, Zinc
- Planning: To ensure you’re consuming enough of the aforementioned vitamins and minerals, extra planning and meal prep is required.
Difficulty Dining Out: Cooking for yourself is one thing, but dining out can be even more difficult. While some cities are better than others at providing vegan options, throughout much of the world, you’re going to have to do some hunting. Thankfully as veganism becomes more popular, this might start to turn around—even non-vegan restaurants are starting to put vegan options on the menu.
The Genetic Factor
Important Vegan Foods
- Iron: Soy nuts, tofu, kale, spinach, beans, peanut butter
- Vitamin B12: Select cereals and fortified non-dairy milk and orange juice
- Protein: Lentils, beans, quinoa, oatmeal, nuts
- Vitamin D: Mushrooms, select fortified non-dairy milk, and orange juice
- Calcium: Broccoli, beans, leafy greens, almonds, sesame seeds, soybeans
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Brussel sprouts, walnuts, chia seeds
- Zinc: Lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu
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