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What Is a Vegan Diet?

By: Sarah Dowdey  | 

The Vegan Lifestyle

When Elsie Shrigley and Donald Watson first used the word "vegan" to describe fellow nondairy vegetarians in November 1944, the diet and lifestyle were both decidedly uncool. Unsympathetic vegetarians even refused to associate themselves with the radical movement. Veganism developed a clubby, health-crazed reputation. The diet eventually became popular with countercultural movements -- most notably hippies -- but still maintained its air of exclusivity. Nowadays, many vegans try to play down the self-righteous reputation and promote veganism as a fun and even trendy lifestyle.

Vegan cooking has been, until recently, synonymous with mushy tofu and nutritional yeast. A growing interest in ethnic cooking, however, has made budding chefs realize that many cultures have delicious vegan meals built right into their cuisines. Middle Eastern foods like hummus, tahini and falafel, North African stews and tagines, Indian vegetable curries and adaptable Asian stir-fries let vegans enjoy eating and sharing their plant-based diets with nonvegan friends.

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Vegan baking, on the other hand, seems like an ­impossibility. How do you make cake or cookies without milk, butter or eggs? Soy, rice or almond milks easily replace dairy milk. Ground flax seeds, silken tofu, soy yogurt, a vegan egg substitute or even bananas can stand in for eggs, while unsalted margarine or canola oil can replace butter. Vegan baking also appeals to people with egg allergies or lactose intolerance.

Vegans also abstain from wearing or using animal products -- leather, wool, silk and animal-based glues, dyes, cosmetics and chemicals. Trading in nice leather shoes, silk blouses and wool pants for Payless kicks and earthy-looking hemp shifts used to be one of the major sacrifices of veganism. But now vegan designers and stores cultivate a new aesthetic -- one that is cruelty-free, well-made and chic. The popular fashion designer Stella McCartney, a vegetarian, uses only natural fibers and imitation leather in her clothing.

The vegan lifestyle is transforming from one based on self-sacrifice to one centered on conscientious fun. Potential vegans attracted by the lifestyle's cachet or its ethical, environmental or health benefits should not, however, neglect their research. The diet is still a complicated one that requires professional consultation.

To learn more about food, dieting, vegetarians and other related topics, check out the links below.

Originally Published: Aug 29, 2007

Vegan Diet FAQ

What is the difference a vegetarian and vegan?
A vegetarian refrains from eating meat, including poultry, fish and shellfish, or by-products of animal slaughter (like gelatin). A vegan also doesn't consume animal flesh, but their beliefs extend way beyond food and they seek to exclude any form of animal exploitation and cruelty. They also avoid eating dairy, eggs and animal-derived ingredients like honey.
What can you eat on a vegan diet?
Many vegans regularly consume foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Products like tofu, tempeh, and plant-based "meat" are also common.
Do you lose weight on a vegan diet?
Just like meat-eaters, vegans can gain or lose weight depending on portions, sugar and fat consumption, whether they're exercising, and other factors. However, statistics show that vegetarians and vegans do have lower body mass indexes than meat eaters.
Is it healthier to be vegan?
There are huge health benefits to eating a vegan diet, but it takes a lot of work (and often some supplements) to maintain. Vegan diets tend to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol. People who eat this type of restrictive diet also tend to have lower blood pressure and decreased rates of diabetes, colon cancer, prostate cancer, hypertension, and heart disease.
What are the drawbacks of a vegan diet?
The most significant drawback of a vegan diet is how difficult it can be to maintain and meet your body's nutritional needs. You remove the primary sources of omega-3s and vitamin B12. It tends to take more work and forethought, otherwise you end up just grabbing vegan snack foods, alternative cheeses, and fake meats, which are processed and often high in fat and calories. It can also be a difficult plan to follow when you're out at a restaurant or over at a friend's for a meal, as you sometimes need to pick between sticking to your vegan ideals and eating anything more than a side of french fries.

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Sources

  • "Bake Sumthin'." Post Punk Kitchen. http://www.theppk.com/veganbaking.html
  • "Food Labeling." United States Department of Agriculture.http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp
  • "Free-Range and Organic Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products: Conning Consumers?" People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.http://www.peta.org/mc/factsheet_display.asp?ID=96
  • "History." The Vegan Society.http://www.vegansociety.com/html/about_us/history/
  • Hoyt, Clark. "Opinion: The Danger of the One-Sided Debate." The New York Times. June 24, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/24/opinion/24pubed.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5070&en=60ae0e77c9df57e3&ex=1186027200
  • La Ferla, Ruth. "Uncruel Beauty." The New York Times. January 11, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/11/fashion/11VEGAN.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5088&en=353bc71a3d099cbb&ex=1326171600&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
  • Moskin, Julia. "Strict Vegan Ethics, Frosted with Hedonism." The New York Times. January 24, 2007.
  • USDA, "Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms." http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp