Vegan Nutrition and Food Facts
Vegan: for the animals, for your health, for the planet
People are sometimes wary of veganism because they think it involves too much sacrifice. Although eliminating animal products does mean replacing certain foods with others, all you’re ultimately giving up when you embrace a vegan lifestyle is your willingness to support unnecessary violence toward animals. You will be amazed at what a transformative experience it can be to stop fueling your body with the dead flesh and secretions of exploited animals, who, like all of us, only wanted to live and to be free from fear and pain. Most people do not want to inflict unnecessary harm on animals, yet they demand it every day when they choose to eat meat, dairy, eggs and other animal products. Choosing vegan means choosing the kindness in your own heart on a daily basis. SEE OUR RECIPE RESOURCE PAGE.
Thankfully, veganism isn’t something that only people with certain blood types or budgets can choose. According to the American Dietetic Association, the country’s oldest and foremost authority on diet and nutrition, a vegan diet is appropriate for all people at all ages, including athletes, children, and pregnant women. Many cultures and societies have thrived on vegetarian or vegan diets for centuries, long before faux-meat substitutes and dairy alternatives. In fact, many societies don’t consume dairy products as a matter of health. An estimated 95 percent of Asians, 60 to 80 percent of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80 to 100 percent of Native Americans, and 50 percent to 80 percent of Hispanics are lactose intolerant–meaning they lose the ability to digest the milk sugar lactose after infancy. That’s because mother’s milk is only intended for babies, and mother cows’ milk is, well, for baby cows.
But lactose intolerance is just the tip of the ice-cream cone. The consumption of meat, dairy and eggs has been unequivocally linked to the leading causes of death in the U.S. and globally, including heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers, with more diet-related diseases than communicable now killing humans worldwide. Fortunately, there is now a large body of scientific evidence irrefutably demonstrating the power of a vegan diet to help prevent, manage and in some cases even reverse these and other serious diseases. The following sections are intended to provide useful information to anyone following, or considering adopting, a healthy vegan diet.
Find a Vegan-Friendly Doctor or Dietitian
While many mainstream doctors are knowledgeable about the tremendous health benefits of veganism, many have not studied vegan nutrition at all, and some may react to plant-based diets based on misinformation or myth. Too, doctors are people, and, like anyone else, they can be deeply invested in their relationship to food. Don’t be discouraged if your physician isn’t supportive of your transition to a vegan diet. If you run into resistance, consider printing out a copy of the American Dietetic Association’s official position on vegan and vegetarian diets for discussion with your physician. It is also becoming increasingly possible to find vegan-friendly doctors through databases like Vegdocs.com, which help people find physicians in their area who understand plant-based nutrition. You can also search for dietitians who specialize in vegan nutrition through the American Dietetic Association’s website. Even if there is no one in your area, many are willing to do phone or email consultations.
Additionally, a wealth of rigorous scientific information on vegan nutrition is available on physician-written websites, as well as on the websites of vegan registered dietitians. These include:
Ask Dr. Wilson: Dr. Holly Wilson, a board certified physician and vegan advocate, will answer questions about vegan nutrition online, and also archives her thorough responses to other readers’ questions.
Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine: Frequently Asked Questions About Vegetarian Diets, and Frequently Asked Questions About Nutrition
The Vegan Society
The Vegetarian Resource Group: Nutrition In A Nutshell
Dr. William Harris, M.D.
But Where Do I Get My…..?
Long-term research studies show that it is better for humans to get our protein from plant sources. Animal protein foods are high in fat and saturated fat, and are consistently associated with osteoporosis, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and impaired kidney function. Plant-based diets provide plenty of protein and can help protect against these diseases. Especially protein-rich vegetarian foods include soy-based products like tofu, texturized vegetable protein, tempeh (a fermented soybean product), veggie burgers, seitan (a meat substitute made from a wheat protein called gluten), black beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, and grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and bulgur.
Need more proof of plant-based protein? The list of title-winning and record-holding vegan athletes grows exponentially every year, showing it is possible not only to survive, but to thrive on a plant-based diet, getting all the protein and other nutrients necessary to flourish. If you need some encouragement, or know someone whose skeptical naysaying you’d like to nix, check out some of these amazing vegan athlete profiles, and be inspired!
Scott Jurek: American ultramarathoner and record holder for distance run in 24 hours (165.7 miles), vegan advocate
Brendan Brazier: endurance athlete, ultramarathoner, former Iron Man Triathlete, vegan advocate
Steph Davis: climber, base jumper, wingsuit flyer, vegan activist
Despite what the dairy industry would have you believe, cow’s milk is not the only source of calcium; and it certainly isn’t the best source. In fact, the calcium in cow’s milk? Plants. Cows get calcium from plants. And so can you! Here are a just a few:
For more plant-based sources of calcium, click here.
Vitamin B12 is not made by plants or animals but by bacteria that live in soil and bodies of water. Meat and animal products contain B12 naturally if the animals eat plants and insects from the ground, ingesting soil regularly, or if they live in unchlorinated water. But because most animals raised for food in the U.S. are confined and fed a prepared grain-based feed, B12 is added to their food as a supplement. Supplemental B12 comes from bacteria grown in laboratories, and is a common nutritional additive to human foods as well, including many cereals and nondairy milks. It is also available as a vitamin and is included in most multivitamins, and in nutritional yeast. Because bacteria grown in laboratories produce B12 the same as bacteria growing in nature, supplemental B12 is broken down and metabolized just as efficiently.
In humans, B12 is essential for the formation of red blood cells, DNA & fatty acid synthesis, and brain & nervous system function. While it is necessary for people avoiding animal products to make sure they are eating B12 fortified foods or taking a vitamin supplement, this is easy to do and is also much healthier than getting B12 from cholesterol and fat-heavy meat, eggs or dairy products. Given that B-12 is inexpensive and that the amount you receive from fortified foods can sometimes be hard to keep track of, we recommend taking a daily supplement for optimal health.
Iron is richly available in many plant-based foods, such as lentils, spinach, quinoa, tofu, raisins, almonds, dried apricots, blackstrap molasses, and fortified grain cereals. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, so foods rich in both—such as green, leafy vegetables—are particularly valuable. Click here for an extensive list of vegan foods that contain iron.
Omega Fatty Acids
There is a pervasive but mistaken belief that seafood is the only nutritional source for the omega fatty acids crucial to healthy brain and nervous system function. But fish do not spontaneously produce omega fatty acids–fish consume algae, which contain the fatty acids. In fact there are quite a few plant sources of omegas, and there is no need for us to derive these essential nutrients secondhand from fish. Canola oil, English walnuts, flax seed, hemp seed/milk, olive oil, pumpkin seeds, spirulina and other algae are rich with essential fatty acids that the body fully recognizes and utilizes. These are all healthy plant-based sources, whereas seafood is the number one cause of food-borne illness in the U.S., and also contains dangerous dioxins, mercury, and unsafe levels of other heavy metals. As with B-12, the easiest and most advisable option to ensure you are getting enough omega fatty acids in your diet is to take a daily supplement– a visit to a well-stocked health food store, or a quick internet search for “vegan omega 3 supplement” will yield many options.
Okay, so pizza is not a nutrient. Or a food group. But we know it’s essential, and we’re here to assure you that giving up animal products doesn’t mean giving up great pizza. There are all kinds of amazing bases you can easily whip together for your cruelty-free pie, and several delicious, meltable vegan cheeses you can layer on. Below are just a few of our make-your-own favorites, but also be sure to explore your local vegan-friendly options for dining out. You’d be surprised at how many mainstream restaurants are willing to veganize a pizza–just ask if they can leave off the cheese and make you a savory garlic oil base, then pile high with all your favorite veggie toppings–truly divine. We will sometimes even bring our own v-cheese to the local pizza shop and have them do it up for us. SEE OUR RECIPE RESOURCE PAGE FOR MORE!
Speaking of Cheese…
What’s the most common reason people give when they say, “I could never be vegan!” ? Cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese. And, we get it. Recent studies have actually found that some people may experience cheese as a mild addiction, because it contains low levels of morphine. Turns out the protein casein in cow’s milk–and in the mother’s milk of all species–breaks down during digestion to release opiates called casomorphins. These opiates have a drug-like, soothing effect on babies’ brains that ensures that babies will bond with their mothers and continue to nurse and receive all the nutrients necessary for growth. While found in low levels in most dairy products, these opiates are disproportionately concentrated in cheese, possibly making it much harder to give up than other animal products. While some people are able to eliminate cheese without any problem, others struggle. If you want to cut cruelty out of your diet but are having a hard time letting go of cheese, please read “I Couldn’t Give Up Cheese, So I Gave Up Animal Cruelty Instead,” in which a former cheese connoisseur, and self-described cheese junkie, describes beautifully how and why she finally gave up cheese for good. SEE OUR RESOURCE PAGE FOR VEGAN CHEESE RECIPES.
Vegan Nutrition and Children
There is now a tremendous body of scientific literature in favor of a vegan diet for children. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Dr. Benjamin Spock, one of the most influential pediatricians of all time, made a radical revision to the seventh edition of his globally best-selling book, long considered the Bible of child-rearing, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In that edition, he recommended that children be raised on a vegan diet. After years of research, he concluded that cow’s milk, being custom designed for calves and not for human babies, was responsible for major childhood allergies and gastrointestinal disorders, and was a probable factor in the development of insulin-dependent diabetes in childhood. He advised against meat and all animal products at all stages of life, but especially in childhood, when long term eating habits and preferences are being formed, and when the cellular groundwork is being laid for future health or disease.
In the years since that publication, consumption of animal fats and proteins has been irrefutably linked with a long list of autoimmune diseases, obesity, diabetes and cancer- all of which are increasingly affecting children at astonishing rates. The sites listed below provide important information on both the health benefits and how-tos of raising vegan children, as well as the links between consumption of animal products and specific diseases. Not only can children thrive on a plant-based diet, but raising them vegan teaches them to align their choices with the fundamental values of compassion and kindness, rather than teaching them to love some animals but to exclude and harm others for a fleeting pleasure.
The Vegan RD, A Healthy Start for Vegan Children
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Children’s Health Issues
Dr. Holly Wilson, Vegan Children
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Nutrition for Kids
The Vegetarian Resource Group, Feeding Vegan Kids
VeganHealth.org, Real Vegan Children (pictures and profiles)
Raising Veg Kids
Vegan Lunch Box (great tips and meals for those packing vegan lunches for kids)
Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right: a highly recommended read