Vegan diets (diets that do not include any animal product or by-product such as meat, eggs, milk, and cheese) can be very healthy if closely monitored. Many people feel that to be limited to a vegan diet is not just a way to eat, but also a lifestyle. This is true in that a vegan diet must be carefully planned. It is also true in that many vegans not only do not consume animal products and by-products, but also avoid using products in their daily lives that contain animal products and by-products, or that have been tested on animals. Veganism is a choice often made for health purposes, but spiritual and political reasons also drive people to veganism. Polls are not entirely accurate, but recent polls show that somewhere between 0.2% and 0.9% of American adults considers themselves vegans.
Vegan and vegetarian diets are often believed to be healthier than traditional carnivorous diets because they lack cholesterol and high amounts of fat, and offer a rich variety of vitamins, nutrients, and fiber. Two of the main concerns about vegan diets are protein and calcium. Most meat eaters get protein from eating beef, pork, fish, and poultry. Calcium in meat-eater diets, as well as in most vegetarian diets usually comes from goat or cow milks and cheeses. Vegans abstain from all animal products, and thus must find protein and calcium from other sources. Variety is the key ingredient to a healthy vegan diet.
Vegan sources of protein include nuts, potatoes, whole grains including rice, green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and kale, as well as many others. Calcium can come from soy products such as soy milk, calcium-enriched tofu and juice, and dark green, leafy vegetables. Choices such as spinach and kale provide both good sources of protein and calcium. However, calcium is not as easy to obtain for the vegan diet, and many doctors recommend the use of a daily calcium supplement.
Perhaps the biggest health concern regarding vegan diets is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), usually obtained from eating fish, shellfish, and eggs. DHA is vital to brain, eye, and cell function. Short-chain versions of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA can be gotten from soybeans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and even some algae’s, but significantly more of the short-chain version must be eaten to equal the healthy effects of the long-chain version found in meat products. This issue is often what determines the difference between vegetarianism and veganism.
A host of products are available to the modern vegan. Enriched tofu and soy products replace eggs and milk in cooking, as well as providing many of the nutrients needed to sustain a healthy body. Cookbooks can make the transition to vegan cooking easier. Medical literature and practitioners, including dieticians, can help plan vegan diets, and give guidance on maintaining overall health.