Veganism is a system of dietary and lifestyle practices that seeks to promote health and peace while reducing the suffering of both people and animals. Vegans (pronounced vee-guns) are vegetarians who do not eat any foods (eggs, dairy products, meat, etc.) derived from animal sources. Most vegans also do not use products that require for their production the death or suffering of animals, such as leather, fur, wool, and certain cosmetics.
The word "vegetarian" was coined in England in 1847 by the founders of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain. "Vegetarian" has been used to describe people who do not eat meat, but do consume dairy products and eggs. The Vegan Society was founded in England in 1944 by Donald Watson and others who believed that vegetarians should strive to exist without eating or using any animal products at all. Watson stated that the crisis of World War II may have been a motivation behind his founding of the Vegan Society, because he saw so much turmoil and suffering in the world around him. The Vegan founders believed that the first step to creating a better world would be to develop a diet that did not cause the death or suffering of any living beings. The term "vegan" is derived from the Latin word vegetus, which means "full of life," which the founders hoped their system would be. "Vegan" also starts with the same three letters as "vegetarian," and ends with the last two, as its founders believed they were starting with vegetarian ideas and taking them to their logical conclusion.
The American Vegan Society (AVS) was founded in 1960 by Jay Dinshah. The same year, the AVS began to publish a journal called Ahimsa, which is a Sanskrit word that means "not causing harm" and "reverence for life." Dinshah and others conceived veganism to be a philosophy of living that has nonviolence, peace, harmony, honesty, service to the world, and knowledge as its goals. In 1974, the AVS became affiliated with the North American Vegetarian Society, which was formed to bring together all of the vegetarian groups in North America.
Since the 1970s, there has been a vast amount of research concerning nutrition and diet. It has been discovered that diets that are centered around meat and dairy products, such as the typical American diet, are high in cholesterol and saturated fat but low in fiber. These diets have been linked to many health problems, including heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, which together cause 68% of all the deaths in the United States. Thus, the interest in diets that reduce or eliminate foods that contribute to these conditions has grown considerably. In 1992, the Vegetarian Times magazine took a poll that estimated that 13 million Americans, or 5% of the population, consider themselves vegetarian. Of the vegetarians, 4% are vegans, which amounts to nearly 520,000 Americans.
Vegan diets are often recommended as dietary therapy for heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, strokes, cancer, obesity, arthritis, allergies, asthma, environmental illness, hypertension, gout, gallstones, kidney stones, ulcers, colitis, digestive disorders, premenstrual syndrome, anxiety, and depression. At present, however, no studies exist that define the efficacy of vegan diets in treating these conditions. Nevertheless, a well-designed vegan diet is an effective weight-loss diet, and is an economical and easy preventive health practice.
Veganism can be better understood by considering the ethical, ecological, and health reasons that motivate vegans.
A vegan lifestyle seeks to promote awareness, compassion, and peace. Veganism is an ethical system as well as a diet. Ethics refers to rules of conduct or the ways in which people interact with others and the world. One poll in England showed that 83% of vegans listed ethical reasons as their main consideration in their practices. Vegans believe that health encompasses not only individuals' bodies, but also includes healthy relationships between people and their actions towards other living things, the earth, and the environment. Vegans believe that as long as animals are treated cruelly and are killed for meat, then the world's ethical and spiritual health will suffer. Vegans believe that people should become aware of how their food choices are creating suffering and affecting the health of the world as a whole. For instance, it has been estimated that the grain that goes to feed livestock in America could feed 1.3 billion people, which would relieve a large measure of the pain and suffering in the world.
Vegans claim that egg and dairy production may cause animals just as much suffering as killing them for meat, because modern factory farming treats animals as unfeeling machines instead of as living beings. Eggs are produced by keeping chickens in small cages and in painful and unsanitary conditions. Vegans claim that dairy cattle are subjected to cruel treatment as well, being bred artificially and caged for much of their lives. Dairy cattle are also injected with hormones that make them produce unnaturally high quantities of milk while weakening their immune systems and making them sick and unhealthy. Large amounts of antibiotics need to be used on weakened cows, which in turn affects the health of humans and creates diseases that are resistant to medicine. Dairy farming causes death to cows as well because undesirable or old cows are slaughtered for meat.
Other animal products are avoided by vegans as well. Leather, wool, and fur are not used because they result in the suffering of animals from their production. Some vegans do not use honey because they believe that the collection of honey is harmful to bees. Many vegans avoid using sugar, because some sugar is made by using charcoal made from the bones of dead cattle. Vegans also do not use products that have been tested on animals, and vegans are active in resisting the use of animals for dissection and medical experiments. Vegans are typically outspoken against hunting and the cruel treatment of animals in zoos or for entertainment (e.g., cockfighting and bullfighting).
Helping the Earth
Vegans believe that their dietary and lifestyle practices would contribute to a healthier world ecology. Vegans can cite many statistics that show that the American meat-centered diet is contributing to environmental problems. The main thrust of vegans' ecological position is that it takes many more resources to produce meat than it does to provide a grain-based diet, and people can be fed better with grain than with meat. For instance, it takes 10 lbs (4.5 kg) of grain to make 1 lb (0.45 kg) of beef. On one acre of land, 20,000 lbs (9,000 kg) of potatoes can be grown compared to 125 lbs (57 kg) of beef during the same time. In America, livestock consume six and a half times as much grain as the entire population. Different dietary habits here could improve the world, vegans argue. Environmental problems caused by the inefficient production of livestock include topsoil loss, water shortages and contamination, deforestation, toxic waste, and air pollution.
People who eat vegetarian diets are at lower risk for many conditions, including heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, gallstones, and kidney stones. A vegan diet contains no cholesterol, because cholesterol is found only in animal products. Diets high in cholesterol and saturated fat are responsible for heart disease. American men overall have a 50% risk of having a heart attack, while vegans have only a 4% risk. Vegans consume as much as four times the amount of fiber as the average person, and high fiber intake is believed to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and digestive tract problems. Vegan diets are also high in protective nutrients that are found in fruits and vegetables, such as antioxidants.
A vegan diet can also reduce exposure to chemicals that are found in meat and dairy products, such as pesticides and synthetic additives such as hormones. Chemicals tend to accumulate in the tissue of animals that are higher in the food chain, a process called bioaccumulation. By not eating animal products, vegans can avoid the exposure to these accumulated toxins, many of which are believed to influence the development of cancer. It is important, however, for vegans to eat organically produced vegetables and grains, as vegans who eat nonorganic food get high doses of pesticides. One study showed that DDT, a cancer-causing pesticide, was present in significant levels in mother's milk for 99% of American women, but only 8% of vegetarian women had significant levels of the pesticide. The risks of women getting breast cancer and men contracting prostate cancer are nearly four times as high for frequent meat eaters as for those who eat meat sparingly or not at all. High consumption of dairy products has been linked to diabetes, anemia, cataracts, and other conditions.
Vegan diets may also be beneficial for those with allergic or autoimmune disorders such as asthma, allergies, and rheumatoid arthritis. Animal products cause allergic reactions in many people, and studies have shown that allergic responses and inflammation may be improved by eliminating animal products from the diet. Furthermore, vegan diets are effective weight loss diets, because the high levels of fiber and low levels of fat make it possible for dieters to eat until they are full and still take in lower calories than other diets.
Those considering veganism may wish to adopt the diet gradually to allow their bodies and lifestyles time to adjust to different eating habits. Some nutritionists have recommended "transition" diets to help people change from a meat-centered diet in stages. Many Americans eat meat products at nearly every meal, and the first stage of a transition diet is to substitute just a few meals a week with wholly vegetarian foods. Then, particular meat products can be slowly reduced and eliminated from the
Vegans should become informed on healthful dietary and nutrition practices as well. Sound nutritional guidelines include decreasing the intake of fat, increasing fiber, and emphasizing fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in the diet while avoiding processed foods and sugar. Vegans can experiment with meat substitutes, foods that are high in protein and essential nutrients. Tofu and tempeh are soybean products that are high in protein, calcium, and other nutrients. There are "veggie-burgers" that can be grilled like hamburgers, and vegan substitutes for turkey and sausage with surprisingly realistic textures and taste. Furthermore, there are many vegan cookbooks on the market, as cooking without meat or dairy products can be challenging for some people.
Vegans should also become familiar with food labels and food additives, because there are many additives derived from animal sources that are used in common foods and in such household items as soap. Vegans may also find social support at local health food stores or food cooperatives.
Vegans should be aware of particular nutrients that may be lacking or need special attention in non-animal diets. These include protein, vitamin B12, riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids. Furthermore, pregnant women, growing children, and people with certain health conditions have higher requirements for these nutrients.
Vegans should be sure to get complete proteins in their diets. A complete protein contains all of the essential amino acids, which are essential because the body cannot make them. Meat and dairy products generally contain complete proteins, but most vegetarian foods such as grains and legumes contain incomplete proteins since they lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Vegans can easily obtain complete proteins by combining particular foods. For instance, beans are high in the amino acid lysine but low in tryptophan and methionine. Rice is low in lysine and high in tryptophan and methionine. Thus, a combination of rice and beans makes a complete protein. In general, combining legumes such as soy, lentils, beans, and peas with grains like rice, wheat, or oats forms complete proteins. Nuts or peanut butter with grains such as whole wheat bread also forms complete proteins. Proteins do not necessarily need to be combined in the same meal, but should generally be combined over a period of a few days.
Getting enough vitamin B12 is an issue for vegans because meat and dairy products are its main sources. Vegans are advised to take vitamin supplements containing B12. Spirulina, a nutritional supplement made from algae, is used as a vegetarian source of this vitamin, as are fortified soy products and nutritional yeast. The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include muscle twitching and irreversible nerve damage; weakness; numbness and tingling in the extremities; and a sore tongue.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is also generally found in high amounts in animal sources, so vegans should be aware of this fact and take a supplement if necessary. Vegetable sources of riboflavin include brewer's yeast, almonds, mushrooms, whole grains, soybeans, and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin D can be obtained from vitamin supplements, fortified foods, and sunshine. Calcium can be obtained from enriched tofu, seeds, nuts, legumes, and dark green vegetables, including broccoli, kale, spinach, and collard greens. Iron is found in raisins, figs, legumes, tofu, whole grains (particularly whole wheat), potatoes, and dark green leafy vegetables, and by cooking with iron skillets. Iron is absorbed more efficiently by the body when iron-containing foods are eaten with foods that contain vitamin C, such as fruits, tomatoes, and green vegetables. Zinc is abundant in nuts, pumpkin seeds, legumes, whole grains, and tofu. Getting enough omega-3 essential fatty acids may be an issue for vegans. These are found in walnuts, canola oil, and such supplements as flaxseed oil. Vegans should consider purchasing organically grown food when possible, to avoid exposure to pesticides and to contribute to sound agricultural practices.
Research & general acceptance
Scientists have analyzed vegetarianism more frequently, mainly because there are higher numbers of lacto-ovo vegetarians around the world than there are vegans. Studies have repeatedly shown many benefits of plant-based diets.
A significant study of veganism was published in 1985 in the Journal of Asthma, which used a vegan diet to treat asthma. After one year, 92% of patients exhibited significant improvement in asthma symptoms and in such measurements as lung capacity and cholesterol levels. People on the diet also experienced fewer episodes of colds and influenza. Researchers concluded that the vegan diet was helpful for asthma because it reduced
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