Is a vegan diet healthy?
Definitely! A balanced vegan diet consisting of a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is the healthiest of all and will provide all the nutrients you need, with the bonus of higher antioxidants and lower saturated fat and cholesterol. However, any diet can be unhealthy if you aren’t eating the right foods. A diet of burgers, fries, chocolate, biscuits, sweets and pizza is unhealthy regardless of whether it’s vegan or not.
Animal products are high in saturated fat and don’t provide fibre, while plant based foods are high in fibre and low in saturated fats. Only animal products contain cholesterol, which along with diets high in saturated fat are linked to health dangers such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. High intakes of animal protein also increases risks of osteoporosis, and kidney stones, amongst other things. Vegetable protein is not linked to these diseases.
You can get an adequate amount of calcium from your diet. Good sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, baked beans, black beans, dried figs, tahini, almonds and tofu*. Adults generally need about 100mg of calcium daily.
Vegans can get B12 through fortified soy milk, marmite and savoury yeast flakes. B12 has also been added to some other vegan products (eg. some Sanitarium burgers, sausages and ice ‘creams’ – check labels though as some Sanitarium products contain eggs and dairy). We recommend that vegans take a B12 supplement as any B12 present in plant foods is not easily absorbed into the body.
In short, the answer is that it depends what sort of diet you are switching from and what sort of vegan diet you are adopting. It will be an individual experience for everyone. There are healthy vegan diets and there are junk-food vegan diets.
Many people do not realise the cruelty involved in the dairy industry. A cow, like a human, only produces milk when she has a baby to feed. Dairy cows are therefore forced to produce calf after calf, each of whom are taken from her shortly after birth, in order to keep her producing milk. The stress placed on the cow often results in her being killed as young as 3 years old, when her natural lifespan is between 20-25 years. The female calves of these cows often replace other members of the dairy herd, whereas the male calves are unwanted side products of the industry. They are either raised for veal or killed shortly after birth. Dairy is high in saturated fat and cholesterol and is linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. Dairy can also cause iron deficient anaemia in infants and toddlers.
Most free range laying hens live in crowded sheds. Their outside area is generally restricted to a small enclosure with access via small exit holes which many hens are unable to reach and therefore have no outside access. Hens can have a lifespan of 10 years, however they are often killed after a year or two when their productivity drops. Free range laying hens are the offspring of parent birds who are kept for their entire lives inside crowded, filthy sheds with no access to the outside. The hens and roosters are housed together for constant mating. The hens have no escape or respite from the roosters, their backs become featherless, red and sore. They live wretched lives and are sent off to slaughter when only 18 months old.
The female chicks of these parent birds are sent to free range, barnlaid or caged sheds, the males are unwanted by-products and are killed soon after hatching, generally by being ground up alive in a macerator (industrial blender).
Does vegan food taste good?
Yes it does! Our culture is all that limits us in eating an amazing selection of delicious vegan foods. We are increasingly programmed to eat highly processed and animal based diets. Yet, there are plenty of vegan products and recipes available with more coming on the market all the time. Some you will like and some you may not, like with any food choices. You’ll have your favourites and you may be surprised that a lot of the food you already eat is vegan or can be easily adapted.
Is honey vegan?
Honey is an animal product and is therefore avoided by vegans. Surprisingly a lot of bees are factory farmed and live in unnatural conditions. The queen is often artificially inseminated, has her wings clipped and is replaced (killed) after 1 or 2 years (normal life span is around 5 years). Many bees are casualties of harvesting and transportation. Try using agave nectar, maple syrup or golden syrup instead.
Where do I start finding out what I can and can’t eat?
To put it simply – anything from a plant you eat and anything from an animal you don’t eat! You’ll be pleasantly surprised there’s heaps more you can eat than can’t. For instance, natures bounty of unlimited fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes as well as your standard pantry items such as pasta, rice and bread – just check the label until you’re familiar with which brands are vegan, as some may contain egg or dairy. If a product is processed always check the ingredients as many vegetarian products use eggs and cheese. More and more labels now say whether the product is suitable for vegans, as time passes and veganism grows this should become standard practice for food labelling.
Some common ‘hidden’ animal products you may not be aware of include;
Gelatine (boiled animal tissue such as bones, skin, cartilage and ligaments)
Casein (milk protein)
Cochineal (food colouring made from powdered insects)
Vitamin D3 (from wool fat)
Rennet (enzyme from a calves stomach, used in cheese making)
Lactose/Lactic acid (can be from animal or plant origin)
What about products that have items such as eggs and dairy listed as ‘May contain traces of…’?
This is something that you will have to make your own decision on. ‘May contain traces of…’ generally means that the product in question is made on the same production line, or in the same factory as others which do contain those ingredients – and not because it is actually an ingredient of the product. The wording is generally there as a disclaimer in case someone has an allergy to that particular ingredient (you’ll usually find that it is only allergens that are listed, for example. eggs, dairy, seafood and peanuts). The chance of the product containing that item is generally very small, and if it did, the amount would most likely be a minute quantity – obviously if you do have an allergy to the item then you should avoid it.
Can I still eat out at restaurants?
Yes of course, choosing a vegetarian or vegan restaurant will provide you with the most options when eating out. However, there are options available at most restaurants. Check out the vegetarian dishes on the menu, some may already be vegan, or may easily be adapted simply by omitting cheese for example. Some ideas for popular restaurants are given below:
Chinese/Thai – rice paper rolls, vegetarian dim sims or spring rolls, stir fries or curries with vegetable and tofu. Check whether they use fish sauce or shrimp paste in their dishes.
Italian – antipasto such as olives, sun dried tomatoes and artichokes. Tomato and vegetable based pasta (hold the cheese), pizza with plenty of vegetables and no cheese, garlic bread.
Indian – poppadums, samosas, vegetable bhajis, vegetable or chickpea curries, dahl, rice and roti. Check whether they use ghee (clarified butter) in any of their dishes.
Pub – bread and dips such as hummus, baba ghanoush and tapenade, bruschetta, pasta, baked potato, chips, stir fries.
What can I use instead of cow’s milk?
There is a wide variety of non-dairy milks available. Your local supermarket is likely to stock the more common items such as soy and rice milks, and many health food shops, organic stores and Asian supermarkets offer less common ones such as nut, oat, quinoa and hemp milks. These products can be found both on the shelf and in the refrigerated sections. . They also all have different amounts of fat, protein, vitamins, etc so check the label to find which suits you best. There are also some flavoured varieties available and some are also fortified, for example with calcium or B12.
What can I used instead of cheese and other dairy products?
There are a wide variety of products such as vegan margarine, butter, creams, cream ‘cheese’ and other ‘cheeses’, ice ‘creams’ and yoghurts available.
What can I eat instead of meat, for example when I’m at a barbecue?
If you are just starting out on a vegan diet you may miss having a ‘meat’ part of the meal and be unsure what to cook. However, there are plenty of products you can use instead. Some of the more readily available items are mock meat burgers, sausages, veggie mince, schnitzels and roasts. Be sure to read the ingredients as some may contain eggs and dairy. If you have an Asian grocery close to you they are worth investigating. They often offer a range of ‘mock meats’ (usually frozen), including mock ‘pork’, ‘duck’, beef’, ‘chicken’ and ’prawns’ . There are also vegan varieties of other items such as bacon, pepperoni, chicken and ham slices.
You may also want to try tofu, seitan and tempeh which are all high in protein and can make a delicious hearty meat substitute.
If a recipe calls for chicken or beef stock – you can simply replace this with Massels Chicken or Beef Style Stock which is vegan, or try miso which is a great way to add flavour.
Is alcohol vegan?
Some is and some isn’t. Most spirits are vegan, although there are the more obvious ones that contain cream or honey that are not. Most wines and beers go through a filtering process, often using animal products. Such filtering agents include milk, albumen (from eggs), isinglass (from the swim bladders of fish) and gelatine. Although the filtering agent is not present in the finished product (except trace amounts) the process still requires the use of animal products. Labelling regulations require allergens such as milk and egg to be listed on labels, but it is not a requirement for isinglass and some other animal products to be listed. If you are unsure whether a product is vegan it is advisable to contact the beer/wine maker.
I don’t like tofu. Do I have to have it?
There are plenty of things to eat without ever touching tofu, and even if you don’t like tofu as is, you may find it useful for mixing into things to provide extra protein or a creamy texture. Tofu can be used to make sauces, as a replacement for ricotta in pastas and pastries or crumbled up as a ‘mince’ substitute!
If you want to try adding a few pieces of tofu to your stirfry or curry, and don’t have a clue about marinading there are plenty of premarinated tofus available in a range of flavours. Easy!
What about things like toiletries? How can you tell if they contain animal products or are tested on animals?
Choose Cruelty Free’s ‘Preferred Product List’ contains a list of companies that do not test on animals and whose products are suitable for vegans. There are no regulations governing the labelling of products as ‘not tested on animals’ so if you are unsure about a product then do some research. Contact the manufacturer to ask them their testing policy. Remember that just because a product has not been tested on animals it doesn’t mean it is vegan. Some products, for example skincare and make up, often contain animal products.
Is it healthy to raise a baby or child as a vegan?
Yes a well balanced vegan diet is definitely a healthy way to raise your child. If you are considering bringing up a vegan child then it would be worthwhile investing in a book about raising vegan children (eg. ‘’Pregnancy Children and the Vegan Diet’ by Michael Klaper), or researching via the internet to help you make the correct choices.