Why vegan? What’s the difference between being vegan and eating a whole food, plant-based diet? Many people use these two terms interchangably and they are similar, but are not exactly the same.
A whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet focuses on The New Four Food Groups as advocated by The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. These food groups are: Vegetables, Fruits, Whole Grains and Beans & Legumes. We’ll also include small amounts of Nuts and Seeds as they are whole plant foods as well, but should be consumed in moderation due to their high fat content (about 1 ounce a day for most people). So, where’s the meat and dairy in these food groups? What’s the deal? Let’s briefly discuss the benefits of a plant-based diet.
Before we begin, let’s define animal products. Animal products are any products that come from animals. Sounds simple but I’m often asked if yogurt or fish counts. Yes, a fish is an animal and yogurt comes from an animal (it is usually made of cow’s milk). Animal products are meat, poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, etc.), fish, eggs, dairy (including low-fat and skim milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, goat milk or goat yogurt and kefir).
People choose a whole food, plant-based diet for many reasons. If you’re only interested in eating a plant-based diet for health or weight-loss, that’s great. If you’re here for other reasons as well, that’s great, too. To clarify, someone who follows a plant-based diet may or may not be called vegan.
Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.
Once you begin making dietary changes for health reasons, you may become interested in the other reasons that people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle. I encourage you to explore, as one supports the other. It is my experience that making simple dietary changes are excellent, but when they are supported by deep ethical beliefs, these changes can easily endure for a lifetime as they become part of one’s core values.
So, just to clarify, some vegans are more motivated by health and wellness, while others by animal compassion, the environment, religion or ethics. Vegans do not use animal products such as meat, dairy, fish, eggs, leather (shoes and handbags, furniture, car interiors, etc.), wool, personal care products that contain or have been tested on animals. Some vegans are “junk food vegans” and are motivated solely by animal compassion. They may eat lots of processed food like vegan hot dogs, soy cheese, cookies, soda, etc. If this describes you, I encourage you to care for your own body as much as you care for our animal friends and to think of these foods as “transition” foods or perhaps occasional foods. By building your diet around whole plant foods, you’ll be eating in line with your values while also giving your body the nutrients it needs to thrive.
Health & Weight-Loss
Animal Products and Plant Foods differ in several basic ways. These major differences are the main reasons that a whole foods, plant-based diet will enable you to easily lose weight while keeping you strong and healthy, while an animal based diet makes it more difficult to maintain weight loss. An animal-based diet also causes chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In the table below, I’ve listed just a few of the main differences in Animal Products vs. Plant Foods. To be fair, we’re going to talk about whole foods on both sides of the equation (no chicken nuggets or mozzerella sticks on the animal side, no olive oil or cookies on the plant side; these are not whole foods; they are processed or extracted).
Animal Products Plant Foods
|Whole Animal Products (Chicken, Cow’s Milk, Eggs, etc.)||Whole Plant Foods (Broccoli, Beans, Brown Rice, etc.)|
|All contain cholesterol (cholesterol is produced in the livers of animals) Cholesterol build up leads to heart disease – the number one killer in the U.S.||No cholesterol|
|No fiber||All contain fiber|
|Rich in saturated fat (the kind that raises dietary cholesterol) Even boneless, skinless chicken breast is 23% fat!||No saturated fat (except coconut and palm oil usually found in processed foods)|
|No antioxidants or phytochemicals||Plentiful Antioxidants and Phytochemicals (the rainbow of colors in fruits and vegetables) – these attack free radicals in the body. Free radicals cause aging and cancer.|
I want to reiterate and clarify that the diet I am talking about here for weight-loss and optimal health is a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet. What exactly does that mean?
- No or very little oil
What’s wrong with oil? Isn’t olive oil healthy? Well, not really. All oils are concentrated sources of calories (about 120 calories per tablespoon). They contain no fiber and little in the way of nutrients. You can actually sauté in a small amount of water or vegetable broth instead of oil and save yourself thousands of calories a year. We need fat in our diet, but it should come from whole foods. Small amount of nuts, seeds (about 2-4 tablespoons per day) and avocados provide plenty of additional fats in our diet.
- Whole foods – this means choose fresh, whole foods, rather than processed, packaged foods. Brown rice instead of white rice, whole wheat instead of white bread – you get the idea.
- No animal products (meat, fish, dairy or eggs).
- Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. Aim for 9 servings a day (that’s 5-6 servings of vegetables and 3-4 servings of fruit). If you eat that many fruits and vegetables, there won’t be enough room in your diet for a lot of other foods.
- For satiety (the feeling of satisfaction and fullness, fill up on starches like sweet potatoes and whole grains).
- For protein, tons of fiber and to stabilize blood sugar; enjoy beans, legumes and traditional soy foods like tofu and tempeh along with seiten (traditional wheat meat). Nuts and seeds in small quantities are also excellent.
These recommendations are based on those by Dr. Michael Greger, MD at www.nutritionfacts.org
Everyone on a purely plant-based diet must supplement with B-12. I personally use Jarrow Brand Methylcobalamin 1000mcg. They are chewable. I take one every day. I give ½ of a tablet to my 9 year old son every day and have been doing so since he was a toddler.
1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds each day provide beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. If you wish to supplement with DHA, choose a vegan algae DHA as it is purer and more effective than fish oil.
If you don’t get adequate sunlight, you may wish to supplement with vitamin D, but sunlight is best.
It is generally not necessary and not advisable to take a multivitamin. However, if you and/or your doctor feel that you need one because you are deficient in any vitamins or minerals, I recommend Dr. Fuhrman’s Gentle Care Vitamins.
Do not take multivitamins that contain vitamins A, E or Folic Acid as these supplements have recently been discovered in clinical trials to increase mortality. Vitamin A is found in orange fruits and vegetables like carrots, oranges, cantaloupe and squash, vitamin E is found in nuts and seeds, corn, dark green leafy vegetables and folate (the food form of folic acid) is found in dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, broccoli and others. It’s always best to get our nutrients from food.
For a great summary of the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet, I recommend the movie, Forks Over Knives.
What we choose to put in our mouths each day directly affects not only our own health, but also the health of the entire planet. This may seem like an overstatement, but what we eat is a choice each one of us makes each day, three times a day. It is a small choice – one that we can control. There are many situations in our lives in which we are limited in our choices. We may feel frustrated with the political system or whoever has been elected to government, frustrated by our financial situation, our family, our relationships or whatever, but we, for the most part, get to choose what we eat each day. In this way, we can choose to help save our planet or we can continue to ravage it. To give you an idea how great of an impact you can make by changing your diet, World Watch Institute attributes a whopping 51% of the worldwide greenhouse gasses to the production and consumption of livestock. This is a greater percentage of GHGs than those produced worldwide by all the cars, trucks, buses, trains, and planes combined.
Considering buying a hybrid or switching to a plant-based diet? It would be great if you could do both, but given a choice, it would make a greater impact on the earth to switch to a whole food, plant-based diet. Recycle and switch to eco-friendly detergents, cleaning products and personal care products as well and you’ll be making effortless changes every day to help save the planet.
Animals, Compassion and Human Health
It goes without saying that not eating meat is a more compassionate dietary choice. Animals raised on factory farms today endure cruelty that most of us can’t even bear to imagine. It makes us uncomfortable to discuss or even to think about, yet this is what we put in our mouths and feed to our children – dead animals – animals who have suffered cruelly for the entirety of their short lives at the hands of humans.
Some may say, “What about organic or grass fed beef?” I would say, well, if you’re going to eat meat anyway, sure, it’s nicer that the cow or other animal got to spend some time outside and eat some grass, but it was still killed in the end. I don’t feel comfortable with that, but it’s up to you. I would always encourage everyone to make the more compassionate and healthier choice on the continuum of awareness.
What about cheese and eggs? What’s wrong with being vegetarian instead of vegan?
It would be easier in our culture of bacon and eggs for breakfast, cheeseburgers for lunch and chicken and macaroni and cheese or pepperoni pizza for dinner to be vegetarian instead of vegan – that’s for sure. In the United States, we do seem to put cheese on everything. However, with regards to animal cruelty, dairy products and eggs are, according to many, much worse than meat.
Female dairy cows are repeatedly artificially inseminated (raped by humans) in order to be impregnated over and over again so that they will constantly produce milk. When they get pregnant and give birth to their babies, their calves are immediately taken from them. They are inseminated once again while still producing milk. These pregnant, lactating cows produce the milk we give to our children. The milk, of course, is also turned into cheese, yogurt and butter, which makes it more concentrated with hormones as well as pus from the mastitis affecting the majority of dairy cows and the antibiotics routinely given to them used to treat the mastitis.
Because the cows are pregnant when they are milked, which they normally never would be in nature, their milk is unnaturally high in hormones. We consume these hormones in the milk we drink or cheese we eat. Excess hormones in the blood stream are one of the main causes of cancer. By our cruelly inseminating female dairy cows and keeping them continually pregnant until they “wear out” and are eventually slaughtered for meat, we are, in effect, proliferating our own cancer. This is just one tiny facet of a very large and complex system of cruelty and disease. (Note: “Humane”, “Grass-fed”, “Organic” and/or “Free-range” dairy products all contain naturally occurring bovine hormones which we ingest when consuming dairy. These raise our levels of IGF-1 – Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1, an indicator for cancer cell growth. No levels are safe.)
For more on dairy and health issues including cancer, osteoporosis and more click here.
When calves are born on dairy farms, females are raised to produce milk for the dairy and the male calves are taken away to be used for veal (and/or calf skin clothing) – they will be put in crates so small, they will be unable move. If you are a mother, I’m sure you can imagine how the female cows must feel.
To learn more I encourage you to watch these films:
http://www.earthlings.com/ (Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix)
http://www.meat.org/ (Narrated by Paul McCartney)
To me, eating a plant-based diet just seems like the right thing to do. There have been ethical vegetarians for thousands of years in all branches of religion. Some of the oldest religions around the world advocate a vegetarian diet because they suggest their followers practice loving-kindness to all beings or practice ahimsa (do no harm). Buddhist Monks, Jains, many Hindus and about half of Seventh Day Adventists are vegans or vegetarians.
Many of our most notable writers, leaders and scientific minds throughout history have been vegetarians and have advocated a shift to a plant-based diet, as they knew it would benefit humanity for health, the environment and world peace. Pythagorus, Plato, St. Francis of Assisi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Martin Luther, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charlotte Bronte, Susan B. Anthony, Leo Tolstoy, Vincent Van Gogh, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Ford, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, H.G. Wells and Albert Einstein are just a few of the many famous vegetarians throughout history. If you choose to adopt a plant-based diet, you can join their ranks and help create a healthier, more compassionate world.
I am neither a medical doctor nor a registered dietician. Before embarking on any diet or weight-loss program, please consult your physician. If you are on medications, they may need to be adjusted and/or eliminated after making the change to a plant-based diet. Do not go off medications without consulting your doctor. However, please realize that most doctors have not been trained in nutrition. Only one-fourth of medical schools even require doctors to take a single nutrition course. I suggest taking a book or two on plant-based nutrition from our store to share with your doctor. Doctors don’t know everything and patients deserve to be treated with respect. If you don’t like what your doctor is telling you and your doctor is not willing to educate him/herself about the healing powers of a plant-based diet, you are free to find yourself another doctor who will work with you to improve your overall health and wellbeing using diet and lifestyle intervention along with (if/when necessary) medications or other interventions.
“Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
– Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization