These days the idea of a plant based diet is being ushered into the public eye like never before. Evidence is constantly mounting in support of the healing properties that vegan and vegetarian diets can have on the human body. Over the last 15 years, I have watched the general public's perception of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle make a complete 180 – it has go from one filled with mostly fear, confusion, and dismissive remarks to another of open arms and sincere curiosity. We seem to be in the beginning of a clear paradigm shift in the areas of diet, nutrition, and mindfulness. More and more people appear to be waking up to the idea of endorsing a lifestyle that both nourishes their body and mind while also promoting sustainable practices that nurture the earth.
History of Vegetarianism & Veganism
The concept of vegetarianism has actually been around for ages and can be traced as far back as ancient Greece and India, but the word “vegetarian” began being used in the early 1800's. Since the word's inception, vegetarianism has spawned countless books, groups, and communities as well as millions of individual stories and experiences the world over. In 1847, the Vegetarian Society was founded in the UK followed by the formation of the Vegan Society in 1944, simultaneously coining the term “vegan”. Approximately 16 years later, in February of 1960, the popularity of the diet reached new heights, when the American Vegan Society was founded. The public's interest has slowly, but surely, continued to grow from there and today people are more interested in their own health than ever before. Where 10 years ago it was generally dismissed and scoffed at, today it is not uncommon to see some of North America's most recognizable public figures endorsing a vegan diet and raving of the benefits they have experienced.
As a nutritionist I am asked questions concerning both the vegetarian and vegan diets all the time. Now that you’ve had a quick history lesson on the two diets, I would like to cover the distinguishing and defining qualities of these diets as well as offer some advice for navigating the world of nutrition with more confidence and less confusion.
Vegan Vs. Vegetarian Diets
First of all, a vegan diet is simply a form of a vegetarian diet. A vegetarian is someone who typically lives on a diet of fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts, with or without the use of dairy products, eggs, and honey. Therefore a vegetarian does not eat red meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, crustacean, or any by-products ofmeat.
Under the umbrella of vegetarianism there are a number of distinct forms of this diet that are found throughout the world. The four most common forms of the vegetarian diet are:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: a person who eats dairy products and eggs. This is the most common form of the vegetarian diet.
- Lacto-vegetarian: A person who eats dairy products but not eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarian: A person who eats eggs but not dairy products.
- Vegan: A person who does not eat dairy, eggs, or any other animal product.
*It should be noted that there is another diet called pescetarianism which includes seafood but no other meat but diet is generally held separate from any form of the vegetarian diet.
Many vegans are known to also avoid a lot of processed foods as these foods can often contain various animal products or are made in facilities that process animal products. Bread or pasta, for instance, is often made with milk and eggs. Milk ingredients can also be found in a wide variety of snack foods. Even the processing of beer and wine can often involve animal products with the use of ingredients such as gelatin, isinglass, milk proteins, and egg whites.
Vegans are also very vigilant when considering which vitamins and supplements to consume because, once again, ingredients such as gelatin, dairy, and animal derived preservatives and colorants are commonly included. Furthermore, most vegetarians and vegans also very commonly avoid all animal derived fabrics such as leather, suede, wool, and fur.
With so many variables to consider, especially concerning a vegan diet, it can no doubt sometimes pose a daunting task for the uninitiated. Fortunately, in these modern times, individuals interested in this lifestyle will have no trouble finding more vegetarian and vegan friendly products, services and resources available than ever before to help both educate and guide them.
Considerations of a Vegan & Vegetarian Diet
When contemplating adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet there tends to be a number of common motivating factors that one begins to consider. Typically these factors revolve around dietary, ethical, and the environmental issues.
Although there are many people eating vegan for the health benefits alone, most are making this lifestyle change due to various combinations of all of these factors and issues. It is widely known that a diet rich in processed, animal foods can be detrimental to your health and many people are interested in avoiding such an outcome. For example, these foods are known to be very acidic in the body and significantly more difficult to digest than plant based foods. The issues associated with an overly acidic diet can contribute to a number of imbalances throughout the body including inflammation, downgraded digestive and intestinal functions, and nutrient depletions.
In terms of the ethical reasoning behind veganism, it is also a known fact that over 150 billion animals are killed worldwide every year by the meat, egg, and dairy industries. For many individuals this information alone is enough to motivate their avoidance of all products associated with these deaths.
Last but certainly not least the damage to the environment is also a very real concern for people. One of the most controversial concerns is that, collectively, farm factories are one of the biggest contributors to the pollution of water, soil, and air on the planet. Additionally, global deforestation takes place at an alarming rate, in order to raise crops to feed livestock. Both of these operations also require massive amounts of water and fossil fuels.
With just a short amount of research these days, it is easy to see why an individual might decide to divorce themselves from these practices that seemingly have only destruction, death and profits as their outcome.
Understandably, it can be easy for one to become overwhelmed and confused by the seemingly endless back and forth information about diets and nutrition these days. On one hand we have practically endless sources of information at our finger tips and on the other hand we have the task of sifting through it all in order to separate fact from fiction.
I am very commonly asked for advice to simplify this task, as well as ways to easily understand how to formulate the right or perfect diet for an individual. When giving this kind of advice, I first and foremost always emphasize the importance of understanding that there is not “one perfect diet” that works for everyone. We are all individuals with greatly varied constitutions and what may work perfectly for one person, may completely throw off another.
When making food or diet choices it is very important to keep it simple and to not get caught up in the details of the countless diets and health trends that are constantly circulating. Once you find yourself feeling caught up in the information and feeling stressed out or anxious, you know you've gone too far. Stress is the last thing you should be experiencing when you are working to nourish and balance your mind and body. When you feel stress setting in, especially concerning your relationship with food, it is a good time to take a step back and slow down for a moment.
We must always remember to breathe and be sure to implement new diet or lifestyle practices within your means. One new thing at a time is plenty. It's not about knowing all the answers or being vegan or vegetarian or about putting any other label on yourself – but much more importantly, it's about you implementing positive changes into your own life at your own personal pace.