Veganism (pronounced VEE-ganism), sometimes called strict vegetarianism or pure vegetarianism, is a lifestyle rather than a diet in the strict sense. In terms of food consumption, vegans exclude all meat, dairy, fish, poultry, and egg products from the diet, deriving their protein from such sources as beans, tofu and other soy products, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Vegans go further than most other vegetarians by avoiding items of dress, cosmetics, jewelry, or other products for personal use made from animal products. These would include items made of fur, leather, silk, or wool; jewelry set with pearls, mother-of-pearl, or inlays of white shell or spiney oyster shell (commonly found in Native American jewelry); any food that contains honey, whey, rennet, or gelatin; any cosmetics containing beeswax, glycerin, or lanolin; any cosmetics or personal care products that are tested on animals; soap made with animal rather than vegetable fat; any item made of wood that has been finished with shellac (which is made from a resin secreted by scale insects); and toothpaste containing calcium extracted from animal bones. Vegans also typically avoid zoos, circuses, rodeos, and other activities that they regard as exploiting animals for human amusement.
The term “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson (1910–2005), a British vegan frustrated by the fact that most vegetarians saw nothing amiss with consuming eggs or dairy products. He derived the word “vegan” from combining the first three and the last two letters of the word “vegetarian”, maintaining that veganism represents “the beginning and the end of vegetarian.” The Vegan Society, which Watson and Elsie Shrigley cofounded in England during World War II, defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practical—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.” November 1, the anniversary of the foundation of the Vegan Society, is observed annually as World Vegan Day.
Although the term veganism was not used before the twentieth century, people have practiced vegan lifestyles for thousands of years. Veganism is not, however, natural to human beings, based on the evolutionary evidence. Archaeological findings indicate that prehistoric humans were not vegans, but obtained about a third of their daily calories from meat or other animal products. The structure of the human digestive tract suggests that humans evolved as omnivores (animals that feed on both plant and animal substances), as human intestines are relatively short in comparison to the lengthy intestines found in herbivores (plant-eating animals). Like the stomachs of other carnivores (meat-eating animals) and omnivores, the human stomach secretes pepsin, an enzyme necessary for digesting the proteins found in meat rather than plant matter. The human mouth contains pointed teeth (canines and incisors) adapted for tearing meat as well as teeth with flat crowns (molars) for chewing plant matter. In addition to the anatomical evidence, anthropologists have not discovered any primitive societies in the past or present whose members maintained good health and consumed a vegan diet.
In Asia, the Jain religion, which is an ascetic offshoot of Hinduism that began in the sixth century BCE, still requires followers to adopt a vegan diet; they may also not eat roots because to do so kills the plant. Most Jains fast on holy days and at other times throughout the year, as they believe that fasting strengthens self-control as well as protects the believer from accumulating bad karma.
Mainstream Christianity in both its Eastern (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latin-speaking) forms has never required ordinary laypeople to adopt a vegan diet as a year-round practice. Some monastic communities, however, have practiced a vegetarian lifestyle since the fourth century CE, and a few monastic groups and individual ascetics are vegans. Since the formation of vegan societies in the United Kingdom and North America, some Christian laypeople have chosen to join them. One Christian denomination that was formed in the United States in the nineteenth century, namely the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has expected its members to be vegetarians since its beginning. Although most Adventists follow the denomination's official diet, which is ovolactovegetarian, a significant proportion of the members are vegans.
Most people who have become vegans since World War II, however, do so out of concern for the environment or compassion for animals. The statement of the American Vegan Society (AVS), founded in 1960, is a typical expression of these convictions: “Veganism is compassion in action. It is a philosophy, diet, and lifestyle. Veganism is an advanced way of living in accordance with Reverence for Life, recognizing the rights of all living creatures, and extending to them the compassion, kindness, and justice exemplified in the Golden Rule.” The official slogan of the AVS, “Ahimsa Lights the Way,” refers to the Sanskrit word for not killing and not harming other living creatures.
Vegan substitutes for common ingredients
If you need…
Buttermilk (1 cup)
One cup soy milk + 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Flax egg (1 Tbsp. flax seeds + 3 Tbsp. water)
Mashed ripe banana
Vegan egg replacer
Any nondairy milk (soy, coconut, almond, rice)
Soy- or almond-based yogurts
SOURCE: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). http://www.peta.org (accessed April 17, 2018).
Vegans are a small minority within the general populations of the developed countries. The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) conducted a poll in 2016 that indicated that about 8 million adults in the United States are vegetarian; about 3.4 million of these are vegans. As of 2018, the Northeast has the highest percentage of adults who are vegetarians or vegans (5.4%), with the lowest percentages (2.3%) in the South and Midwest. About 3% of Hispanics and 3% of African Americans are vegetarians or vegans. The numbers of male and female vegans in North America are virtually equal.
Worldwide, as of 2018, Israel has the highest proportion of vegans in its population—5%, or 300,000 people. Most European countries report between 0.1% and 3% vegans in their populations, with Sweden and Italy having the highest rates.
Some evidence indicates that many people find vegetarian and vegan diets difficult to maintain over the long term. A research group called Faunalytics reported in 2014 that about 10% of adult Americans are former vegetarians and vegans; “More than half of former vegetarians/vegans abandoned the diet within the first year, and a third of them abandoned it in three months or less.” The chief factor in giving up a vegan or vegetarian diet is living with a family member or roommate who eats meat.
In the past, planning a nutritionally adequate vegan diet was difficult because the standard food choice guides in use in Canada and the United States had not been designed for vegetarians in general, let alone vegans. Although the 1992 revisions of the familiar U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) food guide pyramid and Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating (CFGHE) were the first to consider overnutrition as a serious health problem and emphasized the importance of plant foods in the diet, they did not include guidelines for planning vegetarian diets. In 2003 the ADA and DC jointly issued “A New Food Guide for North American Vegetarians,” intended to accommodate the needs of vegans as well as those of less strict vegetarians. The 2003 document notes that “any guide aimed at vegetarians must consider the needs of vegans. Studies also indicate that a substantial percentage of vegan women … have calcium intakes that are too low, which suggests that calcium deserves special attention in vegetarian food guides. With few exceptions, vegetarian food guides have not provided appropriate guidelines for vegans.” Since 2014, however, the Dietitians of Canada and other professional groups have developed nutrition guides just for vegans.
Vegans vary considerably in their patterns of food intake; as a result, no one specific diet regimen can be called vegan. Most vegan cookbooks contain a chapter on nutritional guidelines, including daily calorie requirements; protein, calcium, and vitamin contents of various foods, as well as sample menus intended to make the point that a vegan diet does not have to be monotonous or flavorless. A table of vegan menus in an article available from the Vegetarian Resource Group is titled “Sample Menus Showing How Easy It Is to Meet Protein Needs”:
The first set of menus provides a total of 75 grams of protein, adequate for a male vegan weighing 160 pounds. The second set provides a total of 60 grams of protein, adequate for a female vegan weighing 130 pounds.
The vegan lifestyle is adopted by people in developed countries primarily for ethical or religious reasons rather than economic necessity, although some dietitians do point out that plant-based foods are usually easier on the household food budget than meat. On the other hand, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) notes that soymilk, used by many vegans as a source of calcium and protein, is considerably more expensive than cow's milk. Another more recent reason for veganism is the growing perception that plant-based diets are a form of preventive health care for people at increased risk of such diseases as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. It is also viewed as the most sustainable diet in terms of its effects on the environment. Adolescents, however, are more likely to adopt vegan diets as a weight-reduction regimen or in some cases as an ethical way to protest their parents' patterns of dress or food consumption; one Swedish study of vegan youth concluded that veganism was “a new type of status passage.”
The benefits of a well-planned vegan diet are similar to the health benefits of the less strict vegetarian diets; lowered blood pressure, lower rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke, lower blood cholesterol levels, and lowered risks of colon and prostate cancer are associated with a vegan diet. In general, vegans tend to lead healthier lifestyles. Most people lose weight on a vegan diet, especially in the first few months; moreover, weight loss is usually greater on a vegan diet than on a vegetarian diet permitting dairy products. In addition, most vegans have lower body mass indices (BMI), an important diagnostic criterion of obesity, than their meat-eating counterparts. Following a vegan diet also appears to lower the risk of developing type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes. As of 2018, evidence was inconclusive as to whether vegan diets lower the risk of all types of cancer.
As with adoption of any vegetarian diet, people considering a vegan diet should consult a registered dietitian as well as their primary physician before starting their new lifestyle. The reason for this precaution is the strictness of vegan regimens as well as variations in height, weight, age, genetic inheritance, food preferences, level of activity, geographic location, and preexisting health problems among people. Dietitians can help design diets that individuals will enjoy eating as well as ensure that they are getting adequate nourishment and other health benefits. The Dietitians of Canada drew up a guide to healthy eating for vegans in 2014 that is posted on their website; it includes detailed recommendations for specific foods to be included in a vegan diet, and they note: “It may take planning to get enough protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins D and B12, and omega-3 fats from foods or supplements.”
It is particularly important for pregnant or nursing women, or for families who wish to raise their children as vegans, to consult a dietitian as well as a pediatrician. The Vegetarian Resource Group website has some helpful and nutritionally sound information on meeting protein requirements during pregnancy, the protein needs of infants, and feeding vegan children. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has detailed information about feeding vegan infants and toddlers; one important suggestion is to breastfeed infants for longer than one year before introducing soy milk or other alternatives to animal milk.
Although relatively few articles have been written in the field of sports nutrition on vegan diets for athletes, one British researcher maintains that athletes can safely follow a vegan diet with careful planning. The author suggests the use of creatine and beta-alanine supplements to protect against the loss of muscle tissue.
The longstanding concern expressed by registered dietitians and other health professionals about vegan diets is the risk of nutritional deficiencies, particularly for such important nutrients as protein, minerals (iron, calcium, and zinc), vitamins (vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and vitamin A), iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids. The 2003 vegetarian food guide published by the ADA and DC recommends that vegans in all age groups should take supplements of vitamin B12 and vitamin D, or use foods fortified with these nutrients.
In addition to nutritional concerns, some evidence indicates that vegan diets may actually increase the risk of breast cancer in women, particularly in those who use large amounts of soy-based products. Soybeans contain phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens, which have been implicated in breast cancer. The plant estrogens in soy-based products may also explain why committed vegans have a disproportionate number of female babies, and why these girls have a higher rate of precocious puberty than girls born to nonvegetarian mothers.
Vegan diets have also been associated with an increased risk of an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa, or simply orthorexia, a term coined by an American physician named Steven Bratman in 1997. Bratman defines orthorexia as an obsessive preoccupation with eating healthful food to the point that the person develops disordered eating patterns, becomes socially isolated, and may become physically malnourished as a result of his or her dietary perfectionism. Although the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not include orthorexia nervosa in its section on eating disorders, a number of physicians in Europe as well as the United States have reported cases of the disorder, most commonly among college and university students. Bratman considers raw food veganism to be the type of restrictive diet most likely to trigger orthorexia in susceptible young adults. Some other doctors who have seen patients with the disorder believe that the increasing use of social media worldwide is an important factor in the emergence of orthorexia as a new type of eating disorder.
Studies on the role of vegetarian diets of all types in preventing disease go back to the 1960s, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) began to study members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. NIH findings indicate that Adventist men live on average seven years longer than men in the general population, and Adventist women eight years longer than their non-Adventist counterparts. A 2014 update on the NIH Adventist study reported that the health benefits of the Adventist diets appear to be greater in men than in women.
Studies of vegans as a subpopulation of vegetarians are fewer in number than those of less strict vegetarians; however, the emphasis in medical research has shifted in the early 2000s from concern about nutritional deficiencies in people following these diets to the role of plant-based diets in preventing or treating chronic diseases. In this regard, vegan diets and lifestyles appear to be beneficial. As of early 2018, 53 clinical trials of vegan diets were registered with the National Institutes of Health; 18 studies were being conducted in the United States, with most of the others in Western Europe and Asia. Several of the American studies were evaluating the effectiveness of vegan diets in lowering the risk of migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and acne as well as stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other complications of obesity.
See also Calcium ; Calories ; Cancer ; Dietary supplements ; Iodine ; Iron ; Minerals ; Obesity ; Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids ; Ovolactovegetarianism ; Protein ; Raw foods diet ; Riboflavin ; Soy ; Sustainable diets ; Vegetarianism ; Vitamin A ; Vitamin B12 ; Vitamin D ; Vitamins ; Whole grains ; Zinc .
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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 S. Riverside Plaza, Ste. 2190, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.eatright.org .
American Vegan Society (AVS), 56 Dinshah Lane, PO Box 369, Malaga, NJ, 08328, (856) 694-2887, Fax: (856) 694-2288, http://www.americanvegan.org .
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), 9000 Rockville Pike, NIH Campus, Bldg. 31, Bethesda, MD, 20892, (888) 644-3615, https://nccih.nih.gov/tools/emailnccih , https://nccih.nih.gov .
Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), P.O Box 1463, Baltimore, MD, 21203, (410) 366-8343, email@example.com, http://www.vrg.org .
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD