Vegans have been around for thousands of years, and plant-based eating has been known by various names. Some people call the vegan diet “strict vegetarian,” but it is more accurately “pure vegetarian,” the original name and meaning of “vegetarian.” As the word “vegetarian” drifted to include eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarians), a new term was needed for the purists. “Vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, founder of The Vegan Society in the U.K. As more people seek healthy alternatives to meat and dairy, vegans are the fastest growing segment because many vegetarians are now shifting to pure plant-based diets. People who choose vegan do so chiefly for three reasons: ethics, environment, and health, or a combination of all three.
What do ethics have to do with what you eat for dinner? People who go vegan by way of conscience believe it is wrong to kill animals for food. Supporting that belief is clear proof, documented by responsible investigators, of the cruel conditions of factory farms and routine, inhumane slaughtering practices. The brutal evidence spans the fullspectrum of the beef, veal, pork, and poultry industries.
The commitment of ethical vegans doesn’t stop with diet, but extends to avoiding all animalrelated products, such as leather, silk, fur, and wool products. They even avoid products such as soaps and cosmetics that contain animal products, purchasing only those labeled “crueltyfree” or “vegan,” as well as avoiding products made by companies who use animal testing. (See Resources for books and Web sites containing more information on this aspect of veganism). In terms of ethics, choosing vegan food is choosing a diet of compassion.
Aside from the ethical and health issues, meat production has a well known deleterious effect on the environment, ranging from deforestation, to pollution, to the waste of fresh water. The fact is that meat production is the most inefficient and wasteful use of land and water one could devise. Over half of the water consumed in the United States is used for animal feed. The amount of water needed to produce an entire day of food for a human requires only a fraction of the water needed for the production of one pound of meat. Much of the rain forest being cleared in South America is not for human food but for feed for cattle for beef exports. The pollution from meat consumption is devastating and includes mountains of animal waste and chemical run-off that spoils the rivers, lakes, and oceans. The plant-based diet may become especially important in the light of the coming water crisis, which was acknowledged by the federal government in October 2007.
Do you want to look younger, trim down, have clearer skin, and enjoy more energy? If this sounds like a pitch, it is. A well-balanced vegan diet that includes lots of fresh produce, beans, and whole grains, can actually improve health, beautify the skin, minimize the symptoms of seasonal illnesses, colds, and flu, and also provide more energy. Fresh whole foods are loaded with vitamins, nutrients, and, yes, even protein, as well as antioxidants, minerals, and calcium. At the same time, they contain no cholesterol and are low in saturated fats.
When I first began writing cookbooks back in the mid-1990s, it was difficult to find reliable research on the benefits of a vegan diet. Since then, dozens of books have been published by medical experts and researchers extolling the plant-based diet. Medical doctors such as Neal Barnard, Michael Klaper, John A. McDougall, Joel Furman, and others have written books and maintain informative Web sites (see Resources). Numerous food companies have placed their prepared vegan food products on grocery store shelves nationwide.
Vegan celebrities abound, too—some, such as Moby and Chrissie Hynde, even opened their own vegan restaurants. Actors such as Alicia Silverstone, Forrest Whitaker, Natalie Portman, and James Cromwell, among many others, as well as sports figures such as marathoner Scott Jurek, and scores of musicians, including the iconic Paul McCartney, know that a vegan diet will keep them healthier and looking younger. In 2008, popular vegan diet books made headlines, with Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin a runaway New York Times bestseller. That same year, author Kathy Freston’s Quantum Wellness became the inspiration for TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey to explore a vegan diet on her show and Web site.
The end result of a diet of animal products, fast foods, and processed ingredients has actually earned a name for itself—”lifestyle disease.” The long-term effect produces cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer not only because of the inherent fat and cholesterol in meats and dairy products, but because of the artificial additives, hormones, and antibiotics regularly added to the animal feed to accelerate production. To keep healthy, vegans must learn to eat properly. If even the most committed vegan neglects to maintain a proper balance of nutrients, ill health can be the result—a diet of potato chips and celery may be vegan, but it’s never going to make you healthy. Poor health can occur particularly with people who choose to become vegan but don’t take the time to adapt their daily menu. As with any style of cooking, a common-sense understanding of basic nutrition is important.
The key for a plant-based diet is eating a variety of fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits each day, in order to acquire the nutrients necessary for good health, including protein, calcium, fat, and iron. The only elements of the vegan diet requiring supplements are omega-3s (obtained from ground flaxseed) and vitamin B-12. (You should check with your doctor regarding your personal nutrient needs.)