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Veganism: What is it, and is it nutritionally healthy?

Moira Nadal's picture

Many things that people take for granted, such as butter, milk, honey, cheese and gummy snacks are off-limits to Vegans. Even things like some multi-vitamins use animal by-products in their processing or composition. Vegans, for several reasons, will not use or eat anything that comes from an animal. This differs from less strict forms of Vegetarianism which allow for the consumption of all things mentioned above. Veganism as defined by Wikipedia: "Veganism is a philosophy and lifestyle that avoids using animals and animal products for food, clothing and other purposes"[1]. These life choices are often times controversial and seen as somewhat radical. Many people do not know exactly what is the difference between veganism and vegetarianism. It has also been debated for several years whether or not this lifestyle is nutritionally sound. This paper seeks to explore some different aspects of veganism and help to further a discussion on the health of a Vegan way of life.

Since there are many things that cannot be ingested, several vital nutrients are missing, or difficult to compensate for, from the Vegan diet. Calcium, Iron, and Protein are what are commonly thought of to be lacking because those are what we most associate with the consumption of animal products. However, Calcium can be found in dark green leafy vegetables as well as tofu[11]. Iron can be also be found in tofu, as well as broccoli, spinach, and green beans[11]. Protein is something that can be obtained in the necessary amounts just by maintaining a varied diet [1]. Some things that are taken more for granted or not even usually considered, but are harder for Vegans to obtain are DHA, Vitamin B12,and Vitamin D. DHA is an Omega-3 fatty acid which is necessary for brain and eye function. Vegans can obtain it through algae, or in capsule form [1]. Vitamin B12 is the most difficult for Vegans to obtain because it is found only in animal products "meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs"[11]. In fact, it is the only nutrient mentioned by name on the American Vegan Society info page about whether Veganism is good or bad.[12]. I found that many sources stressed the importance of watching B12 levels in Vegans. As far as I can tell, the only way to ensure it in the diet is through taking a dietary supplement. Vitamin D is hard to find in foods but can be "self-sythesized"[11] through sunlight. Vegans must exercise a lot of caution, take supplements, and check regularly to ensure that they are receiving all of their vital nutrients.

As with any diet where one or more food groups [8] are removed, when Vegans are not so careful about their nutritional needs, it can be very detrimental to their health, leading to impaired organ function, bad eyesight, and birth defects. Some will use Veganism as well as Vegetarianism as a cover for an eating disorder. For the most part with Vegans and Vegetarians though, this is not the case. Luckily, there are many resources available, especially on the internet available to those looking to lead a healthy lifestyle. Even the US government is revisiting its hard and fast rules for nutrition with more individualized food pyramids and offering information on how to maintain a balanced vegetarian diet [6] [7].

Many think that Veganism is radical or negligent, or simply too much work. While Veganism is a lot of work and care to ensure health, for those who are committed, it is a humane and healthful way of life [5]. People chose Veganism for a variety of reasons, some believe that eating at a lower trophic level will allow them to get more energy from their foods, some want to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processing, and many believe that eating animal products promotes animal cruelty. Some refute the claim of animal cruelty by saying that the animals are on lower levels of life or existence, have less value, or simply believe that they cannot feel the pain. This relates to our previous class discussions on life [13] [14]. I will leave with this quote that sums up my own views on this subject: "Contrary to most definitions, vegan diets are defined by what they do not contain! Consequently it is not possible to say that a vegan diet is bad or good, for it depends entirely on what each person eating with these proscriptions chooses to consume"[4].

1. (A very good background on Veganism)

2. (Vegan Nutrition)

3. (The American Dietetic Association (ADA))

4. (The American Vegan Society)


6. (good resource where you can enter information such as sex and age, and get a more personalized food pyramid for what your body needs)

7. (a Vegetarian food pyramid)

8. (a more "traditional" food guide pyramid)

9. (an nice article giving some examples of alternative ways to find certain nutrients)

10. (A resource made for children that is helpful in listing foods where certain vitamins are found)

11. (Two really great charts with a larger variety of vitamins and minerals and where to find them)

12. ("Vegan Diet- Good, Bad, or Superior?)

13. /forum/viewforum.php?forum_id=417&start=20348&end=20465 (an interesting discussion on life)

14. /biology/b103/f06/notes.html (Notes to lead a discussion on life)


Biology Student 2006's picture

I would like to comment on

I would like to comment on the conclusion paragraph of this piece. As a vegan, I believe it is unfair to define a vegan diet by what it "[does] not contain." Many moral and health concerns go into the decision of whether one pursues a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. It is true that many people suffering from eating disorders restrict the same sorts of foods that vegans and vegetarians do from their diets, but a vegan lifestyle goes beyond the plate. Most vegans do not consume animal products of ANY variety, including leather sneakers, cosmetics produced by companies that test on animals, and you get the picture. A further investigation into this aspect of vegan culture might have yielded a different conclusion. A careful vegan will monitor his diet so as to maximize the nutritional value of everything he eats. In this way, vegans often are more aware of their dietary and nutritional needs than non-vegans.

Serendip Visitor's picture


Are you still a vegan? If so I would like to ask you some questions if that's okay with you.