While the exploration of vegetarianism can have all sorts of motivations, the decision to become vegan usually has ethics at its core. It’s not just a matter of avoiding meat, vegans do not eat or use any animal products at all — including dairy, honey, leather, wool, silk, and cosmetics or beauty products that contain animal products. Concern for animal welfare is most often the primary motivator for becoming vegan, with the global impact of the meat and dairy industries often also considerations.
So, where do you start?
It can be a big decision to go vegan and there are a lot of things to learn. Animal products are found in many unexpected foods, so the best advice is to cook from scratch as much as you can and to read labels carefully.
You may not be aware that wine production usually involves animal products in the filtering process — happily, some online bottle shops will let you search ‘vegan’, and vegan directory Barnivore categorises more than 4400 wines from around the world, including almost 700 Australian varieties.
Even cosmetics and beauty products that are cruelty-free (i.e. not tested on animals) may contain animal products, so check carefully for ingredients including honey, beeswax, lanolin, collagen, albumen, carmine, cholesterol, or gelatin.
What can you eat?
An important point to remember is that a vegan diet can be just as unhealthy as an omnivorous diet. Make sure you focus on fresh vegetables, grains, pulses, soy, nuts, and seeds to meet your nutritional needs.
Today, vegans are spoilt for choice when it comes to online sources of vegan cooking inspiration; a quick search will bring up more recipes than you could cook in a lifetime. You’ll also find plenty of great advice on ingredient substitutions — there’s even such things as vegan meringues!
While there are many wonderful ways to use non-animals foods for protein, if you’ve always planned meals around meat protein, meat substitutes could help your transition to a vegan diet. They’re readily available these days, even in supermarkets, but you’ll find a better range in health food shops and online.
Many vegans — and vegetarians — don’t eat figs, because the fig wasp dies when it pollinates the female fig flower, and is broken down and absorbed into the fig. It is worth noting, however, that most figs now grown in Australia are self-pollinating.
How essential are supplements?
There’s some debate around what supplements you need if you follow a vegan diet, but the best way to start is by talking to your GP and/or a nutritionist. It may be worth getting a blood test to check your existing levels of various vitamins and minerals.
The two supplements consistently recommended for vegans are vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fatty acids:
- Vitamin B12: Supplementation is recommended for vegetarians and vegans. It’s also more likely for people over 50 to suffer from B12 deficiency (even omnivores), so look for a vegan-friendly supplement or choose foods that have B12 added, such as non-dairy milks, meat substitutes, and breakfast cereals.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Essential fatty acids are DHA and EPA. Algae supplements can provide DHA, and you should also eat plant sources of ALA (which our bodies convert to EPA and DHA) such as flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy.
What about vitamin D, calcium, and iron? In Australia, you can usually get enough vitamin D by spending a few minutes outside each day. And about four cups of cooked green vegetables (such as bok choy, broccoli, or kale) will provide the calcium you need — if you’re concerned about calcium levels, talk to your doctor and consider a supplement. While a healthy vegan diet can provide enough iron, it’s also worth monitoring your iron levels.
What about women?
Women may be particularly concerned about calcium (especially post-menopause) and iron (pre-menopause).
While it is possible to maintain healthy levels of calcium and iron on a vegan diet, both men and women should be sure that they’re eating enough of the foods that provide them. Once again, your best bet is to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist.
Food for thought
Great starter cookbooks:
Vegomicon : The ultimate vegan cookbook
Author Chloe Coscarelli's wide range of books that make it easy to get started.