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Vegan Basics

Introduction to veganism / Nutrition / What do you eat? / Milk Products / (Non) Meaty Products / Convenience Foods / /Salads / Condiments / Snacks, Munchies & Treats / Eating Out / Meal Ideas / Drinks / Toiletries & Cosmetics / Clothes / Go for it / Sample Recipes

Welcome to Vegan Basics, a one-stop resource for those interested in exploring alternatives to food and other products made from animals. Because you are reading this guide, you may already be taking your first steps toward choosing veganism; or maybe you’re just thinking about it.

Either way, good for you! The public has the perception that eliminating the consumption of all animal products can be unhealthy or at least very difficult, but this is simply not true. As you’ll find out with this guide, veganism is the healthy choice for you, the planet, and animals. With so many animal-free options readily available, going vegan is easier today than ever before!

Veganism is...

good for you

Research on vegetarians (including vegans) shows them to have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, and possibly some cancers. It also reduces the chance of food poisoning. And of course you avoid all the hormones and antibiotics that are pumped through animals raised for food.

good for the animals

If you’re already a vegetarian you’ve undoubtedly helped reduce animal suffering, but the dairy and egg industries are no picnics for the animals involved.

Cows must be repeatedly impregnated for the production of milk, and their offspring sent straight to the slaughterhouse or reared for veal, milk, or sold for their flesh. Both male and female calves are kept in confinement and are unable to walk. The male, if being raised for veal, will be slaughtered after only 4 months, while the female calves will be kept in a similar setting until they are able to produce milk. Then they are turned into milking machines. Cows’ udders are often infected and swollen from the abuse of growth hormones and multiple milkings every day. Dairy cows are killed at about five years of age and sold for ‘low grade’ products such as burgers, sausages and other processed foods. Their natural life span would be at least twenty years.

And as for typical (battery cage) egg production, since only the females lay eggs, 200 million day-old male chicks are killed every year, many suffocated in garbage bags. The industry average is less than one-half square foot of space per bird. They have the tips of their beaks cut off to prevent feather pulling caused by the intensive confinement. These poor animals live with barely enough room to move for up to two years until their egg production goes down. Then they are either killed or forced into molting. To induce a molt, egg producers take away food and water from the birds, which then forces them into another egg laying cycle.

Life for pigs on factory farms is dreadful too! Over 80% of pigs who are raised for food (like sausages, hot dogs, bacon and ham) live their lives in sheds thick with the overwhelming smell of urine and feces. A mother pig (sow) is forced to give birth in a tiny crate where she cannot walk or even turn around. This is also where she will spend her pregnancy. She moves between these two small crates for four to five years until she is killed. The piglets spend their lives in squalid conditions until at six months they are shackled by one leg and their throats slit.

Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are crammed by the thousands in windowless sheds. Breeding has caused them to grow at an incredible pace, one that their bodies have a hard time catching up to. Turkeys have the tips of their beaks and some toes cut off. Chickens have been known to be boiled alive during the slaughter process.

And the label ‘free range’ does not mean that they are cruelty-free; in fact, free range hens live in very crowded conditions, have the tips of their bills cut off, and are not slaughtered in any ‘humane’ fashion.

Billions of sea animals are caught each year. Those fish who are still alive by the time they make it to the decks of fishing boats have one of two fates. Either they are allowed to suffocate to death or they are disemboweled with a gutting knife. In addition to this, countless other sea creatures who are not the targets are caught in fishing nets.

good for the environment

Vast expanses of wilderness are converted to pastureland, resulting in a loss of habitat for countless species.

Commercial fishing of the oceans has decimated the aquatic environment.

Shrimp nets, which are dragged through the water, catch everything in their path - thousands of sea turtles are killed this way every year. A branch of the USDA kills wildlife, such as coyotes and bobcats, to protect farmers’ livestock.

The factory farming industry is creating environmental problems of its own. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dairy farms have created an environmental crisis in California, the number one dairy producing state. In fact, California alone produces an astounding 30 million tons of manure each year. EPA states that a single cow produces approximately 120 pounds of wet manure per day. Estimates equate the waste produced per day by one dairy cow to that of 20-40 humans per day.

Manure lagoons designed to contain livestock waste can leak or spill over into waterways, contaminating our drinking water. Pig farms with 100,000 animals produce as much waste as a city of a quarter-million people; but the pig farms have no wastewater treatment system. Pig waste often spills into nearby rivers, sometimes killing many thousands of fish.

good for the planet’s people

Every day, 840 million people around the world, including 200 million children, go hungry. But much of the world’s grain harvest, 40%, is used to feed livestock, not people. U.S.

livestock alone consumes about one-third of the world’s total grain harvest, as well as more than 70% of the grain grown in the United States. In fact, the more a cow is milked, the more grain concentrates she needs. High quality foods such as wheat and soy, which could be fed to humans, are being fed to animals. On average, you can get about five times as much biologically available protein from eating plant foods directly as you can from using them to produce meat.

Slaughterhouses may be the worst workplace in the U.S. The workers are poor, often illiterate, and often unable to speak English. They are treated almost as callously as the animals dying by the billions in those same facilities.. The pay is low, turnover is high, and injuries and illnesses are frequent and often severe. Turnover rate at all processing plants runs close to 100% per year.

What is a vegan anyway?

So, now that you’re convinced that veganism is a beneficial lifestyle, you’ll want to know what it involves, won’t you? One thing it doesn’t involve is deprivation and martyrdom — there really is no need to sit around munching your way through a head of lettuce and feeling sorry for yourself (unless, of course, you REALLY like lettuce). Ask any vegan what they eat and they will look at you in astonishment.

The foods available are so varied, so tasty and so easy to prepare, it’s a miracle that we do anything other than eat! (Truth be told, some of us don’t!) Now we aren’t saying you won’t miss a few things at first - cheese and milk chocolate are always the hardest to kiss goodbye, but there are vegan alternatives available, so don’t despair.

What’s the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan?

Well, a vegetarian simply does not eat any dead animals, or parts of them. So this means no meat, poultry (chickens, turkeys, ducks, etc.), fish or other watery creatures (like shrimp and crabs), or any by-products of these animals, like gelatin or animal fats. This also means eating only ‘vegetarian’ cheese, as some cheeses are made using rennet (taken from the stomachs of calves - yuck!).

A vegan will not eat any of these either but will also strive to avoid all animal products to avoid partaking in the exploitation, abuse, and slaughter of animals. This includes eggs, milk, cream, yogurt, cheese and anything that contains these products or derivatives of them.

Vegans also avoid honey, because bees are frequently killed during its production, and finally, a vegan will not wear wool, leather or silk, or use personal care and household products that contain animal substances or are tested on animals. In fact, a vegan won’t eat, wear or use anything that comes from any animal, dead or alive. Cane sugar is sometimes processed through bone char so some vegans avoid eating it. If you’re interested in finding out which products definitely do not have bone char, please see http://www.VeganProducts.org/sugar.html Sounds like a lot to remember, huh? To begin with you’ll be reading every label in the cupboard, looking up things like ‘lanolin’ in your dictionary and trying to remember why you decided to go vegan in the first place! But it does get easier and no one will blame you if you make a mistake. We all do. Just take things at your own pace and remember why you’re doing this, for yourself, the planet, and animals.


A balanced vegan diet can be extremely healthy. Some people still have a few concerns about whether they will receive all the nutrients that they require. Read this guide and check out our sources to put your mind at ease.


Protein is essential for growth, repairing tissues and protecting against infections. The American Dietetic Association states that the vegan diet provides enough protein.

Protein is most concentrated in legumes (peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, soy products), but can also be found in nuts (brazils, hazels and almonds etc.) and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame), grains (rice, wheat, oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, pasta, bread), and vegetables. Tofu and other soy products are high in protein.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 prevents permanent nerve damage (e.g., blindness, deafness, and dementia); keeps the digestive system healthy; and reduces the risk of heart disease by lowering homocysteine levels. Early deficiency symptoms sometimes include fatigue and tingling in the hands or feet.

No unfortified plant foods (including seaweeds and tempeh) are reliable sources of B12. Vegans who get a regular source of vitamin B12 through fortified foods or supplements can have even better B12 status than many non-vegans who do not supplement. B12 intake is especially critical during pregnancy, lactation, childhood, and old age.

Vitamin B12 can be found in fortified foods such as soy milk and breakfast cereals.

One of the following daily recommendations should maximize B12 status:

  • fortified foods (in at least 2 servings, spaced 6 hours apart): 3-5 µg
  • 1 supplement: 10-100 µg
  • 2 supplements spaced at least 6 hours apart: 5 µg

Vitamin D

Regulates calcium absorption and excretion, especially when calcium intake is low. Vitamin D can be made by the action of sunlight (UV rays) on skin. Light-skinned, non-elderly adults exposing their hands and face to sunlight for 10-15 minutes, 2-3 times/week can get enough vitamin D. Above the 42nd Latitude (which runs through Denver, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia), vitamin D is not synthesized during the winter. Vegans who do not get much sunlight exposure should supplement with vitamin D, especially during the winter or cloudy months. Elderly people may need up to 4 times the amount of sunlight exposure listed above, and dark-skinned people may need up to 6 times this amount in order to meet vitamin D needs through sunshine alone. The Daily Value for vitamin D is 10 mcg (400 IU). If a food label says 25% of the Daily Value, it has 2.5 mcg (100 IU) per serving. Typical fortified soy, almond, or rice milk has 2-3 mcg (80-120 IU) per cup.


Finally, calcium. There are many sources of calcium available to vegans - broccoli, collard greens, kale, legumes, nuts, seeds, fortified soy milk, hummus, and figs.

As a child, you were probably told to drink cow’s milk for good strong bones, but studies of bone fractures have failed to show that milk protects bones and in some cases is actually associated with increased fractures.

Factors that can prevent osteoporosis (a disease that makes bones brittle):

  • Weight-bearing exercise throughout one’s lifetime is one of the most important.
  • Adequate calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, protein, potassium, and magnesium intakes.
  • Adequate estrogen levels (for women)

Factors that can contribute to osteoporosis:

  • High sodium and caffeine intake
  • Smoking
  • Too much, or too little, protein The calcium in kale, broccoli, collard greens, and soy milk are all absorbed about the same as cows’ milk. The calcium in spinach, swiss chard, and beet greens is not well absorbed due to their high content of oxalates which bind calcium.

Many non-dairy milks are now fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and/or vitamin B-12. Many orange juices are fortified with calcium.

The Daily Value for calcium on food labels is 1,000 mg for adults. If a food label says 25% of the daily value, it has 250 mg of calcium per serving. Vegans should ensure a good source of calcium on a daily basis. A cup or two of fortified soy milk is an excellent option.


Higher fat foods like nuts and seeds (and their butters), avocados, and small amounts of vegetable oils (especially canola and olive) should be part of a healthy diet. These foods are particularly important for meeting children’s caloric needs.

A large body of scientific evidence shows that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-blood-clotting, anti-inflammatory, and cholesterol-lowering properties. Vegans can most easily obtain omega-3 fats by eating 1-2 tsp of flaxseed oil per day. The oil may be added to warm food, but cooking will damage it. Flaxseed oil, sold in many natural food and grocery stores, should be kept refrigerated.


Needed for healthy thyroid function, which regulates metabolism.Does not appear to be as much of a problem for U.S. vegans as it is for European vegans, whose food supply contains less iodine. North American vegans should take a modest iodine supplement on a regular basis to ensure they are meeting requirements because it’s very hard to predict how much is in any given person’s food supply.

75-100 mcg every few days should be ample. Do not take more than 150 mcg/day.


Iron-deficient anemia is probably one of the most inaccurately self-diagnosed illnesses. It is a serious disease, and those who think they may be suffering from it should see a doctor. Iron deficiency symptoms include pale skin, brittle fingernails, fatigue, weakness, difficulty breathing upon exertion, inadequate temperature regulation, loss of appetite, and apathy.

Iron in vegetarian diets is a somewhat controversial topic because:

  1. Vegetarians’ ferritin (the storage form of iron) levels are normally lower than non-vegetarians, even though vegetarians are no more likely to have iron deficiency anemia.
  2. Low iron stores are associated with higher glucose tolerance and therefore could prevent diabetes.
  3. High iron stores are associated with cancer, and to a lesser extent, heart disease.

Vegans tend to have iron intakes at least as high as nonvegetarians.

However, plant iron is generally not absorbed as well as iron from meat. Vitamin C significantly aids in plant iron absorption (they must be eaten at the same meal).

You do not need to worry about iron if you are otherwise healthy and eat a varied vegan diet. If you suspect an irondeficiency, see a doctor. If your doctor thinks your iron stores are too low, he/she may suggest you start eating meat (which is unnecessary) or that you take an iron supplement.

Eating 100 mg of vitamin C with 2 meals a day should help cure the anemia.

Consider a multivitamin

Many well-respected health professionals suggest that everyone (including meat-eaters) take a modest (25-100% of the RDA) multivitamin supplement for insurance purposes. A typical multivitamin and mineral supplement will ensure an adequate source of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iodine. The only other nutrients you would need to concern yourself with are omega-3 fatty acids and calcium.

There is little chance of a deficiency of calcium, or any other food group, vitamin or mineral, as long as you eat a balanced diet and follow the recommendations above.

If you want to know more about nutrition, read Viva!’s Guide Nutrition in a Nutshell.

Nutritional information reviewed & edited courtesy of Jack Norris, RD (www.jacknorrisrd.com).

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