November is Vegan Month, a good time to explore vegetarian and vegan diets

October 27, 2014

URBANA, Ill. - November is Vegan Month, providing an opportunity to explore what this diet lifestyle entails and to determine if it is right for you, said a University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator.

“A vegetarian diet excludes some animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs.  A ‘lacto-ovo vegetarian diet’ may exclude all meat, fish, and poultry, but still include dairy products and eggs,” said Caitlin Huth, the U of I Extension nutrition and wellness educator for DeWitt, Macon, and Piatt counties and a registered dietitian. 

Huth describes a vegan diet as a variation of a vegetarian diet that excludes all animal products and products made with animal ingredients, such as milk chocolate. Vegans focus solely on plant foods, she said.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that people who eat vegetarian diets tend to have healthier weights and lower risk of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. These diets tend to be higher in fruits, vegetables, and fiber, but lower in calories and fat.

“Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets can meet all your nutritional needs. Remember, though, when you start excluding foods from your diet, you still need to get those nutrients somewhere else,” she said.

For example, only animal foods contain vitamin B-12. In a vegan diet that excludes all animal products, vitamin B-12 is missing from the diet and cannot be made by the body. Vegans must eat plant foods supplemented with vitamin B-12, such as fortified cereals, or take a supplement.  Vegetarians and vegans also need to ensure that they get enough calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fats, she said.

Because meat and other animal proteins are excluded in vegan diets, some people wonder if vegans are able to get enough protein. “Plant foods also contain protein, although in smaller amounts. Beans and peas, soy products, some vegetables, whole grains, and nuts can be used toward protein needs. If non-meat animal foods are included, eggs and dairy foods provide protein as well,” Huth noted.

With the exclusion of certain foods, vegans need to ensure that all of their food choices contribute to their nutritional needs, she said.

“Filling up on less healthy—but still vegetarian or vegan—foods like chips or cookies pushes out room for more healthful choices, like fruits and vegetables,” said Huth. “Even processed vegan foods—like veggie burgers—may still contain a lot of sodium or fat like their meat-containing counterparts. Consumers should read food labels and limit their intake of saturated fat and sodium.”

Whether you have been eating a vegan diet for years or are considering starting one, Huth recommended speaking with a registered dietitian to make sure your nutritional needs are met.

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