Frequently Asked Questions about Veganism

 
 

Listen on the Go or on iTunes or Stitcher

We've got so many new vegans on board! As I told you in last week's episode in which we talked all about the importance of mindset when it comes to this transition, we've been receiving daily emails from you guys filled with questions, struggles, victories, challenges, and stories when it comes to your transition to a vegan diet. This inspired me to create today's post and podcast episode, in which I show you some of the frequently asked vegan questions we get, and the tips and resources that have helped so many of you and that helped me on my journey when switching to a vegan diet.

We'll cover everything from "where do vegans get protein and other nutrients?", "are vegan meats safe to eat?", "can pregnant women be vegan?", "can infants or children be vegan?", how to build a balanced plate, how to be in a relationship with someone who isn't vegan, questions related to calcium, omega 3s, iron, vitamin B12. Whether or not a vegan diet is difficult to maintain, and so many others. In some I'll give you a brief rundown, and in others, I'll also be linking to videos, other posts and resources that tackle these topics in depth. That way you can find the question you've been wondering about the most, and get all the information you need.

With topics related to nutrition or medical concerns, I'll be sure to guide you to my favorite, qualified, plant-based doctors and nutritionists and their resources.

Are you ready? Let's do this thing! Here are our answers to common vegan questions:

What do vegans eat?

The short answer: vegans eat everything except animal products or foods containing animal products, i.e. we exclude meat (this includes meat from cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, turkeys, etc), fish and other seafood, dairy, eggs and honey. The long answer: we eat burgers, lasagna, sushi, pasta, pizza, cakes, cupcakes, pies, pancakes, veggie bowls, barbecues, sandwiches, burritos, tacos, Indian food, Italian food, Ethiopian food, Chinese food, Japanese food, any favorite you used to love as a meat-eater, but made with plant-based ingredients instead of meat or dairy-based ingredients.

Is a vegan diet healthy and complete nutritionally speaking?

Here's the short answer: It depends on what you eat. 

Here's the long answer: no diet, neither meat-based or plant-based is healthy and complete nutritionally speaking "just because". It can be, provided that you eat in a healthy, complete and nutritionally balanced way!

We tend to think that a meat-based diet is healthy and balanced simply because the majority of people eat this way. We think people are alive and thriving and that that makes it the "complete and healthy way to eat". Here's the deal folks! Many people aren't thriving. The astounding rising rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, some types of cancer, auto-immune disease, and other chronic, diet-related illnesses are proof of the fact that we might not be eating in a balanced way. Of course these illnesses are complex and could be brought on by multiple causes, some that have nothing to do with diet, but there is an extensive body of research telling us about the links between diet and disease. 

On the flip side, it would be technically vegan to live off of potato chips and soda, but as you can imagine, that wouldn't be a healthy or balanced diet either.

According to the American Dietetics Association:

"Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."

You can read the full position paper of the American Dietetics Association on vegan and vegetarian diets here.

Note the words "appropriately planned". As humans, especially in today's day and age, we love the idea of something perfect. Like a little magic switch we flip and suddenly all our food and eating problems are solved for good. I'd love to be at the front lines of putting an end to this magical way of thinking, and instead inspire you to take the reigns of your own way of eating, placing some much needed attention on it, and simply learning a new approach which will soon become second nature. 

Any diet we eat should include knowledge about what we need and how to include it. We need to start learning about what should go on our plates and in our bodies, regardless of what diet we follow. This means, the excuse that "eating vegan takes too much effort when it comes to eating in a balanced way", should go out the window. Everyone, no matter what diet they follow, should pay attention to what goes on their plates. To me, once you learn the basics, eating vegan isn't just sufficient, it's incredibly healthy, and it's actually quite simple once you find your sweet spot and learn the basics.

To learn how to build a balanced vegan diet, I love the work of registered dietitian Virginia Messina and her Plant Plate (see image below). Here's how to read this very fun and easy to understand graphic, and for even more ideas, her books Vegan for Her (specially written for all the stages of a woman's life), and Vegan for Life (for both men and women) with co-author Jack Norris, were my nutrition bibles when going vegan.

Where do vegans get their protein?

First let's break protein down a little bit. Protein is a macronutrient that is made up of chains of aminoacids, and we get these aminoacids from the food we eat. Both plant foods and animal foods contain the aminoacids that are the building blocks of protein.

To put it in very simplistic terms, this basically means that our bodies will combine the aminoacids we take in through food, and build protein like little legos. Protein isn't this one big magical thing that animal products provide. Our bodies are little biochemical ninjas that will take aminoacids and make the protein that we need. It doesn't differenciate whether these aminoacids came from a pig or a black bean, provided we get enough of them.

By eating a vegan diet, and learning what the largest sources of plant-based protein are, not only can we give our bodies what they need to thrive, but we're skipping the saturated fat, cholesterol, growth hormones, antibiotics, etc., that are so prevalent in meat-based sources of protein.

To find out what our protein requirement is, and some of the most powerful sources of protein in the plant kingdom, enjoy the video I made on this topic below! You don't need to obsess over counting the grams you take in, just make sure you're eating plenty of these protein rich foods throughout the day.

 
 

What about all the other nutrients, like calcium, iron, omega 3s, etc?

Just as there are plant-based sources of protein, there are vegan sources of calcium, iron, omega 3s, etc. We've been taught that we need to consume milk, meat and fish for these three, but here's something I didn't know before I went vegan. The reason why these animals are sources of these nutrients is because they got them from... wait for it... plants! The animals we eat are sources of these nutrients because they were once living bodies that ate foods that provided them. We can skip the middle-animal and go straight to the good stuff, while again skipping the hormones, antibiotics, IGF growth factor, saturated fat and cholesterol (all of which are non-existent in plants).

Great plant-based sources of calcium are: green leafy vegetables (like kale and collard greens especially), beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potato, carrots, calcium fortified plant-based milk, calcium set tofu, dried figs and other dried fruit, tahini, calcium fortified orange juice, and many others. We'll be making a video on calcium rich foods really soon!

Great plant-based sources of omega 3s are: having 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds or chia seeds daily, sea vegetables, walnuts and flaxseed oil (don't use it in cooking as it's a very heat sensitive oil). To increase your omega 3 stores, reducing your intake of omega 6 fatty acids (found mainly in cooking oils) will also help give you a better balance of this nutrient, and of course, you can supplement when needed with a vegan EPA and DHA supplement. Why DHA and EPA? This is actually what we talk about when we talk about our need for omega 3s. Our bodies absorb the fatty acid ALA (Alpha Linoleic Acid) from foods (like the ones I just mentioned) and then transforms it into EPA and DHA which are basically super cool brain food superheroes! For more on this nutrient as well as supplementation for vegans read this great article and this one.

When it comes to iron, I've made a video that explains everything you need to know about this nutrient and eating a vegan diet. After suffering from iron deficiency for years before going vegan, and now finally managing to maintain levels after going vegan, I've got lots of tips for you:

 
 

 

I understand why vegans don't eat meat, but why don't vegans eat dairy or eggs?

For some, especially when looking at veganism from an ethical standpoint, i.e. not wanting to hurt animals, not eating meat is easy to understand since it's the body of an animal, but eggs and milk are a bit harder to grasp, as they are considered simple by-products and thought to be something the animals just "produce" and have no need for. 

Vegans choose to not eat dairy or eggs for a number of reasons. For the fact that it is better for your health, better for the environment, and for the fact that these products are part of what to me are two of the cruelest parts of our animal agriculture system: the egg and dairy industries. They aren't just simple by-products, and the animals that produce these foods, receive just as horrible treatment and live in deplorable conditions, just as what we've seen happen to animals raised for meat. There is animal abuse in all the steps of the chain, from the transport of the animals, to the treatment of them in dairy farms and egg-laying facilities, to procedures done without anaesthesia, and of course the process will always involve the eventual slaughter of the animal, when it can no longer produce milk or eggs.

In the case of dairy cows, the problem goes even deeper since cows need to be pregnant in order to lactate (just like us!), this means in order to take their milk we must separate the calves from their mothers,. The calves are then used for meat as part of the veal industry.

This sadly just scratches the surface. To explain this issue in greater detail, and with as much sensitivity as you know I love to do, check out the section on dairy cows and mother hens in this post I wrote. I promise it's done in a very approachable way, with no graphic images or content that is too difficult to read, but honest just the same. 

If you're wondering about free-range and grass-fed animals, keep reading since we discuss this below!

 
 

Isn't eating vegan too extreme or radical?

I LOVE getting this question. I love it because I understand it. I understand it because I thought this for years. I could see how ethical and admirable it was, but I thought it was only for a special elite of strict yogic hippies that didn't love meat the way I did. I felt it was too extreme and even unnecessary. So yes, I get it.

Here's what happened. I did my research and decided to go vegan because I realized a few things:

1) What we're doing to our health through Western meat-based diets is radical and extreme. When we need to open up a leg to remove a vein and place it in one's heart, when someone is on countless medications to remove the side effects of countless other medications, when we see children suffer diseases that were non-existent in this population before. When we're seeing the first generation of children that will live less than their parents, in spite of the advances in the medical industry. All of this is radical and extreme, and I didn't want it in my life or the life of my family,

2) What we're doing to animals in our agriculture system is beyond what you could imagine in your greatest nightmares. All for our desire to eat certain foods that we don't need in order to thrive. All of this felt radical and extreme.

3) It takes such a toll on resources and the environment, due to the fact that we need to feed, hydrate, house, transport and look after these animals, with resources, food and water that could go to those in need. All of this felt radical and extreme to me.

Here's the deal, to me, a vegan diet is the simple substitution of a meat-based ingredient for a plant-based one, to make exactly the same delicious dishes I used to love, only healthier, and with a lighter footprint on the Earth. The only reason it could feel radical or extreme right now, is because we're still a smaller number of people. This is changing in leaps and bounds! Eating delicious veggie burgers, vegan pizza, vegan sushi, vegan pancakes, delicious fruits and veggies, vegan lasagna? Radical? Not to me. Awesome and trailblazing? Yes! Especially when you notice that veganism isn't about being perfect, it's a change that involves a learning curve, and that like any new thing can be exciting, it can have its challenges but it can also be life-changing.

Do I really need to supplement vitamin B12?

Yes! No question about it! If you're fully vegan, you need to supplement vitamin B12.

Is it because meat is its only source?

Nope! B12 is a bacteria-based vitamin, and since in our current modern lives we need to thoroughly wash fruits and veggies from the B12 rich soil they grew in, vegans can be lacking in this nutrient. You can also eat B12 fortified foods like B12 rich cereals and breads, but I prefer to take a supplement and have my bases covered since B12 deficiency can be very serious. 

To know just how much and how to supplement, use this awesome chart by registered dietitian nutritionist Jack Norris.

Some people often ask me if this isn't a sign that a vegan diet is incomplete. To this I always say that one little supplement twice a week, in exchange for all the benefits this diet can bring to your health is a very sweet payoff. No diet on this planet is absolutely perfect or without its downsides, but from everything I've read and researched, and especially, from all the scientific research we now have, a well-balanced vegan diet comes pretty close to ideal! 

 
 

If it's such a healthy way to eat, why hasn't my doctor recommended it?

I can speak to this from very personal experience since both my husband (Brownble's co-founder) and my father-in-law, not to mention 80% of our friends, are all practicing medical doctors. All of whom, after thorough interrogation from me (ha!), confessed to have received close to zero hours of training in the field of nutrition. A very sad but real truth that is not the fault of doctors but of the way the medical system is designed right now. This is why, whenever I ask my personal physician questions about vegan nutrition, he answers: "you probably know much more about it than me!". It is simply not part of the training most medical doctors get in our current educational system. They don't recommend it because they just haven't been exposed to it, and sometimes, because they think patients won't be compliant or follow through with such a change in the diet, they don't mention it as a course of action.

This is changing though! More and more doctors these days are becoming aware of the effect our food has on our health and are beginning to include this as part of treatment and prevention.

In the resource library I'm linking to at the end of this post, you'll find fantastic plant-based doctor directories where you can search for physicians who are well-versed in these issues, as well as plant-based nutritionists which can help you with any specific issues or conditions you might be struggling with. Make sure to visit our resource library and check all of that information out by clicking the big button at the end of this post!

Is it safe to eat some of the ready-made vegan meat alternatives?

Vegan meat alternatives can be a great source of protein, are often fortified with other nutrients, they're satisfying, filling, familiar, and they can help many people stick to this diet for longer, giving you a greater chance to take in all of the diet's benefits in the long run. When it comes to vegan meat alternatives, read the ingredients. Some newer brands are making fantastic products using whole foods, which makes these much better for you. Start exploring and experimenting, and as long as there are plenty of natural whole foods filling your meals, there's no reason why you should stay away from these products. I include them in my diet when I'm craving something meaty, and I've also learned how to make many of these at home using veggies, grains, beans, etc., like the yummy breakfast sausages I teach you how to make in our new free breakfast and brunch course!

 
 

Can anyone be vegan? (Pregnant women, children, athletes, etc)

Just in case you missed it above, here's the answer from the position paper of the American Dietetics Association on who can follow a vegan diet:

"Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."

(You can read the full position paper of the American Dietetics Association on vegan and vegetarian diets here.)

This means that technically, anyone can be vegan. I always suggest that you find support and do a bit of extra research on the specific nutrient requirements if you're pregnant, breastfeeding or raising young infants and children as vegans since these are stages of life in which nutrition is very important to support a growing body. Make sure to check out our vegan resource library through the big button at the end of the post for nutritionists, paediatricians and specialists you can consult if you have any specific concerns, as well as books and blogs that will help you during these stages.

When I get this question I always think of two specific groups of people that I love to talk about. The first are people struggling with food insecurity. My home country of Venezuela is a current example of this, as are many cities and countries across the world. Even in the US, in which access to fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains are limited in some areas, or people's financial means are limited. If you've decided to go vegan, and are struggling with food insecurity, please make sure you're taking care of yourself and getting the nutrients you need. If this means you can't be a perfect vegan 100% of the time because nutrient requirements can't be met, do what you can, and inspire others to make whatever changes they can, no matter how small. This is one of the reasons I'm such a happy vegan, I'm happy to carry the baton and be fully vegan for someone who lives in a situation of poverty or food insecurity who can't be fully vegan. Every little thing we do helps, so make sure you're doing the best you can, and that includes not being perfect. No vegan is perfect.

The second group I like to talk about is people who are currently going through, have gone through in the past or are in recovery from an eating disorder. 

Although many eating disorder sufferers have found recovery by adopting a vegan diet, I always recommend that if you're struggling with an eating disorder, you never make any dietary change that involves restriction (like the inherent restriction present in eating a vegan diet because you're skipping animal products), without the full support of your treatment team. Eating disorders are serious. They are the number one killer out of all mental illnesses, and although you'd probably be a wonderful and happy vegan activist after having struggled with food and dieting, I'm a firm believer that you should attempt recovery first, and only once recovered should you attempt any big change in your diet. If you're struggling with an eating disorder or think you might be, please seek the help you need, you are worth it! A great place to start to get help is here.

If I have a medical condition, is it safe for me to eat a vegan diet?

Although a vegan diet is a great way to prevent and even reverse certain diseases, always consult your doctor if you have any pre-existing conditions or are on medications. You'll find great plant-based doctor directories and nutritionists you can consult in our vegan library at the end of this post. Especially consult your doctor before removing any type of medications you're on. This should always be done under the supervision of your medical team.

Isn't it ok to eat free-range eggs or grass-fed beef?

Sadly, these are terms that have been used as marketing techniques for people who worry about the treatment of animals used for food. In many countries, these terms are only labels that have no legal ground or oversight by government agencies, and when there is a legal standing or definition for these terms, often times they are very poorly enforced, they don't cover the transport of animals to and from facilities, nor the treatment of the animal down the slaughter line, often where lots of the abuse takes place. In the case of grass fed beef, the impact on the land and on greenhouse gas emissions, is even greater than in the case of cows raised in traditional feedlots. Very sad but true.

Of course there are small family farms that treat their animals in a way that is miles away from the treatment of animals in factory farms, but due to the growing demand for food, these are not the products that reach our supermarkets and stores. To me, if there is a way for me to eat deliciously and thrive on a diet that doesn't require killing an animal, no matter how it was raised, I'll take it! 

Is it expensive to eat a vegan diet?

Just as with the question of whether or not a vegan diet is healthy, the answer is: it depends on what you buy, and what you bought before you went vegan. A vegan diet not only doesn't have to be more expensive than a meat-based one, but it can even show you a reduction in costs since whole grains, beans and vegetables are usually less expensive than meat and dairy-based products. Sadly, due to subsidies and the cost of cheap meat, if you were on a diet that consisted of McDonalds happy meals and $1 menus, you will probably be spending more. You will however be saving on the thing you can never put a price tag on: your health!

There are many tips and tricks to help you stay on budget on a vegan diet while still eating deliciously, and I teach you some of the basics in this free plant based eating on a budget course we created for the Food Choices Academy for Health Studies. You can sign up completely for free!

Do you need special equipment or fancy and expensive ingredients to be vegan?

No! A vegan diet can be very simple, using ingredients you find at your local store, and a simple set of pots and pans, a cutting board and a knife. Of course you can take any cuisine to many different levels, but even as a professional cook I can tell you my kitchen is very simple, and I buy my ingredients in my local supermarket or health food store. Some of the new alternatives to meat and cheeses can be harder to find in some places, so just do a little research for local health food stores or shop online. Even if you live in an area where neither of these are possible, you can eat a completely delicious and balanced vegan diet, made with simple whole foods you can find anywhere.

 
 

Isn't a vegan diet too limited or difficult to keep up for long?

If you're a member of our online program, have taken our courses or have watched our videos, you know the answer to this question: a vegan diet can be just as varied or even more varied than a meat-based one because it forces you to step out of the meat, green beans and potatoes plate, and into a world of foods you probably hadn't even heard of before! It can be just as varied and full of excitement as a meat-based one, since you can make anything vegan.

I'll say that again: you can make ANYTHING vegan! 

The truth is the answer to this question depends entirely on you. More specifically on your mindset. If you're going into this expecting lack, deprivation and focusing only on what you can't have, that might be what you experience. If you go into this with an open mind, willing to learn some new recipes and focusing on all the new foods that will now fill your plate, you're in for a very exciting journey!

I've written a post on the importance of mindset and how it's the big elephant sitting in your living room right now, affecting all your decisions, actions and reactions here. It includes lots of tips for people who are transitioning to a vegan diet, as well as me in my bat costume (you'll understand why when you read the post!).

My partner doesn't want to go vegan, how can make the switch to a vegan diet and still maintain a healthy relationship with him or her?

All over the world, people are sitting at the dinner table with food sensitivities, allergies, preferences, etc., that make them eat in a different way from their partners, children and family members. Once you find a middle ground where you both feel comfortable, and make certain compromises, you can totally be vegan even if your partner never decides to join you. It can be a bit more challenging (often times more for emotional reasons than practical ones), but it can totally be done. I've written this really cool post filled with tips and support if you're going through this (we cover everything from the fridge and dining out, in-laws, to the decision of having kids and much more), and I'm also leaving you with this little video on sharing your life with a non-vegan we made recently:

 
 

Aren't we supposed to eat meat? We've been doing it for centuries and it's tradition.

I understand our attachment to foods that have been a part of our lives for so long. They're part of our traditions, our family and social circles, not to mention our past history as a culture and as human beings. There are many things that also used to be a part of our cultural heritage and that we would do without giving it a second thought. Things like not allowing women to go to school or vote, owning slaves, having human zoos (yes this was a thing!), discriminating against people with a different skin color, race, religion, sexual orientation. Segregating in buses and bathrooms. Having gladiators fight lions in Roman coliseums. Allowing children and adults to work without rights or fair wage. All of these things were the norm, and part of our culture. Some of these went on for centuries. They were tradition and "the way things were done" until we knew better. It's time that we awaken to the fact that our current agriculture system is causing much more harm than good and that in this instance, we don't need to wait for legislation, leaders or changes to start from the top to create change, we have the sole power to make a difference, every time we sit down to eat or make a purchase.

Saying that we need to do things like our ancestors did before because it's tradition or because we're supposed to do it, only limits our growth as humans, it takes away our power.

To quote the wonderful Patti Smith:

"People have the power!"

 

Have any more questions? No question is too simple or obvious to ask. I'm here for you so leave them below! Remember that vegan library I promised? Access it through this button:

** If you're a member of our online program, click here to access your library **

 

Need support on your transition to becoming vegan?

You might also love: