Going Vegan: The Push and Pull of a Plant-Based Diet
Gone are the days when following a vegan diet was synonymous with living a hippie lifestyle or just another fad diet made popular by celebrities. Veganism is slowly gaining a foothold amongst consumers, particularly for millennial and future generations, in large part for its health benefits, as well as its goals in protecting animal lives and the environment.
From a dietary perspective, veganism is a form of vegetarianism that eliminates the consumption of all foods produced by animals, which includes eggs, butter and milk, and honey, thereby making a vegan diet solely plant-based, consisting primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. According to a recent Gallup Poll, approximately three percent of the US population reported themselves as being vegan. Although this number has not changed significantly over the last five years, the demand for more vegan and plant-based foods is rising. Retail sales data, compiled by Nielsen on behalf of the Plant Based Foods Association, showed consumers are purchasing more plant-based foods, as sales grew by twenty percent in 2018. Fast-casual restaurants along with mainstream fast food chains are also taking notice of this demand, with some adding a vegan friendly option to their menus.
For many followers of the diet, being vegan is often met with both curiosity and criticism because of the many perceptions associated with eating only plant-based foods. Among these include the notion that a vegan diet is restrictive and lacking in essential nutrients for good overall health. Many health professionals and research studies refute these claims including a series of recent findings presented during Nutrition 2018, a flagship conference organized by the American Society of Nutrition. The research found that individuals who consumed more plant proteins displayed lower risks of heart disease and diabetes, as plant food sources are lower in saturated fats—generally found in meat and dairy products. Plant-based diets are largely higher in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants compared to the traditional ‘Western’ diet, which usually consists of animal products with a low intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In addition, the data showed individuals on a predominantly plant-based diet had lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as lower body mass indexes.
For Farah Mujawar, from Illinois, her personal journey with veganism began in 2017. Initially it was a way to lose weight, she admits. One year later, not only does Mujawar attribute following a vegan diet with helping her trim down and leaving her with clear skin, she also feels happier and healthier than ever.
“I struggled with a lot of weight issues,” says Mujawar. “I was gaining weight, losing it; I could never be consistent. I always tried to fix and adjust my diet. One day I saw this documentary called Forks Over Knives, and it pretty much changed my life.”
Once she began to learn about the benefits of eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, Mujawar says she experienced a light bulb moment.
“There was so much evidence on the health statistics about Americans, it was almost alarming,” says Mujawar. “I realized that all I had to do was give up meat and just switch to more fruits and vegetables. I was like, ‘this is the answer that I’ve been looking for.’”
In spite of her success as a vegan, becoming one did not happen overnight for Mujawar. Rather it was a gradual process. Still, the idea of eliminating meat from her diet did not pose as big a challenge compared to cutting out things like cheese.
“Giving up meat was not the issue as much as it was giving up dairy,” says Mujawar. “If you order a quesadilla or pizza, it’ll always have dairy. I [had] to figure out some dairy substitutes and then slowly transition to eating meals with no dairy.”
According to Lisa Young, nutritionist and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, the key to being a successful vegan is having a well-thought out plan to ensure you’re consuming enough nutrients like proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants. She adds that a common mistake that people make when attempting to eat a vegan diet for the first time is going completely cold turkey, eliminating all proteins.
“They’re cutting out the chicken, fish, and the meats,” says Young. “They can’t just cut that group out, and eat more broccoli. They really need to learn how to incorporate lentils, chickpeas, hummus, and tempeh.”
While Young says a vegan diet can be very healthy, it may not be for everyone as it might be hard to sustain. Instead she recommends that people reduce their meat portions and expand plant portions.
“I don’t think being a vegan is necessarily healthy for everybody,” says Young. “I think you can eat dairy and animal products in small amounts, and then [eat] eighty percent plant-based. That can be just as good.”
Rabail Velani, a self-described foodie from Texas, found that a vegan diet came with its challenges. About four years ago she tried to eat only plant-based foods, but after six months became very sick, forcing her to quit.
“I’m very anemic, it’s genetic and because of that my iron would get so low,” says Velani. “I started getting really lethargic. I couldn’t work out. It just didn’t work.”
Unlike Mujawar who lost weight following a plant-based diet, Velani found herself gaining weight eating as a vegan.
“Vegetarian food gives you bulk [and] makes you satisfied, but you don’t get that satisfaction from just eating fruits and vegetables. You rely on carbohydrates a lot so I actually ended up gaining weight—I gained twenty pounds.”
Another common perception associated with veganism is that plant-based foods are too expensive. While dairy-free milks and cheeses, usually made from soybeans, cashews, and almonds, tend to be on the pricier end, eating plant-based foods does not necessarily have to break the bank. For example, one pound of dry lentils costs around two dollars and two pounds of whole grain brown rice could cost less than four dollars. When buying fruits and vegetables, experts recommend buying these in season.
For people who may want to give veganism a try, Young suggests gradually incorporating more plant-based foods into your current diet, rather than treating it as a type of cleanse.
“If you’re not ready to make the move one-hundred percent, just move towards eating more plant-based proteins, and more fruits and vegetables,” says Young. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
Young also advises those on a vegan diet to consider taking iron and vitamin B12 supplements as plants may not provide sufficient amounts of these nutrients, especially if the diet is not well-planned.
“Iron is a nutrient that is found in meat and animal proteins—you can get it from legumes and beans,” says Young. “If you’re a vegan, you’ll probably need a B12 supplement.”
For most vegans eating a plant-based diet is not just about a food regime, it is also an animal rights and environmental issue, therefore they refrain from consuming all animal agriculture and animal farming products, whether livestock, poultry, fish, and even insects. Some Muslims might choose to avoid meat altogether if they find it hard to obtain halal meat or meat they are certain has been slaughtered humanely, according to Islamic regulations.
From an Islamic perspective, Sheikh Rachid Belbachir says adhering to a vegan diet is a personal choice, however one should not abstain from eating meat and animal products out of protest against the use of animals for human consumption because God gave Muslims permission to do so, as it is stated in the Quran: “They ask you, [O Muhammad], what has been made lawful for them. Say, ’Lawful for you are [all] good foods and [game caught by] what you have trained of hunting animals which you train as Allah [God] has taught you. So eat of what they catch for you, and mention the name of Allah upon it, and fear Allah.’ Indeed, Allah is swift in account.” (Quran 5:4)
“If you don’t like eating meat or don’t want to eat [it] for health reasons, for your cholesterol for instance, that’s fine,” says Belbachir. “Once you start to believe that animals shouldn’t be a part of our diet as God has prescribed, once you make that decision, that is crossing the line.”
Even Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]) had his preferences when it came to food, Belbachir adds, but when talking about the Muslim diet, it is a matter of what God has ordained as halal and haram.
“Diet has been an issue from the time of humanity, this is nothing new,” says Belbachir. “We have been authorized everything that is halal, except for what is haram so when God says that something is halal, nobody in the world, not even the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) can say it is haram.”
Contrary to what other people might expect, Mujawar says that she doesn’t crave meat or dairy products. Some of her favorite vegan meals include smoothie bowls—prepared either at home or served up at restaurants—topped off with seeds, nuts, and fruits. When cooking at home, Mujawar enjoys experimenting with Mexican and Asian cuisines.
“I’ll take traditional meat dishes and just make a vegan version of it, like pad thai and fried rice,” says Mujawar.
Following her experiences as a vegan, Velani says she prefers not to label herself as either a vegan or vegetarian, but instead strives to eat a balanced diet consisting of mostly fruits and vegetables, occasionally consuming meat.
“When I label myself, it confuses me more,” says Velani. “When we sit down to eat, I don’t eat the meat. I just eat the vegetables and I’ll try to avoid the cheese. Once in a while, I’ll have eggs, but I’m not labeling myself.”
Despite the growing amount of evidence demonstrating how plant-based diets can aid in the prevention of many chronic diseases, including cancer, and other health-related issues, or how plant-based diets could play a role as a possible long-term solution to food scarcity, most consumers may not be prepared to give up eating meat and dairy products just yet. Still, both Mujawar and Velani hope that more people will try veganism, or at the very least learn more about it.
Aysha Hussain is a New York-based writer and journalist. Aysha was featured in The New York Times’ “We, Myself and I,” and her work has been published in Newsday and Muslim Girl.