From the The Palo Alto Medical Foundation — Is Veganism for You?

What do former President Bill Clinton, Ozzy Osbourne and Ellen de Generes have in common? They’re all vegan. Let’s take a look at this diet and lifestyle, which is becoming more popular.

For many reasons, some people choose to eliminate all animal products and adopt what’s known as a vegan diet. In 2008, a survey for the Vegetarian Resource Group reported that .5 percent of Americans, or 1 million people, called themselves vegans. The recent documentary, “Forks Over Knives,” has brought new popularity to the vegan diet.

What is veganism? It’s strictly defined as the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products in any form. This includes eliminating all animal products from the diet. For strict vegans, who adhere to veganism as a philosophy of treating all living beings ethically, this also means not wearing clothing or shoes made of animal products, including leather, wool and silk.

What food can you eat in a vegan diet? Most vegetable dishes are vegan, or can easily made to be so. Plant-based proteins include beans and legumes, tofu and other soy products, and nuts. There are now widely available non-dairy milk substitutes made of soy, almonds and coconut. Soy and nut yogurt and cheese substitutes are also available.

What foods are prohibited in a vegan diet? Strict vegans eliminate any food containing meat, seafood, eggs or dairy products (milk, yogurt and butter). They may also avoid honey and gelatin.

What are the benefits of the vegan diet? Nutrition research has provided robust evidence that a diet composed mainly of vegetables, fruits and whole grains has great health benefits. Or as Michael Pollan put it, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” A large nutrition study known as the China Study proposes that most chronic diseases affecting adults (obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes and cancer) can be prevented or reversed by following a vegan diet.

Is there any harm in following a vegan diet? A carefully planned vegan diet can be very healthful, but there are a few micronutrients that aren’t easily obtained from plant sources of food. These include vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and possibly iodine and omega-3 fatty acids. The first two of these will usually need to be taken in vitamin form, but the others can be found in a carefully planned plant-based diet. So long as a diet includes a variety of nuts, soy products and legumes, getting enough protein is usually not an issue.

Helpful resources and websites:

Forks Over Knives (documentary and book based upon The China Study) (nutrition information written by a vegan registered dietician) (more than 3,000 vegan recipes from around the world)


— Linda Shiue, M.D.

Dr. Linda Shiue is an internal medicine physician at the Redwood Shores Health Center of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and column editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.

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