Being Vegan: What’s it All About?

Vegetarianism is widely accepted in today’s society, but a vegan lifestyle sometimes can be seen as a radical choice. Being808 recently spoke with retired physician Dr. William Harris to better understand what a vegan diet is all about.

If you’ve read our post on adult gymnastics, you may recognize Harris from his flips and twirls on the trampoline. Harris, 81, said his vegan diet contributes to his ability to stay active. In addition to his trampoline work-outs, he skydives almost weekly, and has video to prove it. When back on land, he gives lectures on ethical, environmental and health topics to vegetarian groups. He is a member of the Vegetarian Society of Honolulu and is the author of The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism. When it comes to being vegan or vegetarian, Harris knows what he’s talking about.

He explained the difference between being a vegetarian and a vegan. Vegetarians do not use flesh in their diets, but vegans take it a step further – not using any animal products, such as milk or honey. Harris switched from vegetarian to vegan in 1963 after learning that a cow has to stay pregnant in order to produce milk and most of her male offspring go directly to the slaughterhouse.

Interesting fact: “vegan,” coined in the United Kingdom in the 1940s, is actually a contraction of the word vegetarian.

When asked about the health benefits of a vegan diet, Harris said:

All the essential nutrients required in the human diet are synthesized only by plants and microorganisms and none of them are made by animals. So when you eat animals, you’re not just getting secondhand nutrition but you’re also getting cholesterol and saturated fat, which you don’t want because they wind up depositing in your arteries. You also miss out on a lot of bacterial, contagious diseases and auto-immunogenic proteins, which are fragments of the protein from the animal that generate auto-immune reaction within  the human body.

Harris said a major impact of a vegan lifestyle is social. Because it can take a while to get used to the diet, there are fewer vegans than vegetarians. It can be socially isolating at times, however, he finds it is not as difficult as when he started his journey. This is due to the multiple vegan organizations here and the opening of four vegan restaurants around Honolulu in the past year.

Harris also acknowledged the Achilles’ Heel of a vegan diet, the lack of vitamin B-12. Because the bacteria-based vitamin is found in foods that come from animals, vegetarians and vegans are encouraged to take B-12 supplements. A deficiency can potentially cause severe and irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.

When considering whether to ease into a vegan diet or to go cold turkey, Harris says it depends on your current diet – specifically your dairy intake. Those who regularly consume dairy products might want to start off as a lacto-vegetarian. This allows the opportunity to slowly wean off milk and cheese before going vegan. But if dairy is not a large part your current diet, it may be easier to go vegan – cold turkey.

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