Do you know someone who adheres to a vegan diet? Approximately 1% of American adults report that they follow the vegan way of eating. This population is skewed towards younger adults, with most eventually returning to an omnivorous diet.
An individual’s interest in vegan diets may stem from an interest in animal welfare issues, environmental concerns, or personal health. Even if you don’t want to become vegan, many people do want to improve their diet by eating more vegetables. Whatever your personal goals are, there is going to be something in this article to interest you.
Are you ready to power-up your knowledge of plant-based eating? Don’t be left in the dark on this popular dietary pattern. Here are some of the questions that I’ll answer today:
- What is the difference between a vegan diet and a plant-based diet?
- What foods can you eat on a vegan diet?
- What foods are off the table if you are vegan?
- Are there any groups of people who should not try the vegan diet?
- What are the potential pitfalls of a vegan diet?
- Can you lose weight with a vegan diet?
- Where can you find the best resources for more information on vegan diets?
Get smart to the differences between vegan, plant-based, and plant-forward
If you follow a vegan diet, it means that you consume no animal-based food sources. Some vegans primarily adhere to the diet due to concerns for animal welfare. These ethical vegans typically try to remove non-food animal-based products from their lives as well, such as leather.
The terms “vegan” and “plant-based” may be used in different ways by different people. It is wise to ask for clarification if a person is using one of these terms.
For example, some use “vegan” to refer to ethical vegans only. These individuals may use “plant-based” to refer to those following the diet for reasons other than animal welfare.
On the other hand, some use “plant-based” or “plant-forward” to mean any diet that includes more than 50% of plant foods. Thus, this would consist of anyone who is following the MyPlate dietary pattern, including people who consume meat. In this case, “vegan” includes those who eschew all animal-based foods, regardless of the reason they do so.
For this article, I am defining “vegan” to mean those who completely restrict animal-based food. This includes both ethical vegans and those who follow this way of eating for other reasons.
Most of the less healthy options (the “junk food”) that people eat are plant-based. This includes chips, cookies, cake, sugary cereals, soda, sweetened quick bread, candy, and so on. It is important to remember that “plant-based,” “plant-forward,” and “vegan” are not automatic indicators of high dietary quality.
Pack plenty of these foods into your day to have a healthy vegan diet
If you adhere to the vegan way of eating, the following foods in minimally processed forms should be your dietary mainstays:
- Vegetables (mushrooms are grouped here on the MyPlate)
- Whole grains
Vegans can meet their protein needs with whole grains and legumes. Nuts, seeds, and vegetables add to protein intake as well. These foods have the added benefit of containing fiber and phytonutrients that are absent in animal-based foods.
The easiest way for vegans to meet their calcium needs without dairy is to include calcium-fortified foods. This includes calcium-fortified soymilk, calcium-fortified orange juice, and particular brands of tofu. It is critical to check the nutrition label for calcium since many manufacturers do not fortify their products.
Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and choline are other nutrients of concern with this way of eating. The type of iron in plant foods (non-heme iron) is less bioavailable than the heme iron in animal-based food. Additionally, some of the plants that appear to be good sources of iron (like spinach) contain iron-absorption inhibitors.
The RDA for iron for vegans is 1.8 times higher than for meat-eaters. This means that the percent daily value for iron-on food labels may not reflect your needs if you are vegan. Consuming foods rich in non-heme iron with foods rich in vitamin C is one way to increase iron absorption.
Similar to iron, the zinc in animal-based foods has higher bioavailability and may enhance the absorption of zinc. Additionally, eating high levels of legumes and whole grains may inhibit zinc absorption. As a result, vegans may need 50% more of the zinc RDA compared to omnivores.
If you want to be vegan, you have to kick all animal-based food to the curb
As mentioned earlier, all animal-based sources of nutrition are eliminated in the vegan diet. Animal-based foods are the best natural sources of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient that is absent in plant foods. Animal-based foods also naturally contain other non-essential but potentially beneficial nutrients such as EPA, DHA, carnitine, taurine, carnosine, and creatine.
Foods that you eliminate on the vegan diet include the following:
- All meat, poultry, seafood
- Dairy products in all forms (this includes all cow, sheep, and goat milk, as well as all dairy cheeses, butter, and ice cream)
Because of the restriction of all animal-based foods on the vegan diet, vegans must supplement with vitamin B12. This supplementation can come in the form of fortified foods, such as certain breakfast cereals, or a vitamin pill.
Fortified nutritional yeast can be a great source of vitamin B12 for vegans. However, a single serving of some brands of this product will put you over the UL for niacin and folic acid. Exercise caution with fortified foods and supplements to prevent adverse effects.
Though certain nuts and seeds are abundant in the omega-3 ALA, they lack the omega-3s DHA and EPA that you find in seafood. If you are a vegan, consider an algal oil supplement to provide the DHA that is missing from your diet. I’ve also seen products (such as tofu) that are fortified with small amounts of DHA.
The vegan diet is not right for everyone (and there is disagreement on this topic)
Do not try the vegan diet if you are on a medical nutrition therapy (MNT) that conflicts with it. Nutrition therapies used to treat a medical condition must take precedence over optional dietary changes. Consulting with a dietitian is an excellent idea if you are unsure whether your MNT can align with a vegan diet.
Additionally, the vegan diet may not be the right choice for someone with an eating disorder. In a study from 2012, over half of the individuals with an eating disorder history had tried vegetarianism at some point. The vegan diet can be a socially acceptable way to hide food restrictions and disordered eating patterns in plain sight.
The position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is that well-planned vegan diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate. They state that “these diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle.” Pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence are all mentioned as times when a vegan diet may be appropriate.
It is essential to know that the recommendations in some other countries do not agree with the AND’s position. Danish, German, and Swiss guidelines recommend avoiding a vegan diet with young children. The German and Swiss guidelines advise against veganism during pregnancy and lactation as well. Helping children to avoid food fears and create a healthy relationship with nutrient-rich whole foods should be the top priority.
If you are pregnant or thinking about adding to your family, I recommend reading up on prenatal nutrition. The book “Real Food for Pregnancy: The Science and Wisdom of Optimal Prenatal Nutrition” was written by a registered dietitian. This book provides helpful information that will aid you in making an informed choice about your pregnancy diet.
Eat a balanced diet of whole foods to help avoid these vegan pitfalls
Aside from the potential for a lower intake of specific nutrients, the vegan diet has been linked to certain health risks. Vegans are more likely to have lower bone mineral density and a higher rate of bone fractures.
Also, though low blood cholesterol levels are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, they are linked to a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke. This may help explain a recent study that linked vegetarian diets to a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke. The authors state that “vegan diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, but the potential benefits and hazards of these diets are not fully understood.”
A potential pitfall of the vegan diet is that a person may heavily rely on ultra-processed meat and cheese alternatives. Some of these products are even higher in saturated fat and calories than the foods that they are replacing. As a result, a person’s dietary quality may deteriorate, even if they are technically eating more plants.
In addition, the alternative products may be missing highly bioavailable forms of micronutrients that are present in the animal-based foods. An example of this is that many cheese alternatives do not contain the calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin K2 present in dairy cheese. Another example is that the meat alternatives typically do not contain as much heme iron, vitamin B12, or protein as beef.
If you are treating meat and cheese alternatives as occasional treats rather than regular meal replacements can ameliorate this downside. This means filling your vegan meals with minimally processed foods such as whole grains and legumes, not protein isolates.
Calcium-fortified dairy alternatives are an exception. Though these products are also ultra-processed, they can provide an important source of calcium and protein for vegans. Homemade nut, seed, and grain milk are not typically nutritionally equivalent to their fortified milk alternative counterparts.
Just like with other ways of eating, you are sticking with mostly whole foods is the way to go. As an added benefit, you may save money; dried beans and grains are some of the least expensive foods around. I maintain a list of some better-for-you meat alternatives if you are looking for the most convenient options.
You can shed fat with the vegan diet by creating protein and fiber-packed meals
The vegan diet is not necessarily a weight loss diet, and some may gain weight with this way of eating. You can lose weight as a vegan if you focus on creating a calorie deficit. One way to do this without having to use willpower continually is to fill your plate with high-volume, low-calorie foods.
Fruits and vegetables are low in calories but high in fiber and water. This volume can help to keep you full between meals, making it easier to consume fewer calories. Including a significant amount of plant-based protein sources in each meal may also help you to feel more satiated.
Stick with the best information on vegan diets and ignore the rest
There is a lot of misinformation online regarding the vegan diet, as well as other special diets. Besides, several popular documentaries make health claims about the vegan diet that are not evidence-based. If you want to protect your family’s health, it is crucial to rely on credible sources of information about the vegan diet.
Thankfully, there are some excellent resources available for those who are interested in the vegan way of eating. I highly recommend checking out these handouts created by dietitians in the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. Additionally, poke around the rest of their website for some of the best information on vegan diets available online.
You can obtain the heart health benefits of a vegan diet with the Mediterranean diet as well. If you are interested in the vegan diet solely for health reasons, I recommend checking out our Mediterranean diet article. You can have a happy heart without eliminating nutrient-rich animal-based foods.
Final thoughts on Vegan Diet for Beginners
In conclusion, is the vegan diet is right for you and your family? This is a personal decision that you should base on many factors. It is essential to know not only the benefits but also the risks associated with any way of eating.
Registered dietitians are well-versed in vegan and vegetarian diet patterns. If you have any questions about your diet, don’t miss out on tapping into this knowledgeable resource. Checking in with a dietitian before changing your diet is an excellent way to get started on the right foot.
If you are looking to include more plants in your meal plan, don’t forget about Healthy Cauldron! We have a ton of plant-packed recipe ideas right here that are waiting for you. Have you checked them out yet?
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.