What Is a Vegan Diet — And What You Should Know About Going Vegan
If you follow certain celebrities (Joaquin Phoenix, Beyoncé, Natalie Portman, Tom Brady) or pay attention to environmental or food websites (ahem), you’re probably at least aware that “going vegan” is becoming an increasingly popular thing. You’re probably also aware that veganism follows a more limited diet than vegetarianism. And you may even be aware of what vegans don’t eat, at least in part: No meat, dairy, or eggs… and maybe honey?
To help you understand it better — and possibly decide if it may be right for you — here’s what you need to know about what the vegan diet entails and why people choose to do it.
What do vegans eat?
Vegans only eat foods that come from plants. This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and plant-derived oils.
What don’t vegans eat?
Vegans stay away from all animal products and byproducts. Basically, if an animal was used in the making of this food, it’s not vegan. So this includes the obvious foods like meat, poultry, fish and seafood — but also animal products such as eggs, milk, dairy cheese, and — yes — honey. If you’re on a vegan diet, it’s important to read ingredient lists, because items like gelatin, whey (the protein in dairy), lard, and other ingredients are derived from animals and not vegan-compatible.
What’s the difference between a vegan diet and a vegetarian diet?
Vegans will not eat any animal byproducts such as dairy or honey. The vegetarian diet, on the other hand, abstains from meat but will still eat foods that animals produce like milk and eggs.
What does it mean to “go vegan”?
Traditionally, veganism means that you are 100 percent vegan, 100 percent of the time. As a practice, the vegan lifestyle has a strong core of activism and a moral code devoted to the wellbeing of animals and our earth. Historically, if you adopted a vegan lifestyle, you also went without leather, wool, or even silk — in addition to other food choices.
But in recent years, the idea of being a “part-time vegan” has gained traction. Some people start by changing up their diet for a few days or weeks. Others eat vegan during the day, but are omnivores at dinner. Still others choose to eat vegan one day of every week — a riff on meatless Monday. To those who are vegan for moral reasons, labeling these part-time positions as vegan has been controversial. (Mark Bittman was one such proponent with his “VB6” book and diet; read our past review of VB6 here.)
But many health advocates encourage any amount of plant-based eating as an improvement, and it’s great to try it out in stages. Because a vegan diet can feel so limiting, it’s important, especially at first, to “think about what you can eat instead of focusing on what you can’t,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Flexitarian Diet and The Superfood Swap. “It can be overwhelming to look at the list of off-limit foods.”
But also, you should seek out vegan swaps for your absolute favorite foods. “If you love cheese pizza and burgers, find new versions that you love instead of trying to white-knuckle it and do without.” Fortunately, there’s a growing list of vegan alternatives on grocery store shelves!
What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?
Though it is perfectly possible to be vegan and load up on junk foods, such as potato chips, studies have found correlations between eating a vegan diet and having better overall nutrition. Here are some common health benefits associated with a diet focused on eating plants:
- A healthy body mass index. People who eat a plant-based diet typically have lower BMIs than omnivores, and vegans are typically the leanest.
- Lower diabetes risk. One study found that while all vegetarians had lower risk of diabetes than meat-eaters, vegans had by far the lowest.
- Lower cancer risk. Disease-fighting phytochemicals in plants may help thwart cancer. In fact, one study found that following a vegan diet offered the most protection against cancer compared to any other diet.
- Healthier hearts. Science says that vegan diets also offer the most benefit to your heart. One very well-respected study found that vegan dieters have the healthiest cholesterol levels compared to omnivores and also vegetarians.
Are there any drawbacks to eating a vegan diet?
Switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegan one is not as simple as just cutting out all animal products. If you don’t pay attention to your new nutritional needs, and eat a wide variety of plants, “nutrient deficiencies can happen,” says Blatner. “Nutrients you have to pay extra attention to on a vegan diet include protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fats, and vitamin B12.” Here’s where you can get these nutrients on a vegan diet:
- Protein. Research shows that vegans typically meet their protein needs, but it does require some diligence. Blatner’s advice is to include a source of plant protein (beans, legumes, or grains) at each meal and at snack times.
- Iron. It’s harder for your body to absorb the type of iron in plant foods compared to the kind in animal products. Make the most of plant-based iron by pairing iron-rich plants like spinach, beans, lentils, and raisins with foods that are high in vitamin C, such as citrus or berries, which help your body absorb the iron.
- Calcium & Vitamin D. Look to fortified foods — like calcium- and vitamin D-fortified plant milks, juices, and cereals — to get more of these nutrients. And also know this: many omnivores fall short on these two nutrients as well.
- Omega-3s. Find these fats in chia, flax, and hemp seeds, as well as walnuts and their oils. Canola oil also contains omega-3 fats. Or, look for micro algae-based DHA supplements.
- Vitamin B12. It’s pretty challenging to get the amount of vitamin B12 you need from vegan-friendly foods. Fermented foods, such as tempeh, unfortified nutritional yeast, and algae all have B12, but it can also be helpful to talk with your doctor to determine whether you need a supplement to meet your needs.
When in doubt, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist to help you build a nutrient-rich vegan diet.
Ready to Try a Vegan Diet? Start with These Recipes
Your turn: Have you tried eating the diet? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments below.