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The Vegan Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide

Written by Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Published on March 31, 2021

The plant-based movement continues to gain popularity, for many people it means adopting a vegan diet. Understanding what a vegan diet is, including potential pros and cons, tips for success, and what to eat, can be helpful for deciding whether it makes sense for you.

The Vegan Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide

What Is a Vegan Diet?

A vegan diet is characterized by excluding animal products and byproducts to the best of one’s ability.

This means avoiding all animal-derived meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt.

It also means avoiding foods that contain these in their ingredient lists, such as baked goods that contain butter or canned soups that contain cream.

One of the main differences between a plant-based and vegan diet is that the latter extends beyond diet to other areas of life.

For example, someone following a vegan diet would likely avoid purchasing other consumer products like clothing, cosmetics, and personal care items that contain animal-derived ingredients or have been tested on animals.

Reasons to Follow a Vegan Diet

If you asked a handful of people who follow a vegan diet why they decided to do so, you would likely get a variety of answers.

While these can vary, there are generally three main reasons why most people choose to go vegan initially.

The first reason is to improve overall health. The goal may be to achieve a healthy weight, lower risk for chronic disease, or better manage (and possibly reverse) certain existing medical conditions.

Next, many people go vegan to save animals. By not purchasing animal products, the intention is to help reduce consumer demand and ultimately reduce the number of animals raised for food.

Lastly, more people are moving to a vegan diet to help protect the environment. Industrial animal agriculture is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

It utilizes an enormous amount of natural resources, requires rainforest destruction, and pollutes waterways. A vegan diet aims to reduce the environmental impacts of the food system.

Benefits of the Vegan Diet

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “...appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

“These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes….”

Many other professional health organizations agree. Vegan diets have long been studied for nutritional adequacy and health effects.

While vegan diets can vary widely in composition, the overall plant-based eating pattern has been shown to support health in numerous ways, as discussed below.

It’s important to note that the most health benefits are seen when a vegan diet emphasizes nutrient-dense whole plant foods over more processed convenience vegan items.

Promotes Weight Loss

A vegan diet can help achieve healthy, sustainable weight loss. Combining plant proteins, unsaturated fats, and fiber can promote satiety between meals and prevent overeating.

A healthy vegan diet will emphasize nutrient-dense plant foods over empty calories that are more likely to promote weight gain or impede weight loss goals.

Evidence shows that a vegan diet can be an efficacious tool in weight loss interventions.

In a 2007 study, a vegan diet was significantly more effective for reducing obesity than the National Cholesterol Education Program, which includes animal products.

Promotes Gut Health

A vegan diet is full of fiber, a nutrient only found in plant foods. Fiber benefits digestive health and can be a good source of prebiotics, which support healthy gut bacteria.

Interestingly, studies have found that vegans have fewer disease-causing microbes called pathobionts in their gastrointestinal system compared to omnivores.

Vegans also seem to have more protective species of microbes that benefit health.

What’s more, as a westernized diet may promote gut disorders like irritable bowel disease, a vegan diet may be therapeutic in restoring gut symbiosis and reducing inflammation that can trigger flare-ups.

Protects Brain Health

Research on the bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut, called the gut-brain axis, indicates that supporting gut health subsequently supports brain health (and vice versa).

Furthermore, a nutritious vegan diet can be protective against age-related cognitive decline.

In fact, a diet based on whole plant foods can significantly reduce your risk for developing Alzheimer’s dementia, as shown in the MIND study.

Oppositely, multi-country studies have found that diets high in animal products such as meat, sweets, and high-fat dairy products, appear to raise the risk for Alzheimer’s.

Supports Heart Health

A vegan diet is naturally rich in fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fats and devoid of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat.

These characteristics have been studied for their heart health benefits, like helping to keep arteries free from plaque buildup that can lead to heart disease.

Healthy plant-based diets are also associated with lower blood pressure, lower blood fats, and reduced platelet aggregation, which are risk factors for heart disease.

While saturated fat in moderation isn’t necessarily the enemy, research shows that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat and complex carbs – rather than sugary, refined carbs that are often preferred – can be protective for the heart.

A 2020 trial called SWAP-MEAT demonstrated that when people substituted plant foods for animal products, heart disease risk decreased.

This included a reduction in levels of TMAO, a molecule recently identified as a risk factor for heart disease.

Improves Glycemic Control

Research has shown that a whole foods vegan diet can be effective in preventing, controlling, and even reversing type 2 diabetes.

One reason for this is that saturated fats from animal products appear to cell membrane function and insulin signaling, which may influence poor glucose control.

Vegan diets can also lead to a lower HgA1c, a biomarker of long-term glucose control. This is likely due to their low saturated fat, high fiber, microbiome-supporting characteristics.

A low-fat vegan diet has even been observed to control blood sugar and blood lipids among people with type 2 diabetes as well, if not better, than a diet based on American Diabetes Association (ADA) guidelines.

Reduces Risk for Certain Cancers

Antioxidants in whole plant foods fight off free radicals that can damage cells and lead to diseases like cancer. Furthermore, the fiber in plants appears to be beneficial against cancer risk.

Processed and red meats have been classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization.

Dairy products have been linked to a higher risk for breast and prostate cancers.

Eating a diet high in these types of foods may come with an increased risk for certain cancers, an association that has been studied for decades.

Removing meat and dairy products appear to be beneficial, as vegan diets have been observed to offer overall reduced cancer risk, even more than vegetarian diets that may incorporate eggs and dairy.

Reduces Inflammation

Inflammatory conditions are very common in westernized countries and are often an underlying component of other diseases.

A whole foods vegan diet can reduce systemic inflammation and even be therapeutic for conditions like osteoarthritis.

A 2018 randomized controlled trial also found that vegan diets reduced an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein in patients with coronary heart disease.

Pros and Cons

The pros and cons of a vegan diet can be highly subjective and may depend on who you ask. My thoughts on this as a dietitian are listed below.

Pros:

  • Increases the amount of plant foods and fiber you eat.
  • Can reduce your grocery bill when based primarily on whole plant foods.
  • When based on whole plant foods, there is solid evidence behind health benefits and chronic disease prevention and reversal.
  • Can reduce negative impacts on animals and the environment.
  • Many vegan options available at supermarkets, restaurants, and online, which makes it much easier to adhere to today.

Cons:

  • Can easily consist of processed foods and sugary convenience items rather than healthful whole plant foods.
  • Could pose a risk of nutrient deficiencies if appropriate planning isn’t taken and certain supplements are not incorporated.
  • May increase your grocery bill if you rely on many packaged items or don’t practice meal planning to reduce waste of shorter shelf-life produce.
  • Could be difficult to sustain if you don’t make gradual dietary changes in the beginning and aren’t used to preparing plant-based meals.

Foods to Eat on a Vegan Diet

There are a growing number of vegan foods available today, including plant-based meat and cheese alternatives, to make this switch even easier.

For the most health benefits, base your vegan diet on whole plant foods while avoiding or minimizing packaged, highly processed foods.

Whole plant foods provide dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and antioxidants.

While packaged foods can certainly have a place on a vegan diet, they don’t offer the same nutritional benefits and may be high in added sugar and fat.

Foods to eat on a vegan diet include fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils).

A vegan diet often includes meat alternatives, such as tofu, tempeh, seitan (made with vital wheat gluten), and meat analogs like vegan hotdogs, deli slices, and burgers.

Additionally, dairy alternatives are widely accessible, such as milk, yogurt, and ice cream made from soy, pea, rice, hemp, oats, cashews, or almonds, as well as butter, sour cream, and mayonnaise.

Vegan egg substitutes, some of which even scramble similarly, are also available.

Tips for Success

Getting started on a vegan diet can seem overwhelming if the idea of excluding animal products is unfamiliar. Here are some tips to help set you up for success and satisfaction:

Start slowly. If this is a dramatic dietary change for you, making gradual adjustments may help you stick with it in the long run. Try writing down some of your regular meals and snacks, and identify where substitutions can be made.

Learn about nutrition. Meeting nutrient needs on a vegan diet requires a little more attention, and ideally, a mix of food and supplements. Meet with a dietitian for individualized nutrition advice.

Stock your pantry and freezer well. Figure out what your staple foods are and keep them accessible. Some good ones are canned beans and lentils, dry rice and pasta, oats, tomato sauce, raw nuts and seeds, and frozen fruits and veggies.

Meal plan and batch cook. Save time by planning for the week and preparing some items ahead of time. Batch cooking means making an item in bulk that can be used in multiple ways during the week, like roasted tofu cubes, cooked quinoa, or homemade seitan.

Shop tactfully. At the supermarket, focus on the produce, bulk, and dried goods sections. These are where you’ll find most of the healthier items that fit on a vegan diet. Use the list you made while meal planning for the week.

Plan to experiment. A vegan diet can and should be tailored to fit personal needs and preferences. It can take trial and error to figure out what foods and flavor combinations you like and dislike. Mix in new dishes with ones you already enjoy. Get some new cookbooks, take a vegan cooking class, surf Pinterest, or follow some vegan recipe bloggers online.

Find support. Whether this is a vegan friend, an online community, or others in your household, changing your lifestyle is most enjoyable and sustainable when you have helpful resources and support around you.

One-Day Vegan Meal Plan

To give you an idea of what a vegan diet could look like, below is a healthy one-day meal plan made entirely of plant foods and ingredients.

  • Breakfast: 2 slices multigrain toast with mashed avocado, tomato slices, raw pepitas, salt, and pepper.
  • Snack: Apple slices with almond butter, raisins.
  • Lunch: Chickpea salad sandwich (made with chickpeas, celery, red onion, lemon juice, vegan mayonnaise, pickle relish, dill, paprika, salt, and pepper) with lettuce on a whole wheat hamburger bun, side of baby carrots and hummus, red grapes.
  • Snack: Green smoothie (made with soy milk, orange juice, baby spinach, a pear, frozen pineapple, ground flax seeds).
  • Dinner: Tofu scramble (made with tofu, olive oil, bell pepper, broccoli, onion, garlic, turmeric, cumin, salt, and pepper), with a side of roasted cubed sweet potato and orange slices.
  • Dessert: Bowl of mixed blueberries and raspberries topped with shaved dark chocolate, crushed walnuts, and a splash of canned coconut milk.

The Bottom Line

A vegan diet excludes all animal products and is instead based on plant foods.

There are years of evidence behind the health benefits of following a well-planned vegan diet. Many people like that it can also benefit the environment and the animals.

Plus, with all of the plant-based foods available today, adopting a vegan diet is easier than ever.

Just keep in mind that with all of the options, it’s important to emphasize whole plant foods as much as possible, and prioritize nutrition, to reap the most benefits.

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