If you decided to adopt a vegan philosophy, our guide: Vegan For Beginners was written for you!
You’ll learn details about this lifestyle choice (spoiler alert: it’s more than just diet), whether or not it is healthy, and more in this Dietitian written guide.
Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for personal medical or dietary advice. Talk to your doctor before making major dietary changes or starting a new supplement. See our Disclaimers for more details.
*Consumer Notice: This post contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
This post was originally published on 9/30/21. The updated date is listed above.
What Does it Mean to “Go Vegan?”
Let’s start with the basics.
Veganism is a philosophy that inspires a lifestyle change.
Here’s how The Vegan Society defines “Veganism”:
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
In summary, vegans try to practice a lifestyle that reduces harm to animals as practically as possible.
While diet certainly is a a big component to this, reducing the exploration of animals though non food related purchases is part of the lifestyle as well.
Therefore, veganism is not merely a diet! This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions when you hear the word vegan.
For example, one could consume a vegan diet, but continue to consciously to purchase non food related products or services that exploit animals when he or she doesn’t need to. By definition, this individual is not “vegan.”
Making a bit more sense now?
Alright, so perhaps now you are thinking, but why does the diet part get so much press?
Probably because it is the hardest part to change!
That’s why most of this article will focus on food.
But before we dive into the binge worthy details of the vegan lifestyle, let’s continue to answer the questions you likely have, starting with a commonly asked one:
Why would I go vegan?
Who Can Be Vegan?
Many of us can be vegan.
Still there are some instances in which the dietary component (as mentioned via the definition above) for example may be exceedingly difficult or not appropriate.
For example: Some individuals can not access a a variety of plant based foods and vitamin B12 depending on their location(some of the keys to a healthy vegan diet).
That’ why you’ve probably heard that vegan activists are not going to remote places of the world to educate about veganism!
In regards to the dietary component, individuals with certain conditions, such as an eating disorder or lots of food allergies to plant based foods should especially talk to their health care provider about whether exclusion of all animal products is appropriate.
There is much controversy around this subject, but the important thing to remember here is this: there is no vegan police.
I repeat: There is no vegan police!
Helping animals in other ways, such as donating to reputable animal charities, volunteering your time at animal shelters, or even making some plant based decisions etc, is good for animals.
Now that we know many of us can be vegan- why follow this philosophy in the first place?
Why Should I Go Vegan?
According to a survey on vegans in Britain (popularly known as the leading country for veganism), the most common reason for staying vegan were for animal welfare reasons (1).
Other reasons include for the environment, certain social justice issues, and for your health, although- this is a more controversial one.
Lets go into more detail about these reasons because after all, veganism does require label reading (and perhaps a few awkward moments at social gatherings 😉 ).
So lets know why we are getting into it!
1. For the Animals
A vegan diet is the diet that reduces animal suffering the most. All animals raised for consumption, or secretions (ie: eggs, dairy), undergo suffering. Yes, even those claiming to be cage free, organic, or humanely sourced!
Perhaps you don’t have a dog companion, or the idea of visiting an animal sanctuary doesn’t sound fun to to you. These are not requirements!
The only thing you need to is the desire to reduce unnecessary suffering.
In the words of Jeremey Bentham: “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”
2. For the Environment
Being vegan has a tremendous impact on the environment.
There is only so much we can and cannot do based on the financial resources and the power available to us.
However, unlike many other financially expensive choices, choosing a plant based diet alone can be a cost effective intervention that makes a huge impact for planetary health.
How big? Well, one popular 2018 study published in the Science suggests that moving to a diet that excludes animal products could reduce land use by 76% and green house gas emissions by 49% (2)!
Some vegans also see the environmental reasons as as having a broader social justice benefit: reducing the global burden of world hunger.
This is because as we just identified in the previous point, numerous studies suggest plant based diets (including vegan diets) are typically more eco friendly.
With this concept in mind, theoretically if more people went vegan, there would be more water and land to grow food for hungry people. Planetary health and world hunger may have a a lot in common.
Of course choosing to be vegan will not eradicate complex issues such as world hunger, and those affected by climate change.
And while the best diet for the environment likely depends on the country, it’s generally accepted that the more plants and less animal products consumed, the better the health of the planet.
3. For Your Health (Maybe)
Why is this reason controversial? Two reasons:
- Veganism is more than a diet, and
- a vegan diet can be as unhealthy or healthy as you make it
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper states “Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity (4).”
However, research suggests that this diet focuses on fruits veggies, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats, like nuts and seeds.
Along with a consistent source of vitamin B12 and other supplements as warranted, it’s easy to see that not every vegan diet would be considered “healthy.”
After all, it is possible to be vegan and only consume Oreos (FYI: this is not a recommendation)!
Ethical vegans may or may not be concerned about the health aspects of a vegan diet, and simply want to avoid animal products for any of the other reasons listed above.
Sense veganism is more than a diet, and some vegans may not consume a healthy vegan diet, this reason is controversial.
One reason why veganism might be a healthier could likely extend beyond a healthy diet, such as the potential for less diseases caused by animals (for example, the infamous influenza is known to have originated from birds).
It is theorized that if we “used” animals less, we might reduce the potential for animal derived diseases.
Whef, that was lot of points to cover!
Now that you know why people become vegan, how do you make the shift?
Keep reading, you won’t want to miss out on the details below!
How Do I Do It?
Put simply, keep this in mind:
Veganism is a philosophy that inspires a lifestyle that reduces animal suffering.
These guiding principles help vegans make decisions, from what to wear to what they consume.
Lets breakdown the lifestyle stuff into three categories and then go in more depth with each of them. The three categories:
- Activities that vegans tend to avoid
1. Vegan Diet
What makes a meal plan vegan?
Probably the best way to define it is by what vegans do and do not eat.
Foods Vegans Can Eat:
- Whole plant foods (ie: whole broccoli, corn, apples, you get the idea)
- Any packaged/non packaged food that does not include any animal products (ie: vegan cereal, bread, snacks, etc.)
Foods Vegans Avoid:
- Animal products (The most obvious being dairy, meat, fish, and eggs).
- Any food that includes animal products (ie: eggs in cake, butter in biscuits, etc.)
To sum it all up: A vegan diet is one that avoids animal products, regardless of whether it is the main ingredient or not.
In essence, a vegan diet is not merely a plant based diet. It is a fully plant-based diet.
Pay Attention To These Nutrients on a Vegan Diet
Now that you know a vegan diet can be a healthy, lets discuss some things related to the “appropriately planned” part.
It is possible to meet nutrient needs on a vegan diet. However, vegans may need to do a bit of learning, as much nutrition information focuses on animal products.
So lets do a deep dive into what you should know!
- RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance): 2.4 micrograms per day (for Non Pregnant/ Non lactating Adults, 19 years and older)(5).
The only food sources that already contain vitamin B12 are animal products (and even they may have been supplemented with the nutrient). Therefore, it is imperative that vegans consume a reliable source since they avoid animal products.
If you do not get enough vitamin B12, you could eventually develop anemia and neurological problems(5). Those are things nobody wants!
But you may not want to rely on vegan food alone for vitamin B12, as you may not eat them consistently.
And, certain groups of vegans and vegetarians may have a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency (6).
Luckily vitamin B12 supplements are easy to find and can be inexpensive!
The absorption process is very complex, and there are a variety of health conditions, medications, and even life stages that can increase ones need for this nutrient. So its important to talk to your doctor about the form and dose of vitamin B12 that is appropriate for you.
One, if not THE most frequent question you may get as a new vegan is: “where do you get your protein?”
Keep these tips in mind for getting protein on a vegan diet:
- Make sure you are eating enough in general. A Registered Dietitian can help you determine how much calories, and macronutrients you need.
- Eat a variety of plant based foods (avoid vegan diets that limit food groups, such as the fruitarian diet, a diet that only includes fruit).
- Know your protein needs.
While the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) states adults need 0.8 mg protein/kilogram body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds), some experts recommend more than this, such as at least 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to take in account the reduced digestibility of plant proteins.
FYI: If you have a medical condition, such as chronic kidney disease, or are an athlete, etc- you may need more or less than this amount. Talk to your doctor about how much protein you need.
- Pay extra attention to plant based foods rich in the amino acid lysine. This essential amino acid can fall to the way side. That’s because if you are new to a plant based diet, protein rich vegan foods- like beans (rich in lysine) might not be so familiar yet.
Veganhealth.org suggests vegans eat 3-4 servings of foods high in lysine. Plant based foods high in lysine include foods like beans and soy.
RDA For Iron:
- Men (aged 19 to 50 years old): 8 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Females (aged 19 to 50 years old, non pregnant/ non lactating): 18 mg per day(7).
The iron in plant proteins (non heme iron) is not as easily absorbed as iron in meat (heme iron).
And to top it all of, some people may have a harder time getting enough for many reasons including heavy mensuration, iron deficiency, and lots of physical activity.
Iron is so important for the formation of red blood cells, the transfer of oxygen, and many other functions(7).
So, if you have any concerns about your iron status, talk to your doctor.
Here’s a few tips that might help you increase iron absorption:
- Get familiar with plant based sources that contain a decent amount of iron! They include tofu, beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.
- Consider adding vitamin C rich foods (this study used 25 milligrams of ascorbic acid. Example: there are about 56 milligrams of vitamin C, total ascorbic acid in approx 100 grams of raw strawberries) with your plant based iron containing foods.
- Cook your grains and legumes well (reduce phytates (iron absorption inhibitors)).
- For tea or coffee drinker you should consume it about an hour or two after an iron rich meal(8). This is because a substance called tannins in tea/coffee can inhibit iron absorption.
RDA for Iodine: 150 mcg per day for non pregnant non lactating adults aged 19 years and older (9).
Iodine, is an essential mineral that is necessary for proper functioning of your thyroid gland, a gland that is important for metabolism(9).
But consuming too much or two little iodine could cause an over active or slow metabolism and other problems.
While vegans do not consume dairy or fish (high sources of iodine), iodine can be obtained from certain vegan friendly sources, like iodized salt (always double check the label), and certain sea vegetables, like nori.
However, since many of us are watching our sodium intake, and seaweed may not be the most available or inexpensive product in the US, you may be wondering if you should supplement. This is a good question to talk to your doctor about.
Check out our article: Vegan Iodine Sources to learn more!
RDA for Calcium: 1000 milligrams (mg) per day for adults aged 19 to 50 years old(10).
Going vegan means giving up dairy, which often raises the question: “where am I going to get calcium for bone health?”
But the truth of the mater is: dairy products are not the only source of calcium. A fully plant based lifestyle can provide calcium.
Plant based foods that contain decent amounts of calcium include:
- Calcium set tofu
- Calcium fortified plant based milks
- Low Oxalate Green Vegetables (ie: broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, bok choy)
Before you stock your fridge with tofu though, let me give you a few more bonus tips:
- Certain greens such like spinach contain oxalic acid, which binds much of the calcium. Don’t count on them to contribute a significant amount of calcium in your diet.
- Some vegan “milks” are not fortified (seems a bit counterintuitive right?) So if you want to replace your cows milk with plant based milk, make sure you read the label.
RDA For Vitamin D: 15 micrograms (600 International Units) per day for adults aged 19 to 50 years old (11).
First of all, let’s get one thing cleared out of the way: Vitamin D deficiency is not exclusive to vegans! In fact, vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States(12).
Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption, maintaining bones, muscle function, and the immune system (11).
Some research suggests that vegans and vegetarians fall short on the vitamin D as compared to those who consume fish meat (13).
While vitamin D in food does come from animal-based products, like fish, it is also known as the sunshine vitamin!
That’s because it is possible to get vitamin D from the sun.
However, depending on how much time you spend outside, where you live, or how dark or light your skin is, your absorption can vary (not to mention the concerns associated with too much sun exposure, including sunburns and skin cancer).
There are vegan sources of vitamin D, such UV treated mushrooms, fortified vegan vitamin D in some breakfast cereals and orange juice, nut or soymilks, but many of us probably aren’t eating enough of these foods to get all the vitamin D we need.
So talk to your doctor about getting your levels checked and whether supplementation is right for you.
Not all vitamin D supplements are vegan!
Here is an example of a vegan vitamin D3 supplement that I have used (affiliate link*)- As a reminder, this means If you click on these links below and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you:
RDA for Zinc:
- Men (19+ years old): 11 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Female (19+ years old, non pregnant/ non lactating) 8 mg per day(14).
The underdog essential mineral you may want to pay closer attention to for immune health is: zinc!
Meat is rich in this nutrient, and may have been the primary source of zinc in your pre-vegan diet.
So what options do vegans have for zinc?
So many! Plant powered sources include (not a comprehensive list):
Just make sure you don’t rely on fruit and salad greens to meet your zinc requirements. These are nutrient dense foods, but not zinc rich foods.
Like iron, phytates (a substance naturally found in plants) can inhibit zinc absorption(15).
Luckily, there are many ways to enhance zinc absorption. Here’s a few:
If you have concerns about your zinc intake, talk to your doctor.
ALA (An Omega-3 Fatty Acid)
AI (Adequate Intake) for ALA:
- Men (aged 19 to 50 years old): 1.6 grams per day.
- Females (aged 19 to 50 years old, non pregnant/non lactating): 1.1 grams per day (16).
ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) is an a essential omega 3 fatty acid. These fats make up a parts of our cell membranes. If we don’t get enough ALA, we might a experience a variety of symptoms, including skin(17)and hair problems(18).
ALA can be exclusively obtained from plants. Especially concentrated sources include (not a comprehensive list):
- ground flaxseed
- chia seeds
You’ll want to make sure you meet your needs! For more details check out the Omega 3 section in our article on fish.
Other Nutrients to Have on Your Radar
RDA for Selenium: 55 micrograms (mcg) per day for non pregnant/non lactating adults aged 19 to 50 years old (19).
Selenium is found in a variety of foods. While selenium deficiency is not as common in the US, depending on where you live, you may need to need to practice extra diligence toward getting enough.
Check out the selenium section in our article about giving up fish (a rich source of selenium) for more details.
AI For Choline:
- Men (aged 19 years and older): 550 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Females (aged 19 years and older, non pregnant/non lactating): 425 milligrams (mg) per day(20) .
Choline is one of the more recently discovered nutrients, and as such, we need more research. However, we do know that it is a essential nutrient with complex functions in the body, such as cell signaling(21).
One study suggests that most Americans do not meet the AI(22). And this nutrient can be a bit more tricky to meet the AI on a vegan diet without planning.
Examples of choline rich vegan foods include:
- Soy (tofu, soy milk, , etc)
You can learn more about choline in my post about taking eggs out of your diet here.
Last But Not Least, Don’t Forget Your Red/Orange Vegetables:
Find out why in our article Vegans: Vitamin A Needs to be on Your Radar!
Hint: it has to do with beta carotene (aka a precursor to vitamin A – an essential vitamin some of us may not be getting or absorbing enough of)!
If you are saying cool, but how do I actually go about shopping on a vegan meal plan?
We can’t stress enough how important it is for vegans to shop with variety and nutrients in mind!
If you have kids, I would strongly suggest you consider seeing a Registered Dietitian that specializes in vegan diets for children.
Karla Moreno-Bryce, MDA, RD, LD is a dietitian who offers a course that dives into the topic of a vegan diet for kids.
One of her courses includes topics such as meal planning, feeding strategies, and supplements!
Check out her course Vegan Kids Nutrition Blueprint here (affiliate link*- as a reminder, this means if you click on the link and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you).
Will I Need Any Supplements?
Vegans need to ensure they get a consistent and reliable source of vitamin B12. So talk to your doctor about supplementation.
As mentioned before, there are several other nutrients like vitamin D and iodine that may be tricky to get enough of as well – so put those on your list of topics with your doctor!
2. Vegan Products
Vegans try to avoid products that contain parts of an animal (such as leather).
Many also avoid products that have been tested on animals (ie: certain hair products that are tested on animals).
And while some products have vegan labels, many do not. Vegan products can also be difficult to find!
Again, what one can practically avoid must come in mind here! There is no such thing as completely avoiding animal products.
3. Activities That Vegans Tend to Avoid
Vegans do not support activities that exploit animals, such as circuses or hunting.
While vegans often avoid zoos, they may visit or support animal sanctuaries, as these are thought of to be beneficial for the animals.
In opposition, zoos might be viewed by vegans as using animals to make a profit.
3 Tips For Going Vegan For Beginners
*Consumer Notice: This section contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.
Now that you are equipped with so much knowledge, I hope you are feeling that much more confident about starting a vegan lifestyle.
But before you go, I want leave you with a few more tips!
- Variety is key! Consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and healthy fats should help you get closer to your nutrient targets. So eat a rainbow of colors (really though, this is a general recommendation for any healthy diet).
But if you are saying, yah, but I need some guidance to make sure I am hitting those targets!
I. Hear. You. When you are starting a vegan diet (really, any new diet!) sometimes, we think we are getting enough nutrition, when really, we might be falling short on some nutrients. That’s why I recommend seeing a Registered Dietitian who is familiar with vegan diets.
If you want to get an idea about your nutrient intake, check out Cronometer (affiliate link*) a food and nutrient tracking app.
Cronometer is awesome because it has a huge food data base, space to enter your own recipes, and provides you with nutrient info (disclaimer: a nutrient tracking app is not a substitute for the advice of your health care provider).
- If you think you hate a bean, try a new recipe: Have you always said you hate broccoli, Brussel sprouts? Fill in the blank here?
Personal story time: I was not always a fan of avocados. In fact, when I went out to eat with my boyfriend in college, I would take all the avocado out of my salad and give it to him!
But later, I discovered a tasty way to make guacamole, and learned about avocado ice cream. Guess what? For what ever reason, I don’t mind avocado on my salad anymore! My college self would be shocked.
The same thing might be true for you. The internet is full of tasty vegan recipes. Experiment, have fun, and be sure to let me know of any favorites you find! 🙂
- Take Your Supplements: No explanation needed. Talk to your doctor about an appropriate supplement regimen for you. Luckily, if you made it to the end of this post, you have an idea about some of those nutrients you may want to discus (hint: many vegans will want to discuss a vitamin B12 supplement at least)!
- Your New Mantra :This is a Lifestyle Change: If you have read this thoroughly, I am going to assume that you decided make this lifestyle change based on something outside of yourself. Perhaps you want to embrace the vegan philosophy.
Whatever your reason, never forget it! Remember: most of the world does not follow a vegan diet. This means, you may encounter challenges when you go out to eat with friends, travel, or are pressured to eat your moms classic meat based recipes. This makes it so important to find a community that has like minded values.
Know that no one is perfect. There is no vegan police going around and monitoring you. You are your worst critique, and tomorrow is a new day.
Perhaps you chose to be a vegan as an extension of compassion to non human animals, but don’t forget to embrace that same compassion for yourself.
Lastly, keep in mind that not everyone can be vegan, whether it be for accessibility or financial reasons, and that doesn’t mean they care any less about the issues you care about!
Let your mantra be: Compassion for all beings.
Want to learn more? Keep browsing around on our blog! We guide vegans through the many questions they have, such as what’s actually vegan at Costco, high calorie vegan food, vegan cereals, and more!
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May the fork be with you…