So, you decided to adopt a vegan philosophy.
But what exactly is a vegan diet?
Is it healthy?
These are great questions that we will discuss (and more) in this Dietitian written guide.
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Disclaimer: Always talk to your doctor before making major dietary changes or starting a new supplement. This article is not a substitute for personal medical or dietary advice. See our Disclaimers for more details.
A completely vegan diet is not possible for every single person for several reasons – such as lack of access to a variety of plant-based foods.
Table of Contents
What Is Veganism?
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.
This includes making changes to diet, clothing, entertainment, etc.
So as you can see, veganism is more than a diet! Although, the diet part is arguably the most challenging part to tackle (that’s why most of this article is primarily focused on it)!
So lets try to clear up questions about the diet aspect first…
Vegan Diet For Beginners
What makes a meal plan vegan?
It may very well be best described by what vegans can eat and what they avoid. Lets break it down:
Foods Vegans Can Eat:
- Whole plant foods (ie: whole broccoli, corn, apples, you get the idea)
- Any packaged/non packaged edible food that does not include any animal products (ie: vegan cereal, bread, frozen meals, 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 excludes animal products, regardless of whether it is the main ingredient or not. In essence, a vegan diet is a fully plant-based diet.
Why Should I Adopt a Vegan Lifestyle?
Alright, so now that we are 100% clear that a vegan diet is, why does anyone choose a veganism? After all, it does require label reading and perhaps a few awkward moments at social gatherings.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. If you are dead set on following a vegan diet, you don’t have to do it overnight. You may be able to eliminate animal products one by one using our stepwise approach.
Want some more good news? Those who stick with a vegan diet the longest have matched their values with the food choices.
These vegans align their morals with their food habits, making it harder to go back to eating animal products. There’s even research to back this up! One study found that individuals who followed a vegan diet for ethical reasons adhered to the diet longer.
Those ethical reasons may be the very reason you are reading this article in the first place. So if you can resonate with any of the reasons below, you are in luck! You have a reason that makes you even more likely stick with the lifestyle long term.
1. For the Animals
A vegan diet is unquestionably 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 are not a cow hugging, or pig petting kind of person… I am here to tell you that you don’t have to be. Reducing animal suffering while meeting your nutrition needs without animal products can work.
In the words of Jeremey Bentham: “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”
In Summary: Choosing to follow a vegan diet (hands down) reduces animal suffering. This is a huge, and completely valid reason to stick with this diet.
2. For the Environment
If you are as disturbed as I am about climate change, I’ve got some encouraging news for you:
You can make a difference.
No, it doesn’t require buying a Tesla or installing solar panels. Although, those may be ways to help the planet, but that’s a subject for another day.
The truth is this: there is only so much we can and cannot do based on the financial resources and power available to us. Switching to a plant based diet alone can be a quick, effective, and affordable approach that makes a big impact.
One Study estimated that farming contributes to 81% of the greenhouse gas emissions (including deforestation). The animal agricultural industry also demands approximately 43% of the entire worlds ice and dessert free land. That’s huge.
But what about organic meat dairy and eggs? That’s better for the environment, right? Not according to a French study, which showed that organic meat may be even worse than conventionally grown meat, as the increased need for land can offset the environmental advantages.
In Summary: In general, the more plants and less animals/animal products consumed, the better the health of the planet. Unlike many other financially expensive choices, choosing a plant based diet alone can be a cost effect intervention that makes a huge impact for planetary health.
As an FYI: vegan diets are not the only plant based diets!
3. For Social Justice Issues
First things first, of course choosing to follow a vegan diet will not eradicate complex issues such as world hunger, and those affected by climate change, however, following a healthy and variety filled vegan diet alone may be an easy way to you can help.
As we have 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 (fyi: this is a theory) 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.
And as we touched on in the last point about going vegan for the environment, it is important to note yet again the significant impact of our current large scale animal industry practices as a contributor to climate change.
The 2018 IPCC Summary for policymakers suggest that poverty is expected to increase in some populations as global warning increases.
In Summary: Can we solve social justice issues merely with a vegan diet? No. But a plant based diet may help reduce your carbon footprint and theoretically its impact on those most effected by climate change.
How Expensive is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want! Perhaps the biggest main factor that may increase the chances of your vegan diet being expensive (at least in the US)?
For example, if you are simply wanting to replace your meat, with products like Beyond Burger, you’ll probably be looking at a bigger price tag!
Now don’t’ get me wrong, these products are delicious, convenient, and did I mention delicious?
But the truth of the matter is: you don’t need these alternative vegan products to be healthy.
In fact, these alternatives don’t always supply all the nutrients you would have been getting from meat. This is ok though, you’ll learn about the nutrients you need to have on your radar later in this article!
Buying whole foods, like whole fruits, veggies, legumes, and some fortified foods as needed can be very inexpensive.
So, if you are trying to save money, use these convenience items sparingly, and watch out for sales when for cravings. Depending on the sale and where you shop, these alternative products may be similar in price to their animal products.
In Summary: Vegan diets don’t have to be expensive! If you buy mainly whole, unprocessed plant-based foods, you should save money.
Are There Health Benefits To a Vegan Diet?
Take it from a Dietitian, a vegan diet can be as healthy or unhealthy as you make it.
Living on peanut butter and jelly and pizza (hey its got tomato in it-that’s good right?) with no supplements in sight? Healthy is not exactly the first word that comes to mind…
However, getting a variety of mostly minimally processed whole foods with key nutrients in mind and taking appropriate supplements is a healthy eating alternative, but here’s the kicker:
A whole foods, minimally processed diet is a healthy way to structure just about any diet. This includes vegan and non vegan diets.
When you base your food choices on whole foods, you will naturally decrease nutrients like salt, sodium and trans fat in other words, the things many health authorities say we should limit.
In fact, 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.”
In Summary: A vegan diet may lower the risk of certain chronic diseases. When filled with variety of mainly whole, minimally processed foods, focusing on key nutrients and using appropriate supplements, a vegan diet can be healthy.
Pay Attention To These Nutrients on a Vegan Diet Plan
Now that you know a vegan diet truly can be a healthy, lets discuss some things related to the “appropriately planned” part…
Unsurprisingly, if you decide to cut out all animal products from your diet, you will want to pay extra attention to certain nutrients.
Lets discuss some of them!
RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance): 2.4 micrograms per day (for Non Pregnant/ Non lactating Adults, 19 years and older).
First and foremost, we MUST talk about vitamin B12. Because if there’s anything you take away from this article, it is this: Take your vitamin B12!
Why is this important?
The only food sources that naturally contain vitamin B12 are animal products (and even they may have been supplemented with the nutrient).
If you want to learn about vegan foods that contain vitamin B12, and why exactly 2.4 mcg per day might not be enough check out our article Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegans.
If you do not consume enough of this vitamin, you may eventually develop anemia, neurological problems, and even dementia.
But you may not want to rely on foods alone for vitamin B12. In fact, certain groups of vegans and vegetarians may have a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.
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?”
Let’s give these curious people the benefit of the doubt! Popular media and outdated traditional nutrition education might have you believe that protein must come from meat.
However, as nutrition science has evolved, even reputable nutrition organizations (such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) state protein needs can be met on a plant based diet.
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. Again, a Registered Dietitian can look at your individual needs and help educate you about what 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, especially as you are starting a vegan diet, and may not be familiar with protein rich vegan foods- like beans yet.
Veganhealth.org suggests vegans eat 3-4 servings of foods high in lysine. Plant based foods high in lysine include foods like beans, soy, and nuts (fyi: not a comprehensive list).
- 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.
While you may look at a serving of beans and say, whoa, that has more iron than beef! Lets dial it back a bit.
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 s 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.
So, if you have any concerns about your iron status, talk to your doctor.
We’ll conclude this section with a few tips on increasing iron absorption on a vegan diet:
- Get familiar with plant based sources of iron! Good sources 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. 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.
Most of us know that milk contains calcium and vitamin D, but did you know that milk is also the one of the major sources of iodine in the U.S? Caveat: iodine content will vary depending on what the cows were fed or how the udders were sanitized with iodine.
So as a new vegan, you may be thinking, how will I get enough iodine? And for good reason!
Iodine, is an essential mineral that is necessary for proper functioning of your thyroid gland, a gland that is important for metabolism.
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 salad is not 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 as your iodine needs may be higher or lower than the RDA depending on a variety of factors.
Check out our article Vegan Iodine Sources to learn more!
RDA for Calcium: 1000 milligrams (mg) for adults aged 19 to 50 years old.
Going vegan means giving up dairy, which often raises the question: “where am I going to get calcium?”
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 abundant in calcium include:
- Calcium set tofu
- Calcium fortified plant based milks (check the label first though!)
- Low Oxalate Green Vegetables (ie: broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, bok choy)
Moderate calcium containing Plant based foods include:
- White beans
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. Check out our plant based milks article to learn more!
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RDA For Vitamin D: 15 micrograms (600 International Units) per day for adults aged 19 to 50 years old.
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 US.
Some studies suggest that vegans fall short on the sunshine vitamin. Why? Possibly in part because food sources of vitamin D are mainly found in animal-based products, like fish.
Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption, maintaining strong bones and muscles function, and immune system health.
Remember how vitamin D was referred to 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.
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 while you could meticulously plan your diet to get adequate vitamin D, a better insurance policy may be to take a supplement. Especially if you stay inside most of day and/or live in a climate that has very little sunlight.
Talk to your doctor about getting your levels checked and an appropriate supplement for you.
Here is an example of a vegan vitamin D3 supplement (affiliate link*):
- Men (19+ years old): 11 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Female (19+ years old, non pregnant/ non lactating) 8 milligrams (mg) per day.
FYI: per the NIH website, vegetarians may sometimes need up to 50% more of the RDA than those who are not vegetarian.
The underdog essential mineral you may want to pay closer attention to for immune health is: zinc! Why? Because 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.
Now, before you call it a day for your zinc needs after your daily oats and beans, lets talk about a few more things. Because as you may have heard several times in the plant based world, its not only what you eat, but what you absorb.
Luckily, there are many ways to increase zinc absorption. Here’s a few:
- Soak and cook legumes and oats thoroughly.
- Try sprouted, fermented or leavened grain foods (for example, choosing whole grains bread over crackers).
- Include protein rich zinc sources (protein + zinc source increases absorption)
If you have concerns about your zinc intake, talk to your doctor.
ALA (A Omega-3 Fatty Acid)
- 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.
We are not exactly sure whether or all non non pregnant/non lactating adults need to supplement with DHA, but what about the lesser talked about omega 3 fat: ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid)?
ALA (a essential omega 3 fatty acid) does have an AI. 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 and hair problems.
ALA can be exclusively obtained from plants. Especially concentrated sources include (not a comprehensive list):
- ground flaxseed
- chia seeds
Want to learn more about omega 3 fatty acids? Check out our article about taking fish out of your diet here.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
We know so little about this nutrient that only Adequate Intake (AI) reference has been established. One study even suggests that most Americans do not meet the AI. As an FYI: an AI reference is established when there is not enough evidence to recommend a more heavily researched RDA.
You can learn more about choline in my post about taking eggs out of your diet here. But to sum up choline concerns in the meantime, aim to include choline rich foods at your meals (and talk to your doctor if you are concerned or pregnant/breastfeeding especially).
Examples of choline rich vegan foods include:
- Soy (tofu, soy milk, , etc)
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)!
Vegan Foods List
If you are saying cool, but how do I actually go about shopping on a vegan meal plan?
Will I need a Multivitamin?
If you are saying WOW! That is a lot of nutrients that I need to keep in mind, please do not panic!
Getting a hang of a healthy diet takes time and appropriate planning, no matter what type of diet you follow.
However, if you are the type of person who likes to have a “bit of extra insurance,” you could talk to your doctor about implementing a multivitamin.
Check out our article Best Vegan Multivitamins for a bit more on the topic of vegan specific multivitamins.
3 Dietitian Tips For Going Vegan For Beginners
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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 last 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 vegan Registered Dietitian.
If you want to get an idea about your nutrient intake, check out Cronometer (affiliate link*) a food and nutrient tracking app.
Chronometer 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 can hold true for you. The internet is full of tasty vegan recipes. Experiment, have fun! And be sure to comment below any favorites you find… help us all out!
- Take Your Supplements: No explanation needed. Talk to your doctor about an appropriate supplement regimen for you. Lucky you! 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 at least need a vitamin B12 supplement)!
- 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 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 if (and when) you accidently consume an animal product.
And 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 Weight Loss as a vegan, and even whether or not vegans should drink coffee!
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May the fork be with you…