Whether it’s for health reasons or an ethical choice, the decision to shift to a vegan diet can feel empowering. For some of us, it is no easy feat to give up all animal products. Yet a vegan diet can be fantastic for your health, planet earth, and the welfare of animals.[1, 2]
The key to success is gradually adopting a delicious and satisfying vegan diet plan that works for you. Eating a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds is the healthiest diet on the planet! When you eat only a plant-based vegan diet, just be aware there are a few vitamins and minerals you need to get in supplements.Transition to a plant-based diet slowly to ensure that you can stick to it, and to minimize the “healing crisis” as your body adjusts. Read on to learn the benefits of a vegan diet, what you should and should not eat, and how to handle the shift.
Quick Tips for Vegan Beginners
- Transition slowly by giving up red meat first, then white meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Do this over several months to ensure long-term success.
- Eat a rainbow of nutrient-packed vegetables and fruits, healthy oils, nuts, grains, and seeds.
- Become an expert label reader to avoid accidentally eating animal-based foods.
- To keep cravings at bay, stock healthy vegan snacks in your bag like nuts, dried fruit, and kale chips.
- Replace butter with extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) or a plant-based buttery spread with no trans-fats.
- Learn to make a “flax egg” for recipes. Mix 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed meal with 3 tablespoons water and let sit until it gels — about 15 minutes. Use instead of 1 egg in baking recipes.
- Stumped at restaurants? You can always ask for steamed veggies and brown rice.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet involves avoiding all meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and all animal-derived products, such as honey, eggs, dairy, and gelatin. Many people go vegan for health reasons.
A vegan diet differs from vegetarianism. Vegetarians avoid meat but may eat eggs and dairy (Learn more in our article about the difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet).
Vegans avoid foods that use animal derivatives in the production process. This includes refined sugar, which is processed with bone char, or wines that use animal proteins like casein and albumin during filtering.
Some vegans eat processed foods. However, the healthiest option is a plant-based vegan diet, which sticks to whole, natural foods. You can also try a raw vegan diet, which involves eating only uncooked plant-based foods.
What Can You Eat?
You can find plenty of satisfying vegan foods, whether vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, or fermented foods.
No surprise here! Veggies are a staple in a vegan diet.
Make vegetables the cornerstone of your vegan diet; They are nutritional powerhouses. Make it a challenge to include multiple colors in your vegetable selection! This ensures you are getting an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients.
Include leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, and collards. These are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.
When it comes to vegetables, you can’t go wrong. Use this newfound eating style as an opportunity to try out recipes with vegetables you’ve never had before, such as Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, or jicama. Explore the produce section, and enjoy these newfound delights.
Fruit offers a great choice to satisfy your sweet tooth on a vegan diet while reaping the benefits of vital nutrients. Berries are great low-sugar, high-nutrient options.
Many fruits are great sources of vitamin C and dietary fiber. They can also provide nutrients many people don’t get enough of, such as potassium and folate. As with vegetables, here you can explore new options, from jackfruit to cherimoya!
Try making fruit smoothies or juicing for nutrient-packed and satisfying drinks.
Beans & Legumes
Plant-based proteins are not hard to find. Beans, peas, and other legumes are wonderful sources of protein that provide an abundance of fiber and nutrients such as folate, iron, and calcium.
Avoid soybeans, as most are GMO and can affect hormone levels in your body. Other than that, you can make most beans and legumes a part of your diet — lentils, peas, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chickpeas, and more. You can find excellent plant-based protein powders, many of which use legumes and gluten-free grains.
Whole, gluten-free grains pack more fiber and nutrients compared to refined grains such as white bread and white rice, which have had the bran and germ removed during processing.
Gluten is a protein that many people are intolerant of. This substance disrupts digestion in many people, even those who do not have a wheat or gluten allergy. You can avoid this allergen by incorporating gluten-free foods in your vegan diet.
Try these excellent, nutritious grains: brown rice, oats, quinoa, millet, as well as ancient grains like farro and amaranth.
Nuts & Seeds
Go for protein-rich almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, peanuts, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and sunflower seeds. Try out the many delicious foods made with seeds and nuts, such as nut butter, nut milk, hummus (from chickpeas) or tahini (ground sesame seeds). Brazil nuts are high in selenium, a trace mineral that may be lacking in a vegan diet.
Eat nuts in moderation if you are watching your weight, and avoid salted and candied nuts. Raw and sprouted nuts and seeds are a great option.
Example Vegan Diet Plan
Below is an example of a 3-day meal plan you could follow on a vegan diet.
- Breakfast: Superfood smoothie with pineapple and cucumber
- Lunch: Black bean burrito with guacamole
- Snack: Hummus with carrots or gluten-free pita wedges
- Dinner: Spicy mushroom stir fry recipe with a savory twist
- Breakfast: Coconut milk yogurt with chopped nuts & fresh fruit
- Lunch: 3-bean chili with a side salad
- Snack: Apples with almond butter; homemade kale chips
- Dinner: Homemade black bean burgers with sautéed kale and roasted potatoes
- Breakfast: Steel-cut oatmeal with apples, raisins, cinnamon, and maple syrup
- Lunch: Veggie stir fry with brown rice
- Snack: Mixed nuts and dried fruit
- Dinner: Sweet and savory vegan Buddha bowl
Top Foods to Avoid
Gradually cut the following foods out of your diet to give your body and taste buds time to adjust to eating only plant-based foods.
Make red meat the first thing to remove when shifting to a vegan diet — that includes both pork and beef. Red meat is high in total and saturated fat and cholesterol, which are not heart-healthy options, anyway.
Eating red meat comes with many health risks: higher rates of mortality, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.
White meat such as chicken, turkey, and other poultry is often the second category of food to go as you gradually adopt a vegan diet.
Although white meat contains less fat and cholesterol than red meat, it is still a source of saturated fat, even without the skin.
You will experience better health outcomes if you eat a completely meat-free diet. Like we said, however, go slow. If you want to see success with this new lifestyle, don’t pressure yourself by feeling you have to do it perfectly. Cut back, find alternatives, and make a gradual transition plan.
Fish & Seafood
Fish and other seafood products come from animals, too, so a vegan diet will omit them. This includes fish and shellfish — lobster, crayfish, scallops, shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish.
Many seafood items contain at least trace amounts of mercury. Mercury is one of the most toxic elements to human health.
Eggs & Dairy
After you’ve eliminated meat, eggs and dairy usually go next. Many vegans have ethical objections to the factory farming model, which focuses on profit and efficiency at the expense of animal welfare — or human health for that matter.
Vegans can choose from alternative milks — such as almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, and oat milk, many of which are easy to make at home. You can also make homemade vegan cheese, such as that made with cashews. Try using “flax eggs” as a substitute in recipes — see the quick tips above. When you cut out dairy, add in more calcium-rich foods, like dark leafy greens, beans, and sesame seeds.
Honey & Sugar
Most vegans forgo honey since it is an animal product, made by bees. But did you know that vegans also should avoid sugar? Refined (white) sugar uses bone char in the refining process. If you do use sugar, make sure it’s organic sugar and it won’t use the animal products in manufacturing. Although technically vegan, avoid artificial sweeteners, as they are not healthy.
Maple syrup is a popular vegan alternative; make sure it does not contain added sweeteners. Stevia leaf is a nearly no-calorie sweetener derived from a plant, and monk fruit is another healthy, vegan sweetener.
Gelatin is an animal product made by boiling an animal’s skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones in water. It is an ingredient in many foods, including marshmallows, candies, cakes, ice cream, fruit gelatins, and puddings. Avoid it.
A vegan alternative is called agar agar, made from seaweed, works well as a replacement.
Though technically a vegan could eat French fries or other deep-fried vegetables, avoid fast food varieties as many are cooked in animal fat.
Fried foods generally are not healthy for your heart or body.
Many foods, cosmetics, and other products either contain animal-derived ingredients or use them in the production process. The milk protein casein, for example, may appear in ingredient lists for “non-dairy” creamers. Even organic wines often use animal products in the filtering process (vegan wines do exist, however).
While not comprehensive, the list below includes some of the most common animal-derived ingredients you might see:
- L cysteine
- Confectioners glaze
- Carmine or cochineal
- Vitamin D3 from animal products (use lichen-derived options instead)
- Vegetables coated in wax
- Animal-based glycerol
- Lactic acid
Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Vegetarian and vegan diets allow you to live your healthiest life, supporting heart health, and even helping you live longer! Below are some of the top benefits of going vegan.
Assists with Weight Loss
Vegetarians and vegans are less likely to be overweight and obese than non-vegetarians. Vegans tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI).[7, 8]
If you want to lose weight healthily, go vegan!
When comparing a vegan diet with a less restrictive low-fat diet, people who followed the vegan diet experienced significantly more weight loss over one or two years.
One reason may be that a classic vegan diet has the lowest energy intake (calories) of other vegetarian and non-vegetarian ways of eating.
Vegan diets tend to be high in fiber and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Accordingly, they can have a positive effect on blood lipid profiles.
People who eat a plant-based diet tend to have lower total cholesterol, which benefits heart health.
Helps Control Blood Sugar
A vegan diet can help promote normal blood glucose levels in both healthy individuals and people with Type 2 diabetes.[12, 13]
People who eat a grain-based or low-fat vegan diet are better able to control their blood sugar than those on the standard “diabetes diet.”[12, 13] In other words, healthy plant-based eating supports glycemic control and balanced blood sugar.
Lead a Healthier Overall Life
Vegetarian and vegan diets help you have a more vibrant life by reducing the incidence of health conditions. People who eat vegan have healthier blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels compared to meat-eaters.
You’ll have even better results if you consume healthy options versus high-sugar, high-fat processed foods.
May Improve Longevity
A vegan diet that is rich in plant-based whole foods may contribute to longevity.
When you eat vegan, you will consume a high-quality diet rich in fiber, nutrients, and life-giving phytochemicals. And it shows up in the health of vegans! People who eat this way have a lower risk of certain types of cancer, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.
Helps the Environment
Eliminating meat and animal products could be the single-biggest way for an individual to help the environment. A carbon footprint represents how much energy you use from all sources, including home energy use, automobile driving, diet, and product consumption. Avoiding meat and dairy can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73 percent. That’s huge!
If everyone ate a vegan diet, we could reduce global farmland by up to 75 percent — an area equivalent to the size of the United States, China, Australia, and the European Union combined. If even a small portion of this land was used to plant trees, they would absorb carbon dioxide, leaving the Earth in a much healthier state.
Veganism often goes beyond diet to affect other consumer choices. Vegans may avoid clothing made from leather or animal-tested cosmetic and household products and avoid animal products as a way to tread lightly on the earth. Concern about the welfare of animals also plays a central role in many people’s decision to go vegan.
Vegan Lifestyle Considerations
When approached with a commitment to eating whole, nutrient-packed foods, a vegan diet can be completely safe and healthy. In fact, nothing could be healthier!
With a little preplanning, it is easy to avoid the potential concerns listed below.
Fatigue & Weakness
If you feel low-energy on a vegan diet, you may need to increase your serving sizes. Since a vegan diet is typically lower in calories than a conventional one, some people may feel tired at first.
Next, consider the quality of the foods you are eating. Oreos and French fries are vegan, but if you’re making unhealthy choices like these, you won’t get the energy you need. Try avocados for a delicious nutrient-rich food full of healthy fats — which help fill you up.
Make sure you get the calories you need, as well as a full spectrum of nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamin D.
Some people think they may not get enough nutrients or calories while eating vegan diet — especially while exercising. But there are many elite vegan athletes, including tennis player Venus Williams, football star Tony Gonzalez, and ultramarathon runner Alberto Pelaez Serrano. They are proof that you can eat vegan while having plenty of energy for exercise and muscle growth!
Vitamin B-12 Deficiency
Vitamin B-12 is one vitamin that vegans cannot get from a meat- and egg-free diet alone. Therefore, vegans (and vegetarians who do not eat eggs) must take a supplement. B-12 is necessary to prevent anemia and keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy.
Choose a certified-organic supplement that offers the most bioavailable forms of the vitamin: methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin. Avoid cyanocobalamin.
Other Vitamin & Mineral Deficiencies
Vegans sometimes develop other nutritional deficiencies — usually iron, calcium, vitamin D, selenium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. You can get all of these nutrients from a vegan diet, but it takes a conscious effort and nutritional knowledge.
To prevent vitamin D-insufficiency, you may benefit from a supplement. Most D3 supplements come from animal sources, so choose one that specifies it is vegan. Global Healing Center makes Suntrex D3™ from nutrient-dense lichens to support the immune and nervous systems, bone health, and cognitive function.
The Best Way to Transition to a Vegan Diet
When you get excited to go vegan, you may want to give up all meat, dairy, and eggs immediately. However, it’s important to transition slowly so your body adapts to a new way of eating — and so your commitment sticks for the long haul.
Otherwise, you may get off to a good start, but then feel overwhelmed. This increases your chance of “cheating” and limits your chances of long-term success. Instead, approach the shift as a lifestyle change that you want to stick with.
Eliminate animal foods over several months. When you take your time, you can try out recipes, find delicious new snacks, and learn the vegan options at your favorite restaurants. That means you’re less likely to get caught off guard in situations without any vegan options. You’ll have time to discover time-tested tricks, like always carrying vegan salad dressing in your purse, or knowing which lunch spots are best for outings with friends and colleagues.
Points to Remember
A vegan diet involves eating no animal products whatsoever. When approached mindfully, eating vegan is amazing for the health of your body and the planet. Vegans tend to weigh less and have healthier blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and better-balanced blood sugar.
The best way to transition to a vegan lifestyle? Start gradually and take it slow! This allows your body and taste buds time to adjust. It also gives you time to learn the tricks of the trade, so to speak, and make sure you stick to it rather than making it more of a short-term “diet.”
With a careful and varied diet, vegans can avoid common side effects such as fatigue and vitamin and mineral insufficiencies including zinc, selenium, iron, vitamin D, and B-12. You may find that switching to a vegan diet is one of the best decisions you ever made.
Have you tried a vegan diet? What started you on the journey to being vegan? Share your story below!
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