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The Vegan Diet – A Complete Guide for Beginners

Vegetables Falling into a Chef's Pot

The vegan diet has become very popular.

Increasingly more people have decided to go vegan for ethical,
environmental or health reasons.

When done right, such a diet may result in various
health benefits
, including a trimmer waistline and improved
blood sugar control.

Nevertheless, a diet based exclusively on plant foods may, in
some cases, increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies.

This article is a detailed beginner’s guide to the vegan diet.
It aims to cover everything you need to know, so you can follow
a vegan diet the right way.

What Is the Vegan Diet?

Veganism
is defined as a way of living that attempts to exclude all
forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, whether for food,
clothing or any other purpose.

For these reasons, the vegan diet is devoid of all animal
products, including meat, eggs and dairy.

People choose to follow a vegan diet for various reasons.

These usually range from ethics to environmental concerns, but
they can also stem from a desire to improve health.

Bottom Line: A vegan diet excludes all
animal products. Many people choose to eat this way for
ethical, environmental or health reasons.

Different Types of Vegan Diets

There are different varieties of vegan diets. The most common
include:

  • Whole-food vegan diet: A diet based on a
    wide variety of whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables,
    whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Raw-food vegan diet: A vegan diet based on
    raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds or plant foods cooked at
    temperatures below 118°F (48°C) (1).
  • 80/10/10: A raw-food vegan diet that limits
    fat-rich plants such as nuts and avocados and relies mainly
    on raw fruits and soft greens instead. Also referred to as
    the low-fat, raw-food vegan diet or fruitarian diet.
  • The Starch Solution: A low-fat, high-carb
    vegan diet similar to the 80/10/10 but that focuses on cooked
    starches like potatoes, rice and corn instead of fruit.
  • Raw till 4: A low-fat vegan diet inspired by
    the 80/10/10 and Starch Solution. Raw foods are consumed
    until 4 p.m., with the option of a cooked plant-based meal
    for dinner.
  • Junk-food vegan diet: A vegan diet lacking
    in whole plant foods that relies heavily on mock meats and
    cheeses, fries, vegan desserts and other heavily processed
    vegan foods.

Although several variations of the vegan diet exist, most
scientific research rarely differentiates between different
types of vegan diets.

Therefore, the information provided in this article relates to
vegan diets as a whole.

Bottom Line: There are several ways to
follow a vegan diet, but scientific research rarely
differentiates between the different types.

Vegan Diets Can Help You Lose Weight

Tomato, Broccoli, a Bell Pepper and a Tape Measure on Bathroom Scales

Vegans tend to be thinner and have a lower body mass index
(BMI) than non-vegans (2, 3).

This might explain why an increasing number of people turn to
vegan diets as a way to lose excess weight.

Part of the weight-related benefits vegans experience may be
explained by factors other than diet. These may include
healthier lifestyle choices, such as physical activity, and
other health-related behaviors.

However, several randomized controlled studies, which control
for these external factors, report that vegan diets are more
effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared to
(4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).

Interestingly, the weight loss advantage persists even when
whole-food-based diets are used as control diets.

These include diets recommended by the American Dietetics
Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA) and the
National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) (4, 5, 6, 7).

What’s more, researchers generally report that participants on
vegan diets lose more weight than those following
calorie-restricted diets, even when they’re allowed to eat
until they feel full (4, 8).

The natural tendency to eat fewer calories
on a vegan diet may be caused by a higher dietary fiber intake,
which can make you feel fuller.

Bottom Line: Vegan diets seem very effective
at helping people naturally reduce the amount of calories
they eat, resulting in weight loss.

Vegan Diets, Blood Sugar and Type 2 Diabetes

Girlfriend Giving Boyfriend a Bite of Her Apple

Adopting a vegan diet may help keep your blood sugar in check
and type 2 diabetes at bay.

Several studies show that vegans benefit from lower blood sugar
levels, higher insulin sensitivity and up to a 78% lower risk
of developing type 2 diabetes than non-vegans (14, 15, 16, 17).

In addition, vegan diets reportedly lower blood sugar levels in
diabetics up to 2.4 times more than diets recommended by the
ADA, AHA and NCEP (5, 6, 18).

Part of the advantage could be explained by the higher fiber
intake, which may blunt the blood sugar response. A vegan
diet’s weight loss effects may further contribute to its
ability to lower blood sugar levels (4, 6, 9, 10).

Bottom Line: Vegan diets seem particularly
effective at improving markers of blood sugar control. They
may also lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Vegan Diets and Heart Health

Heart Shape Cut Out of Red Apple

A vegan diet may help keep your heart healthy.

Observational studies report vegans may have up to a 75% lower
risk of developing high blood pressure and 42% lower risk of
dying from heart disease (16, 19).

Randomized controlled studies — the gold standard in research —
add to the evidence.

Several report that vegan diets are much more effective at
reducing blood sugar, LDL and total cholesterol than diets they
are compared to (4, 5, 9, 20, 21).

These effects could be especially beneficial since reducing
blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar may reduce heart
disease risk by up to 46% (22).

Bottom Line: Vegan diets may improve heart
health. However, more high-quality studies are needed before
strong conclusions can be drawn.

Other Health Benefits of Vegan Diets

Vegan diets are linked to an array of other health benefits,
including benefits for:

  • Cancer risk: Vegans may benefit from a 15%
    lower risk of developing or dying from cancer (20).
  • Arthritis: Vegan diets seem particularly
    effective at reducing symptoms of arthritis such as pain,
    joint swelling and morning stiffness (23, 24, 25).
  • Kidney function: Diabetics who substitute
    meat for plant protein may reduce their risk of poor kidney
    function (26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31).
  • Alzheimer’s disease: Observational studies
    show that aspects of the vegan diet may help reduce the risk
    of developing Alzheimer’s disease (32, 33).

That said, keep in mind that most of the studies supporting
these benefits are observational. This makes it difficult to
determine whether the vegan diet directly caused the benefits.

Randomized controlled studies are needed before strong
conclusions can be made.

Bottom Line: A vegan diet is linked to
several other health benefits. However, more research is
needed to determine causality.

Foods to Avoid

Vegans avoid
eating any animal foods
, as well as any foods containing
ingredients derived from animals. These include:

  • Meat and poultry: Beef, lamb, pork, veal,
    horse, organ meat, wild meat, chicken, turkey, goose, duck,
    quail, etc.
  • Fish and seafood: All types of fish,
    anchovies, shrimp, squid, scallops, calamari, mussels, crab,
    lobster, etc.
  • Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, cream,
    ice cream, etc.
  • Eggs: From chickens, quails, ostriches,
    fish, etc.
  • Bee products: Honey, bee pollen, royal
    jelly, etc.
  • Animal-based ingredients: Whey, casein,
    lactose, egg white albumen, gelatin, cochineal or carmine,
    isinglass, shellac, L-cysteine, animal-derived
    vitamin D3 and fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids.

Bottom Line: Vegans avoid consuming any
animal flesh, animal byproducts or foods containing an
ingredient from animal origin.

Foods to Eat

Vegan Bean Burgers

Health-conscious vegans substitute animal products with
plant-based
replacements
, such as:

  • Tofu, tempeh and seitan: These provide a
    versatile protein-rich alternative to meat, fish, poultry and
    eggs in many recipes.
  • Legumes: Foods such as beans, lentils and
    peas are excellent sources of many nutrients and beneficial
    plant compounds. Sprouting, fermenting and proper cooking can
    increase nutrient absorption (34).
  • Nuts and nut butters: Especially unblanched
    and unroasted varieties, which are good sources of iron,
    fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium and vitamin E (35).
  • Seeds: Especially hemp, chia and flaxseeds,
    which contain a good amount of protein and beneficial omega-3
    fatty acids (36, 37, 38).
  • Calcium-fortified plant milks and yogurts:
    These help vegans achieve their recommended dietary calcium
    intakes. Opt for varieties also fortified with vitamins B12
    and D whenever possible.
  • Algae: Spirulina and chlorella are good
    sources of complete protein. Other varieties are great
    sources of iodine.
  • Nutritional yeast: This is an easy way to
    increase the protein content of vegan dishes and add an
    interesting cheesy flavor. Pick vitamin B12-fortified
    varieties whenever possible.
  • Whole grains, cereals and pseudocereals:
    These are a great source of complex carbs, fiber, iron,
    B-vitamins and several minerals. Spelt, teff, amaranth and
    quinoa are especially high-protein options (39, 40, 41, 42).
  • Sprouted and fermented plant foods: Ezekiel
    bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and
    kombucha often contain probiotics and vitamin K2. Sprouting
    and fermenting can also help improve mineral absorption
    (34, 43).
  • Fruits and vegetables: Both are great foods
    to increase your nutrient intake. Leafy greens such as bok
    choy, spinach, kale, watercress and mustard greens are
    particularly high in iron and calcium.

Bottom Line: These minimally processed plant
foods are great additions to any vegan refrigerator or
pantry.

Risks and How to Minimize Them

Favoring a well-planned diet that limits
processed foods
and replaces them with nutrient-rich ones
instead is important for everyone, not only vegans.

That said, those following poorly planned vegan diets are
particularly at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.

In fact, studies show that vegans are at a higher risk of
having inadequate blood levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D,
long-chain omega-3s, iodine, iron, calcium and zinc (44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56).

Not getting enough of these nutrients is worrisome for
everyone, but it may pose a particular risk to those with
increased requirements, such as children or women who are
pregnant or breastfeeding.

Your
genetic makeup
and the composition of your gut bacteria may
also influence your ability to derive the nutrients you need
from a vegan diet.

One way to minimize the likelihood of deficiency is to limit
the amount of processed vegan foods you consume and opt for
nutrient-rich plant foods instead.

Fortified foods, especially those enriched with calcium,
vitamin D and vitamin B12, should also make a daily appearance
on your plate.

Furthermore, vegans wanting to enhance their absorption of iron
and zinc should try fermenting, sprouting and cooking foods
(34).

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Also, the use of iron cast pots and pans for cooking, avoiding
tea or coffee with meals and combining iron-rich foods with a
source of vitamin C can further boost iron absorption (57).

Moreover, the addition of seaweed or iodized salt to the diet
can help vegans reach their recommended daily intake of iodine
(58).

Lastly, omega-3 containing foods, especially those high in
alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can help the body produce
longer-chain omega-3s such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic
acid
(DHA).

Foods high in ALA include chia, hemp, flaxseeds, walnuts and
soybeans. However, there’s debate regarding whether this
conversion is efficient enough to meet daily needs (59, 60).

Therefore, a daily intake of 200–300 mg of EPA and DHA from an
algae oil supplement may be a safer way to prevent low levels
(61).

Bottom Line: Vegans may be at an increased
risk of certain nutrient deficiencies. A well-planned vegan
diet that includes nutrient-rich whole and fortified foods
can help provide adequate nutrient levels.

Supplements to Consider

Vitamin D2 or D3 Capsules

Some vegans may find it difficult to eat enough of the
nutrient-rich or fortified foods above to meet their daily
requirements.

In this case, the following supplements
can be particularly beneficial:

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 in cyanocobalamin
    form is the most studied and seems to work well for most
    people (62).
  • Vitamin D: Opt for D2 or vegan D3 forms such
    as those manufactured by Nordic Naturals or Viridian.
  • EPA and DHA: Sourced from algae oil.
  • Iron: Should only be supplemented in the
    case of a documented deficiency. Ingesting
    too much iron
    from supplements can cause health
    complications and prevent the absorption of other nutrients
    (63).
  • Iodine: Take a supplement or add 1/2
    teaspoon of iodized salt to your diet daily.
  • Calcium: Calcium is best absorbed when taken
    in doses of 500 mg or less at a time. Taking calcium at the
    same time as iron or zinc supplements may reduce their
    absorption (57, 64).
  • Zinc: Taken in zinc gluconate or zinc
    citrate forms. Not to be taken at the same time as calcium
    supplements
    (64).

Bottom Line: Vegans unable to meet their
recommended nutrient intakes through foods or fortified
products alone should consider taking supplements.

A Vegan Sample Menu for One Week

To help get you started, here’s a simple plan covering a week’s
worth of vegan meals:

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

  • Breakfast: Mango and spinach smoothie made
    with fortified plant milk and a banana-flaxseed-walnut
    muffin.
  • Lunch: Baked tofu sandwich with a side of tomato
    salad.
  • Dinner: Vegan chili on a bed of amaranth.

Thursday

  • Breakfast: Whole-grain toast with hazelnut
    butter, banana and a fortified plant yogurt.
  • Lunch: Tofu noodle soup with vegetables.
  • Dinner: Jacket sweet potatoes with lettuce,
    corn, beans, cashews, sour cream and guacamole.

Friday

  • Breakfast: Vegan chickpea and onion omelet and a
    cappuccino made with fortified plant milk.
  • Lunch: Vegan tacos with mango-pineapple
    salsa.
  • Dinner: Tempeh stir-fry with bok choy and
    broccoli.

Saturday

  • Breakfast: Spinach and scrambled tofu wrap
    and a glass of fortified plant milk.
  • Lunch: Spiced red lentil, tomato and kale soup
    with whole-grain toast and hummus.
  • Dinner: Veggie sushi rolls, miso soup,
    edamame and wakame salad.

Sunday

Remember to vary your sources of protein and vegetables
throughout the day, as each provides different vitamins and
minerals that are important for your health.

Bottom Line: You can eat a variety of tasty
plant-based meals on a vegan diet.

How to Eat Vegan at Restaurants

Couple at a Restaurant Looking at the Menu

Dining out as a vegan can be challenging.

One way to reduce stress is to identify vegan-friendly
restaurants ahead of time by using websites such as Happycow or
Vegguide. Apps like VeganXpress and Vegman may
also be helpful.

When dining in a non-vegan establishment, try scanning the menu
online beforehand to see what vegan options they may have for
you.

Sometimes, calling ahead of time allows the chef to arrange
something especially for you. This permits you to arrive at the
restaurant confident that you’ll have something hopefully more
interesting than a side salad to order.

When picking a restaurant on the fly, make sure to ask about
their vegan options as soon as you step in, ideally before
being seated.

When in doubt, opt for ethnic restaurants. They tend to have
dishes that are naturally vegan-friendly or can be easily
modified to become so. Mexican, Thai, Middle-Eastern, Ethiopian
and Indian restaurants tend to be great options.

Once in the restaurant, try identifying the vegetarian
options on the menu and asking whether the dairy or eggs can be
removed to make the dish vegan-friendly.

Another easy tip is to order several vegan appetizers or side
dishes to make up a meal.

Bottom Line: Being well prepared allows you
to reduce stress when dining out as a vegan.

Healthy Vegan Snacks

Vegetable Sticks and Hummus

Snacks
are a great way to stay energized and keep hunger at bay
between meals.

Some interesting, portable vegan options include:

  • Fresh fruit with a dollop of nut butter
  • Hummus and vegetables
  • Nutritional yeast sprinkled on popcorn
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Nut and fruit bars
  • Trail mix
  • Chia pudding
  • Homemade muffins
  • Whole-wheat pita with salsa and guacamole
  • Cereal with plant milk
  • Edamame
  • Whole-grain crackers and cashew nut spread
  • A plant-milk latte or cappuccino
  • Dried seaweed snacks

Whenever planning a vegan snack, try to opt for fiber- and
protein-rich options, which can help keep hunger away.

Bottom Line: These portable, fiber-rich,
protein-rich vegan snacks are convenient options to help
minimize hunger between meals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about veganism.

1. Can I only eat raw food as a vegan?

Absolutely not. Although some vegans choose to do so, raw
veganism isn’t for everyone. Many vegans eat cooked food, and
there is no scientific basis for you to eat only raw foods.

2. Will switching to a vegan diet help me lose weight?

A vegan diet that emphasizes nutritious, whole plant foods and
limits processed ones may help you lose weight.

As mentioned in the weight loss section above, vegan diets tend
to help people eat fewer calories without having to consciously
restrict their food intake.

That said, when matched for calories, vegan diets are no more
effective than other diets for weight loss (65).

3. What is the best milk substitute?

There are many plant-based milk alternatives to cow’s milk. Soy
and hemp varieties contain more protein, making them more
beneficial to those trying to keep their protein intake high.

Whichever plant milk you choose, ensure it’s enriched with
calcium, vitamin D
and, if possible, vitamin B12.

4. Vegans tend to eat a lot of soy. Is this bad for you?

Soybeans
are great sources of plant-based protein. They contain an array
of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and beneficial plant
compounds that are linked to various health benefits (66, 67, 68, 69, 70).

However, soy may suppress thyroid function in predisposed
individuals and cause gas and diarrhea in others (71, 72).

It’s best to opt for minimally processed soy food products such
as tofu and
edamame and limit the use of soy-based mock meats.

Fermented soy products such as tempeh and natto are especially beneficial, as fermentation
helps improve the absorption of nutrients (34).

5. How can I replace eggs in recipes?


Chia
and flaxseeds
are a great way to replace eggs in baking. To replace one egg,
simply mix one tablespoon of chia or ground flaxseeds with
three tablespoons of hot water and allow it to rest until it
gels.

Mashed bananas can also be a great alternative to eggs in some
cases.

Scrambled tofu is a good vegan alternative
to scrambled eggs. Tofu can also be used in a variety of
egg-based recipes ranging from omelets to frittatas and
quiches.

6. How can I make sure I get enough protein?

Vegans can ensure they meet their daily protein requirements by
including protein-rich plant foods in their daily meals.

Check out
this article
for a more in-depth look at the best sources
of plant protein.

7. How can I make sure I get enough calcium?

Calcium-rich
foods
include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip
greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas and calcium-set tofu.

Fortified plant milks and juices are also a great way for
vegans to increase their calcium intake.

The RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg per day for most adults and
increases to 1,200 mg per day for adults over 50 years old
(73).

Some argue that vegans may have slightly lower daily
requirements because of the lack of meat in their diets. Not
much scientific evidence can be found to support or negate this
claim.

However, current studies show that vegans consuming less than
525 mg of calcium each day have an increased risk of bone
fractures (55).

For this reason, vegans should aim to consume 525 mg of calcium
per day at the very least.

8. Should I take a vitamin B12 supplement?

Vitamin B12 is generally found in animal foods. Some plant
foods may contain a form of this vitamin, but there’s still
debate about whether this form is active in humans (74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80).

Despite circulating rumors, there’s no scientific evidence to
support unwashed produce as a reliable source of vitamin B12.

The daily recommended intake is 2.4 mcg per day for adults, 2.6
mcg per day during pregnancy and 2.8 mcg per day while
breastfeeding (81).

Vitamin B12-fortified products and supplements are the only two
reliable forms of vitamin B12 for vegans.

Unfortunately, many vegans seem to fail to consume sufficient
vitamin B12 to meet their daily requirements (82, 83, 84).

If you’re unable to meet your daily requirements through the
use of vitamin B12-fortified products, you should definitely
consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Take Home Message

Individuals may choose veganism for ethical, environmental or
health reasons.

When done right, the vegan diet can be easy to follow and may
provide various health benefits.

As with any diet, these benefits only appear if you are
consistent and build your diet around nutrient-rich plant foods
rather than heavily processed ones.

Vegans, especially those who are unable to meet their daily
nutrient requirements through diet alone, should consider
supplements.

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