A vegan diet is typically free from any animal-derived foods and that includes eggs, honey and dairy. Strict vegans may also choose to avoid animal products, such as wool, silk, beeswax, leather and fur.
If you’re one of the 9.6 million Americans who consider themselves vegan, you will most likely follow a plant-based plan of legumes, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and fruits. Veganism has grown in popularity in recent years and may have many potential health benefits.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Internal Medicine revealed that going meat-free could lower the risk of heart disease, obesity and type-2 diabetes. Other research in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients found that a plant-based diet could lower cholesterol levels, regulate blood sugar (glucose) levels and reduce high blood pressure.
Keen to learn more? Read on to find out everything you need to know about the vegan diet, including any risks and considerations. Plus, check out our vegan diet plan for beginners.
What is the vegan diet?
Vegans avoid anything made from animals, both food and by-products including meat, dairy and eggs. Some people also avoid eating honey.
“Vegan diets tend to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds,” says nutritionist Kiran Singh. “Eating a variety of these foods will provide a wide range of important vitamins, minerals, healthful fats, and protein. For some, being vegan is a dietary choice, while for others it is a lifestyle choice.”
People who choose a plant-based diet for nutritional or allergy reasons are known as dietary vegans while those who adopt the diet for moral and political reasons are called ethical vegans.
So, what’s the difference between veganism and vegetarianism? Many view veganism as a stricter form of vegetarianism and it’s thought of as a lifestyle or movement, rather than just a diet.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
Adopting a vegan diet for weight loss? Research published in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology found that for every year on a vegan diet, the risk of obesity decreased by 7%. And a 2017 study found that people who ate plant-based foods tended to weigh less on average than those eating meat, dairy and eggs.
May regulate blood sugar levels
If you have diabetes, then a healthy vegan diet could help you regulate and maintain your blood sugar levels. One study found that those who followed a low-fat vegan diet could not only lower their blood sugar levels and lose weight, but also reduce their cholesterol and improve kidney function.
May lower risk of disease
Singh says: “Fruits and vegetables contain a host of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Vegans have better heart health and lower odds of having certain diseases. Those who avoid meat have less of a chance of getting heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Vegans are also less likely to get diabetes and some kinds of cancer, especially cancers of the GI tract (gut) and the breast, ovaries, and uterus in women.”
A well-followed plant-based diet can result in a higher fiber intake due to an increase in starchy foods, such as whole grains and certain vegetables. However, most people do not eat enough fiber. Americans eat an average of 10-15 grams of fiber a day, but the USDA recommends the daily amount for adults is 25g for women and 38g for men. Women and men aged 50-plus should have 21 and 30 grams, respectively. Following a vegan diet is one way to boost fiber intake.
“The focus of leading a more plant-based diet should really be on what you can add into your diet – for example, lots of micronutrients – as opposed to what you take out,” says Singh.
What can you eat on a vegan diet?
On a vegan or plant-based diet, you can eat foods including:
- Protein: tofu, seitan, tempeh, edamame
- Carbohydrates: breads, rice, pasta, potatoes
- Fruit and vegetables
- Legumes: peas, beans, and lentils
- Healthy fats: seeds, chia seeds, nuts, coconut, flaxseeds, vegetable oils
- Dairy alternatives: soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk, nut milk, cashew butter
Which foods should you avoid if you're vegan?
Vegans exclude any foods made from animals, including:
- Beef, pork, lamb and other red meat
- Chicken, duck and other poultry
- Fish or shellfish such as crabs, clams, and mussels
- Cheese, butter
- Milk, cream, ice-cream and other dairy products including milk chocolate
- Mayonnaise (because it includes egg yolks)
Are there any risks of a vegan diet?
“A vegan diet is healthy overall, but avoiding animal protein can short-change you on a few nutrients like protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamin B12, and vitamin D,” says Singh.
“You need protein to power all the chemical reactions in your body. Calcium strengthens your bones and teeth. Omega-3 fatty acids keep your cells healthy and protect your heart by shielding against heart disease and stroke.”
- Related: Do vegans live longer?
Do you need to supplement?
Should vegans take supplements? “The three supplements typically recommended are B12, vitamin D and iodine but it’s important to consult with a registered dietician or nutritionist when looking for specific information regarding supplements,” says Singh.
He adds: “B12 is impossible to get from plant sources alone. The body uses it to make red blood cells and DNA and you’ll only find B12 in animal products. If you go vegan, you may need a supplement to make up for what you don't get from your diet.
- Read more: Seven sources of vitamin B12
“A lot of people might assume that plant-based foods are automatically healthy. This can be a common misconception when it comes to plant-based foods like cereals, cereal bars, soft drinks, fast food and ice-cream.
“Just because something is vegan, it doesn’t automatically make it healthy. No matter whether you follow a vegan diet or not, you will benefit most from eating a varied and balanced diet with plenty of water for hydration while limiting food and drinks containing high levels of added sugar and salt.
“Make it a point to include a plethora of different types of fruits and veggies in your diet. Take whole-wheat foods, potatoes, oats, and brown rice that contain a high amount of fiber and starch. Aim for organic proteins found in beans, tofu, soy, and chickpeas.” You can also up your protein intake with the best vegan protein powder.
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Maddy has been a writer and editor for 25 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Women's Health. Maddy is also a fully qualified Level 3 Personal Trainer, specializing in helping busy women over 40 navigate menopause.