What Is a Vegan Diet?

Vegan Salad
Ina Peters/Stocksy United. ​

Vegan diets are becoming increasingly popular. On a vegan diet you enjoy plant-based foods, but you do not consume meat, seafood, or animal by-products. Many consumers choose this eating plan to change their bodies and boost wellness. But is better health a slam-dunk when you ditch meat and dairy? Not always, say the experts. For some, a vegan diet is hard to maintain.

Before you adopt a vegan lifestyle, learn more about the pros and cons of this eating plan. Examine a typical day's worth of meals and find out which health benefits are backed by scientific evidence. Then, if you decide that this is the right plan for you, get started with tips to make your transition easier.

What Experts Say

Vegan diets avoid all animal products, but specifics vary greatly as there is no single plan. Experts agree that because food groups are restricted, there is risk for nutrient imbalances, but a well-planned vegan diet that isn’t a fad weight loss diet in disguise can be healthful.

Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

Background

Typically, a vegan diet is one that includes fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds, oils, nuts, and legumes. When you go vegan, you don't eat meat, dairy, fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, or any food that contains these ingredients (including certain protein powders, fish oil supplements, gelatin, lard, or margarine made with whey). Some vegans also avoid bee products, such as honey.

History

Vegan and vegetarian diets date back to ancient times. According to some sources, Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, founded the first vegetarian society to promote non-violence among all species. He avoided meat for spiritual reasons, rather than health reasons. Ancient Buddhists and Hindus also practiced vegetarianism. Until the mid-twentieth century, a diet that excluded meat was called a Pythagorean diet.

In 1944 a British woodworker named Donald Watson coined the term "vegan" to describe those who followed a vegetarian diet but also avoided dairy and eggs. He founded the Vegan Society which grew in popularity due to the fact that there was growing concern about the presence of tuberculosis in Britain’s dairy cows.

Vegan diets have increased in popularity in recent years. In fact, some sources have reported a 600% increase in the number of people identifying as vegan between 2014 and 2017. The availability of vegan foods in mainstream grocery stores, vegan menu choices in restaurants, and media headlines reporting health benefits of vegan diets have contributed to this trend.

Types of Vegan Diets

There are different types of vegan diets. For example, some vegans only consume whole foods—or foods that are in their original form. A whole food vegan would not eat any food that has been processed, even if it has been manufactured without meat, dairy, or fish. "Forks Over Knives" is a popular whole-food vegan diet.

There are also raw food vegans, low-fat vegans, and what some in the media refer to as "junk food vegans" or "lazy vegans" who rely on processed meat and cheese alternatives.

Why Go Vegan?

People choose a vegan diet for different reasons and often for a combination of reasons. One study showed that the most popular reason for choosing a vegan diet is to support the humane treatment of animals. These vegans may also avoid clothing or other products that are made from animals, poultry, fish, or bees. One study published in the journal Appetite found that people who chose a vegan diet for ethical reasons were likely to stick to the diet longer than those who follow the program for other reasons.  

People may also choose a vegan lifestyle because they feel it is better for the environment. Several research studies have suggested that a vegan diet is better for the planet than other diets, including the popular Mediterranean diet.

But a large number of people choose a vegan lifestyle for health reasons. There is convincing evidence that a plant-based diet is better for maintaining a lean body, improved heart health, and longevity.

How It Works

A vegan diet excludes all animal products. On this eating plan, not only do you avoid any food that comes directly from an animal source (such as beef, chicken, turkey, pork, or lamb), but you also avoid any food that has any animal by-product in it. For example, vegetable soup might be avoided if the stock used to make it was flavored with an animal bone.

Vegans also avoid shellfish and seafood and any food that contains fish-based ingredients. Some foods and supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are not compliant if the source is fish oil.

Not only are dairy and eggs are not consumed on a vegan diet, but the many foods that contain dairy and eggs are not consumed. This may include bread and other baked goods, chocolate, and many protein powders.

Lastly, unlikely foods such as some types of candy, certain brands of beer and wine, veggie burgers, and even some red-colored foods are not consumed on a vegan diet because they contain honey, gelatin, or other ingredients that come from animals.

So what can you eat on a vegan diet? If you choose this eating style, you'll enjoy vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes, soy-based products (like tofu), plant-based oils, nuts, and seeds.

Pros and Cons

When you switch to a vegan diet from a standard American diet, you are likely to gain health benefits simply because you put more time and effort into planning meals and selecting foods. Many who consume a typical American diet eat convenience foods that provide more fat and protein than we need. And if you currently don't consume the recommended intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you're likely to feel better when you begin to include more of those nutritious foods in your diet.

Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, C-IAYT is an integrative registered dietitian nutritionist licensed in Massachusetts. She is also the lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. She encourages a whole-food, plant-based diet with modifications to suit each participant's lifestyle.

She says that even in a short five-day period she sees positive changes when clients switch to the eating style. "Everything about their physical appearance changes in a good way," she says, adding that people often report feeling more clear. "The magic is the fresh fruit and vegetables, which are the most nutrient-dense foods in the food supply. Even if they continue to eat a bit of meat, but less, and more vegetables, it works."

Research studies have reported positive health outcomes from a vegan eating plan.

Scientists have found that a vegan diet may reduce—or even reverse—your risk for coronary artery disease, reduce your risk of type-2 diabetes, and provide other health benefits when quality plant-based foods are chosen.

However, a vegan diet may be lacking in certain nutrients. Some studies caution that people following a vegan diet should consider using appropriate supplements, if necessary. In some cases, key nutrients like iron and zinc may be lacking.

Kay suggests that if you have health or medical issues (like pre-diabetes or diabetes, or cancer), or have an athletic lifestyle, then taking time with a registered dietitian will help ensure that your vegan diet is adequate for your individual needs.

Common Myths and Questions

Question: Are All Vegan Diets Healthy?

Whether or not a vegan diet is healthy for you (or at least healthier than your current diet) may depend on the type of vegan diet that you follow. If you choose nutritious foods, you are likely to gain benefits.

One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology compared a large number of women who ate a healthy vegan diet (including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea and coffee) to those who ate a less healthy vegan diet (including juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, fries, and sweets). Researchers concluded that the healthier vegan diet resulted in a substantially lower risk for heart disease, whereas the less healthy vegan diet was associated with a higher risk. 

Question: Will I Lose Weight on a Vegan Diet?

Many people choose a vegan diet to lose weight. Kay says that increasing the plants you eat is by far the quickest and easiest first step to achieve a healthy weight. And some research supports the use of a vegan diet for weight loss. 

A large analysis of research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported that a vegan diet was likely to result in weight loss even greater than a vegetarian diet. Another study published in the journal Obesity reported greater weight loss with a vegan eating style when compared with a low-fat diet. And a study published in the journal Nutrition also reported vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than other diets.

But nutritional research can be tricky. Just because study participants in a controlled setting lost weight on a vegan diet doesn't mean that it will work for you. There may be challenges or obstacles in your life that are not present in a research environment. For example, if getting quality whole foods is difficult, you might opt for processed products and not reap the full benefits of a vegan diet.

When losing weight is your goal, Kays says you shouldn't assume that going vegan will result in weight loss. "It's easy these days to be vegan and follow a really unhealthful diet filled with low-quality refined carbohydrates (like flavored popcorn, potato chips, white bread, and sugary baked goods) and processed soy-meat-substitutes." Instead, she suggests that you "do vegan right by focusing on vegetables and fresh fruit, and high-quality protein from seeds, beans, nuts, and whole grains."

Question: How Hard Is it to Stick to a Vegan Diet?

Whether or not you can stick to the plan may impact the benefits you gain from going vegan. When scientists studied adherence for a report published in Eating Behaviors, they found that sticking to a vegan diet was no more difficult than sticking to other diets. Although they added that even when participants didn't fully stick to the vegan diet, they still lost more weight than study participants on other diets.

But still, most nutrition researchers agree that the most effective and healthy diet for you is the diet you can stick to for life. And not all diet researchers agree that a vegan diet is best. If completely eliminating meat, dairy, eggs, and fish causes stress-related overeating or poor quality food choices then you're not likely to gain any benefits. 

How It Compares

The vegan diet is the most restrictive of all plant-based diets. See how it stacks up to other veggie-based eating plans.

A vegetarian diet is similar to a vegan diet in that meat and seafood is not consumed. Most vegetarians consume eggs and dairy.

  • Protein, calcium, and vitamin intake may be higher on this plan because dairy foods and eggs can be consumed.
  • A vegetarian diet is associated with many of the same health benefits as a vegan diet, including weight loss, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
  • A vegetarian diet may be easier to stick to than a vegan diet because it is less restrictive.

People who identify as flexitarian eat a vegetarian diet most of the time but occasionally eat meat and seafood.

  • This variation of vegetarian eating may be slightly more nutritious than a vegetarian diet, but less healthy than a vegan diet.
  • Many experts suggest that a flexitarian diet is more sustainable simply because it allows for occasional indulgences. Traveling, eating out, and socializing with friends is likely to be easier on this plan.

On this eating plan, you eat primarily plant-based foods but include fish and seafood in your diet as well.

  • The emphasis on fish consumption helps to increase not only your protein intake but also your intake of healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids help to maintain healthy arteries, lower LDL cholesterol and decrease both triglyceride levels and blood pressure.
  • If you are currently a regular fish eater, this diet is likely to be sustainable. But not everyone is comfortable cooking fish on a regular basis and fresh fish can be expensive and harder to find.

The focus is on vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and plant-based healthy oils. Animal products are consumed, but minimally.

  • This diet is more likely than the vegan diet to align with nutritional guidelines provided by the USDA.
  • The Mediterranean diet has been widely studied and is associated with a wide range of health benefits including a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
  • The Mediterranean diet may be the most sustainable diet when compared to other more rigorous plant-based diets.

Getting Started

If you evaluate the pros and cons of a vegan diet and choose to give it a try, take some time to evaluate sample vegan meal plans. Identify foods and dishes that look appealing then fill your kitchen with those ingredients. If you can eat foods that are delicious, satisfying, and healthy you are more likely to maintain the program.

If you find vegan recipes and meals plans too complicated or unfamiliar, then choose one or two days per week to eat a plant-based diet. Or choose one meal each day to experiment with vegan foods and recipes. Small steps can have a big impact. "Remember that even if you eat less meat and ramp up the veggies, you'll still gain the benefit of a plant-based diet," says Kay.

A Word From Verywell

A vegan diet is a smart choice for some, but not for everyone. Before making the switch, ask yourself a few important questions. Do you have access to healthy vegan foods? How will this impact your weekly food costs? Do you eat out often will you have vegan choices on your favorite restaurant's menu? Can you visit a registered dietitian to help set up a healthy vegan eating plan that will supply not only important macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fats) but also essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to help your body function properly?  

If vegan eating doesn't seem do-able for you, make small changes to reap the rewards of a plant-based diet. These small steps will improve your diet and can provide you with health benefits including weight loss and lifelong wellness.

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Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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