Getting Started With a Vegan Diet

Vegan tacos

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In This Article

A vegan diet is one in which no animal foods or animal by-products are consumed. A vegan diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and soy products, but no meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, eggs, or honey.

If you currently follow an omnivore eating style (minimal dietary restrictions), moving directly to a more restrictive plan like the vegan diet can be tricky. For that reason, many nutrition experts suggest a gradual approach.

For example, some people find success on a vegan diet by adopting a flexitarian diet first. A flexitarian diet is a modified vegetarian diet that allows you to eat meat on some limited occasions. Once you are comfortable with the flexitarian eating style, you can fully adopt a vegetarian diet, then finally go vegan.

Another strategy that may help ease the transition is the "add first, subtract later" approach. According to this method, you start to add satisfying vegan dishes to your menu before subtracting foods that are non-compliant. You eliminate the foods you are most dependent on last—when your vegan eating plan has a strong foundation.

Regardless of which strategy you choose, remember to give yourself time when first adopting this dietary strategy. A vegan diet can offer numerous health benefits, but depending on where you start from, it may take weeks, months, or even longer to learn how to shop, cook, and fully enjoy vegan eating.

Your Calorie Goals

Studies have shown that those who follow a vegan diet typically consume fewer calories than those who eat other types of diets. This calorie reduction usually happens naturally because foods that are eliminated on a vegan diet are foods that tend to be higher in fat and calories, such as meat and dairy. As a result, you may benefit from weight loss when switching to this eating style.

But if you are already at a healthy weight when you go vegan, you'll want to make sure that you consume enough calories each day to maintain wellness. Consuming too few calories can lead to reduced energy, a loss of muscle mass, and other problems.

And, of course, consuming too many calories can cause weight gain—regardless of the diet you choose. Even though vegan diets tend to be lower in calories, if you build meals around foods that are high in fat and excess sugar it is still possible to gain weight. So, even on a vegan diet, you should make sure that you maintain the proper energy balance.

The number of calories (energy) you need each day depends on a variety of factors, including height, weight, and activity level. Your goals regarding weight loss or weight gain are also important. Calculators like the one below can provide a personalized estimate of the number of calories you need.

If you typically build your meals around a serving of meat, eggs, seafood, or poultry (and you want to maintain your current weight), it can be helpful to see how you might replace those calories with vegan-friendly choices.

When you are trying to find ways to enjoy vegan protein sources, remember that you can increase your calorie intake by using healthy fats in the preparation of your food. Moderate amounts of plant-based oils, like olive oil, avocado oil, or flaxseed oil provide monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can help boost heart health. 

Hydration Tips

Staying hydrated is relatively effortless on a vegan diet.

Fruits and Vegetables

If you increase your fruit and vegetable intake on a vegan diet (as many people do) it may be easier to stay hydrated each day. Scientific studies have shown that increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can promote a healthy water balance in the body.

Water makes up nearly 90% of the weight of many fruits and vegetables that we consume.

Boost daily hydration by consuming melon, berries, and citrus fruits. Vegetables that boost hydration include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, and many others.

Dairy Alternatives

Dairy products (including milk and yogurt-based beverages) are not compliant. However, nut "milks" may be a suitable alternative if you are used to drinking or preparing foods with milk. Most grocery stores carry milk alternatives such as cashew milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and many others.

Keep in mind, however, that the FDA is considering legislation to remove the name "milk" from non-dairy alternatives. So, when you are shopping for one of these products, you may need to read labels carefully when making your selection. Also, keep in mind that some products may contain non-vegan ingredients, such as whey protein isolate or casein.

Other Beverages

Most other beverages are vegan-friendly. For example, tea, most lemonade, fruit juice, and coffee is usually free from dairy or animal by-products. However, there are a few notable exceptions.

Drinks flavored with honey are generally avoided on a vegan diet. Not all vegans avoid honey, but if you choose to, you'll need to read beverage labels carefully to be sure that your drink is compliant.

Also, broth-based beverages are usually not vegan-friendly because they are often made with bones of an animal.

Grocery Staples

Switching to a vegan diet may give you a chance to explore different areas of the grocery store. You might even choose to consider a new type of market, such as a farmer's market, or health food store.

Consider these healthy choices found in different sections. Keep in mind that buying in bulk and choosing seasonal produce can help to keep your budget on track.

Bulk Foods

In the bulk foods area, you can save money by purchasing only the amount that you need. These foods are generally cheaper because packaging costs are eliminated.

Produce Section

Choose fruits and vegetables that provide the vitamins and minerals that are likely to decrease when removing meat and dairy from your diet. Choose calcium-rich fruits and veggies such as kale, figs, broccoli, and broccoli rabe. And protein-rich produce, like spinach, will help you maintain muscle mass.

Mushrooms are another food to stock up on in the produce aisle. If you are having a hard time removing beef from your meals, mushrooms provide a savory, meaty alternative.

Other nutritious fruits and vegetables to consider include:

Frozen Foods

Many grocery stores sell vegan convenience foods, including microwavable meals, frozen meat substitutes, and other quick fast-food style offerings. Keep in mind that while these foods are compliant on your new vegan eating plan, they don't always provide good nutrition.

Instead, consider stocking up on less processed frozen foods including

Cereals, Canned, and Dry Goods

In the middle aisles of the grocery store, you'll find many nutritious vegan-friendly offerings, like beans and fortified cereal. When buying legumes, consider purchasing the dried variety rather than canned goods. Some canned goods are high in salt.

  • White beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Black beans
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Rolled oats
  • Tahini
  • Plant-based oils
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Vegan soups such as bean soup or tomato soup
  • Protein powder made with soy, rice, or pea protein

Refrigerated Section

You might be accustomed to choosing dairy products like cheese and milk in this section. But if you look past those products you'll find products that are delicious and compliant on your vegan diet. Look for

Recipe Ideas

Learning to cook with new foods can make adapting to the vegan diet easier. Invest in a cookbook, find online recipes, or investigate a vegan meal plan to get a sense of many different ways to enjoy fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, legumes, and healthy oils.

Breakfast

Start your day with foods that provide fiber and protein to help you feel full through hectic morning activities.

Lunch and Dinner

Replace meat-based meals with hearty, warm dishes made with savory vegetables.

Snacks

Use snack time as an excuse to boost your protein or fiber intake.

Dessert

Indulge and enjoy sweet treats without dairy.

Cooking and Meal Planning

Shifting to a vegan diet becomes easier once you become comfortable with the wide variety of foods available to you on this eating plan. Focusing on the foods you can eat helps divert your attention from the foods you can’t eat.

Experiment With Vegan Alternatives

If you’re a dairy lover, there are many plant-based alternatives that you can use. Use nut milk on cereal and in coffee instead of cow's milk or cream. You can also milk-alternatives in recipes that call for dairy milk, but you may want to use unflavored varieties. Some say that rice milk has a consistency closest to cow’s milk.

If you enjoy cheese, look for artisan brands that make alternative products out of ingredients like tofu, shiro, miso paste, garlic, and other seasonings. You may also find cheese made from tapioca. Keep in mind, however, that vegan cheese doesn’t always behave like dairy cheese in recipes. Some notice a difference in the way it melts. Many people also use nutritional yeast, a deactivated yeast with a cheesy, nutty flavor that makes it especially useful in making cheese dishes or cheese sauces.

If you love a hearty breakfast, scramble tofu like you would typically scramble eggs. Top it with salsa for a spicy kick. There are also vegan egg substitutes for cooking and baking.

Many companies make sausage from vegetables like eggplant and fennel combined with hearty grains. Use whole grain flour to make pancakes and other breakfast foods then use pure maple syrup instead of honey as a sweetener.

Plan Ahead

Cooking foods in advance may help you adapt to a vegan diet—especially if you are used to eating convenience foods. Having ingredients ready to go can make it easier for you to put together a meal or snack quickly when you’re hungry.

  • Soak and cook beans one day each week. Then keep them refrigerated so that you can grab a handful to toss on salads or on top of grains for a quick protein boost.
  • Soak oats overnight so they are ready to cook quickly in the morning.
  • Chop fruits and vegetables in advance and keep them in single-serving containers so that they are ready to grab when you need a snack.

A Word From Verywell

As you shift to a vegan lifestyle, remember that there is a wide range of resources online to help guide your journey. You'll also find cookbooks, magazines, and other helpful books at your local bookstore or library. Set aside a few hours each week to peruse recipes, grocery shop, and experiment in the kitchen so that you learn to enjoy nutritious plant-based foods.

Most importantly, cut yourself some slack if you slide back into old eating patterns from time to time. Eventually, choosing vegan foods at the market, planning plant-based meals, and even eating out at your favorite restaurant will become second-nature. But—like all worthwhile pursuits—it may take some time and effort to get there.

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Article Sources

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  2. Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013;17(2):61-6. doi:10.7812%2FTPP%2F12-085

  3. Montenegro-bethancourt G, Johner SA, Remer T. Contribution of fruit and vegetable intake to hydration status in schoolchildren. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(4):1103-12. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.051490

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on modernizing standards of identity and the use of dairy names for plant-based substitutes. September 27, 2018

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