What to Expect on a Vegan Diet

Dried beans and grains
Darren Muir/Stocksy United

In This Article

Vegan diets and other plant-based eating styles have become more popular as the health and environmental benefits that they provide have become more apparent. An increasing number of studies associate plant-based eating with positive health outcomes, including a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and other health conditions. If you're considering adopting a vegan lifestyle, consider the changes you would need to make to your current diet, shopping, and meal habits before deciding if it is right for you.

What to Eat

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, but you also avoid any food that has any animal by-product in it.

Compliant Foods

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Grains

  • Legumes

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Soy-based products

  • Plant-based oils

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Meat and poultry

  • Fish and seafood

  • Eggs

  • Dairy products

  • Honey

  • Animal by-products

Compliant Foods

Vegetables

In a vegan diet, vegetables play a starring role. Eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables can help you to reach your daily nutrient requirements when you eat according to a vegan food plan.

Collard greens and okra, for example, are high in calcium—a nutrient that is important for vegans as they avoid dairy. Spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli provide protein along with other nutrients.

Vegetables are generally used instead of meat in traditional dishes such as lasagna, casseroles, or soup. They can also be used to replace traditional starchy foods that might contain non-vegan ingredients. For example, some cooks make noodles out of zucchini or enjoy non-dairy mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes made with butter and milk.

Fruit

Fruit provides healthy fiber and other nutrients that are important on a vegan diet. Strawberries, for example, provide calcium, folate, and potassium. And fiber-rich raspberries are a good source of magnesium and vitamin C.

Fruit can also be used to replace other foods that are commonplace in other diets. For example, bananas can be used instead of eggs to make two-ingredient pancakes. Frozen fruit is also mashed, whipped, and frozen to be enjoyed as an ice-cream substitute.

On a vegan diet, you spend no time shopping for or preparing meat, dairy, or seafood products. This leaves more time for you to experiment with different types of fruits and vegetables. Experimenting with exotic fruits or unusual vegetables will help to keep variety in your vegan diet. Eating more whole fruits and vegetables can also help you to decrease your dependence on heavily processed vegan foods, like veggie chips, fake meat products, and packaged goods.

Grains

Whole grains play a key role in a healthy vegan diet. Both refined grains and whole grains are compliant on a vegan diet, but choosing whole grains will help you to reach your recommended intake of important nutrients—especially protein.

Quinoa, for example, is a complete protein. That means that it contains all nine essential amino acids. These are amino acids that must be consumed in the diet because your body doesn't make them. Other high-protein grains include amaranth, oats, wild rice, and buckwheat.

Whole grains also provide fiber and vitamins including vitamin E, B, and folic acid and important minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and iron.

Legumes

Legumes, including peas, beans, and lentils, are nutritious, inexpensive, versatile, and easy to store. Legumes are naturally low in fat and provide fiber, protein, other nutrients including folate, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Legumes also contain resistant starch—a form of starch that is not digested in the small intestine but rather passes directly to the large intestine where it feeds healthy bacteria.

Because legumes can easily be added to soups, salads, and other dishes they make a smart substitute for meat if you follow a vegan diet.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds can be a good source of both protein and healthy fat in a vegan diet. Also, foods made from nuts and seeds can replace foods that are not compliant in a vegan diet. For example, nut butters can replace dairy butter or other spreads, vegan cheese is sometimes made from nuts (such as cashews or almonds) and almost every grocery store sells milk alternatives made from almonds, macadamia nuts, cashews, and other nuts.

Soy-Based Products

Soy beans and soy products are often consumed in a vegan diet. Edamame—soybeans that are not yet mature—are commonly boiled, salted and eaten plan. Mature soybeans can be roasted and consumed as a snack or used as an ingredient in other foods.

Soy-based foods include tofu, tempeh, and soy milk. You'll also find soy-based yogurt products, soy ice cream, soy protein powders, and soy protein bars. However, not every processed soy product is vegan, so it is important to check the ingredients list if you follow a strict vegan diet.

Plant-Based Oils

Plant-based oils include olive oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, and many others. While these oils contain nine calories per gram like other fats, they provide polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. Meat and dairy products contain less healthy saturated fat.

Unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and are linked to many health benefits including reduced triglyceride levels, a lower risk of heart disease, and reduced risk for stroke.

Non-Compliant Foods

Meat and Poultry

A primary difference between a vegan diet and a typical American diet is the absence of meat and poultry. While traditional American meals are built around meat generally with vegetables and starchy foods added as side dishes, a vegan diet eliminates this key component completely.

Some vegans eliminate meat and poultry from the diet to support animal rights or for environmental reasons. Others do so for health reasons. Eliminating meat and poultry from the diet eliminates a primary source of calories and saturated fat. Studies have shown that vegans tend to consume fewer calories and less saturated fat than those who consume both plant and animal foods.

Fish and Seafood

Fish and seafood are also not consumed on a vegan diet. There may be different reasons for this choice, but some vegans believe that fish consumption promotes animal cruelty in the same way that animal consumption does. Others are concerned about the effects of commercial fishing on the environment. And some are worried about the presence of toxins, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (industrial products or chemicals, also called BCPs). According the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), BCPs have been banned since 1979 but may still be present in waterways, leading to concerns about their impact on human health.

Eggs

Eggs are also off-limits when consuming a vegan diet. There are some ethical concerns in the vegan community (and elsewhere) about the practice of egg farming. Others are concerned about the saturated fat content.

Since eggs are a primary ingredient in baked goods, pasta, soups, and other common foods it is important to read labels to make sure that the products you choose on a vegan diet don't include them.

Dairy

Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are not consumed on a vegan diet. Also, foods made with these ingredients are not consumed. However, if you are a dairy lover, you'll find quite a few dairy substitutes at your local market. Milk, cheese, and yogurt alternatives can be manufactured from nuts or soy. Again, it is important to read labels. Some products still include whey or casein as ingredients and these are by-products of milk.

Honey

There is some disagreement about the consumption of bee products, including honey, on a vegan diet. Some vegans believe that since bees are animals and all animal products should be avoided, then honey is a non-compliant food. However, others believe that since bees are not harmed in the collection of honey and since many insects are used in the farming of plants, it is reasonable to consume honey.

Animal By-Products

If you are a whole-food vegan, then you don't need to be overly concerned about animal-based ingredients in your food. However, if you eat processed vegan foods, you'll have to read ingredient labels carefully to make sure that your food doesn't include some animal by-product.

For example, gelatin (commonly used to make fruit gels, pudding, candy, marshmallows, cakes, ice cream, and yogurt) is made by boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones of animals. Other animal-based ingredients to look for include whey, casein, lactose, egg whites, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids, rennet, and some forms of vitamin D3.

Recommended Timing

There is no specific meal timing practice associated with a vegan diet. However, if you are considering moving to a vegan diet from a traditional American diet, the timing of your transition may impact your success.

Removing familiar and foundational foods (like meat and dairy) from your diet can lead to feelings of frustration, hunger, and disappointment. If you become overwhelmed, you may quit before learning to enjoy the vegan lifestyle.

Keep in mind that you don't have to adopt a vegan eating plan all at once. Some experts recommend that you adopt 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.

Resources and Tips

A vegan diet requires more work when you first begin, simply because you need to be more thoughtful in your shopping, cooking, and meal planning habits. At the grocery store, for example, finding foods that are 100% vegan requires the careful reading of food labels.

You may also have some concerns about making sure that you get adequate nutrition, consume enough protein, and combine proteins properly for optimal health.

To address some of these concerns, Dr. David. L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP provides advice to help vegan eaters maintain good health. Dr. Katz is a globally recognized expert in nutrition, weight management, and prevention of chronic disease.

Essential Nutrition

A vegan diet, like any kind of diet, imposes the risk of nutrient deficiencies if foods are not combined in some sensible, balanced array. There is nothing about that unique to vegan diets. But even those who consume a healthy balanced vegan diet may need to supplement.

Dr. Katz suggests that vitamin B12 supplementation is warranted on even the best of vegan diets. Vitamin D supplementation is warranted on even the best of mixed diets for people who spend their time dressed, indoors, and/or in northern climes. We can make vitamin D from sun exposure but need either sun exposure or the nutrient added to our diets.​

Adequate Protein

Some people are concerned about getting enough protein when shifting to a diet that does not contain meat, seafood, poultry, or dairy. According to Katz, unless a diet is both vegan and badly misguided, getting enough protein is not a realistic concern.

Protein deficiency, among vegans along with everyone else, is all but unheard of in the United States. Around the world, protein deficiency tends only to be seen in the context of overt and serious malnutrition and starvation.

Combining Proteins

There is a long-standing belief that in order to be a healthy vegan, foods must be carefully combined to provide complete protein. This notion is obsolete because we now know some things about protein we didn’t know in the past.

For starters, plant foods contain all of the amino acids humans need, both those that we must consume in the diet (because our bodies don't make them) and those that are non-essential (our bodies make them). Amino acids are best thought of as construction material for complex protein molecules, and those, in turn, are the building blocks for almost everything our bodies need to construct on a daily basis: enzymes, hormones, and cells.

Plant foods vary in the concentrations of amino acids. So, for example, grains are generally low in the amino acid lysine, but high in cysteine. Beans are low in cysteine, but rich in lysine. Consuming complimentary plant-based foods produces a full assembly of amino acids in nearly deal proportions. And contrary to popular belief, it is not essential that each of these amino acids—or construction materials—arrive at the same time to build a healthy body.

Dr. Katz uses a home construction analogy to explain.

"When building a house, the building materials don't need to arrive at the construction site simultaneously. House construction proceeds just fine if the lumber is all dropped off on Monday, the bricks and windows arrive Tuesday morning, and the wiring and tiles Tuesday afternoon. Contractors can generally get started with any reasonable array of supplies at the start, and then continue and finish with more supplies delivered over time.

The contribution of proteins to the daily construction within us is just the same. The body is able to retain amino acids from prior meals, and even the prior day, wait for any missing items to arrive, and then proceed with construction, known in the body as anabolism."

Dr. Katz sums up by saying that "while on the one hand, the complementarity of amino acids in different plant foods is obviously important, an emphasis on combining foods in a (balanced) vegan diet to get “complete” protein is not."

Vegan Food Labeling

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the use of the word "vegan" or "vegetarian" on food labels. Since there is no standard definition of what constitutes a vegan food, you may experience confusion when purchasing groceries.

For example, a product might use the term "vegan" to describe a food that contains honey. But your vegan diet may not include honey, so for you, that particular food may not be truly vegan.

Also, some foods don't carry a vegan label even if they are vegan because getting approval to use the labels can be expensive for manufacturers.

The Vegetarian Resource Group provides a chart of some of the vegan or vegetarian labels that you may see on products in the store. The chart provides detailed information about the standards used to evaluate food ingredients and whether or not food manufacturers are charged for providing the label.

For most consumers, eating whole foods and carefully reading labels will provide the best assurance that their food choices align with their vegan eating style. Instead of relying on front-of-package product claims, read the ingredients list to make sure that no fish, dairy, or animal by-products are used to make it.

Cooking and Planning Meals

Once you have your carefully selected vegan foods at home, you can learn to cook and prepare vegan meals by experimenting with new recipes, trying new spices and seasonings, and branching out with new veggies, nuts, seeds, and grains.

Portobello mushroom burgers, for example, are a satisfying substitute for beef burgers. Using peanuts or cashews instead of chicken or fish in a stir fry helps make the meal filling and delicious. You'll even find plenty of sweet, creamy, chocolatey dessert recipes that include no dairy.

Try These Recipes

On a healthy vegan diet, you'll use filling grains, healthy vegetables, and other ingredients to make dishes that are satisfying.

Modifications

A vegan diet can be adapted for almost anyone who is following a modified diet. Those who avoid gluten will need to choose grains carefully as they generally play a greater role in a vegan diet. But there are plenty of gluten-free foods that are also vegan-friendly.

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Article Sources

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  2. Medline Plus. Facts About Polyunsaturated Fats. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000747.htm

  3. Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients. 2014;6(3):1318–1332. Published 2014 Mar 24. doi:10.3390/nu6031318

  4. David L Katz, Kimberly N Doughty, Kate Geagan, David A Jenkins, Christopher D Gardner, Perspective: The Public Health Case for Modernizing the Definition of Protein QualityAdvances in Nutrition, doi:10.1093/advances/nmz023

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