vegan diet

The Vegan Diet — A Definitive Guide for Beginners

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The vegan diet has become very popular as more and more people have decided to go vegan for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.

There are numerous health benefits to a vegan diet, including weight loss and improved blood sugar control, but there is an increased risk of nutrient deficiencies.

This article is a beginner’s guide to the vegan diet so that you have everything you need to know to follow the diet the right way.

What is the Vegan Diet?

The vegan diet is a way of living that attempts to exclude all animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy as a stand against exploitation and cruelty. This applies to food, clothing, or any other purpose.

People who choose the vegan diet do so for things that range from ethics to environmental concerns to improved health.

How much weight can you lose on a vegan diet?

Vegans tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegans. You can lose up to 2 pounds per week embracing a vegan lifestyle. An 18-week Harvard study found that vegan dieters lost 5.5 pounds over a non-vegan diet. This is one of the main reasons people turn to vegan diets, as a way to lose excess weight.

Some of this weight loss may be explained by healthier lifestyle choices, such as physical activity, and other health-related behaviors.

But several randomized controlled studies, that take these external factors into account, report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared to 

Vegan Diet is recommended by

Due to its health benefits, a vegan diet is recommended by the following organizations:

  • American Dietetics Association (ADA)
  • American Heart Association (AHA)
  • National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) 

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.

Benefits of a vegan diet

There are some documented health benefits of a vegan diet. They range from heart health to lowering insulin levels to weight loss.

Vegan diet linked to lower blood sugar levels

Several studies found that vegans benefit from the following:

  • Lower blood sugar levels
  • Higher insulin sensitivity
  • Up to a 78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than non-vegans 

This could be explained by the higher fiber consumption, which may slow the blood sugar response.

Vegan diet and heart health

A vegan diet may help keep your heart healthy. Some studies report vegans may have up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and a 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease.

Lower cancer risk

Vegans may have a 15% lower risk of developing or dying from cancer. 

Arthritis

Vegan diets may be effective at reducing symptoms of arthritis such as pain, joint swelling, and morning stiffness. 

Kidney function

Diabetics who start a vegan diet and switch animal protein for plant protein may reduce their risk of poor kidney function. 

Alzheimer’s disease

Observational studies show that aspects of the vegan diet may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Different variations of vegan diets

There are different versions of vegan diets. Here’s a list of the most common variations: 

Whole-food vegan diet

A diet version based on whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Raw-food vegan diet variation

A vegan diet centered on raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or plant foods cooked at temperatures below 118°F.

80/10/10 vegan variation

The 80/10/10 diet is a raw-food vegan diet that relies on raw fruits and soft green veggies. 

  • 80% of the diet comes from carbohydrates
  • 10% from protein
  • 10% from fats

It restricts fat-rich plants like nuts and avocados. The 80/10/10 is referred to as the low-fat, raw-food vegan diet or “fruitarian diet.”

The vegan starch solution version

This variation is a low-fat, high-carb vegan diet similar to the 80/10/10, but the focus is on cooked starches like potatoes, rice, and corn instead of fruit.

Raw till 4 vegan diet variation

This low-fat version is inspired by the 80/10/10 and starch solution. You eat raw foods until 4 p.m., with the option of a cooked plant-based dinner.

The thrive diet

The thrive diet is a raw-food vegan diet where you eat plant-based, whole foods that are raw or minimally cooked at low temperatures.

Junk-food vegan diet

Those following this variation on a vegan diet cut whole plant foods and instead consume mock meats and cheeses, fries, vegan desserts, and other heavily processed vegan foods.

Are Oreos vegan?

Technically, yes. If you look at the label on a package of Oreos it lists the following as ingredients: sugar, unbleached enriched flour, high oleic canola and/or palm and/or canola oil, cocoa, high fructose corn syrup, leavening, cornstarch, salt, soy lecithin, vanillin, and chocolate. 

Those aren’t the healthiest ingredients, but there’s nothing off-limits to vegans. Some may debate that palm oil is vegan — while other people argue palm plantations hurt animals. So it just depends on how religiously vegan you are.

List of other junk foods that are vegan

  • Oreos
  • Lay’s Classic Potato Chips
  • Frito’s
  • Airheads
  • Dorito’s Spicy Sweet Chili
  • Nutter Butters
  • Ritz Crackers


Here’s a full list and article about the Best Vegan Junk Food

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

What foods can you eat on a vegan diet?

For health-conscious vegans, there are many substitutes for animal products with plant-based replacements.

Is tofu a good meat-protein substitute for vegans?

Tempeh, seitan, and tofu provide a versatile protein-rich alternative to meat, fish, poultry, and eggs and can be added seamlessly to many recipes.

Fruits and vegetables are a staple of a vegan diet

Vegetables and fruits are nutrient-rich. Leafy greens like bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress, and mustard greens are particularly high in iron and calcium.

Legumes are important to a vegan diet

Foods such as beans, lentils, and peas are great sources of nutrients and beneficial plant compounds. Many vegans employ sprouting, fermenting, and proper cooking techniques to improve nutrient absorption. 

Can you eat nuts on a vegan diet?

Nuts, especially less processed, unblanched, and unroasted varieties are great sources of iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and vitamin E. Nut butters are another way to get the nutrients from nuts in a different form.  

Do seeds have enough protein for a vegan diet?

Yes. Especially chia, flax, and hemp have a good amount of protein and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

What other protein sources can vegans eat?

Algae, spirulina, and chlorella are also good sources of complete protein as well as great sources of iodine.

What kinds of dairy substitutes are approved for vegans? 

Since animal milk is a no, look for calcium-fortified plant milk and yogurts. These will help vegans achieve their recommended dietary calcium intake. Shop for varieties that are also fortified with vitamins B12 and D whenever possible.

Is nutritional yeast safe to eat?

Yes, it is. Nutritional yeast is a popular food typically used in vegan cooking. It’s the same as the yeast used to make beer or bake bread.

The “nutritional” part of the name describes the protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it contains. And studies have shown it has a wide range of potential health benefits,  from lowering cholesterol levels to helping protect the body from inflammation and free radical damage.

Adding yeast is an easy way to boost the protein content of vegan dishes. Be sure to look for vitamin B12-fortified varieties, if you can.

Which whole grains are best for a vegan diet?

Cereals and whole grains are great sources of complex carbs, fiber, iron, B-vitamins, and several essential minerals. Spelt, teff, amaranth, and quinoa are especially high-protein options. Here’s a list of the best whole grains for vegans.

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn (including popcorn!)
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice (brown rice and colored rice)
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Wheat (including varieties such as: spelt, emmer, farro, kamut, durum, bulgur, cracked wheat, wheat berries)
  • Wild rice

Do vegans eat fermented plant foods?

Yes. Many vegans eat sprouted and fermented foods as part of a daily diet. Things like Ezekiel bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and kombucha often contain probiotics and vitamin K2. Sprouting and fermenting can help improve mineral absorption. 

Simple and healthy vegan snack ideas

With any diet, snacks can be a great way to stay energized and suppress hunger between meals.

Here are some ideas that are simple and delicious.

  • Fresh fruit with a spoon of nut butter
  • Veggies and hummus
  • Nutritional yeast on popcorn
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Nut and fruit bars
  • Trail mix
  • Chia pudding
  • Whole-wheat pita with salsa and fresh guacamole
  • Edamame with sea salt
  • Whole-grain crackers with nut butter
  • Plant-milk cappuccino
  • Dried seaweed snacks

When planning a vegan snack, look for fiber-rich and protein-rich options to give you a full feeling and stave hunger until mealtime.

What can’t you eat on a vegan diet?

Vegans don’t consume any animal foods, or any foods containing ingredients derived from animals. These include:

No meat and poultry on a vegan diet

Not eating meat is the biggest difference between a vegan diet and others. It kind of goes without saying, but here’s a list of meats that are off-limits:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Veal
  • Horse
  • Organ meat
  • Wild game, like venison or elk
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Goose
  • Duck
  • Quail

Is fish and seafood vegan?

No. Just like meat, it kind of goes without saying that all types of fish and seafood are not good. Here’s a list so you know:

  • Anchovies
  • Shrimp
  • Squid
  • Scallops
  • Calamari
  • Mussels
  • Crab
  • Lobster

Dairy is not vegan

Because dairy is derived from an animal, it is not considered a vegan food. Here is a list of non-vegan dairy products:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Ice cream

Can you eat eggs on a vegan diet?

The short answer is no. Eggs are derived from animals, so they are not considered vegan food. In case you’re wondering which eggs are not vegan, here’s the list:

  • Chickens
  • Quail
  • Ostriches
  • Caviar

Can you eat honey on a vegan diet?

No. Bee products like honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, are not approved on a vegan diet.

Which animal-based ingredients aren’t vegan?

While the previous sections gave you some idea of what you cannot eat on a vegan diet, there are other animal-based ingredients that you may have questions about. The rule of thumb for a vegan diet is any animal product or any product derived from animals. Here is a list to help you know better what is an animal-based ingredient that’s not vegan.

  • Whey protein
  • Casein protein
  • Lactose
  • Egg white albumen
  • Gelatin
  • Cochineal or carmine
  • Isinglass
  • Shellac
  • L-cysteine
  • Animal-derived vitamin D3
  • Fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids, like fish or krill oil

What are the risks associated with vegan diets? 

Poorly executed vegan diets are particularly at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.

Many studies show that vegans are at a higher risk of having inadequate blood levels of 

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Omega-3s
  • Iodine
  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Zinc 

Your genetic makeup and gut bacteria composition may also dictate the nutrients you need from a vegan diet.

Which supplements are best for vegan diets?

New vegans may find it difficult to eat enough nutrient-rich or fortified foods to meet their daily requirements and prevent deficiencies. The following supplements can be beneficial:

Taking vitamin B12 is important for vegans

Vitamin B12 in cyanocobalamin form is the most studied and has been shown to work well for most people needing to supplement.

Vitamin D is essential for vegan diets

To supplement for potential deficiencies, look for vitamin D2 or vegan D3 forms such as those manufactured by Nordic Naturals or Viridian.

What are omega-3 deficiencies?

Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Here are the 3 acids in Omega-3s:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

EPA and DHA deficiencies have several symptoms including dry skin, dry eyes, joint pain or stiffness, dry or damaged hair, and even depression is linked.

Vegans can supplement to help with the deficiencies. Any supplement should be sourced from algae oil.

Use iron supplements for deficiencies on a vegan diet

You should only supplement iron in the case of a documented deficiency, like if your doctor recommends it for you. Consuming too many iron supplements can cause health issues and prevent the absorption of other nutrients in the gut. 

Iodine supplements for vegan dieters

For vegans, iodine can be a nutrient that some may lack. But supplementing can be pretty easy,  add 1/2 teaspoon of iodized salt to your diet daily. You can also pay more for an iodine supplement if you feel you need it.

Calcium deficiencies and vegan diets

Some vegans have issues with calcium deficiencies, so supplementation can be a great way to get that vital nutrient. 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 absorption.

Zinc supplements can be a helpful addition to a vegan diet

Taken in zinc gluconate or zinc citrate forms. It is not to be taken at the same time as calcium due to the risk of reduced absorption. 

A Vegan Diet sample menu 

To help get you started with a vegan lifestyle, here’s a simple plan with some examples of vegan meals:

Day 1 on a vegan diet

  • Breakfast: Mango and spinach smoothie made with fortified plant milk and a banana-flaxseed-walnut muffin and a plant-milk chai latte
  • Lunch: Chopped zucchini and quinoa salad w/peanut dressing
  • Dinner: Tempeh stir-fry with bok choy and broccoli

Day 2 on a vegan diet

  • Breakfast: Overnight oats made with fruit, plant milk, chia seeds and nuts
  • Lunch: Tofu noodle soup with vegetables.
  • Dinner: Veggie sushi rolls, miso soup, edamame and wakame salad

Day 3 of your vegan diet

  • Breakfast: Whole-grain toast with hazelnut butter, banana and a fortified plant yogurt
  • Lunch: Baked tofu sandwich with a side of tomato salad
  • Dinner: Vegan tacos with mango-pineapple salsa

More vegan diet meal ideas

Coming up with meals can be the hardest part of any diet plan. To help with that, here are some more ideas for your vegan diet meal planning.

Vegan breakfast ideas

  • Vegan chickpea and onion omelet and a cappuccino made with fortified plant milk
  • Spinach and scrambled tofu wrap and a glass of plant milk
  • Chickpea pancakes, guacamole and salsa and fortified orange juice

More vegan lunch ideas

  • Spiced red lentil, tomato and kale soup with whole-grain toast and hummus
  • Tofu vegan quiche with a side of sautéed mustard greens

Vegan diet dinner ideas

  • Sweet potatoes with lettuce, corn, beans, cashews and guacamole
  • Vegan chili on a bed of amaranth 
  • Whole-wheat pasta topped with bolognese sauce made with lentils and a kale side salad

One key to remember: Vary your protein and vegetable sources throughout the day, each provides different vitamins and minerals that are important for your health. Eating too much of one or another can throw off that balance.

How to follow a vegan diet while dining out at restaurants

Bottom line, dining out as a vegan may be difficult. There are more and more restaurants that have vegan menus and vegan options, but it’s still challenging to find ones with the right stuff.

Find vegan-friendly restaurants online

Instead of going out and hoping to find your exact vegan diet needs, what many vegans do is find vegan-friendly restaurants ahead of time by using websites such as Happycow or Vegguide. You can also use apps like VeganXpress and Vegman to find what you’re looking for.

Steps for eating vegan in a non-vegan restaurant

Look up the menu online

When dining in a non-vegan establishment, research the menu online beforehand to see the vegan options available.

Call the chef directly

Calling ahead of time allows the chef to make something vegan just for you. Many find this move very bold, but you don’t know if you don’t try. This will give you confidence that you’ll have something that fits your diet and lifestyle.

Ask to change dishes to be more vegan-friendly

Sometimes planning doesn’t work, like when it’s the spur of the moment or your co-workers want to celebrate Jackie’s engagement. If you find yourself picking a restaurant on the fly, ask about their vegan diet options as soon as you step in so you can order efficiently.

Choose ethnic spots for vegan-friendliness

When in doubt, you can always opt for ethnic restaurants. They tend to have dishes that are naturally vegan-friendly or can be easily modified. Look for Mexican, Thai, Indian, Middle-Eastern, or Ethiopian restaurants.

Pick out the vegetarian options on the menu

Once you’ve found the place, start scanning the menu for the vegetarian options and ask if any dairy or eggs ingredients can be removed to make it vegan-friendly.

If all else fails, fill up on appetizers

If you find that the entrees cannot be adapted to be vegan-friendly, look for vegan starters, sides, or appetizers. You can always fill up on those and call it a meal.

Final thoughts on a vegan diet

You may choose veganism for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. It’s an ideology and lifestyle, not just a diet. When done right, the vegan diet can be easy to follow and may provide various health benefits. As with any diet, you only see benefits if you are consistent and build your diet around nutrient-rich plant foods over heavily processed ones.

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

Use this article to help you make an informed decision about starting a vegan lifestyle in one form or another. Happy dieting.

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