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A vegan diet is part of a lifestyle that excludes the consumption or use of any products made from animals.
Vegans do not eat animal products, including honey, eggs, gelatin, or dairy. They will not use clothes, soaps, or other products that are animal-sourced in any way.
A vegan diet can be a highly nutritious choice, as it is low in saturated fat and rich in nutrients. However, starting out on an animal-free diet without proper planning can lead to some health risks.
All protein, vitamins, and minerals must come from non-animal sources, so food choice and preparation are important.
A 2016 poll suggests that around 2.5 percent of people in the United States follow a vegan lifestyle.
This MNT Knowledge Center article will discuss the differences between veganism and vegetarianism, the health benefits of a vegan diet, and important things to consider before starting. We will also share some tasty vegan meal options and recipes.
Fast facts on the vegan diet
- The vegan diet contains only plant-based foods.
- Tofu, tempeh, and mushrooms are three of the many alternatives than can provide the nutrients found in meat.
- A vegan diet can help to protect bone and heart health, and lower the risk of cancer.
- Supplements are recommended to replace levels of certain nutrients that are found in meat, such as vitamin B-12.
A vegan diet involves eating only food products made from plants and avoiding animal products.
Animal products are important sources of protein, nonsaturated fats, iron, vitamins, and minerals in the standard diet of a person in the U.S. A vegan needs to find alternative sources of these nutrients.
Reasons for following a vegan diet can include preventing cruelty to animals, environmental considerations, or simply looking to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle.
Fresh produce can be prepared at home. Some ready-made vegan meals are available in major grocery stores and specialist outlets.
Food packaging should state that the contents are vegan-friendly, or prepared in a completely meat-free kitchen. Vegan options are available in many restaurants, and some specialized restaurants serve only vegan food.
There are important differences between the vegan and vegetarian diets that impact food choice and nutritional intake.
The main difference is that vegetarians do not eat meat but will continue to consume dairy products and eggs. Vegans consume no animal produce at all.
This means that it is less necessary for vegetarians to supplement nutrients. They can still get calcium from milk, for example. Vegans, on the other hand, must find a plant-based source of calcium.
Veganism also refers to a range of lifestyle choices that exclude animal products, while vegetarianism is purely a dietary choice.
A vegan diet can have an extremely positive impact on health.
It is possible for a purely plant-based diet to provide the key nutrients for health, and it also eliminates the risk of consuming any potentially harmful animal fats.
Zero animal fats
Animal fats have been linked to a range of illnesses and conditions, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, and various cancers. Animal sources are likely to account for 13 of the top 15 sources of cholesterol-raising fats in the U.S.
By cutting these from the diet, the risk of many health issues can be greatly reduced. Animal fats may also transfer industrial cancer-linked chemicals and toxins from their environment. Healthy, plant-based oils and fats, such as olive oil, provide necessary fatty acids without raising levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
Lower cancer risk
Meat eaters are at a higher risk of colorectal and prostate cancers.
The vegan diet consists of far higher volumes of legumes, fruits, and vegetables, fiber, and vitamin C. These are believed to protect against a variety of cancers.
Calcium is important for bone and dental health. For the average American, milk and cheese are good sources of calcium.
For a vegan, figs, kale, spinach, black-eyed peas, and turnip greens can be excellent sources of calcium.
Vegan milk alternatives are becoming more widely available, such as soy milk, almond milk, and even vegan cheese.
Bones also need vitamins D and K, potassium, and magnesium. Soy, fruit, and some vegetables contain appropriate amounts of these nutrients without the health risks of animal fats. Daily exposure to the sun also enables the body to make vitamin D.
Vegans have also shown more efficient absorption of calcium and bone metabolism, the process through which new bone tissue is formed.
Lower levels of harmful cholesterol mean that vegans have a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease than people who eat meat.
Protecting against chronic disease
Plant-based diets can counteract an individual’s genetic likelihood of developing a chronic disease, such as type 2 diabetes.
A 2008 study explains that bioactive compounds in plant foods can control biological factors that may work against the genetic factors linked to some chronic diseases. The researchers maintain that the antioxidants in plant-based foods can combat free radical cells that cause cell damage and inflammation.
An entirely plant-based diet has low health risks, but careful planning is needed to maintain nutritional balance. Vegans may be more prone to shortages of vital nutrients.
A person considering a fully vegan diet is advised to stop eating animal produce gradually. Incorporate one meat alternative first, then pregress to other non-animal produce, eventually excluding animal produce completely.
The following nutrients are likely to be in short supply in a vegan diet, but alternatives are available. It is important not to replace dietary meat with unhealthy foods. Pay close attention to food labeling and make sure that your dietary needs are being met.
Plan your transition to a vegan diet carefully and consider the impact of the following dietary changes:
- Vitamin B-12: This is needed to protect nerves and red blood cells, and certain types are only available in animal produce. B-12-fortified plant foods, such as fortified soy, seaweed, cereals, and nutritional yeast can replace lost intake. Vitamin B-12 supplements are available online.
- Iron: This is an important nutrient for absorbing oxygen into the blood and transporting it to the cells in the body. Dried beans and dark leafy greens may be better sources of iron than meat on a per-calorie basis. Using a cast-iron skillet to prepare meals is a good way to absorb more iron into the food. Iron supplements are available online.
- Calories: A vegan diet can reduce the intake of calories. While too many calories can lead to weight gain and associated health problems, too few can lead to problems with low weight. Be prepared to supplement calories when considering becoming vegan.
- Calcium: This is crucial for bone health and development. Eat more tofu, tahini, and green, leafy vegetables to top up calcium levels. Calcium supplements are available online.
- Vitamin D: This protects against multiple cancers and chronic diseases, and helps to strengthen the bones and teeth. Regularly consuming more vitamin-D-fortified foods and spending time in the sun can boost vitamin D levels. Vitamin D supplements are available online.
- Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and ALA: Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, are vital for a healthy heart, eye function, and brain function. While EPA, another type of omega-3, cannot be obtained with a vegan diet, ALA and DHA can be found in ground flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products, and hemp beverages. Fish oil supplements are available online.
- Zinc: Deficiency can lead to hair loss, delayed sexual maturation for children, poor healing of wounds, immunological problems, and dermatitis. Whole grains, legumes, and soy products are rich in zinc. Zinc supplements are available online.
- Iodine: A lack of iodine may lead to fatigue, weight gain, pain and swelling in the neck, dry skin, and changes in heart rate. Seaweed and prunes are good sources of iodine, while supplements are available online.
A person switching to or following a vegan diet may wish to ask their doctor if they should take supplements to replace some nutrients, or if they should consume more fortified foods.
The change from an unrestricted diet can seem daunting, but there are many simple, tasty, and nutritious ways to pack a vegan diet with the nutrients you need.
Some of the nutrients, textures, and flavors that occur in meat can be found in a combination of the following:
- beans and legumes
Megan Ware, a registered dietitian nutritionist from Orlando, FL, told Medical News Today:
“In general, a vegan diet contains far more nutrients than the average American diet.”
Megan also recommends giving the following vegan meal ideas a try:
- Curried chickpea and avocado sandwich
- Fresh Texas salsa with green hatch chiles
- Vegan apple buckwheat pancakes
- Healthy vegan pasta salad
- Vegan cinnamon rolls
- Butternut, sweet potato, and red lentil stew
It may take a little experimentation, but you can find a vegan meal plan to suit your taste.
A review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out that vegans tend to be slimmer, with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and an overall health status that appears to be at least as good as vegetarians that consume eggs and dairy produce.
If the vegan lifestyle suits your worldview, the change can be made without damaging your wellbeing.