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A vegan or plant-based diet excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. When people follow it correctly, a vegan diet can be highly nutritious, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and aid weight loss.
Increasing numbers of people are moving toward vegan diets due to health, animal welfare, or environmental concerns. A 2018 Gallup poll reports that about 3% of people in the United States are fully vegan and notes that sales of plant-based foods are rising.
Vegan diets tend to be rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats. Research suggests that the diet can improve heart health, protect against cancer, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
In this article, we take a close look at the vegan diet, including its health benefits and risks, as well as important things to consider before trying it out. We also provide recipe ideas and tips for following a vegan diet.
A vegan diet involves eating only foods comprising plants. Those who follow this diet avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Some people also avoid eating honey. For some, being vegan is a dietary choice, while for others, it is a lifestyle choice.
People who choose to live a vegan lifestyle may also avoid clothes, soaps, and other products that use or contain parts of animals, such as leather and animal fur. Some adopt this lifestyle for its environmental benefits as a sustainable diet.
Vegan diets tend to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. Eating a variety of these foods will provide a wide range of important vitamins, minerals, healthful fats, and protein.
People following this diet should, however, take care to get key nutrients that people usually consume in animal products. These nutrients include iron, protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.
The main difference between vegetarians and vegans is that although vegetarians do not eat meat (including cows, pigs, chicken, and fish), they consume dairy products, eggs, or both. The vegan diet excludes all products with animal-based ingredients.
The vegan diet is more restrictive, so people will need to think more about where their nutrients are coming from to ensure that they meet their daily dietary requirements.
Vegan diets can provide all of the nutrients that a person needs, and they can eliminate some of the possible risks that research has associated with harmful animal fats. Research has linked the vegan diet with a range of health benefits, including those below.
Better heart health
Vegan diets can boost heart health in several ways.
Animal products — including meat, cheese, and butter — are the main dietary sources of saturated fats. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), eating foods that contain these fats raises cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
In addition, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and a reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Lower cancer risk
According to a 2017 review, eating a vegan diet may reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals — biologically active compounds in plants — that protect against cancers.
Research into the effects of diet on the risk of specific cancers has produced mixed results.
However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer report that red meat is “probably carcinogenic,” noting that research has linked it primarily to colorectal cancer but also to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer.
The agency also report that processed meat is carcinogenic and may cause colorectal cancer.
Eliminating red and processed meats from the diet removes these possible risks.
People on a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those following other diets.
The researchers behind a 2015 study reported that vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian diets, as well as being better for providing macronutrients.
Many animal foods are high in fat and calories, so replacing these with low calorie plant-based foods can help people manage their weight.
It is important to note, though, that eating lots of processed or high fat plant-based foods — which some people refer to as a junk food vegan diet — can lead to unhealthful weight gain.
Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
According to a large 2019 review, following a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The research linked this effect with eating healthful plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.
A vegan diet removes some sources of nutrients from the diet, so people need to plan their meals carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies. People may wish to talk to a doctor or dietitian ahead of adopting a vegan diet, especially if they have existing health conditions.
Key nutrients that may be low in a vegan diet include:
- Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is mainly present in animal products. It protects the nerves and red blood cells. Plant-based sources of this vitamin include fortified cereals and plant milks, nutritional yeast, and yeast spreads. Read more about vegan sources of vitamin B-12.
- Iron: Iron is important for blood health. Beans and dark leafy greens are good sources. Find out more about iron-rich vegan foods.
- Calcium: Calcium is crucial for bone health. Eating tofu, tahini, and leafy greens will help keep calcium levels up. Learn about calcium-rich plant-based foods.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D protects against cancer and some chronic health conditions, and it helps strengthen the bones and teeth. Regularly eating vitamin D-fortified foods and spending time in the sun can boost vitamin D levels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Important for heart, eye, and brain function, there are three types of omega-3 fatty acid: EPA, DHA, and ALA. Walnuts and flaxseeds are good sources of ALA, but seaweeds and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA. Read about how to get omega-3 as a vegan.
- Zinc: Zinc is important for the immune system and the repair of DNA damage. Beans, nutritional yeast, nuts, and oats are high in zinc. Read about zinc-rich vegan foods.
- Iodine: Iodine is important for thyroid function. Plant-based sources include seaweeds and fortified foods.
A person may wish to ask for their doctor’s advice on whether to take supplements or consume more fortified foods.
Shop for supplements
A vegan diet may be low in specific nutrients. Certain specialized foods and dietary supplements can help people meet their daily requirements. People can choose from a variety of brands online.
The change from an unrestricted diet can seem daunting, but there are many simple, tasty, and nutritious ways to pack a vegan diet with key vitamins and minerals.
Instead of cow milk, people can use plant-based alternatives. Compared with cow’s milk, plant milks tend to be lower in calories and contain less saturated fat. Manufacturers often enrich them with vitamins and minerals.
People can also buy plant-based cheeses, yogurts, and butters or make their own. Read about dairy alternatives here.
Some people may have concerns about meeting their protein needs on a vegan diet, but many plant foods are excellent sources of protein. Read about the best plant-based sources of protein.
Vegan recipes often use the following nutritious foods in place of animal products:
- beans and legumes
- peanut butter and other nut butters
People can find a huge variety of vegan recipes online. Some examples include:
- vegan mac ‘n’ cheese
- sweet potato chickpea Buddha bowl
- southwest tofu scramble
- vegan falafel burgers
- butternut, sweet potato, and red lentil stew
- coconut cauliflower curry
- quinoa black bean tacos
- healthy pasta salad
There are plenty of sweet vegan recipes online, too:
- vegan cinnamon rolls
- apple buckwheat pancakes
- vegan avocado brownies
- peanut butter cookies
- vegan ice cream
It may take a little experimentation, but most people will be able to find a vegan meal plan to suit their taste.
Vegan diets are growing in popularity. A vegan diet can offer many health benefits, including better heart health, weight loss, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases.
Research also suggests that vegan diets are better for the environment.
People who wish to adopt a vegan diet will need to plan their meals carefully to ensure that they are getting enough key nutrients to avoid deficiencies.