The vegan diet involves eating only plant-based foods.
Vegans eat no animal produce, including honey, eggs, or dairy produce, and they will not use clothes, soaps, and other products that are sourced in any way from animals.
This can be a healthful choice, but a lack of proper planning or understanding of nutrition can lead to some health risks.
Reasons for following a vegan diet can include avoiding cruelty to animals, environmental considerations, or simply looking to lose weight and become more healthful.
All protein, vitamins, and minerals must come from non-animal sources, so food choice and preparation are important.
Around 2.5 percent of people in the United States (U.S.) are vegans, according to a 2016 poll.
- 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 abundant in meat, such as vitamin B12.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet involves only food derived from plants and avoids animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, gelatin, and honey.
In the standard American diet, these are important sources of protein, nonsaturated fats, iron, vitamins, and minerals. A vegan diet needs to find alternative sources of these nutrients.
Some of the nutrients, textures, and flavors that occur in meat can be found in a combination of the following:
- beans and legumes
People following a vegan diet should be careful to consume enough iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and other minerals and vitamins.
Food can be prepared at home using fresh produce. Some ready-made meals are available in major grocery stores and specialist outlets.
The 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 restaurants serve only vegan food.
A person who is considering embarking on a fully vegan diet may be advised to do this gradually, incorporating alternatives first to meat, then to other animal produce, in stages.
It is possible for a purely plant-based diet to provide the key nutrients necessary for health, and a vegan diet eliminates the risk of any intake of potentially harmful animal fats.
Zero animal fats
Animal fats have been linked to various cancers, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, and a range of illnesses and conditions. 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. The fats from animals may also transfer industrial cancer-linked chemicals and toxins from their environment. Healthy, plant-based oils and fats, such as olive oil, provides necessary fatty acids without raising 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 are some excellent sources of calcium.
Vegan alternatives, such as soy milk, almond milk, and even vegan cheese, are becoming more widely available.
Bones also need vitamins D and K, potassium, and magnesium. Soy, fruit, and some vegetables contain appropriate quantities of these nutrients without the health risks of animal fats. A little exposure to the sun every day enables the body to synthesize vitamin D.
Vegans have also shown more efficient absorption of calcium and bone metabolism, the process through which new bone tissue is formed.
The lower levels of harmful cholesterol lead to a lower incidence of stroke and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease in vegans.
Lower mortality rates
A 2016 study demonstrated a 2 percent increase in the risk of death for every 10 percent increase in calories obtained from animal protein. In particular, eating red and processed meats are linked to an increased chance of premature death.
This suggests that not eating meat reduces the overall risk of mortality.
Protecting against chronic disease
Plant-based diets can counteract an individual's genetic likelihood of developing a chronic disease such as diabetes type 2.
A 2008 study explains that bioactive compounds in plant foods can control biological factors that may counteract the genetic factors that could lead to some chronic disease. The researchers maintain that the antioxidants in plant-based foods can combat free radical cells that cause cell damage and inflammation.
Supplements can help a person follow a vegan diet without losing the vital nutrients found in food sourced from animals.
An entirely plant-based diet can carry low health risks, but it needs careful planning to achieve a balanced, as vegans may be more prone to shortages of certain vital nutrients.
The following are likely to be in short supply on a vegan diet, but alternatives are available.
- Vitamin B12: This is necessary for strength and protection of nerves and red blood cells. Vitamin-B12 fortified plant foods, such as fortified soy, seaweed, cereals, and nutritional yeast can supplement intake.
- Iron: This is a fundamental nutrient for absorbing oxygen into the blood and transporting it to body cells. 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 a meal is a good way to absorb more iron into the food.
- Calcium: This is important for bone health and development. Eat more tofu, tahini, and green, leafy vegetables.
- 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.
- Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and ALA: Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, are vital for cardiovascular health, eye function, and brain function. Though EPA, another type of omega-3, can't be obtained with a vegan diet, ALA and DHA can be found in ground flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products, and hemp beverages.
- 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.
A person who is switching to or following a vegan diet may wish to ask their doctor if they should take supplements for some of these, or use more fortified foods.
Vegan meal ideas
The change from an omnivorous diet can seem daunting, but there are many simple, tasty, and nutritious ways to pack a vegan diet with the nutrients you need.
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 Ware also recommends the following vegan meal ideas.
Give them a try.
- Quinoa buddha bowl
- Curried chickpea and avocado sandwich
- Fresh Texas salsa with green hatch chiles
- Spaghetti squash orrechietti mushroom soup
- Vegan apple buckwheat pancakes
- Healthy vegan pasta salad
- Vegan cinnamon rolls
- Butternut, sweet potato, and red lentil stew
As Winston Craig, writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out, as long as vegans make appropriate food choices, they 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 other vegetarians," including vegetarians that consume eggs and dairy produce.