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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 very nutritious, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and promote weight loss.
More and more people are turning to 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 on the rise.
Vegan diets tend to be high in nutrients and low in saturated fat. Research suggests that diet may improve heart health, protect against cancer, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
However, people who only consume plant-based foods need to be more aware of how to get certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12, which typically come from an omnivorous diet.
In this article, we take a close look at the vegan diet, including its health benefits and risks, as well as the important things to consider before trying it. We also offer recipe ideas and tips for following a vegan diet.
A vegan diet involves eating only foods that are made up of plants. Those on this diet avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Some people also avoid eating honey. For some, being vegan is a food choice, while for others it is a lifestyle choice.
People who choose to live a vegan lifestyle can also avoid clothing, soaps, and other products that use or contain animal parts, such as leather and animal fur. Some adopt this lifestyle for its environmental benefits as a sustainable diet.
Vegan diets tend to include a lot of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. Eating a variety of these foods will provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and important proteins.
People on this diet, however, should be careful to get the key nutrients that people usually consume from animal products. These nutrients include iron, protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.
The main difference between vegetarians and vegans is that while vegetarians don’t eat meat (including cows, pigs, chicken, and fish), they do eat dairy products, eggs, or both. The vegan diet excludes all products containing ingredients of animal origin.
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 needs.
Learn more about vegan and vegetarian diets here.
Vegan diets can provide all the nutrients 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 to a range of health benefits, including those below.
Better heart health
Vegan diets can improve heart health in several ways.
Animal products, including meat, cheese and butter, are the main dietary sources of saturated fat. According to
Plant foods are also rich in fiber, which the
Additionally, people on a vegan diet often consume fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. Moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Less risk of cancer
According to a 2017 study, a vegan diet can reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be because plant foods are high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals – compounds that are biologically active in plants – which protect against cancer.
Research on the effects of diet on the risk of specific cancers has produced mixed results.
However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reports 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 reports that processed meat is carcinogenic and can cause colorectal cancer.
Eliminating red and processed meats from the diet eliminates these possible risks.
People on a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than people on other diets.
Researchers behind a 2015 study reported that vegan diets were more effective at losing weight than omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian diets, while being better at providing macronutrients.
Many foods of animal origin are high in fat and calories, so replacing them with low-calorie plant-based foods can help people manage their weight.
It’s important to note, however, that eating a lot of processed or high-fat plant foods – which some people call a junk food vegan diet – can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Learn more about the vegan diet and weight loss here.
Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
According to a
A vegan diet removes some sources of nutrients from the diet, so people should plan their meals carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies. People may wish to speak with a doctor or dietitian before adopting a vegan diet, especially if they have existing health concerns.
Key nutrients that can be low on a vegan diet include:
- Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is mainly found in animal products. It protects the nerves and red blood cells. Plant sources of this vitamin include fortified cereals and plant milks, nutritional yeast, and spreads. Learn more about vegan sources of vitamin B-12.
- The iron: Iron is important for healthy blood. Beans and dark leafy greens are good sources. Learn more about vegan foods rich in iron.
- Calcium: Calcium is crucial for healthy bones. Eating tofu, tahini, and leafy greens will help keep calcium levels high. Learn about plant-based foods rich in calcium.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D protects against cancer and some chronic health problems, and it helps strengthen bones and teeth. Regularly eating foods fortified with vitamin D and spending time in the sun can increase vitamin D levels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Important for the functioning of the heart, eyes and brain, there are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: EPA, DHA and ALA. Walnuts and flax seeds are good sources of ALA, but seaweed and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA. Find out how to get omega-3s as a vegan.
- Zinc: Zinc is important for the immune system and repairing DNA damage. Beans, nutritional yeast, nuts and oats are high in zinc. Read about vegan foods rich in zinc.
- Iodine: Iodine is important for thyroid function. Plant sources include algae and fortified foods.
A person may want to seek advice from their doctor on whether to take supplements or consume more fortified foods.
A vegan diet can be low in specific nutrients. Certain specialty foods and dietary supplements can help people meet their daily needs. People can choose from a variety of brands online.
Switching to an unrestricted diet can seem daunting, but there are many easy, tasty, and nutritious ways to pack a vegan diet with essential vitamins and minerals.
Instead of cow’s milk, people can use herbal alternatives. Compared to cow’s milk, plant-based milks tend to be lower in calories and contain less saturated fat. Manufacturers often fortify them with vitamins and minerals.
People can also buy cheeses, yogurts and plant-based butters or make them themselves. Read about dairy alternatives here.
Some people may have concerns about meeting their protein needs on a vegan diet, but many plant foods are great sources of protein. Discover the best sources of plant protein.
Soy products, such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan, provide protein and also add a meat-like texture to many dishes. Learn more about meat substitutes here.
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 wide variety of vegan recipes online. Here are some examples :
There are also many sweet vegan recipes online:
It may take a bit of experimentation, but most people will be able to come up with a vegan meal plan to their liking.
Vegan diets are growing in popularity. A vegan diet can offer many health benefits, including better heart health, weight loss, and reduced risk of chronic disease.
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 receiving enough essential nutrients to avoid deficiencies.