How to Follow a Vegan Diet in a Healthy Way
While only three percent of Americans identify as vegan, that number is expected to rise with sales of plant-based food growing at an impressive rate. In fact, grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products have increased 31 percent in the past two years, amounting to $4.5 billion. With dozens of non-dairy milk options available, and a growing arsenal of plant-based meat substitutes hitting supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, it’s becoming a little easier to choose a vegan lifestyle. But what exactly can vegans eat and is a vegan diet healthy? Read on to find out more.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
Before we break down what makes a vegan lifestyle healthy or not, let’s first delve into what veganism is — and isn’t.
Vegans do not eat or drink any product with ingredients derived wholly or partly from animals. But veganism goes beyond food and drinks. According to the Vegan Society: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.” Vegans avoid the following:
- Cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals
There are some lesser known items often not considered vegan because of the way they’re processed, like some beer and wine, some sugars, and some red-dyed foods. Beyond health and animal reasons, many vegans are driven by environment-related motives.
Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
A vegan diet can absolutely be healthy. “A healthful vegan dietary pattern includes lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes — such as beans, lentils, soy foods, and peanuts — nuts, seeds, and whole grains, plus fun foods such as vegan meat, and dairy and egg alternatives, as well as sweets and snacks,” says Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN, a private practice dietitian based in Chicago.
While a vegan diet can be healthy, there are some caveats.
- Any diet that restricts certain food groups can negatively alter your relationship with food. “I see problems when people unnecessarily restrict processed vegan foods, oil, and salt,” Wolfram says. “This can and often does lead people down a path to disordered eating.” Remember that a healthy vegan lifestyle has plenty of room for fun treats, too.
- Vegan eaters also run the risk of certain macro- and micronutrient deficiencies if they don’t get enough variety in their diets. For instance, it can (but isn’t always!) tough to get enough protein as well as vitamins B12 and D, iron, zinc, omega-3s, calcium, and iodine. And not getting enough of the right nutrients can put a damper on your workout performance and recovery, but that’s certainly not a given. With careful planning and focusing on eating a variety of foods packed with nutrients, a vegan diet can meet all of your nutrient needs.
- Another potential pitfall? Loading up on vegan “junk” food. Avoiding all animal products doesn’t mean you eliminate all unhealthy foods. Let’s say at the most extreme end of the spectrum, your diet consisted of only vegan cakes, donuts, and cookies. If you stuck to just baked goods — or ate tons of other vegan treats like processed breads and cereals, fruit juices, French fries, and potato chips — you’d miss out on all the other healthy whole, plant-derived foods veganism has to offer.
How to Get Protein on a Vegan Diet
It’s likely no surprise to you that animal products top the protein charts. But the truth is, many plant foods have protein — and some might surprise you.
Here’s a list of some of the top vegan protein sources which include lentils, nuts, seeds, and even vegetables. It’s important to eat a variety of proteins so you get adequate amounts of all of the essential amino acids you need:
- Soy foods: Tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy milk
- Beans and legumes: Black beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, and peanuts
- Grains: Quinoa, amaranth, spelt, teff, oats, sprouted grains, and wild rice
- Nuts: Almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans, and nut butters
- Seeds: Hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and sesame seeds
- Vegetables: Artichokes, broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, asparagus
- Other: Spirulina, nutritional yeast, and seitan
You can even find some vegan protein powders! The Openfit Plant-Based Nutrition Shake provides 20 grams of pea protein, plus 7 grams of fiber, 26 essential vitamins and minerals, and no added sugar.
The Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Eating tons of fruits, veggies, and other whole, unprocessed, plant-based foods means you’ll really rack up your vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, and fiber intake, which can do wonders for your health.
“Vegans tend to eat more fiber than non-vegans, which has a whole host of health benefits including reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and some digestive issues,” Wolfram says. Research shows vegan diets support heart health. But what about weight loss?
While weight loss isn’t necessarily the top priority for most plant-based eaters, vegan diets may help people drop a few pounds. In several studies investigating the effect of plant-based diets and weight loss, researchers have found plant-based eaters tend to have lower body mass indices than people who eat non-plant-based diets. (Read more about how and why a vegan diet can help you lose weight here.) That said, plenty of other diets may better promote healthy and sustainable weight loss if that’s your goal.
How to Get Started on Eating a Vegan Diet
If you’re considering a vegan lifestyle, it’s important to have a positive mindset and to craft an attainable plan. Rather than jump right in, it’s a good idea to take things slowly. Emilie Hebert, founder of the vegan blog Emilie Eats advises people to start with one meal a week or one meal a day and then progress as time goes on. “Start by eating vegan at home, and not feeling pressure to eat vegan when you’re out at restaurants or someone else’s home,” she says.
“Think about adding and swapping rather than eliminating foods,” Wolfram says. For instance, think of it as replacing meat with legumes instead of taking meat away. “Rather than focus so much on what you’re not eating, focus on adding a rainbow of fruits and veggies to your meals and snacks,” she says.
Wolfram also suggests trying new cuisines, such as Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and Indian, all of which have lots of plant-based options.
Vegan Diet Recipes
A quick search will provide you with thousands of tasty vegan recipes across different cuisines and with tons of different vegan foods and cooking methods — from stovetops and grills to slow cookers and sous vide cookers.
Here are some tasty and healthy starting points:
- Chocolate Banana Protein Shake
- Healthy Thin Mint Shake
- Choco-Maca Superfoods Smoothie
- 5-Day Vegan Meal Prep — 8 Recipes
- Tofu Scramble
- Dirty Horchata
- Peachy Taro Smoothie
Before you embark on a vegan diet, remember that this lifestyle goes far beyond your grocery list or takeout order. “A vegan lifestyle is way more than just what you eat,” Hebert says. Veganism can benefit your health as well as the health of animals and the environment.