The Vegan Diet — A Complete Guide for Beginners
A vegan diet can help you lose weight and drastically improve your health, if done right. Here is a detailed beginner’s guide to going vegan.
The vegan diet has become very popular. More and more people have decided to go vegan for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
This type of diet may result in various health benefits, including improved blood sugar control and heart health. It can also help you lose weight, if that’s your goal.
But a diet based exclusively on plant foods may, in some cases, increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies.
That’s where this detailed beginner’s guide to the vegan diet comes in. It aims to cover everything you need to know, so you can follow a vegan diet in a healthful way.
Veganism is defined as a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, whether for food, clothing, or any other purpose.
That’s why a vegan diet avoids all animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy.
People choose to follow a vegan diet for various reasons. These usually range from ethics to environmental concerns, but they can also stem from a desire to improve health.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products. Many people choose to eat this way for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
There are different varieties of the vegan diet. The most common include:
Although several variations of the vegan diet exist, most scientific research rarely differentiates between different types of vegan diets. As a result, the information in this article relates to vegan diets as a whole.
There are several ways to follow a vegan diet, but scientific research rarely differentiates between the different types.
Vegans tend to be thinner and have a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegans (2, 3).
This might explain why an increasing number of people turn to vegan diets as a way to lose weight.
Part of the weight-related benefits vegans experience may be explained by factors other than diet. These may include healthier lifestyle choices, such as physical activity, and other health-related behaviors.
However, several randomized controlled studies, which control for these external factors, report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared to (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).
Interestingly, the weight loss advantage persists even when whole food diets are used as control diets.
These include diets recommended by the American Dietetics Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA), and the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) (4, 5, 6, 7).
Researchers also generally report that participants on vegan diets lose more weight than those following calorie-restricted diets, even when they’re allowed to eat until they feel full (4, 8).
The natural tendency to eat fewer calories on a vegan diet may be caused by a higher dietary fiber intake, which can make you feel fuller.
Vegan diets seem very effective at helping people naturally reduce the number of calories they eat, resulting in weight loss.
Adopting a vegan diet may help keep your blood sugar in check and type 2 diabetes at bay.
Several studies show that vegans benefit from lower blood sugar levels, higher insulin sensitivity, and up to a 78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than non-vegans (14, 15, 16, 17).
In addition, vegan diets reportedly lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes up to 2.4 times more than diets recommended by the ADA, AHA, and NCEP (5, 6, 18).
Part of the advantage could be explained by the higher fiber intake, which may blunt the blood sugar response. A vegan diet’s weight loss effects may further contribute to its ability to lower blood sugar levels (4, 6, 9, 10).
Vegan diets seem particularly effective at improving markers of blood sugar control. They may also lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A vegan diet may help keep your heart healthy.
Observational studies report that vegans may have up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease (16, 19).
Randomized controlled studies — the gold standard in research — add to the evidence.
Several report that vegan diets are much more effective at reducing blood sugar, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol than diets they are compared with (4, 5, 9, 20, 21).
These effects could be especially beneficial since reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar may reduce heart disease risk by up to 46% (22).
Vegan diets may improve heart health. However, more high quality studies are needed before researchers can draw strong conclusions.
Vegan diets are linked to an array of other health benefits, including benefits for:
That said, keep in mind that most of the studies supporting these benefits are observational. This makes it difficult to determine whether the vegan diet directly caused the benefits.
Randomized controlled studies are needed before researchers can make strong conclusions.
A vegan diet is linked to several other health benefits. However, more research is needed to determine whether the diet was a direct cause of those benefits.
Vegans avoid eating any animal foods, as well as any foods containing ingredients that come from animals. These include:
Vegans avoid consuming any animal flesh, animal byproducts, or foods containing an ingredient from animal origin.
Health-conscious vegans substitute animal products with plant-based replacements, such as:
These minimally processed plant foods are great additions to any vegan refrigerator or pantry.
Favoring a well-planned diet that limits processed foods and replaces them with nutrient-rich ones is important for everyone, not only vegans.
That said, those following poorly planned vegan diets are particularly at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.
Studies show that vegans are at a higher risk of having inadequate blood levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega-3s, iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc (44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56).
Not getting enough of these nutrients is a concern for everyone, but it may pose a particular risk to those with increased requirements, such as children or people who are pregnant or nursing.
Your genetic makeup and the composition of your gut bacteria may also influence your ability to derive the nutrients you need from a vegan diet.
One way to minimize the likelihood of deficiency is to limit the amount of processed vegan foods you consume and opt for nutrient-rich plant foods instead.
Fortified foods, especially those enriched with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, should also make a daily appearance on your plate.
Vegans wanting to enhance their absorption of iron and zinc should try fermenting, sprouting, and cooking foods (34).
Also, the use of iron cast pots and pans for cooking, avoiding tea or coffee with meals, and combining iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C can further boost iron absorption (57).
The addition of seaweed or iodized salt to your vegan diet can help you reach the recommended daily intake of iodine (58).
Lastly, foods containing omega 3s, especially those high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can help the body produce longer-chain omega-3s, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Foods high in ALA include chia, hemp, flaxseeds, walnuts, and soybeans. However, there’s debate regarding whether this conversion is efficient enough to meet daily needs (59, 60).
A daily intake of 200–300 mg of EPA and DHA from an algae oil supplement may be a safer way to prevent low levels (61).
Vegans may be at an increased risk of certain nutrient deficiencies. A well-planned vegan diet that includes nutrient-rich whole and fortified foods can help provide adequate nutrient levels.
Some vegans may find it difficult to eat enough of the nutrient-rich or fortified foods above to meet their daily requirements.
In this case, the following supplements can be particularly beneficial:
Vegans unable to meet their recommended nutrient intakes through foods or fortified products alone should consider taking supplements.
To help get you started, here’s a simple plan covering a week’s worth of vegan meals:
Remember to vary your sources of protein and vegetables throughout the day, as each provides different vitamins and minerals that are important for your health.
You can eat a variety of tasty plant-based meals on a vegan diet.
Dining out as a vegan can be challenging.
One way to reduce stress is to identify vegan-friendly restaurants ahead of time by using websites such as Happycow. Apps like VeganXpress and Vegman may also be helpful.
When dining in a nonvegan establishment, try scanning the menu online beforehand to see what vegan options they may have for you.
Sometimes, calling ahead of time allows the chef to arrange something especially for you. You can then arrive at the restaurant confident that you’ll have something hopefully more interesting than a side salad to order.
When picking a restaurant on the fly, make sure to ask about their vegan options as soon as you step in, ideally before being seated.
When in doubt, opt for certain ethnic restaurants that tend to have dishes that are naturally vegan or can be easily modified to become so. Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, and Indian restaurants tend to be great options.
Once in the restaurant, try identifying the vegetarian options on the menu and asking whether the dairy or eggs can be removed to make the dish vegan.
Another easy tip is to order several vegan appetizers or side dishes to make up a meal.
Being well prepared allows you to reduce stress when dining out as a vegan.
Snacks are a great way to stay energized and keep hunger at bay between meals.
Some interesting, portable vegan options include:
Whenever you’re planning a vegan snack, try to opt for fiber- and protein-rich options, which can help keep hunger away.
These portable, fiber-rich, protein-rich vegan snacks are convenient options to help minimize hunger between meals.
Here are some frequently asked questions about veganism.
Absolutely not. Although some vegans choose to follow this type of vegan diet, raw veganism isn’t for everyone. Many vegans eat cooked food, and there is no scientific basis for you to eat only raw foods.
A vegan diet that emphasizes nutritious, whole plant foods and limits processed ones may help you lose weight.
As mentioned in the weight loss section above, vegan diets tend to help people eat fewer calories without having to consciously restrict their food intake.
That said, when matched for calories, vegan diets are no more effective than other diets for weight loss (65).
There are many plant-based milk alternatives to cow’s milk. Soy and hemp varieties contain more protein, making them more beneficial to those trying to keep their protein intake high.
Whichever plant milk you choose, ensure it’s enriched with calcium, vitamin D, and, if possible, vitamin B12.
Soybeans are great sources of plant-based protein. They contain an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds that are linked to various health benefits (66, 67, 68, 69, 70).
However, soy may suppress thyroid function in predisposed individuals and cause gas and diarrhea in others (71, 72).
It’s best to opt for minimally processed soy food products such as tofu and edamame and limit the use of soy-based mock meats.
Fermented soy products such as tempeh and natto are especially beneficial, as fermentation helps improve the absorption of nutrients (34).
Chia and flaxseeds are a great way to replace eggs in baking. To replace one egg, simply mix one tablespoon of chia or ground flaxseeds with three tablespoons of hot water and allow it to rest until it gels.
Mashed bananas can also be a great alternative to eggs in some cases.
Scrambled tofu is a good vegan alternative to scrambled eggs. Tofu can also be used in a variety of egg-based recipes, from omelets to frittatas and quiches.
Vegans can ensure they meet their daily protein requirements by including protein-rich plant foods in their daily meals.
Check out this article for a more in-depth look at the best plant protein sources.
Calcium-rich foods include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, and calcium-set tofu.
Fortified plant milk and juice are also a great way for vegans to increase their calcium intake.
The RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg per day for most adults and increases to 1,200 mg per day for adults over 50 years old (73).
Some argue that vegans may have slightly lower daily requirements because of the lack of meat in their diets. Not much scientific evidence can be found to support or negate this claim.
However, current studies show that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium each day have an increased risk of bone fractures (55).
For this reason, vegans should aim to consume 525 mg of calcium per day at the very least.
Vitamin B12 is generally found in animal foods. Some plant foods may contain a form of this vitamin, but there’s still debate about whether this form is active in humans (74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80).
Despite circulating rumors, there’s no scientific evidence to support unwashed produce as a reliable source of vitamin B12.
The daily recommended intake is 2.4 mcg per day for adults, 2.6 mcg per day during pregnancy, and 2.8 mcg per day while nursing (81).
Vitamin B12 fortified products and supplements are the only two reliable forms of vitamin B12 for vegans. Yet many vegans seem to fail to consume sufficient vitamin B12 to meet their daily requirements (82, 83, 84).
If you’re unable to meet your daily requirements through the use of vitamin B12 fortified products, you should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement. A healthcare professional can help you decide if one is right for you.
Individuals may choose veganism for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
The vegan diet can be easy to follow and may provide various health benefits.
As with any diet, though, these benefits only appear if you are consistent and build your diet around nutrient-rich plant foods rather than heavily processed ones.
Vegans, especially those who cannot meet their daily nutrient requirements through diet alone, should consider supplements.
Last medically reviewed on May 12, 2022
What Is a Vegan and What Do Vegans Eat?
What makes someone vegan and what do they eat, exactly? Learn what you need to know about a vegan diet and successfully following a vegan lifestyle.
Illustration: Nusha Ashjaee. © The Spruce, 2018
Veganism is a type of vegetarian diet that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products, and all other animal-derived ingredients. Many vegans also do not eat foods that are processed using animal products, such as refined white sugar and some wines.
Vegan refers to either a person who follows this way of eating or to the diet itself. That is, the word vegan can be an adjective used to describe a food item, as in, “This curry is vegan”, or, it can be used as a noun, as in, “Vegans like cookies, too.”
Although there is some debate as to whether certain foods, such as honey, fit into a vegan diet, if you are cooking for other vegans, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid these foods or ask your guests. Most vegans extend the definition of veganism to go beyond just food. Vegans will also likely avoid the use of all personal and household products tested on animals and avoid purchasing and using all animal-derived, non-food products, such as leather, fur, and wool. There is some debate as to whether second-hand animal products, such as a leather jacket from a thrift store, can be included in a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle or not.
This is perhaps the most common question about veganism. A vegan diet includes all grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and the nearly infinite number of foods made by combining them.
In addition, many vegan versions of familiar foods are available, so vegans can eat vegan hot dogs, ice cream, cheese, non-dairy yogurt, and vegan mayonnaise along with the more familiar veggie burgers and other meat substitute products like vegan chicken recipes. Many foods are associated with veganism, such as soy milk, non-dairy milk substitutes, nutritional yeast, and tofu, as well as hemp tofu, which is made completely from hemp seeds. You certainly don’t have to like tofu in order to eat vegan and you can enjoy any of these foods without being vegan.
Fermented foods are also popular in a vegan diet. Tempeh is a fermented soybean product also comes in a sprouted version that is, very much, considered a whole food and a good replacement for tofu. Also allowed, and encouraged, in vegan diets are other fermented products like miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Vegans also eat many of the same common and familiar everyday foods that everyone else does, such as a green salad, spaghetti, peanut butter sandwiches, cornbread, and chips and salsa. For example, foods such as a vegetarian burrito without cheese or sour cream would be vegan. A vegetarian Thai curry made from coconut milk is vegan. Egg-free pasta with tomato sauce or another non-meat and non-dairy sauce is vegan. Most bread is vegan as well.
Some people easily go from eating meat to vegan right away, while others struggle with their new commitment. Others may choose to go vegetarian first and then slowly omit eggs and dairy. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but you may want to learn about what’s worked for other people. Whatever way you do it, keep your goals in mind and remember why you are choosing to adopt a vegan diet.