What Is a Vegan Diet?

A well-balanced diet is an important factor in your overall health. Diets that include only plant-based foods have many health benefits. A vegan diet is a 100 percent plant-based diet that excludes all animal products.1

People may choose a vegan diet for health, environmental, ethical, or religious reasons. A healthy vegan diet includes a variety of foods that contain all the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.1-3

What does a vegan diet include and exclude?

A vegan diet is rich in:1,2

  • Nuts and seeds – Walnuts, almonds, cashews, nut butter, and pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes – Beans, peas, lentils, edamame, tofu, and tempeh
  • Vegetables – Green leafy vegetables, squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower
  • Whole grains – Oatmeal, brown rice, barley, quinoa, and whole grain bread
  • Fruit – Apples, berries, cherries, bananas, avocado, melon, citrus fruit, and pears

A person who chooses a vegan diet does not eat animal products, including:2

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy

A vegan diet may also exclude products like honey and gelatin because they are derived from animals.3

How does a vegan diet compare to other diets?

Dietary choices vary widely and reflect personal preferences and beliefs. Here are some common approaches to eating:2,3

  • Vegan – Excludes all animal products
  • Vegetarian – Avoids meat, fish, and poultry but may include eggs and dairy
  • Lacto-vegetarian – Vegetarian that includes dairy but no eggs
  • Ovo-vegetarian – Vegetarian that includes eggs but no dairy
  • Pescatarian – Avoids most meat but includes fish
  • Flexitarian – Mostly plant-based but occasionally includes meat, fish, or poultry
  • Omnivore – Includes meat, fish, and poultry

This or That

Have you tried a vegan diet before?

What are the benefits of a vegan diet?

A vegan diet is a healthy choice for many people. Research shows that a healthy plant-based diet can help people lose weight and keep it off. Plus, plant-based diets are linked to health benefits like lower cholesterol, reduced inflammation, and better heart health.1,4-6

People who do not eat meat tend to eat fewer calories and saturated fat. And they tend to eat more of the following nutrients:1,7

  • Fiber
  • Healthy fats
  • Folate
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Magnesium

Studies show that eating meat increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. Red and processed meats have an especially strong link to poor health.1,8

What are the risks of a vegan diet?

Intake of some nutrients may be lower on a vegan diet. To stay healthy, vegans need to include foods or supplements that provide enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids.7

The main food sources of vitamin B12 are meat, poultry, and eggs. As a result, a vegan diet is generally low in B12. Experts recommend taking a B12 supplement for people on a vegan diet. Some plant-based foods (like plant-based milk substitutes) are fortified with B12. Lack of B12 can cause fatigue, memory problems, and depression.2,3,9,10

A registered dietitian can provide expert advice on ways to get all the vitamins and nutrients you need when following a vegan diet. This is especially important for children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.9-11

Can I get enough protein on a vegan diet?

A plant-based diet can provide all the amino acids and protein your body needs. While vegans’ protein intake may be lower than that of meat eaters, it can still meet recommended levels.5,7

Here are some good quality sources of plant-based protein:5,9

  • Beans, peas, lentils
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Nuts
  • Quinoa
  • Soymilk
  • Veggie burgers
  • Plant-based meat substitutes – Popular brands include Beyond®, Impossible®, and Gardein®

Here are 3 easy ways to add meatless protein to your diet:1

  • Tacos – Replace ground meat with vegetarian refried beans.
  • Pasta or casseroles – Replace ground meat with lentils.
  • Stir fry – Replace meat with tofu or tempeh.

If you have a history of breast cancer or kidney disease, talk to your doctor about the best protein sources for you.9

Can a vegan diet help with obesity?

A vegan diet can be a valuable tool to help manage obesity. Several studies have shown that a high-quality plant-based diet positively impacts obesity. But the quality of food matters. Choosing healthy and unprocessed foods is the key to weight management.4,6

Extra carbohydrates from low-quality food can cause obesity and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, in turn, leads to more weight gain. Additionally, high saturated fat intake leads to inflammation, which contributes to obesity.4

Foods like sugar-sweetened drinks, juice, white rice, white bread, potatoes, and ultra-processed foods may be vegan, but they do not improve weight or overall health. Healthful foods like whole grains, beans, nuts, and vegetables are more likely to help you live longer and healthier.4,6

The takeaway

Whatever choices you make about your diet, the evidence is clear that eating more plant-based foods like beans, whole grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits may help you live longer and healthier.12

If you are considering a vegan diet, it is important to consider your food preferences, nutritional needs, and health goals. Remember, ultra-processed packaged vegan food is not necessarily healthy. A dietitian can help you make a well-balanced nutrition plan that provides all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need.

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