The Basics of Starting a Vegan Diet
We break down the basics of a vegan diet and how to get all the nutrients your body needs, daily.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get all the nutrients you need when on a vegan diet. Curious to know more or try it out? Here are the basics of veganism and a day's worth of simple recipes to get you started.
What Is the Vegan Diet?
Unlike some vegetarians, who might be more flexible, vegans don’t eat any type of animal products — that means no meat, fish, dairy or eggs. Some vegans also exclude honey and foods that are processed with animal products, including refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, gelatin and some wine and beer.
Vegan diets have been linked to healthy benefits including weight loss and improved insulin response, as well as reduction of inflammation and risk of heart disease. Some newer research also looks at the benefits of vegan style diets for gut health, but more investigation is needed.
Best Healthy Foods on Vegan Diet
A successful vegan diet is contingent upon getting enough of and properly replacing the nutrients found in animal-sourced foods. Some of the most important ones include protein, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc, all which are necessary for proper metabolism, growth and strength. Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are also nutrients that can be hard to get enough of on a vegan diet.
Plant sources of protein include soy, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. More and more options are available for vegans these days. Meat alternatives like Beyond Meat, BOCA burgers, tempeh and seitan (a thick textured meat replacement made from wheat gluten) provide a variety of options for those who want to re-invent some favorite meat-containing recipes. Chia seeds are a good food to include as they contain a surprising amount of protein, plus inflammation-fighting omega-3 fats.
Dairy alternatives such as milk, cheese and yogurt made from nuts, seeds, soy and coconut are also great options (and they’re often fortified with calcium and vitamin D).
It’s also a good idea to eat a wide variety of grains and legumes at meals (such as rice and beans or pasta and peas) to help ensure you eat a full panel of amino acids (protein building blocks) which is similar to the type of protein components found in animal based foods.
B12 is predominantly found in animal products so it's a biggie for vegans. The good news is B12 is one of the only water-soluble vitamins stored well in the body. If you're switching to veganism now, but have eaten animal-sourced foods for most of your life, it will take years to deplete your stored B12. Several fortified foods including breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast can also provide some B12.
Calcium and iron are plentiful in plant products. Both can be found in beans, almonds, tofu and leafy greens. Fortified products such as orange juice with calcium and breakfast cereals with iron are also easy ways to get some extra nutrients. Zinc (commonly obtained from meat and fish) can be found in beans and nuts. Supplements are also be an option, but only if needs can’t be met from food (talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian!) A lot of people worry about iron deficiencies; it's important that you don't take an iron supplement unless your doctor detects a deficiency. Too much iron can be toxic.
What a Vegan Meal Plan Might Look Like
Breakfast: A basic bowl of oatmeal (without any added butter or added milk) or a smoothie made with fruit, nuts, almond milk and dates (for a protein boost add some silken tofu).
Snack: Fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, nut butter, hummus with whole grain pretzels and rice cakes are simple mid-meal snacks.
Lunch: Veggies are a vegan's best friend so try a large salad. Add some beans for extra nutrients and hunger-fighting protein. Other easy options include grain bowls (swap the yogurt for cashew cream) or a grilled “cheese” sandwich made with soy cheese, tomato, arugula and spicy red onion.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.