The Vegan Diet: Is It Right for You?
In this handy guide to going vegan, you’ll learn the many health benefits of a vegan diet and discover delicious plant-based recipes to add to your vegan Meal Plan
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Big Batch Chana Masala; photograph by Olga Ivanova
There’s a joke about vegans, and it goes, “How do you know if someone's vegan? Don’t worry — they’ll tell you.” It’s true: Vegans are among the most evangelical breeds of eaters out there. In part, it's because considerations bigger than weight loss or health often serve as motivation. People sometimes go vegan because of a passion for the environment or animal welfare. Veganism can be a political stance in opposition to factory farms and food policy. It can be a spiritual choice, a commitment to avoid contributing to the harm of any living being.
However, there are also many compelling health reasons to consider a vegan diet. Here, we’ll explore what exactly a vegan regimen is, whom it might be right for, and the pros and cons of a vegan lifestyle for wellbeing and weight loss. We'll also go over some tips for getting started, including, of course, what to eat!
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Vegan diet FAQs
Because you’ll be cutting out some big categories of a typical American diet, going vegan requires some careful thought and planning
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a meatless program that goes further than vegetarianism. Unlike a vegetarian diet, veganism is free from all animal products. Obviously, that means no poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or seafood. But it also excludes eggs and all forms of dairy products — milk, cheese, and yogurt, among others. Even honey, made by bees, is typically not on the menu for vegans.
With so many restrictions, you might be wondering what you can eat as a vegan. The good news is a vegan diet is less restrictive than it first appears if you like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes like chickpeas and lentils. There’s actually quite a bit of variety and nutrition in a well-planned vegan diet.
What’s the difference between a plant-based diet and a vegan diet?
The term “plant-based” has become popular recently, and there’s some confusion about the distinction between plant-based and vegan. The dietary guidelines for a vegan are straightforward: no animal products.
A plant-based diet is more loosely defined. Some people consider a diet made up mostly of plants “plant-based” even if they don’t exclude all animal products at all times. Usually, those on a plant-based diet place a greater emphasis on nutrient-dense whole foods. Whether you’re leaning plant-based or vegan, you might want to be aware of hidden animal products and read ingredient lists for things like gelatin, casein, and whey, all derived from animals.
What are the types of vegan diets?
Vegan diets break down into several sub-categories. These are the most common:
Whether motivated by ethical or health reasons, typical vegans abstain from all types of animal products. This is the largest category of vegan diets.
Raw food vegan
This group eats no animal products and does not cook their food. To be considered raw, food can’t be heated above 118°F. Raw food is also non-pasteurized and minimally refined.
Whole-food plant-based vegan
This group sticks to whole, unprocessed foods, avoiding common vegan ingredients like commercial vegan cheese and frozen food products. Some members of this group include all oils in the definition of processed food and exclude them from their diet as well.
Keto or low-carb vegan
The usual keto diet is full of meat. On a vegan keto diet, you eliminate almost all carbs and focus on plant-based proteins (like tofu, seitan, and tempeh) and healthy plant-based fats like the omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseed.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
Many people have improved their heart health on a vegan diet. Research shows that diets high in plants and low in animal products can cut your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. When you eat vegan, you eliminate the primary sources of saturated fat (meat, butter, cheese), which are known to increase cholesterol. When it comes to weight, studies also suggest those following a vegan diet are more likely to have a healthier body mass index (BMI) compared to their omnivore peers.
Who is a vegan diet for?
Most people are good candidates for a vegan diet. This way of eating offers health benefits, especially if you're concerned about your heart health. If you're willing to put in the time and effort to plan and cook well-balanced meals containing all the nutrients you need, a vegan diet can be a great choice. It also appeals to animal rights advocates and people concerned about the environmental impact of animal farming.
Because most packaged and prepared food isn’t vegan, you’ll have to cook for yourself. Following a vegan diet can make social situations involving food a challenge, so you might want to consider how comfortable you are being the odd person out at the table. If passing on your grandmother’s meatballs is unthinkable, a vegan diet might not be for you. However, there’s no reason you can’t get a lot of the benefits from a flexitarian diet featuring mostly plant foods. Even as an omnivore, the more plant-based meals you can eat, the better.
Who should not go on a vegan diet?
Veganism is definitely not for everyone. If you don't love eating your veggies and would feel deprived without meat and dairy, you're unlikely to thrive on a vegan diet. If you know you don’t have the time or motivation to plan a well-balanced vegan regimen — one with nutrients vegans can fall short on (see below) — it might not be for you. Pregnant or lactating women should get medical advice from their doctor and a dietitian before trying a vegan plan. People who have had eating disorders should likely avoid diets with many restrictions because those could trigger further disordered eating behavior. Finally, if you aren’t willing to take at least one dietary supplement (read on), you should steer clear of a vegan program.
Is a vegan diet safe?
A balanced vegan diet is a safe and healthy choice for most people. Though not getting enough protein is a common concern, the idea that it’s challenging to meet your protein needs on a vegan diet is a misconception. If you’re eating a variety of foods, including whole grains, legumes, and soy products, protein will not be an issue. But there is at least one nutrient you can’t get from plants alone: vitamin B12. Some foods (including soy milk, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast) are fortified with added B12 and other nutrients, but all vegans should take a B12 supplement to avoid becoming deficient. Other possible deficiencies include calcium, iron, and vitamin D. There are plant sources of these nutrients, but it can be tough to get enough with food alone. When you follow a vegan diet, you need to work with your doctor to check these levels regularly to ensure your nutrition stays on track.
How to start a vegan diet?
Starting slowly is usually a good idea. Introducing one vegan meal a week at first can help you learn new recipes and get a sense of whether this kind of lifestyle can work for you. Some vegan diet tips to keep in mind:
Stock up on affordable basics like canned beans, whole-wheat pasta, peanut butter, leafy greens, alternatives to dairy (like soy or oat milk), and frozen vegetables.
Plan your meals a week ahead so you don’t need to figure them out every day.
Batch-cook on the weekend — make dishes like baked tofu, quinoa (a high-protein grain), and salad dressing so you have easy ready-made options for throwing meals together.
Stick to learning one new vegan recipe per week.
Don’t make the perfect enemy of the good. If you're not sticking to a strict vegan diet, you're likely still improving your eating habits overall. Keep going!
Can a vegan diet work for athletes?
Several high-profile elite athletes have made the switch to vegan diets in recent years. Evidence suggests a vegan diet could be more than simply adequate for athletes: It may enhance athletic performance. The same concerns and caveats apply to everyone, not just athletes: It’s important to eat a well-planned and varied vegan diet to ensure your calorie and nutrition needs are being met. Because there are so many good sources of plant-based protein, athletes typically have no trouble getting enough of it throughout the day.
How do I manage hunger on a vegan diet?
Some people find themselves constantly hungry when they take all animal foods out of their diet. You won’t be satisfied if you operate under the common misconception that all vegans eat is salad. You can combat hunger by making sure you have protein, healthy fat, and fiber-rich carbohydrates with every meal. This combination tends to keep people satisfied for longer than simple carbohydrates. However, if the problem persists, it could be a sign that a strictly vegan diet isn’t for you. As with any regimen, you should take a cue from your body in terms of what's a good fit for your life.
How long does it take to see results on a vegan diet?
People usually look for two main results from a vegan diet: improved cholesterol and blood pressure — and weight loss. Neither outcome will appear overnight. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about a timeline and schedule check-ins on their recommendation. Within six months, you should have a sense of whether a vegan diet is helping you achieve your health goals.
Favorite vegan recipes
Here are some easy, family-friendly recipes to keep in mind as you begin building your vegan food list
Vegan Breakfast Burrito
Beginner vegans are surprised at how well tofu stands in for eggs in breakfast dishes. The tofu in this breakfast burrito is a good source of protein and calcium. The sweet potato adds filling fiber so you won’t feel hungry before lunch.
Big Batch Chana Masala
This classic Indian dish taps chickpeas for fiber and protein. Simmering them with tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and spices gives them a warm, comforting appeal. Cut the prep time way down and use canned chickpeas to make quick work of this hearty vegan dish. Enjoy leftovers for days!
Vegetarian Split Pea Soup
A hot bowl of split pea soup is satisfying and comforting on a cold day. This easy version gets its smokiness from smoked paprika, not bacon. Split peas, like all legumes, are rich in protein and fiber.
Vegetarian/Vegan Spicy Black Bean Burger Recipe
Even vegans hunger for burgers once in a while, and this meatless version based on antioxidant-rich black beans is just the thing when that craving strikes.
Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps
Lettuce wraps feel fun and fancy, but they’re surprisingly easy to make. Mushrooms and tofu stand in for the ground beef. This light dinner is heavy on vegetables and good nutrition.
Vegetarian Sloppy Joes
This meat-free twist on the classic sandwich is filled with lentils, a good source of iron, protein, and fiber, instead of the usual saturated fat-laden beef. It’s just as juicy as the original — make sure you have a napkin.
Vegan Black Bean Enchiladas
A tray of enchiladas is a crowd-pleaser. These meatless enchiladas wrapped in whole-grain corn tortillas are full of satisfying, protein-rich black beans.
Vegan Buddha Bowl
Vegan bowls often bring several nutrient-dense superfoods together, and this is no exception. Sweet potatoes provide beta-carotene, while chickpeas and quinoa supply the protein and fiber. Avocado is a creamy source of healthy fat.
Vegan Spanish Chickpeas with Spinach
This simple 20-minute skillet dinner is based on healthy pantry staples like canned chickpeas, canned tomatoes, and spices. Some baby spinach adds freshness and vitamins A and C.
Vegan Red Lentil Curry
Seasoned with turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory, this spicy, fiber-filled lentil curry will quell all cravings for Indian takeout.
Vegan Mediterranean Wraps
Chickpeas stand in for meat in this flavorful, veggie-filled wrap. This dish packed with fiber and protein would make a great lunch or dinner option.
Garlicky Kale Salad with Crispy Chickpeas
Vitamin-rich and antioxidant-packed kale is the base of this salad. Seasoned chickpeas roasted until crisp provide fiber, protein, and an appealing textural contrast.
Artichoke and Olive Pizza
Did you think vegans didn’t get to eat pizza? Try this recipe to see how delicious a cheese-free pie can taste. Vitamin C-rich red peppers and prebiotic-filled artichokes make for flavorful dairy-free toppings.
The Best Vegan Meatloaf
Almost any dish, including meatloaf, can get a vegan makeover. This version is filled with nutrient-dense vegetables and chickpeas instead of the usual ground meat.
Black beans, kidney beans, and lentils make this bowl of chili nourishing and filling. An assortment of dried spices gives it all the flavor notes you expect from chili.
Vegan Shepherd’s Pie
This hearty, warming, and substantial main course is a masterclass in vegan comfort food. Creamy mashed potatoes top a savory filling of vegetables. Mushrooms give it a meaty, savory quality.
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What’s the best diet for you?
If you’ve read this far, you're probably hungry for more insights into what regimen might work best for you. If so, you’re in luck because this feast has many courses. To learn more about the various diets you can follow, check out these articles on Yummly's health and lifestyle menu.