The consumption of plant-based foods continues to grow as people become more and more conscious about their health and environmental sustainability. According to a report from Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant-based foods market is expected to grow 450% by 2030. Plant-based and vegan celebrities including Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Venus Williams and Ariana Grande, among others, have helped to fuel the popularity of this trend too.
No matter what your current diet consists of, adding more plants and gravitating towards a more whole-food, plant-based diet will always be beneficial. Below, registered dietitians share everything you need to know about a vegan diet, including health benefits, dietary concerns, how to incorporate more plants and a vegan foods shopping list.
What is a vegan diet?
While terms like vegan, vegetarian and plant-based are often used interchangeably, they are quite different. A vegan diet excludes all animal products including meat, seafood, eggs, dairy and even honey. It can also even extend beyond the diet by eliminating the use of any animal exploitation such as wearing leather clothing.
By contrast, there are multiple types of vegetarian diets, and some versions allow animal proteins such as fish (pescatarian), eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarian). Plant-based diets, a much newer term, are more flexible, and while the focus is on eating whole foods from plant sources, these diets allow for occasional additions of meat and other sources of animal proteins.
Health benefits of a vegan diet
There is abundant, well-researched literature, on the health disadvantages of having too much meat or processed foods in our diet. “One of the biggest benefits you can get from eating a vegan diet is embracing more plants! Plant-based foods provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can benefit your health in so many ways,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., an inclusive plant-based dietitian and owner of Master the Media in Stamford, CT. Some specific vegan health benefits include:
- Improved cardiovascular health: Multiple recent studies have shown the health benefits of switching to a plant-based diet including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Vegan diets that place emphasis on healthy plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are lower in saturated fats and higher in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber — all of which can help lower the bad “LDL” cholesterol and help to keep blood pressure in check.
- Reduced risk of type II diabetes: Following a healthy plant-rich diet has shown to improve insulin sensitivity. Plant-based diets are higher in fiber which helps control blood sugar fluctuations and cholesterol and it has anti-inflammatory benefits, leading to a reduced risk of developing type II diabetes.
- Reduced risk of certain cancers: A healthy vegan diet is associated with a decreased risk of prostate and breast cancers. This is likely due to vegan diets being rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fats from foods like processed meats which are associated with increased cancer risk.
- Combat inflammation: People with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis may benefit and find some relief from following a vegan diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants and offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Studies indicate that the fiber from the diet can work to improve overall gut bacteria which may also contribute to anti-inflammatory benefits.
- May help with weight management: A whole foods vegan diet can be less calorically dense although much more filling because of the high fiber content which can help with weight management.
Environmental benefits of a vegan diet
Another reason to adopt a vegan diet is the contribution it can make to your personal sustainability efforts. Farming meat produces more greenhouse gases than farming plants does, which means that reducing your consumption of meat and dairy can help to reduce your carbon footprint. A recent review, based on multiple studies, looked at which diet has the least environmental impact on our planet. Between vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous diets, the vegan diet was found to have the least environmental impact.
What do vegans eat?
Vegan and plant-based diets deliver on their promise best when they include fruits, vegetables, plant-based proteins, whole grains and healthy fats. Here are a few items that can be staples of a healthy vegan shopping list and vegan meal plan:
- Fruits: Berries, apples, bananas, oranges, pears, cantaloupe, plums, watermelon, etc.
- Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, kale, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc.
- Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, black beans, kidney beans, etc.
- Tofu and tempeh
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, hemp, flax, chia, nut butters, tahini, etc.
- Whole grains: Quinoa, rice, pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.
- Non-dairy alternatives including soy, oat, coconut and nut milks
- Fats: Vegetable oils such as olive oil, avocado and sesame oils
- Spices including fresh, dried and nutritional yeast
Foods that vegans avoid
All animal products, or anything of animal origin, are avoided by vegans, including:
- Meat and fish including red meat, chicken, fish, shellfish
- Eggs and bakery items that contain egg
- Dairy, including all milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, yogurt
- Anything animal-derived, including whey, honey, casein, gelatin, etc.
Nutrients of concern in a vegan diet
While there are many health benefits associated with vegan diets, there are also a few pitfalls to be aware of. As more and more people transition to plant-based diets, there are more vegan food products available to consumers, but just because you’re following a vegan diet doesn’t mean it's necessarily healthy. For example, you could eat only bread and pasta or highly processed plant-based foods which would give you a vegan diet, but one that could be loaded with sugar, sodium and fat and devoid of all of the benefits of a well-balanced diet.
As with any diet, when you’re eliminating certain foods or food groups, you want to make sure you’re replenishing nutrients you might otherwise be missing out on. The main nutrients to make sure you’re getting enough of include:
- Vitamin B12: Some of the richest sources of vitamin B12 are found in meat, eggs, fish and dairy. When you’re following a vegan diet, you could be at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency, “Vitamin B12 is important for many body functions, including production of red blood cells and proper maintenance of the central nervous system,” says Gorin. Ways to get vitamin B12 in a vegan diet include adding nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, soy, tempeh, seaweed, etc.
- Calcium: “If you’re following a vegan diet, you may need a calcium supplement. This is because calcium helps keep bones strong, and not getting enough puts you at risk for osteopenia — a condition that may increase your risk of osteoporosis,” according to Gorin. Other ways to get calcium in your diet is through leafy greens such as kale, broccoli and cabbage. Sesame and chia seeds, soybeans (edamame) and almonds are also good sources.
- Omega 3s: “DHA and EPA omega-3s are very important for brain and heart health — and they’re not only found in seafood. If you’re following a vegan diet, you can look for algae-based supplements that contain DHA and EPA omega-3s,” says Gorin. Vegan food sources of omega 3s include seaweed, hemp, flax and chia seeds, walnuts and kidney beans.
- Vitamin D: "Vitamin D is important for bone health, immunity and more," says Gorin. Getting enough vitamin D can be difficult on any diet and especially on a vegan diet. Some plant-based vitamin-D-rich foods include mushrooms and fortified plant-based milks, cereals and tofu. Gorin recommends that a “baseline blood test can test your levels and show you if you need a supplement.”
- Iron: “Many people don’t know that you need more iron when on a plant-based diet. The recommended intake for a vegetarian or vegan is up to 1.8 times the amount recommended for meat-eaters. You can aim to maximize your dietary absorption, as the type of iron found in plant-based foods — non-heme iron — isn’t as easily absorbed by your body as animal-based iron. You can increase absorption by pairing a source of vitamin C such as lemon juice with a source of iron such as spinach; squeezing lemon juice onto a green salad,” is one way to do this, according to Gorin. Other good sources of iron include lentils and tofu or tempeh.
How to transition to a plant-based diet
- Try Meatless Mondays: Start by choosing one day a week to eat a fully plant-based diet and slowly increase your intake of plants throughout the week. For example, if you love Bolognese sauce, swap the meat for lentils and make lentil bolognese, or if you like Greek salads, try swapping out the cheese for a plant-based feta.
- Start slow and steady: If you’re not used to consuming large amounts of fiber, start slowly to avoid digestive issues like gas and bloating. Make sure you're adequately hydrated, consuming at least 8 cups of water per day to help avoid constipation.
- Build a balanced plate: Don't be afraid to try new things. Build a balanced meal by filling half your plate with non-starchy veggies, 1/4 of your plate with plant-based proteins, 1/4 with complex carbohydrates and include a serving of healthy fats with each meal.
- Focus on plant-based protein: The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day, with increased amounts sometimes needed for active individuals and athletes who have higher protein needs. Know your proteins and make sure you’re getting enough at each meal. Try adding nuts and seeds, such as hemp, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and whole forms of soy, such as tofu, edamame and tempeh.
- Prioritize complex carbohydrates: Choose fiber and nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates like whole wheat, quinoa, barley, oats, millet and bulgur.
- Select healthy fats: Incorporate a serving of healthy plant-based fat at every meal, such as avocado, nut butters and olive, flax and sesame oils.
- Stock your fridge and pantry: Stock your kitchen with essentials and healthy snacks, so you’re able to make quick and easy meals at home. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals; buy them fresh or frozen, so you always have some on hand.
- Plan for dining out: Plan ahead by checking out the menu before dining out to make sure there are options. Bring a stash of hemp seeds to throw on salads or soups for an extra dose of protein if there are limited options available and you think you're going to fall short. Don't hesitate to ask for substitutions or go off-menu to accommodate your needs.