Diet and Nutrition: Guide to Going Vegan for the First Time

  • Reviewed By: Christine Mikstas, RD, LD
Reviewed on 7/22/2020

Vegan 101

Vegans do not eat meat or any animal-based products.

So you want to go vegan? Join the crowd. More than 6.5 million Americans claim to be vegan. That means they don't eat any type of animal-based food, including dairy and eggs. That's different than vegetarians, who may eat dairy and eggs. Why do people make the choice, and how does a vegan lifestyle work?

The Moral Side of Veganism

People who are vegan often adopt the diet because they are concerned about animal welfare and the welfare of the planet.

Many who choose a vegan diet do so for moral reasons. They're worried about pain and suffering inflicted on animals that we eat. Vegans also are concerned about our environment. They point to the fact that the livestock industry uses 30 % of Earth's land. That leads to water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It also leaves less room for other animals to live.

The Healthy Side of Veganism

Eating a vegan diet is associated with a a lower risk of many different different health conditions.

Studies show that a plant-based diet protects against 15 leading causes of death in the world, including many cancers (breast, prostate, and colon among them). Some say that eating more plants helps prevent chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

What You're Giving Up

Eating a vegan diet means avoiding meat, cheese, milk, fish or eggs.

Being a vegan means adopting a plant-based diet and avoiding all foods that come from animals. That means no steak, no meat burgers, no red meat, and no processed meat of any kind. It also means no chicken, bacon, turkey, or other kinds of meat or fish. Plus, no cheese, milk, or eggs.

Going All In (or Not)

Vegans do not eat honey either, but they eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Being a strict vegan means no honey, either (it's from bees). But whether you're a vegan, a vegetarian, a pescatarian (they don't eat meat or poultry, but will eat fish), a flexitarian (they'll eat an occasional piece of meat), or something else, moving toward any plant-based diet is beneficial. Why? Only 1 in 10 Americans get the fruit and vegetables they need. Know who's big on fruits and veggies? Vegans and vegetarians.

Replace Missing Nutrients

Make sure to get adequate vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids if you eat a vegan diet.

You'll have to get some nutrients in your old diet from other places if you go vegan. This includes calcium (that you can get from dairy), vitamins B12 (almost exclusively from animals) and D, and omega-3 fatty acids (from cold-water fish like salmon). You can replace some nutrients with plant-based foods. Otherwise, think about nutrient-fortified foods or supplements. You may need help getting enough iron and zinc, too. A dietitian can help.

Putting on the Protein

Vegans can get adequate protein by eating soy, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Animal products, including eggs and dairy, are rich in protein, which helps build healthy bones, skin, muscles, and organs. But no scientific evidence shows that vegans with a well-rounded plant diet don't get enough protein. Plants high in proteins include soy, whole grains, legumes (peas and beans), nuts, and seeds.

About Those Carbs

Get complex carbs from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of simple carbs from processed grains.

Fruits, vegetables, and grains -- all major parts of a good vegan diet -- are good sources of carbohydrates and should make up about 45%-65% of your total calories each day. But carbs from processed grains (white rice, white flour), or from added sugars (candy, drinks) can be vegan, and they're largely stripped of nutrients. These high-calorie carbs can lead to weight gain and all sorts of other problems.

Balancing Your Vegan Diet

Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based protein in equal proportions for a balanced vegan diet.

A typical vegan diet replaces meat, poultry, and seafood products with soy (like tofu), legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. But in what proportions? Consider four roughly equal portions on your vegan plate: Fruits, vegetables, grains (preferably whole), and proteins (beans, peas, nuts, soy). Mix it up. And don't forget the leafy greens and soy milk for your calcium needs. Confused? A dietitian can help you come up with a plan.

How Vegans Read Food Labels

Animal-based ingredients may be hidden in many foods, so read food labels if you eat a vegan diet.

Shopping outside of the produce aisle can be tricky for a new vegan. Lots of innocent-looking canned and packaged foods contain animal-based products. Study food labels and watch for things like gelatin (made from cows and pigs and used in things like candies, puddings, and marshmallows), bone char (used in some sugars), and lard (in things like french fries and refried beans).

Now We're Cookin'

There are plant-based meat, ice cream, milk, sushi and burger substitutes.

The internet is filled with good, tasty vegan recipes, many designed to mimic (or even improve upon) the flavor of non-vegan foods. You can get plant-based "meats" that taste surprisingly like burgers. Ice cream, milk, and cheese made from plants also exist. You can make "sushi" burgers, and guacamole onion rings, too.

How to Order Out

You can follow a vegan diet when you eat out by reading the menu carefully.

You can get a good vegan meal in a restaurant. Pizza? Hold the cheese, and go nuts on the veggies as toppings. Salads are a good option. Italian food can be delicious with a meat-free sauce. Mediterranean diets feature hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, and a range of vegan choices. If you worry about eating out, look at the menu ahead of time, or ask the waiter if the kitchen can do something meatless.

A Final Word on Soy

Ask your doctor if soy is appropriate for you if you are concerned about breast cancer risk or thyroid problems.

Soy is a staple of vegan diets and a protein-rich ingredient in vegan burgers and cheeses. Soy milk, too, is a great source of iron and calcium. Some worry about soy's connection to a higher chance of breast cancer. Others with hypothyroid have concerns that soy can interfere with their medication. Research suggests that soy is a safe choice. But it's never the only choice. Plenty of plants offer similar nutrients. Talk with your doctor.

Diet and Nutrition: Guide to Going Vegan for the First Time

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