The vegan diet has become very popular. More and more people have decided to go vegan for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
This type of diet may result in various health benefits, including improved blood sugar control and heart health. It can also help you lose weight, if that’s your goal.
But a diet based exclusively on plant foods may, in some cases, increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies.
That’s where this detailed beginner’s guide to the vegan diet comes in. It aims to cover everything you need to know, so you can follow a vegan diet in a healthful way.
Veganism is defined as a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, whether for food, clothing, or any other purpose.
That’s why a vegan diet avoids all animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy.
People choose to follow a vegan diet for various reasons. These usually range from ethics to environmental concerns, but they can also stem from a desire to improve health.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products. Many people choose to eat this way for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
There are different varieties of the vegan diet. The most common include:
- Whole food vegan diet. This diet is based on a wide variety of whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
- Raw food vegan diet. This diet is based on raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or plant foods cooked at temperatures below 118°F (48°C) (
- 80/10/10 diet. The 80/10/10 diet is a raw food vegan diet that limits fat-rich plants such as nuts and avocados and relies mainly on raw fruits and soft greens instead. It is also referred to as the low fat, raw food vegan diet or fruitarian diet.
- Starch solution. This is a low fat, high carb vegan diet similar to the 80/10/10 diet, but it focuses on cooked starches like potatoes, rice, and corn instead of fruit.
- Raw till 4. This low fat vegan diet is inspired by the 80/10/10 diet and starch solution. Raw foods are consumed until 4 p.m., with the option of a cooked plant-based meal for dinner.
- Thrive diet. The thrive diet is a raw food vegan diet. Followers eat plant-based, whole foods that are raw or minimally cooked at low temperatures.
- Junk food vegan diet. This is a vegan diet lacking in whole plant foods that relies heavily on mock meats and cheeses, fries, vegan desserts, and other heavily processed vegan foods.
Although several variations of the vegan diet exist, most scientific research rarely differentiates between different types of vegan diets. As a result, the information in this article relates to vegan diets as a whole.
There are several ways to follow a vegan diet, but scientific research rarely differentiates between the different types.
This might explain why an increasing number of people turn to vegan diets as a way to lose weight.
Part of the weight-related benefits vegans experience may be explained by factors other than diet. These may include healthier lifestyle choices, such as physical activity, and other health-related behaviors.
However, several randomized controlled studies, which control for these external factors, report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared to (
Interestingly, the weight loss advantage persists even when whole food diets are used as control diets.
The natural tendency to eat fewer calories on a vegan diet may be caused by a higher dietary fiber intake, which can make you feel fuller.
Vegan diets seem very effective at helping people naturally reduce the number of calories they eat, resulting in weight loss.
Adopting a vegan diet may help keep your blood sugar in check and type 2 diabetes at bay.
Part of the advantage could be explained by the higher fiber intake, which may blunt the blood sugar response. A vegan diet’s weight loss effects may further contribute to its ability to lower blood sugar levels (
Vegan diets seem particularly effective at improving markers of blood sugar control. They may also lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A vegan diet may help keep your heart healthy.
Randomized controlled studies — the gold standard in research — add to the evidence.
These effects could be especially beneficial since reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar may reduce heart disease risk by up to 46% (
Vegan diets may improve heart health. However, more high quality studies are needed before researchers can draw strong conclusions.
Vegan diets are linked to an array of other health benefits, including benefits for:
- Cancer risk. Vegans may benefit from a 15% lower risk of developing or dying from cancer (
- Arthritis. Vegan diets seem particularly effective at reducing symptoms of arthritis such as pain, joint swelling, and morning stiffness (
23, 24, 25).
- Kidney function. People with diabetes who substitute meat for plant protein may reduce their risk of poor kidney function (
26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31).
- Alzheimer’s disease. Observational studies show that aspects of the vegan diet may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (
That said, keep in mind that most of the studies supporting these benefits are observational. This makes it difficult to determine whether the vegan diet directly caused the benefits.
Randomized controlled studies are needed before researchers can make strong conclusions.
A vegan diet is linked to several other health benefits. However, more research is needed to determine whether the diet was a direct cause of those benefits.
- Meat and poultry: beef, lamb, pork, veal, horse, organ meat, wild meat, chicken, turkey, goose, duck, quail, etc.
- Fish and seafood: all types of fish, anchovies, shrimp, squid, scallops, calamari, mussels, crab, lobster, etc.
- Dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, cream, ice cream, etc.
- Eggs: from chickens, quails, ostriches, fish, etc.
- Bee products: honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, etc.
- Animal-based ingredients: whey, casein, lactose, egg white albumen, gelatin, cochineal or carmine, isinglass, shellac, L-cysteine, animal-derived vitamin D3, and fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids
Vegans avoid consuming any animal flesh, animal byproducts, or foods containing an ingredient from animal origin.
Health-conscious vegans substitute animal products with plant-based replacements, such as:
- Tofu, tempeh, and seitan. These provide a versatile protein-rich alternative to meat, fish, poultry, and eggs in many recipes.
- Legumes. Foods such as beans, lentils, and peas are excellent sources of many nutrients and beneficial plant compounds. Sprouting, fermenting, and proper cooking can increase nutrient absorption (
- Nuts and nut butter. Unblanched and unroasted varieties are good sources of iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium and vitamin E (
- Seeds: Hemp, chia, and flaxseeds contain a good amount of protein and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (36, 37, 38).
- Calcium-fortified plant milk and yogurt. These help vegans achieve their recommended dietary calcium intake. Opt for varieties also fortified with vitamins B12 and D whenever possible.
- Algae. Spirulina and chlorella are good sources of complete protein. Other varieties are great sources of iodine.
- Nutritional yeast. This is an easy way to increase the protein content of vegan dishes and add an interesting cheesy flavor. Pick vitamin B12-fortified varieties whenever possible.
- Whole grains, cereals, and pseudocereals. These are a great source of complex carbs, fiber, iron, B vitamins, and several minerals. Spelt, teff, amaranth, and quinoa are high protein options (39, 40, 41, 42).
- Sprouted and fermented plant foods. Ezekiel bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and kombucha often contain probiotics and vitamin K2. Sprouting and fermenting can also help improve mineral absorption (
- Fruits and vegetables. Both are great foods to increase your nutrient intake. Leafy greens such as bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress, and mustard greens are particularly high in iron and calcium.
These minimally processed plant foods are great additions to any vegan refrigerator or pantry.
Favoring a well-planned diet that limits processed foods and replaces them with nutrient-rich ones is important for everyone, not only vegans.
That said, those following poorly planned vegan diets are particularly at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.
Studies show that vegans are at a higher risk of having inadequate blood levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega-3s, iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc (
Not getting enough of these nutrients is a concern for everyone, but it may pose a particular risk to those with increased requirements, such as children or people who are pregnant or nursing.
Your genetic makeup and the composition of your gut bacteria may also influence your ability to derive the nutrients you need from a vegan diet.
One way to minimize the likelihood of deficiency is to limit the amount of processed vegan foods you consume and opt for nutrient-rich plant foods instead.
Fortified foods, especially those enriched with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, should also make a daily appearance on your plate.
Vegans wanting to enhance their absorption of iron and zinc should try fermenting, sprouting, and cooking foods (
Also, the use of iron cast pots and pans for cooking, avoiding tea or coffee with meals, and combining iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C can further boost iron absorption (57).
The addition of seaweed or iodized salt to your vegan diet can help you reach the recommended daily intake of iodine (58).
Lastly, foods containing omega 3s, especially those high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can help the body produce longer-chain omega-3s, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
A daily intake of 200–300 mg of EPA and DHA from an algae oil supplement may be a safer way to prevent low levels (
Vegans may be at an increased risk of certain nutrient deficiencies. A well-planned vegan diet that includes nutrient-rich whole and fortified foods can help provide adequate nutrient levels.
Some vegans may find it difficult to eat enough of the nutrient-rich or fortified foods above to meet their daily requirements.
In this case, the following supplements can be particularly beneficial:
- Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 in cyanocobalamin form is the most studied and seems to work well for most people (
- Vitamin D. Opt for D2 or vegan D3 forms, such as those manufactured by Nordic Naturals.
- EPA and DHA. These are sourced from algae oil.
- Iron. You should only supplement with iron in the case of a documented deficiency. Ingesting too much iron from supplements can cause health complications and prevent the absorption of other nutrients (
- Iodine. Take a supplement or add 1/2 teaspoon of iodized salt to your diet daily.
- Calcium. Calcium is best absorbed when taken in doses of 500 mg or less at a time. Taking calcium at the same time as iron or zinc supplements may reduce their absorption (57, 64).
- Zinc. This is taken in zinc gluconate or zinc citrate forms and should not be taken at the same time as calcium supplements (64).
Vegans unable to meet their recommended nutrient intakes through foods or fortified products alone should consider taking supplements.
To help get you started, here’s a simple plan covering a week’s worth of vegan meals:
- Breakfast: vegan breakfast sandwich with tofu, lettuce, tomato, turmeric, and a plant-milk chai latte
- Lunch: spiralized zucchini and quinoa salad with peanut dressing
- Dinner: red lentil and spinach dal over wild rice
- Breakfast: overnight oats made with fruit, fortified plant milk, chia seeds, and nuts
- Lunch: seitan sauerkraut sandwich
- Dinner: pasta with a lentil Bolognese sauce and a side salad
- Breakfast: mango and spinach smoothie made with fortified plant milk and a banana-flaxseed-walnut muffin
- Lunch: baked tofu sandwich with a side of tomato salad
- Dinner: vegan chili on a bed of amaranth
- Breakfast: whole grain toast with hazelnut butter, banana, and a fortified plant yogurt
- Lunch: tofu noodle soup with vegetables
- Dinner: jacket sweet potatoes with lettuce, corn, beans, cashews, and guacamole
- Breakfast: vegan chickpea and onion omelet and a cappuccino made with fortified plant milk
- Lunch: vegan tacos with mango-pineapple salsa
- Dinner: tempeh stir-fry with bok choy and broccoli
- Breakfast: spinach and scrambled tofu wrap and a glass of fortified plant milk
- Lunch: spiced red lentil, tomato, and kale soup with whole grain toast and hummus
- Dinner: veggie sushi rolls, miso soup, edamame, and wakame salad
- Breakfast: chickpea pancakes, guacamole and salsa, and a glass of fortified orange juice
- Lunch: tofu vegan quiche with a side of sautéed mustard greens
- Dinner: vegan spring rolls
Remember to vary your sources of protein and vegetables throughout the day, as each provides different vitamins and minerals that are important for your health.
You can eat a variety of tasty plant-based meals on a vegan diet.
Dining out as a vegan can be challenging.
One way to reduce stress is to identify vegan-friendly restaurants ahead of time by using websites such as Happycow. Apps like VeganXpress and Vegman may also be helpful.
When dining in a nonvegan establishment, try scanning the menu online beforehand to see what vegan options they may have for you.
Sometimes, calling ahead of time allows the chef to arrange something especially for you. You can then arrive at the restaurant confident that you’ll have something hopefully more interesting than a side salad to order.
When picking a restaurant on the fly, make sure to ask about their vegan options as soon as you step in, ideally before being seated.
When in doubt, opt for certain ethnic restaurants that tend to have dishes that are naturally vegan or can be easily modified to become so. Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, and Indian restaurants tend to be great options.
Once in the restaurant, try identifying the vegetarian options on the menu and asking whether the dairy or eggs can be removed to make the dish vegan.
Another easy tip is to order several vegan appetizers or side dishes to make up a meal.
Being well prepared allows you to reduce stress when dining out as a vegan.
Snacks are a great way to stay energized and keep hunger at bay between meals.
Some interesting, portable vegan options include:
- fresh fruit with a dollop of nut butter
- hummus and vegetables
- nutritional yeast sprinkled on popcorn
- roasted chickpeas
- nut and fruit bars
- trail mix
- chia pudding
- homemade muffins
- whole wheat pita with salsa and guacamole
- cereal with plant milk
- whole grain crackers and cashew nut spread
- a plant-milk latte or cappuccino
- dried seaweed snacks
Whenever you’re planning a vegan snack, try to opt for fiber- and protein-rich options, which can help keep hunger away.
These portable, fiber-rich, protein-rich vegan snacks are convenient options to help minimize hunger between meals.
Here are some frequently asked questions about veganism.
1. Can I only eat raw food as a vegan?
Absolutely not. Although some vegans choose to follow this type of vegan diet, raw veganism isn’t for everyone. Many vegans eat cooked food, and there is no scientific basis for you to eat only raw foods.
2. Will switching to a vegan diet help me lose weight?
A vegan diet that emphasizes nutritious, whole plant foods and limits processed ones may help you lose weight.
As mentioned in the weight loss section above, vegan diets tend to help people eat fewer calories without having to consciously restrict their food intake.
That said, when matched for calories, vegan diets are no more effective than other diets for weight loss (
3. What is the best milk substitute?
There are many plant-based milk alternatives to cow’s milk. Soy and hemp varieties contain more protein, making them more beneficial to those trying to keep their protein intake high.
Whichever plant milk you choose, ensure it’s enriched with calcium, vitamin D, and, if possible, vitamin B12.
4. Vegans tend to eat a lot of soy. Is this bad for you?
Soybeans are great sources of plant-based protein. They contain an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds that are linked to various health benefits (
It’s best to opt for minimally processed soy food products such as tofu and edamame and limit the use of soy-based mock meats.
Fermented soy products such as tempeh and natto are especially beneficial, as fermentation helps improve the absorption of nutrients (
5. How can I replace eggs in recipes?
Chia and flaxseeds are a great way to replace eggs in baking. To replace one egg, simply mix one tablespoon of chia or ground flaxseeds with three tablespoons of hot water and allow it to rest until it gels.
Mashed bananas can also be a great alternative to eggs in some cases.
Scrambled tofu is a good vegan alternative to scrambled eggs. Tofu can also be used in a variety of egg-based recipes, from omelets to frittatas and quiches.
6. How can I make sure I get enough protein?
Vegans can ensure they meet their daily protein requirements by including protein-rich plant foods in their daily meals.
Check out this article for a more in-depth look at the best plant protein sources.
7. How can I make sure I get enough calcium?
Calcium-rich foods include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, and calcium-set tofu.
Fortified plant milk and juice are also a great way for vegans to increase their calcium intake.
The RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg per day for most adults and increases to 1,200 mg per day for adults over 50 years old (73).
Some argue that vegans may have slightly lower daily requirements because of the lack of meat in their diets. Not much scientific evidence can be found to support or negate this claim.
However, current studies show that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium each day have an increased risk of bone fractures (
For this reason, vegans should aim to consume 525 mg of calcium per day at the very least.
8. Should I take a vitamin B12 supplement?
Despite circulating rumors, there’s no scientific evidence to support unwashed produce as a reliable source of vitamin B12.
The daily recommended intake is 2.4 mcg per day for adults, 2.6 mcg per day during pregnancy, and 2.8 mcg per day while nursing (81).
Vitamin B12 fortified products and supplements are the only two reliable forms of vitamin B12 for vegans. Yet many vegans seem to fail to consume sufficient vitamin B12 to meet their daily requirements (
If you’re unable to meet your daily requirements through the use of vitamin B12 fortified products, you should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement. A healthcare professional can help you decide if one is right for you.
Individuals may choose veganism for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
The vegan diet can be easy to follow and may provide various health benefits.
As with any diet, though, these benefits only appear if you are consistent and build your diet around nutrient-rich plant foods rather than heavily processed ones.
Vegans, especially those who cannot meet their daily nutrient requirements through diet alone, should consider supplements.