If you are thinking about going vegan, you might be wondering how to get started. This article will provide the basics.
What is the Vegan Diet?
The vegan diet does not include any animal products. That means no meat, dairy or eggs. Many vegans do not consume honey either due to the practices used that are thought to harm bee health. It can sometimes be tricky to know whether certain foods are vegan. Bagels are one example, and this post helps you better understand whether bagels are vegan.
Consuming a plant-based diet has potential benefits for health, as plant-based foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, heart-healthy fat, and fiber. A body of research supports a diet that includes sufficient plant-source foods for health.
A vegan diet may also benefit the environment, as animal-source foods generally require more resources to produce. Much of agricultural land is used for livestock rearing, and consuming less meat may have a positive environmental impact.
The vegan diet also takes into account animal welfare. Mistreatment of animals on factory farms is one reason vegans cite for deciding not to consume animal products, among others.
Make Sure Your Vegan Diet is Nutritionally Complete
There are several nutrients of particular concern when going vegan, and it’s important to know how to get enough. A vegan diet can potentially be nutrient-poor if you do not consume foods in all of the food groups and rely on a lot of processed snack-type foods.
Some nutrients are not as readily absorbed when coming from plant-based vs. animal-based foods, and it’s important to be aware of the recommendations for intake.
Of note, it is generally possible to get enough calories as a vegan if you include a mix of high- and low-calorie foods. Plenty of vegan foods contain a good deal of calories, particularly those that are high in fat. Examples are nuts, dried fruit and sesame seeds. This post provides a list of high-calorie vegan foods.
While many vegan foods contain iron, the iron in plant-source foods is not as easily absorbed as that in animal-sourced foods. Thus, the recommendations for iron intake for vegans are almost twice as high as those for people who eat meat. It’s important to include foods such as beans, tofu, grains and vegetables like spinach to be sure you are getting the right amount.
As dairy is one of the main sources of calcium in the American diet, vegans need to find alternatives. Some ideas are fortified plant-based milk such as soy or almond milk, as well as leafy greens like collard greens. There are lots of other types of plant-based milk as well, such as oat and macadamia. It’s important to read labels carefully, as not all are fortified with calcium. The calorie content also varies quite a bit. Sesame seeds and dried fruit are also sources of calcium.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products. Vegans can get B12 by consuming nutritional yeast, fortified foods like breakfast cereals and plant-based milk. You can also consider taking a supplement.
There are only a few vegan sources of protein that are considered “complete proteins,” which means that they contain all of the essential amino acids. Soy is one example, and vegans have lots of options when it comes to soy products, including tofu, tempeh and edamame. Vegans need to be sure to get protein from different sources to be sure they are consuming all of the essential amino acids. Beans and rice is an example of a dish that contains all.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Fish and fish oil are commonly consumed as a source of omega-3 fat and are not included in the vegan diet. Vegans can make sure they get enough by consuming walnuts, flaxseed oil, tofu and chia seeds.
Get Started with a Vegan Diet
As it’s important to be sure your diet will be acceptable for you in terms of taste and culture, you can start by taking a look at what you usually eat and consider where you might be able to make substitutions to start consuming more plant-based foods.
For example, if you eat tacos, you can consider substituting meat with a plant-based alternative. I have had some really tasty tacos that were entirely plant-based and involved seitan rather than chicken or beef. To further make your tacos plant-based, you could explore different options for vegan cheese and see how you like the taste.
You’ll want to make a plan for your meals based on your preferences and make a shopping list. This will help you to be intentional about your choices in the supermarket.
Your Vegan Shopping List
This list will give you some ideas of foods to purchase in each of the food groups. As vegans do not consume dairy, some vegan alternatives will be listed in this group.
• Green peas
• Bell pepper
• Brown rice
• Whole-grain bread
• Soy milk
• Almond milk
• Soy yogurt
If you are going vegan, it’s important to plan your diet carefully to be sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. A vegan diet can be nutritionally complete, but it can also be lacking in nutrients if you choose a diet mainly made up of nutrient-poor processed foods such as candy or chips. When shopping, it’s good to make a list and make sure you purchase foods from all the food groups.
About the Author
Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition. She helps working women to lose weight so that they can feel confident and energetic and enjoy food without dieting. She offers free information on weight loss and plant-based eating on her blog, as well as individual and group nutrition coaching.