The Vegan Diet A Complete Guide for Beginners

The vegan diet has become very popular.

Increasingly more people have decided to go vegan for ethical, environmental or health reasons.

When done right, such a diet may result in various health benefits, including a trimmer waistline and improved blood sugar control.

Nevertheless, a diet based exclusively on plant foods may, in some cases, increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies.

This article is a detailed beginner's guide to the vegan diet. It aims to cover everything you need to know, so you can follow a vegan diet the right 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.

For these reasons, the vegan diet is devoid of 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.

There are different varieties of vegan diets. The most common include:

Although several variations of the vegan diet exist, most scientific research rarely differentiates between different types of vegan diets.

Therefore, the information provided in this article relates to vegan diets as a whole.

Vegans tend to be thinner and have a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegans (2, 3).

This might explain why an increasing number of people turn to vegan diets as a way to lose excess 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 (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).

Interestingly, the weight loss advantage persists even when whole-food-based diets are used as control diets.

These include diets recommended by the American Dietetics Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) (4, 5, 6, 7).

What's more, researchers generally report that participants on vegan diets lose more weight than those following calorie-restricted diets, even when they're allowed to eat until they feel full (4, 8).

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.

Adopting a vegan diet may help keep your blood sugar in check and type 2 diabetes at bay.

Several studies show that vegans benefit from lower blood sugar levels, higher insulin sensitivity and up to a 78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than non-vegans (14, 15, 16, 17).

In addition, vegan diets reportedly lower blood sugar levels in diabetics up to 2.4 times more than diets recommended by the ADA, AHA and NCEP (5, 6, 18).

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 (4, 6, 9, 10).

A vegan diet may help keep your heart healthy.

Observational studies report vegans may have up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease (16, 19).

Randomized controlled studies the gold standard in research add to the evidence.

Several report that vegan diets are much more effective at reducing blood sugar, LDL and total cholesterol than diets they are compared to (4, 5, 9, 20, 21).

These effects could be especially beneficial since reducing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar may reduce heart disease risk by up to 46% (22).

Vegan diets are linked to an array of other health benefits, including benefits for:

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 strong conclusions can be made.

Vegans avoid eating any animal foods, as well as any foods containing ingredients derived from animals. These include:

Health-conscious vegans substitute animal products with plant-based replacements, such as:

Favoring a well-planned diet that limits processed foods and replaces them with nutrient-rich ones instead is important for everyone, not only vegans.

That said, those following poorly planned vegan diets are particularly at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.

In fact, 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 (44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56).

Not getting enough of these nutrients is worrisome for everyone, but it may pose a particular risk to those with increased requirements, such as children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

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.

Furthermore, vegans wanting to enhance their absorption of iron and zinc should try fermenting, sprouting and cooking foods (34).

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).

Moreover, the addition of seaweed or iodized salt to the diet can help vegans reach their recommended daily intake of iodine (58).

Lastly, omega-3 containing foods, 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).

Foods high in ALA include chia, hemp, flaxseeds, walnuts and soybeans. However, there's debate regarding whether this conversion is efficient enough to meet daily needs (59, 60).

Therefore, a daily intake of 200300 mg of EPA and DHA from an algae oil supplement may be a safer way to prevent low levels (61).

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:

To help get you started, here's a simple plan covering a week's worth of vegan meals:

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.

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 or Vegguide. Apps like VeganXpress and Vegman may also be helpful.

When dining in a non-vegan 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. This permits you to 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 ethnic restaurants. They tend to have dishes that are naturally vegan-friendly 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-friendly.

Another easy tip is to order several vegan appetizers or side dishes to make up a meal.

Snacks are a great way to stay energized and keep hunger at bay between meals.

Some interesting, portable vegan options include:

Whenever planning a vegan snack, try to opt for fiber- and protein-rich options, which can help keep hunger away.

Here are some frequently asked questions about veganism.

Absolutely not. Although some vegans choose to do so, raw veganism isn't for everyone. Many vegans eat cooked food, and there is no scientific basis for you to eat only raw foods.

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 (65).

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.

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 (66, 67, 68, 69, 70).

However, soy may suppress thyroid function in predisposed individuals and cause gas and diarrhea in others (71, 72).

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 (34).

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.

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 sources of plant protein.

Calcium-rich foods include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas and calcium-set tofu.

Fortified plant milks and juices 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 (55).

For this reason, vegans should aim to consume 525 mg of calcium per day at the very least.

Vitamin B12 is generally found in animal foods. Some plant foods may contain a form of this vitamin, but there's still debate about whether this form is active in humans (74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80).

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 breastfeeding (81).

Vitamin B12-fortified products and supplements are the only two reliable forms of vitamin B12 for vegans.

Unfortunately, many vegans seem to fail to consume sufficient vitamin B12 to meet their daily requirements (82, 83, 84).

If you're unable to meet your daily requirements through the use of vitamin B12-fortified products, you should definitely consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Individuals may choose veganism for ethical, environmental or health reasons.

When done right, the vegan diet can be easy to follow and may provide various health benefits.

As with any diet, 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 are unable to meet their daily nutrient requirements through diet alone, should consider supplements.

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The Vegan Diet A Complete Guide for Beginners

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