A vegan or plant-based diet excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. When people follow it correctly, a vegan diet can be highly nutritious, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and help weight loss.
Increasingly, numbers of people are moving toward vegan diets due to health concerns.
Vegan diets tend to be rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats. Research suggests that the diet can improve heart health, protect against cancer, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
In this article, we take a close look at the vegan diet, including its health benefits and risks, as well as important things to consider before trying it out. We also provide recipe ideas and tips for following a vegan diet.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet involves eating only foods comprising plants. Those who follow this diet avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Some people also avoid eating honey. For some, being vegan is a dietary choice, while for others, it is a lifestyle choice.
People who choose to live a vegan lifestyle may also avoid clothes, soaps, and other products that use or contain parts of animals, such as leather and animal fur. Some adopt this lifestyle for its environmental benefits as a sustainable diet.
Vegan diets tend to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. Eating a variety of these foods will provide a wide range of important vitamins, minerals, healthful fats, and protein.
People following this diet should, however, take care to get key nutrients that people usually consume in animal products. These nutrients include iron, protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.
The main difference between vegetarians and vegans is that although vegetarians do not eat meat (including cows, pigs, chicken, and fish), they consume dairy products, eggs, or both. The vegan diet excludes all products with animal-based ingredients.
The vegan diet is more restrictive, so people will need to think more about where their nutrients are coming from to ensure that they meet their daily dietary requirements.
Vegan diets can provide all of the nutrients that a person needs, and they can eliminate some of the possible risks that research has associated with harmful animal fats. Research has linked the vegan diet with a range of health benefits, including those below.
- Better heart health
Vegan diets can boost heart health in several ways.
Based on a study is a higher intake of plant-based foods and a lower intake of animal foods with a reduced risk of heart disease and death in adults.
Plant foods are also high in fiber, which is better for heart health. Animal products contain very little or no fiber, while plant-based vegetables and grains are the best sources.
In addition, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and a reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
- Lower cancer risk
According to a review, eating a vegan diet may reduce a person’s risk of cancer. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals — biologically active compounds in plants — that protect against cancers.
- Weight loss
People on a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those following other diets.
Study shows that vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian diets, as well as being better for providing macronutrients.
It is important to note, though, that eating lots of processed or high-fat plant-based foods — which some people refer to as a junk food vegan diet — can lead to unhealthful weight gain.
A vegan diet removes some sources of nutrients from the diet, so people need to plan their meals carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies. People may wish to talk to a doctor or dietitian ahead before adopting a vegan diet, especially if they have existing health conditions.
Key nutrients that may be low in a vegan diet include:
- Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is mainly present in animal products. It protects the nerves and red blood cells. Plant-based sources of this vitamin include fortified cereals and plant milks, nutritional yeast, and yeast spreads.
- Iron: Iron is important for blood health. Beans and dark leafy greens are good sources.
- Calcium: Calcium is crucial for bone health. Eating tofu, tahini, and leafy greens will help keep calcium levels up.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D protects against cancer and some chronic health conditions, and it helps strengthen the bones and teeth. Regularly eating vitamin D-fortified foods and spending time in the sun can boost vitamin D levels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Important for heart, eye, and brain function, there are three types of omega-3 fatty acid: EPA, DHA, and ALA. Walnuts and flaxseeds are good sources of ALA, but seaweeds and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA.
- Zinc: Zinc is important for the immune system and the repair of DNA damage. Beans, nutritional yeast, nuts, and oats are high in zinc.
- Iodine: Iodine is important for thyroid function. Plant-based, sources include seaweeds and fortified foods.
A person may wish to ask for their doctor’s advice on whether to take supplements or consume more fortified foods.
The change from an unrestricted diet can seem daunting, but there are many simple, tasty, and nutritious ways to pack a vegan diet with key vitamins and minerals.
Instead of cow milk, people can use plant-based alternatives. Compared with cow’s milk, plant milk tends to be lower in calories and contain less saturated fat. Manufacturers often enrich them with vitamins and minerals.
People can also buy plant-based cheeses, yogurts, and butter or make their own.
Some people may have concerns about meeting their protein needs on a vegan diet, but many plant foods are excellent sources of protein.
Soy products — such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan — provide protein and also add a meat-like texture to many dishes
Vegan recipes often use the following nutritious foods in place of animal products:
- beans and legumes
- peanut butter and other nut butters
Vegan diets are growing in popularity. A vegan diet can offer many health benefits, including better heart health, weight loss, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases.
Research also suggests that vegan diets are better for the environment.
People who wish to adopt a vegan diet will need to plan their meals carefully to ensure that they are getting enough key nutrients to avoid deficiencies.