The Vegan Diet: A Beginner’s Guide
If you’ve frequented the internet in 2019, you’ve certainly seen some mention of the term “vegan.” Perhaps it was the viral release of Greggs’ vegan sausage roll on Twitter (thanks, Piers!), or it may have been the spread of Veganuary influencing tens of thousands of people to ditch animal products for the month of January. Whatever the case, vegan diets are growing in popularity and they’re here to stay. In this post, we’ll dive into the basics of a vegan diet and I’ll share tips along the way for how you can easily incorporate plant-based eating habits into your everyday lifestyle. For more in-depth resources on vegan topics, stay tuned for future posts!
What is Veganism, Anyway?
According to The Vegan Society, veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Though the term is most frequently used to describe a person’s diet, vegans also avoid purchasing products made from or tested on animals. Some of those products include clothing made of leather, suede, fur, and wool, but also include household and beauty products that have been tested on animals.
There are countless reasons why a person may choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Some of the most common reasons include environmental benefits, ethical concerns, overall physical health, weight loss, and an intolerance to animal-sourced foods like dairy. With substantial peer-reviewed research on each of these topics accessible across the web—along with several documentaries including What the Health, Earthlings, and Cowspiracy—it’s easier than ever to get informed on the array of benefits that accompany a plant-based lifestyle. Whatever your motivation, let’s talk about how you can get started!
Making the Switch
Completely overhauling your diet overnight sounds intimidating, expensive, and confusing. Trust me, I get it! When you’ve subsisted largely on meat, dairy, and eggs for the past 10/20/30 years of your life, cutting those out might seem impossible. Most commonly, I hear things like, “I could never give up cheese!” or the infamous, “But where will I get my protein?” Don’t fret—if you’re eating a balanced vegan diet and consuming an adequate amount of calories, you’ll be just fine. Once you’ve made the switch and have discovered some of your favorite vegan alternatives to meat and cheese, too, I’m confident you won’t miss their animal-based counterparts.
Although there are several variations of a plant-based diet, for the purposes of this beginner’s article, I’m simply going to cover a balanced, primarily whole-food vegan diet with room for treats like faux meats and pre-made meals. When transitioning over, these can help make the difference in sticking it out through creative ruts you may have with recipe-making or to satisfy any of your lingering cravings.
So, What Should I Eat?
When it comes to a balanced plant-based diet, you’ll want to focus on incorporating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts & seeds into your everyday meals. Vegetables and fruits—fresh or frozen—should take up roughly half of your plate, with whole grains and legumes taking up most of the remaining space. In smaller portions, nuts & seeds are a healthy addition to any vegan diet, providing you with minerals, vitamin E, and healthy fats. For a helpful reference, see The Vegan Plate by registered dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina.
The table above sets a broad framework for what portions you should be aiming for from each food group per day in a whole-food, plant-based diet. With regards to your vegetable and fruit choices, it’s recommended to “aim for the rainbow” and choose an array of colorful veggies and fruits to diversify the vitamins and minerals you’re absorbing from your diet. To help with this, I like to simply pick up a new, in-season veggie and fruit each week I’m at the grocery store. Bonus points if it’s something you’ve never tried before! Not only will this keep your diet wholesome, but you’ll get to experiment with new recipes to keep your meals fresh and exciting.
When it comes to faux meat, cheese, and dairy products like non-dairy ice cream, I say treat these as you would in any balanced, non-vegan diet: as a treat! These foods are fun, delicious, and often make for easy meals. Some of the most popular plant-based alternative brands include Gardein, Beyond Meat, Daiya, Tofurky, and Sweet Earth, and products range anywhere from fishless filets to vegan sausages. Since the majority of these foods are largely processed, it is best to limit them in your diet and enjoy them 1-3x per week, rather than an everyday occurrence. When the craving for your favorite dish strikes, though, check the vegan section at your local grocery store—they’ll most likely have you covered!
Dietary Essentials to Keep in Mind
Consuming a variety of whole foods in your vegan diet—along with some fortified additions like plant milk or minimally processed cereals—should keep you on track to meet your recommended daily amounts for most nutrients. To ensure you’re meeting those needs for your body, however, it’s good to know what you should look out for in your diet. Below are some vitamins and minerals that vegans and non-vegans alike will want to monitor:
Vitamin B12 helps keep your nervous system running properly, protects brain health, and helps to prevent a type of anemia which can cause fatigue and weakness (13). Since B12 is produced by anaerobic bacteria commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract of animals, it is sourced primarily from animal foods like meat, milk, and eggs. When humans consume these foods, they subsequently absorb the B12 into their bodies. While some vegan foods like plant milks, nutritional yeast, and breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B12, it is widely advised to rely on a supplement to ensure you are receiving adequate levels of this vital nutrient. With a recommended daily amount (RDA) of 2.4 mcg per day, you can meet your requirements with a low-dose daily multivitamin containing at least 25 mcg of B12 or take a designated B12 supplement at 1,000 mcg twice per week. Because the body’s ability to absorb B12 from supplements is limited by intrinsic factor—a substance secreted by the stomach—higher doses are required to meet your RDA (12).
Calcium is an essential part of any diet to maintain bone and teeth health, as well as nerve and muscle function. Although the dairy industry would like us to believe milk is the only way to strong bones, researchers have found “dairy products do not have a clinically relevant impact on bone health in youth” (1). Instead, vegans should focus on regularly consuming calcium-rich foods with high absorption rates in their meals. Top contenders of high-calcium foods include calcium-fortified soy milk and juice, tofu, soybeans and soy nuts, tahini, tempeh, bok choy, broccoli, collards, Chinese cabbage, kale, mustard greens, watercress, blackstrap molasses, oats, beans (pinto, navy, garbanzo, black), almonds, and dried figs. It should be noted that there is evidence of vegans having a higher risk for bone fracture due to reduced calcium levels, so it is imperative to ensure you’re getting at least 525 mg of calcium per day (11). With an RDA of 1,000 mg, calcium should be supplemented if you cannot reach the daily minimum through diet alone.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient important for maintaining bone health and regulating levels of calcium and phosphate in our bodies. In addition, vitamin D plays a role in mood, immune function, memory, and muscle recovery (6, 7). While our bodies can synthesize vitamin D from natural sunlight, the majority of people do not receive adequate exposure, resulting in the major cause of vitamin D deficiency for all groups (4). Paired with the fact that very few foods naturally contain or are fortified with vitamin D, this is one nutrient most of us could use more of. Thus, if you do not regularly consume plant milks or foods that are fortified with vitamin D, or if you are not receiving 15 minutes of natural sun exposure (sans sunscreen) per day, supplementing here is wise. When choosing a vegan vitamin D supplement, be sure to check the source of D3 as most of these are animal-derived (e.g. from sheep’s wool). Instead, choose D2 supplements or plant-derived D3 supplements.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids like ALA, DHA, and EPA are important for brain development and function, as well as eye and heart health. While ALA is found in plant oils like flaxseed, canola, and soybean oil, DHA and EPA are commonly derived from fish and fish oils. This is not due to an inherent presence of omega-3s in fish, but because they consume phytoplankton which feed on the microalgae where DHA and EPA are synthesized (10). To get these beneficial fatty acids in your diet, consume at least one serving of flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, canola oil, or flaxseed oil per day. Keep an eye out for plant milks and other foods fortified with plant-derived DHA as well, and consider a vegan DHA/EPA supplement sourced from algae if you’re looking to get more omega-3s in your diet.
Iron is an essential mineral for blood health and the production of red blood cells. Though iron deficiencies can be a cause of concern for both meat-eaters and vegans alike, making a conscious effort to regularly eat iron-rich foods in your diet can keep your levels of this mineral in check. Viable non-heme (plant-derived) sources of iron include leafy greens, white beans (44% of your daily needs per cup!), other legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils), tofu, cashews, almonds, pine nuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses, raisins, quinoa, tomato paste, whole grains, oatmeal, and fortified breakfast cereals. Methods to increase your body’s absorption of iron include consuming these options alongside foods high in vitamin C, cooking in cast iron pans, and opting for sprouted grains when possible (2, 3). If you’re concerned about iron deficiencies, it’s recommended to visit your doctor to get your hemoglobin and ferritin levels checked before proceeding with supplementation.
Iodine is an important mineral for proper thyroid function, which controls your body’s metabolism and brain health. To obtain adequate levels of iodine in a vegan diet, you can simply add 1/2 tsp of iodized salt to your daily diet, eat seaweed a few times per week, or choose a multivitamin providing 150 mcg of iodine.
Lastly, zinc is a vital nutrient that helps the body fight off infections, heal wounds, and make proteins (5). Because the body does not have a specialized storage mechanism for zinc, a daily intake of this mineral is necessary to maintain a steady supply (9). Getting enough zinc from diet alone is doable and the majority of people do get enough from the foods they eat, though vegans are at a higher risk of deficiency as a significant source of zinc is meat and seafood. To ensure you’re getting enough zinc in your diet, be sure to incorporate foods like beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashews, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, whole grain and sprouted breads, and quinoa. Eating sprouted beans, grains, and seeds along with leavened grain products (e.g. bread) can help increase the bioavailability of zinc in these foods (9). If you’re concerned about zinc levels, however, zinc gluconate or zinc citrate supplements are available.*
One of the difficult parts of going vegan is knowing where and what to eat when you want to go out with friends or family. Nobody wants to feel difficult, but we also don’t want to eat iceberg lettuce and carrots for dinner while everyone else enjoys their actual food (been there, done that). Luckily, it’s 2019 and the majority of restaurants are catching on and adding vegan fare to their menus. Even better, in almost any major city, you can now find dedicated vegan restaurants with free-for-all menus for us plant-based folks. Exciting times!
To find vegan and vegetarian options wherever you’re located, I highly recommend using HappyCow as a resource. Simply type in your location and they’ll let you know what restaurants have plant-based options for you. This is especially helpful when you’re traveling and have no idea what restaurants are nearby. In a pinch, however, here are some spots where you can almost always count on substantial vegan options:
Chipotle: Their tofu sofritas are so tasty and a great source of protein, too. My go-to order is a burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, sofritas, fajita veggies, hot salsa, and lettuce.
Native Foods: These aren’t quite everywhere (yet), but you can find them throughout California, Colorado, Oregon, and Chicago and their food is absolutely delicious. Everything is 100% plant-based and also made in-house. You can’t go wrong with anything on their menu, but pro tip: their sweet potato fries are to die for.
The Habit: If you live near a Habit and have a craving for a burger, their veggie burger is really good. It’s vegan as-is and comes with sweet mustard sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers on a whole wheat bun. I’ve gotten my meat-eating dad hooked on these so I feel like that counts for something fierce.
Garbanzo: I’m a sucker for good falafel. Heck, I’m even a sucker for a decent falafel. Either way, I’m a fan of Garbanzo’s falafel along with their other generous vegan options. Their pita is delicious and you can also get seasoned rice, seasonal veggies, falafel, tabbouleh, along with other toppings and sauces. My favorite dish is a plate with seasoned rice, falafel, hummus, lots of lettuce, and veggies topped with Greek vinaigrette and (so much) red chili sauce. As a note, their flatbread and tzatziki sauce are not vegan (contain milk) and their Mediterranean garlic sauce is not either (contains egg). If you’re ever unsure, just ask at the restaurant!
Loving Hut: Currently, these are only scattered throughout California, Arizona, and Texas, but it’s a fantastic option for Asian-inspired food. Their menu is 100% vegan and their Thai iced tea is a dream.
Mellow Mushroom: Got a pizza craving? Mellow Mushroom has your back. They offer Follow Your Heart dairy-free cheese which you can add to any of their specialty pizzas, or get creative and build your own!
Taco Bell: Okay look, I promised you a list of vegan-friendly restaurants; I didn’t say they’d all be healthy. If you’re truly in a pinch, or you’re traveling and simply need a quick bite to keep you going, Taco Bell is great. Their beans, rice, potatoes, tortillas, and guacamole are all vegan and they have the option to make regular menu items “fresco style” which removes the cheese and sour cream and replaces it with pico de gallo. As a rule of thumb, order fresco style to eliminate sour cream and cheese, sub beef for beans, and ask if there are any creamy sauces on the menu item. If so, remove that as well and add your preferred hot sauce instead. If you’re feeling indulgent, grab some cinnamon twists too! They’re completely vegan.
Vegan Diet FAQ
Q: What should I look for when grocery shopping to ensure food is vegan?
A: The quickest way to check if a meat-free product is vegan is by looking at the allergens listed below the ingredients. If milk, eggs, or fish are listed in bold, you’ll know to steer clear. If none of those allergens are listed but you’re still unsure, take a quick glance through the ingredients list. Common animal products like beef or chicken stock should be explicitly listed, but keep an eye out for hidden animal ingredients like honey, whey, casein, lactose, gelatin, lard, beeswax, carmine or cochineal, isinglass, L-cysteine, and albumen.
Q: Can I get enough protein in a vegan diet?
A: You certainly can! It’s not all pasta and potatoes, you know. Some of the best high-protein options include beans, lentils, tofu, seitan (my personal favorite!), tempeh, TVP, peas, edamame, spelt grains, quinoa, oats, nuts and nut butters, and soy milk. If you’re getting 3+ servings of proteins per day, along with healthy grains like sprouted bread, you can throw out those worries of protein deficiency. If you’re looking for extra protein that you’re not getting from diet alone, there are plenty of options for vegan protein powders as well. Some of my personal favorites include MRM Veggie Elite, Orgain Organic Protein, and Vega. Both Orgain and Vega can be found at great prices at Costco, so I recommend checking there if you’re a member!
Q: What’s wrong with honey?
A: Because honey is an animal product, it is inherently avoided by vegans. There is more to it, though: As with other animal products, honey production facilities have come to embody factory farming practices that harm and exploit bees. These include clipping the queen’s wings so she cannot flee the colony, artificially inseminating her to keep up production, transporting worker bees into new colonies which often contributes to their death, and replacing the bees’ honey supply with a cheap sugar substitute that leads to malnutrition. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative vegan sweeteners on the market! Agave nectar, maple syrup, date syrup, molasses, stevia, and brown rice syrup are all sweet, cruelty-free options.
Q: Isn’t soy bad for you?
A: If you want the simple answer: no. Due to the phytoestrogens present in soy, many assume that it can increase the risk of breast cancer in women and contribute to low testosterone in men. The fact is, human studies have tried to validate both of these arguments and neither have proven to be true. One study on the association of soy isoflavone intake and breast cancer found that soy isoflavone intake could lower the risk of breast cancer for pre- and post-menopausal women in Asian countries. For women in Western countries, there was no evidence to suggest an association between soy consumption and breast cancer risk (14). Additional studies have provided further evidence to support the link between soy consumption and reduced breast cancer risk (15, 16). With regards to soy affecting male testosterone levels, clinical studies have shown no impact of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men (17). Moreover, evidence from prior clinical studies points to an association between soy consumption and a decreased risk of prostate cancer (18).
Q: What adjustments do I need to make when baking vegan goods?
A: Milk, butter, and eggs are historically the quintessential ingredients of baking, so it may be confusing at first to adapt to vegan recipes without those ingredients. Rest assured, it’s completely doable and there are countless recipes out there on the internet to help get you started. As far as the basics go, here’s a quick summary! I’ll be sure to expand on this subject in future posts as well.
Cow’s milk is perhaps the easiest to substitute and can be easily swapped with any plant-based milk (soy, almond, oat, hemp, etc). Keep in mind that coconut milk is great in recipes with a coconut flair, but can overpower other flavors in the bake if that is not the primary taste you’re going for. Similarly, I recommend using the Original or Unsweetened varieties of plant milk to avoid altering the flavor of the bake too much.
For butter, substitute directly with a dairy-free margarine like Earth Balance. If you don’t have margarine on hand and the recipe calls for melted butter, you can use oil here as well in a 1:1 ratio.
Perhaps the most versatile ingredient in baking substitutions is the egg. The most common egg substitute is made with a mixture of ground flaxseed + water. To replace 1 egg, simply mix 1 tbsp ground flaxseed + 3 tbsp water and let sit for 5 minutes or so until it resembles a gel. Other egg replacers include aquafaba (3 tbsp = 1 egg), applesauce (1/4 c = 1 egg), or a commercial egg replacer like EnerG which can typically be found at Whole Foods or vegan specialty shops.
If I’ve left any questions unanswered, or if you have any helpful tips I missed on transitioning to a vegan diet, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you.