With so many alternative milks and soy products appearing on grocery store shelves lately, it should come as no surprise that veganism is on the rise—about 3 percent of the U.S. population claims to be following a vegan diet, up from 2 percent in 2012, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. But there's a lot more to the diet than just being a stricter form of vegetarianism. From what it is, why people do it and the nutritional pros and cons, to a typical day's menu, we wanted to take a deep dive into the vegan diet and provide you with the ultimate guide to learning more and figuring out if it's right for you.
Pictured recipe: Strawberry Spinach Salad with Avocado & Walnuts
What is the vegan diet?
Similar to people following a vegetarian diet, those following a vegan diet are choosing to eliminate meat and seafood. However, veganism goes a step further by excluding all animal products and byproducts as part of a "cruelty-free lifestyle," according to the Vegan Action / Vegan Awareness Foundation. This includes dairy products like milk, butter and eggs, and even some unexpected foods like honey and whey. Some vegans also avoid cosmetics that are tested on animals, certain soaps, as well as leather, wool, fur, silk and other products that are animal-derived.
What can vegans eat?
Generally speaking, vegans can eat the following foods:
- Nondairy milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, etc.
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy products (tempeh, tofu, edamame, soymilk)
- Non-egg-based pasta
- Non-egg-based bread
- Herbs and spices
- Yeast and nutritional yeast
What vegans can't eat?
Vegans should avoid eating the following:
- Meat and poultry
- Butter, milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream
- Egg-based pasta
- Egg-based breads
Foods that vegans may or may not be able to eat
Every vegan has different guidelines and standards but the below foods may be made with animal byproducts during processing. Here's our full list of surprising foods you think are vegan but may not be.
- Sugar: Some kinds are OK; it depends on the filtering processes used and how strictly someone is following a vegan diet.
- Wine: Some are OK; it depends on what fining agents are used.
- Food dyes: Some are OK; it depends on how they're made.
In addition to looking for vegan labels and certifications on food packages, it's important to always double-check the ingredients in packaged goods. A seemingly innocent, vegan-friendly-looking condiment could have an unexpected ingredient like anchovies in it, or a bread could have honey in it. Some vegans are stricter than others in terms of what they are willing to consume and how carefully they check ingredient lists.
Environmental impact of a vegan diet
Some choose to go vegan for environmental reasons. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, some vegans and vegetarians eliminate animal products for ethical reasons tied to the environment, as a means of protesting the conditions in which the animals are raised and/or slaughtered.
So, is the vegan diet better for the environment? The research is mixed but lots of experts think eating more plants would have a benefit to the environment. Some researchers estimate that if everyone in the U.S. went vegan, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 28%. But it's complicated, and ag would need to change to produce more of the plant-based foods that vegans need for nutrients.
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), producing 1 pound of chicken meat requires 4.5 pounds of grain as feed, and 1 pound of pork requires 7.3 pounds of grain. For a 100-calorie portion of beef, 700 calories of feed are required. Thus, vegans believe it's more efficient to directly eat these "feed ingredients"—soybeans and grains—instead of eating the animals that ate the soybeans and grains.
Learn more: Is a Vegan Diet Good for the Planet?
Is it cheaper to eat a vegan diet?
There may be a significant economic benefit if you eat a vegan diet. Foods like beans, rice and other grains, and fruits and vegetables tend to cost less than most meat and seafood items. Soy products and nondairy alternatives aren't always cheap, but they generally don't add up the way meat and seafood does.
On a large scale, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 estimated a projected savings of $289.1 billion in 2050 if everyone in the U.S. went vegan. But you wouldn't necessairly see huge savings at the grocery checkout. Being smart with your plant-based purchases can help. You don't need fancy products to be a vegan. Stocking up on basics like beans, whole grains, and in-season produce will help keep your overall grocery bill down. Making a list and planning in advance to minimize impulse purchases and keep costs down.
Another long-term cost that can be factored in is health care cost; a nutrient-dense, well-balanced vegan diet can result in better long-term health and thus fewer dollars spent on medications, doctor visits, hospital bills, or weight-loss assistance over the lifespan.
Is it actually healthy?
For many, going vegan is a way to simply eat healthier. In the absence of meat, seafood and dairy, this diet is inherently low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, which may contribute to a lower risk of heart disease. Vegans tend to consume less overall calories, which helps to control weight, and they usually eat greater amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes and grains (which are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber)—all choices that are encouraged by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That being said, just because a product claims to be "vegan" doesn't necessarily make it healthy; for example, processed packaged goods, such as certain potato chips or sugary treats, may technically be vegan, but that doesn't always mean they're nutrient-dense or good for you.
If you're considering switching to a vegan diet, there are certain nutrients to pay special attention to: iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. People eating meat, seafood and dairy get most of these nutrients in abundance, but when you cut these food groups out of your diet, it's important to make sure you're still obtaining the recommended daily values.
- Iron: Iron is one of the simpler ones, as it can be found in dark leafy greens and dried beans. You can also help boost your body's iron absorption by eating vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich foods (think sprinkling fresh lemon juice on sautéed spinach).
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is probably the trickiest to obtain, and the best way to make sure you're getting enough is by eating fortified foods (certain breakfast cereals, snack bars, beverage mixes, etc.) as well as taking a daily supplement.
- Calcium and vitamin D: The general population is able to get plenty of calcium from dairy foods, but vegans must rely on other sources of calcium. These can include dark leafy green vegetables, tofu, and calcium-fortified juices and nondairy milks. Supplements may be a good idea to ensure you're meeting the recommended value. The same goes for vitamin D; in addition to getting this vitamin through fortified foods like soy or rice milk, cereal and orange juice, a supplement may be a good option.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Just because you can't eat omega-3 rich fish like salmon doesn't mean you can't still get your omegas! These healthy fats can be found in foods like tofu, soybeans, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. See 8 Vegan Omega-3 Rich Foods.
- Protein: It's a common misconception that vegan diets lack protein. While it's true that most Americans obtain their protein (and plenty of it) from animal sources, there's a plethora of plant-based protein sources out there from which to choose. While there is some concern for making sure all essential amino acids are consumed at each meal, most vegans should be fine and have all their bases covered if they're obtaining protein from a variety of plant-based sources throughout the day.Some plant-based protein sources may seem obvious—such as legumes, nuts, tofu—but there are some surprising sources of protein out there too. Nutritional yeast is a very popular vegan ingredient; it adds a umami flavor boost to meatless dishes, along with 4 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Potatoes are another surprising protein source; a large russet potato provides 8 grams of protein! This versatile root veggie offers countless ways to prepare substantial, nutritious potato dishes. Seitan is another great one to try; made with wheat gluten (a protein), its chewy texture resembles meat and makes a great substitute in many dishes.
A typical day of a vegan diet
Just because animal ingredients are off the table doesn't mean you can't get plenty of variety (and tasty meals) in your day.
Breakfast: It's important to start the day off right with a hearty breakfast, and even when eggs and bacon are a no-go you have plenty of other options. Go for a bowl of oatmeal, perhaps with sliced banana and peanut butter sprinkled to add extra vitamins and minerals. Don't forget to hydrate with a glass of nondairy milk or calcium-fortified juice.
Mid-morning snack: Instead of a bag of chips or another coffee, slice up your favorite type of apple and dip the pieces into a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter. You'll get some fiber from the fruit and protein from the nut butter.
Lunch: Turkey sandwiches on white bread with mayo are overrated. Your carnivore co-workers will be jealous when they see you preparing a buddha bowl in the communal work kitchen. With chickpeas, roasted sweet potatoes and diced avocado, you'll be filled up for the rest of the afternoon and can rest assured you've gotten plenty of protein, fiber and healthy fats.
Afternoon snack: Who needs the vending machine when you've made your own trail mix? Toss together an assortment of your favorite nuts, dried fruits and flaked coconut. If you're feeling fancy, you can add citrus zest or spices to really jazz it up.
Dinner: Sure, takeout is easy, but sometimes it's difficult to be sure the restaurant has used all vegan-friendly ingredients. You can easily whip together a stir-fry at home and be confident your dish is entirely vegan. With tofu, snap peas, spinach, broccoli and peppers, you'll obtain protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron and fiber. For some extra substance, add a side of brown rice or soba noodles.
Dessert: Make a large batch of chia pudding using coconut milk and your preferred sweetener. Top with fresh berries and mint. Chia seeds are full of healthy omega-3 fats and protein. This would also make a great breakfast!
Even if you're not ready to go fully on a vegan diet, there are lots of benefits to eating more plant-based meals and foods. With planning, it's possible to eat a healthy and nutritionally-sound vegan diet. There also may be environmental and money-saving benefits.