13 March 2019Vegan Diet
A vegan diet is based only on plant foods. Vegans avoid eating any foods of animal origin:
- no meat, poultry or fish
- no food products made with those, such as cured meats or Asian fish sauce
- no eggs
- no cow’s milk
- no foods made with cow’s milk: yogurt, cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese
- no foods containing eggs or milk as an ingredient, such as mayonnaise (eggs), pudding or ice cream
- some vegans also avoid honey, as it comes from bees
While the vegan diet is a popular topic in the mainstream media, in reality few people are strict vegans. In developed countries, surveys show that from 0.5% to 2% of the population follows a strict vegan diet. But many more people may be part-time vegans, because of concerns about environmental sustainability or animal welfare. In some countries, such as India, veganism is mainstream, and has religious and cultural roots.
Foods Permitted on a Vegan Diet
- Whole grains
- Foods made from grains (breads, pasta, noodles, tortillas)
- Legumes and fermented soy foods like tofu
- Oils and fats from plant sources
- Plant milks and foods made from those (NOTE: only soy milk has significant protein. Others are extremely low protein.)
- Processed foods that do not contain meat, dairy or eggs
- Plant-based “meat” substitutes
- Sweeteners like sugar and maple syrup
- Condiments that do not contain any dairy or eggs
Legumes, soy foods and nuts must be emphasized at meals every day to ensure adequate protein intake.
- Health benefits: Vegan diets are linked to improved health and lower body weight. Plant-based diets are filling. Many people spontaneously eat less food as a result.
- Cost: Depending on what foods you include in your vegan diet, you can decrease your food bill, assuming you prepare many foods at home.
- Nutritious, but… The increased volume of plant foods means better intake of nutrients like potassium, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and other minerals. However, avoidance of animal foods means protein intake could be compromised without careful planning. And intake of certain nutrients, like vitamin B12, will be severely compromised (see below).
- It’s easy to eat a very unhealthy and highly processed vegan diet if you rely on meat substitutes and processed foods. Chips, soft drinks and sugary soy lattes are all vegan. A vegan diet that’s heavy on soy burgers, energy bars and French fries is not healthy. Planning and knowledge are essential.
- Many restaurants do not offer vegan options. Fast food restaurants are particularly lacking in meatless options. So a vegan diet could restrict your choices for dining out.
- Restaurants that do offer “vegan” options frequently just base those on vegetables or maybe a few grains, ignoring protein foods.
- More time-consuming food preparation. Vegan recipes require more cooking skills and preparation time.
- Nutrient deficiencies are a very real concern. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal-sourced foods. Vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc can also be deficient. You can supplement with these. Some processed foods are fortified with one or more of these nutrients.
- High protein plant foods must be included daily, preferably at all meals. Choices include legumes, soy foods, nuts and whole grains. Some vegans use protein powders in smoothies to boost protein intake.
Breakfast: oatmeal with walnuts, raisins; soy milk
Lunch: burrito with refried beans, salsa and chopped vegetables
Snack foods: nuts, fresh fruit, hummus and vegetables, energy/granola bar
Dinner: brown rice, tofu stir fry with vegetables, fresh fruit
Vegan Diet Summary
Is it healthy?
A vegan diet can be both a lifestyle choice and a health strategy. It is associated with lower risk for numerous chronic diseases, although contrary to popular myths, it does not guarantee longevity.
Vegan diets are associated with easier weight control, but this isn’t a given. You can eat a high calorie and even high fat/high sugar vegan diet, depending on your choices. “Vegan” does not equal “healthy”. It’s all about your choices.
Is it viable long term?
Yes, but it requires dedication and planning. Many traditional cultures and religions have been using vegan diets for a very long time. If properly planned, vegan diets are nutritionally complete.
Do I like this diet?
I eat many vegan meals by default, but I am not a strict vegan. While a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy and delicious, knowledge and planning are essential.
I am not a fan of fake meat products, and while these foods may be useful on a vegan diet, they should not be the basis of the diet. A healthy vegan diet should be based on whole foods.
The Vegan RD
The Vegetarian Resource Group (sections on veganism)
The Vegan Society
Vegetarian Nutrition dietitian group (vegan handouts)
International Vegan Association
Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Feed Your Vegetarian Teen and Food Wisdom for Women: nutrition for aging with energy, vitality and health. Donna writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice.
If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.
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