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Veganism — whether for reasons related to religion, health, or concerns about the environment or animal welfare — is becoming increasingly popular.

However, you may wonder what a vegan diet entails or how it compares to other types of vegetarian diets.

This article serves as a beginner’s guide for a vegan diet, explaining its benefits and downsides, while also providing a 3-day sample vegan diet menu.

vegan diet

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan is a type of vegetarian but not all vegetarians are vegans.

Other types of vegetarian diets include:

  • Flexitarian: A person who occasionally consumes animal products.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Someone who consumes eggs and dairy products but restricts other animal products.
  • Pescatarian: Someone who consumes seafood but restricts other animal products.
  • Pollotarian: A person who consumes poultry but restricts other animal products.

Of the various types of vegetarians, a vegan is the most strict since they avoid all animal-based products, including animal by-products like honey.

People may choose to go vegan for various reasons, including (1, 2):

  • Health: Vegan and other plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of many diseases.
  • Religion: People of many faiths, including Buddhists, Rastafarians, Seven Day Adventists, Hindus, and Jains follow vegan or vegetarian diets.
  • Animal welfare: The condition in which animals are raised and harvested aren’t always humane and avoiding animal products is one way vegans choose to take a stand against these practices.
  • Environmental concerns: Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from vegan or vegetarian diets tend to be lower than from meat-containing diets.

Regardless of the reason, more people are choosing to become vegan or follow a more plant-based diet.

Vegan diet foods

A vegan diet is an entirely plant-based diet that restricts all animal-based products.

Foods to eat

It’s best to include whole foods or foods that are minimally processed on a vegan diet.

Foods to eat on a vegan diet include:

  • Fruits: apples, apricots, bananas, berries, cherries, grapes, kiwifruit, mangos, melons, oranges, pears, tangerines, etc.
  • Non-starchy vegetables: artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, leeks, mushrooms, onions, etc.
  • Starchy vegetables: acorn squash, arrowroot, cassava, corn, beets, butternut squash, jicama, potatoes, turnips, yams
  • Whole grains: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, oats, popcorn, and whole-wheat bread, pasta, or crackers
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, Brazil nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pecans, poppy seeds, pine nuts, pistachios, quinoa, sunflower seeds, nut butters
  • Beverages: coffee, tea, water

Foods to avoid

The vegan diet restricts all animal-based products including:

  • Meats: beef, bison, goat, pork, etc.
  • Poultry: chicken, duck, eggs, goose, turkey
  • Dairy: butter, cheese, ice cream, milk, yogurt
  • Seafood: cod, crab, oysters, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, etc.
  • Bee products: bee pollen, honey, royal jelly, etc.

While most animal products are easy to identify, others require a closer eye.

Animal-based ingredients to avoid include:

  • albumin
  • carmine
  • casein
  • collagen
  • gelatine
  • ghee
  • glycerin
  • lactose
  • lard
  • isinglass
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • rennet
  • vitamin D3
  • whey

And while many products are marketed as “plant-based,” that doesn’t also mean they are completely free from animal ingredients.

3-day sample vegan diet menu

Here’s a 3-day sample vegan diet menu:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: overnight oats topped with fruit and nuts
  • Lunch: lentil bean salad
  • Snack: chia pudding
  • Dinner: butternut squash risotto with leeks and spinach

Day 2

  • Breakfast: whole-grain vegan banana pancakes
  • Lunch: vegan burrito
  • Snack: air-fried chickpeas
  • Dinner: arugula lentil salad

Day 3

  • Breakfast: tofu scamble and whole-grain toast with olive oil
  • Lunch: sweet potato salad
  • Snack: homemade trail mix and fruit
  • Dinner: black bean and corn summer salad

Benefits

Following a vegan diet may reduce your risk of developing various chronic diseases while also helping you achieve a healthy weight.

May reduce the risk of chronic diseases

Many of today’s common chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and kidney disease are tied to diets like the Western or standard American diet (SAD) (3).

The Western diet is rich in pro-inflammatory foods such as sugary beverages, refined grains, and processed meats, and poor in fiber-rich, anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

In contrast, a vegan diet has been associated with a lower risk of developing or dying from many chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (4, 5, 6).

Vegan diets offer protective effects against these conditions since they are rich in fiber and beneficial plant-based compounds called polyphenols, which possess potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects (7).

Vegan and other plant-based diets have also been shown to alleviate pain, reduce fatigue, and improve sleep quality in people with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder (8).

May promote weight loss

While there is no single best diet for weight loss, a vegan diet has been shown effective for weight loss.

In a review of 12 studies, those who followed a vegan diet lost an average of 4.4 pounds (2 kg) more than those who followed a non-vegetarian diet over 18 weeks (9).

Vegan diets may be more effective than other diets for weight loss since they are rich in appetite-suppressing fiber and low-calorie foods.

However, a diet — including a vegan diet — is only as effective for weight loss as your ability to follow it long-term.

Downsides

Although a vegan diet is associated with many health benefits it does come with some downsides.

May lead to nutrient deficiencies

Animal products are rich in many vital nutrients that plant-based foods either don’t contain or contain in limited amounts.

Consequently, vegans are at risk for many nutrient deficiencies

The most common nutrient deficiencies of a vegan diet include (10):

  • vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • vitamin B12
  • vitamin D
  • iodine
  • zinc
  • calcium
  • potassium
  • selenium

The risk of developing these deficiencies is also much greater in vegans compared with other types of vegetarians that may include some animal products in their diets like lacto-ovo vegetarians (10).

Vegan diets are also lower in protein compared with other types of vegetarian diets (10).

Many vegan products are highly processed

As more people switch to vegan and vegetarian diets, food manufacturers are creating more plant-based products like plant-based meat alternatives to meet the growing demands.

Although these plant-based meat alternatives are marketed as being healthy and sustainable, they are highly processed, contain numerous additives, and tend to be high in sodium and saturated fats.

Examples of plant-based meat alternatives include burgers, nuggets, meatballs, and sausages.

Sweetened varieties of plant-based dairy alternatives such as soy and almond milk as well as vegan ice cream and yogurt may also contain a significant amount of added sugars, which when consumed in excess, can increase your risk for heart disease and negatively affect gut health (11).

As such, it’s important to keep in mind that food products marketed as vegan or plant-based aren’t always healthy.

Best vegan supplements

Even when carefully planned, vegan diets generally lack in one or more nutrients.

Fortunately, taking certain supplements can be a convenient and cost-effective way to make sure you’re getting optimal amounts of the nutrients you may be lacking.

Here are a few vegan supplements to consider:

Protein

Vegan diets can contain adequate protein but they tend to contain suboptimal amounts (10).

Protein is beneficial for muscle health, immune function, and supporting a healthy weight.

Protein powders can be a great way to ensure you’re getting enough protein each day.

While most protein powders are milk-based, there are plenty of quality plant-based powders available.

Plant-based protein powders may contain protein from one source like soy, pea, or rice, or they may contain protein from a mix of these sources, among others.

Here are a few quality products to consider:

You can mix these powders with water or a milk-based dairy alternative, blend them in smoothies, add it to oatmeal, or make protein pancakes.

Multivitamin

Taking a multivitamin is a great way to cover any nutrient shortfalls in your diet.

However, many multivitamins contain vitamins or additives that are derived from animals so make sure you choose one that is vegan-friendly.

Here are a few quality options:

You can also supplement with individual nutrients that your diet may be lacking such as vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B12, rather than taking a multivitamin.

Here are vegan-friendly options for these nutrients:

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids play important roles in supporting brain, heart, lung, and immune health (12).

These essential fatty acids are found primarily in fatty fish like salmon and herring but some plant-based foods like flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds also contain them.

However, the omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based sources tend to be poorly absorbed by the body so supplements are often necessary for vegan diets to help maintain optimal levels (13).

Here are a few quality vegan omega-3 fatty acid supplements:

Creatine

Creatine is a compound naturally produced in the body. It’s also present in animal products like chicken, meats, and seafood.

Since animal products are the only dietary source of creatine, vegans naturally have lower levels.

Low creatine levels are associated with reduced muscle strength and power, mental conditions like depression, and poor memory (14).

As such, vegans — athlete or not — can benefit from supplementing with creatine.

Any creatine product that contains Creapure — a specific form of creatine — like this one from Throne is vegan.

The bottom line

A vegan diet restricts all animal products, including animal byproducts like honey.

Following a vegan diet may lower your risk for many chronic diseases while also helping you lose weight, if that’s your goal.

However, a vegan diet tends to have numerous nutrient shortfalls and many plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are less healthy than you may assume.

It’s important to carefully consider these pros and cons in determining whether a vegan diet is right for you.

If you choose to follow a vegan diet, taking certain supplements like a vegan protein powder, a multivitamin, omega-3 fatty acids, and creatine can help you avoid any nutrient shortfalls while providing other health benefits.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN
Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN

Gavin Van De Walle holds a master's degree in human nutrition and bioenergetics. He is a registered dietitian who aims to arm the public with evidence-based nutrition recommendations so they can make their own educated and informed health decisions.