A Helpful Guide to the Vegan Diet for Beginners
Based on the nine million+ #veganlife posts on Instagram, it might seem as if everyone has jumped on the vegan bandwagon and you’re the only meat-eater left behind. But in reality, only three percent of Americans identify as full-fledged vegans — a rate that’s stood firm since 2012, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
Numbers aside, those herbivorous eaters might be on to something. Research shows that sticking to a vegan diet comes with plenty of health perks, from lowering the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease to promoting a healthy gut and immune system.
So if reading over those benefits has convinced you to give the way to eating a go, follow this guide to the vegan diet for beginners. Not only will it help you plan nutritionally balanced and seriously delicious vegan meals, but it will also give you the tricks needed to make a meat-free eating lifestyle sustainable — even if you’re currently packing your plate with chicken and cheese.
The Vegan Diet for Beginners Plan
Before you attempt to switch up your omnivorous routine for a plant-only version, you first need to know what a vegan diet actually entails. In general, vegan eaters nosh solely on plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and soy products, says Kelly Springer, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. Unlike vegetarians — who consume milk, cheese, and eggs but not meat — vegans avoid all animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Vegan diet followers will also cut out ingredients that originated from an animal, such as gelatin and honey, she explains. Now that you've got a better understanding of the basics, here's how to get started. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About the Differences Between a Vegan Vs Vegetarian Diet)
Ease into your vegan diet plan.
It may be a cliché, but the idea that “slow and steady wins the race” couldn’t be more true if you decide to entirely ditch animal-derived foods. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same is true for veganism,” says Springer. “It is very unlikely that someone who eats a lot of animal products will become vegan overnight — and if they do, it probably won’t last.”
The key to adopting a vegan diet for beginners is to slowly begin incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet and build up from there. First things first, try a few Meatless Mondays, experimenting with vegan meals on those days only and taking note of how each meat-free dish makes your body feel, says Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Throughout those Meatless Mondays (or really, any meat-free day you choose), swap your cow’s milk with soy milk; use tofu in place of chicken in your grain bowl; and switch meat with beans in your stew, she suggests.
If eating vegan for one day makes you feel energized and satisfied (i.e. you're not feeling sluggish and your stomach isn't growling 24/7), you can steadily increase your vegan meal intake each day. Check in with how you’re feeling, and if the results are positive, then continue to swap your omnivorous meals with vegan ones until you’re eating entirely vegan, adds Ansari. “Keep it simple and put less pressure on yourself to change your whole eating pattern,” she says. “The more you take smaller steps forward, the more likely it will be sustainable.”
To make the transition even more gradual, Springer suggests dialing back your animal product consumption in phases. “A realistic ‘gateway’ approach is to follow a vegetarian or pescatarian diet for a while, and then reassess if veganism is still the ultimate goal,” she explains. If you still have your sights set on being 100-percent herbivore, you can then start subbing a few of your vegetarian meals — either on a specific day or within a week — with vegan ones, and continue to gradually amp up your intake from there.
Don’t try to “veganize” your favorite foods.
As stress-free as it is to swap your beef burger with a faux meat product, Springer stresses that relying on vegan substitutes can actually make adopting a vegan diet plan more challenging. “[These substitutes] often won’t taste like what they are accustomed to, or they try to cook with new, hard-to-find vegan ingredients,” she says. “Therefore, they struggle with finding satisfying vegan meals.”
Instead, Springer recommends sticking with the basics (i.e. fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, and seeds) and focusing on familiar meals that just happen to be vegan. Start off with simple plant-based dishes such as hearty bowls of oatmeal topped with fruit and nuts; roasted veggie hummus wraps; peanut butter and banana sandwiches; and veggie stir-fries with brown rice, she suggests.
Stock your kitchen with the essentials.
If you want to be successful with your vegan diet plan — and ultimately reap its health benefits — you need to load your fridge and pantry with the staples. Keep plenty of fruits and veggies on hand, which are packed with immune-boosting nutrients (think: vitamins A, C, and E) as well as fiber to keep you full. Unless you hit the grocery store every day or run your own garden, it can be challenging to maintain a supply of fresh produce, which is why Springer recommends stocking up on frozen versions of your faves. “They are often frozen at the peak of ripeness, which maintains their nutritional integrity, and they are very inexpensive,” she adds. “They are also a great way to enjoy seasonal produce year-round.” Also consider keeping potatoes, apples, and winter squash on hand, as these varieties of produce have a longer shelf life, says Springer.
For quick proteins, turn to canned or dried beans as well as whole grains, nuts, and seeds from the bulk bins at your local supermarket, all of which are relatively inexpensive, nutritious, and have a super long shelf, explains Springer.
Swap your meats, cheeses, and milk for their plant-based counterparts.
Rather than relying on faux meat products and dairy-free “cheese” — which are technically vegan but aren’t always the healthiest — to satisfy your omnivorous cravings, Springer recommends finding whole plant foods with similar textures and tastes. Portobello mushrooms, for instance, have a meaty texture and umami flavor that makes them an ideal substitute for a classic burger. And mashed chickpeas are perfect for a “tuna” salad, she explains.
Other vegan swaps are super innovative — but just as delicious as the OG. “Jackfruit can be used to make barbecue pulled ‘pork,’ and mashed lentils with chopped walnuts and spices can be a yummy substitute for ground beef,” says Springer. “Tofu works well in a breakfast ‘scramble.’ And nutritional yeast, which is a great source of protein and B vitamins, also has a nice ‘cheesy’ flavor that can be used as a replacement for Parmesan cheese.”
Embrace meal prepping.
After a non-stop workday, the last thing you’ll want to do is spend an hour over the stovetop — let alone try out a new vegan recipe. And while a huge bowl of spaghetti is sure to quell your hunger for a moment, its lack of satiating fiber and plant-based protein means your stomach will be growling before bedtime. That’s why a vegan diet for beginners works best with a bit of meal prepping, says Springer. “It might be helpful to spend a weekend day making a big batch of one or two whole grains — such as quinoa and steel-cut oats — roasting a bunch of different veggies, and prepping some plant-based proteins — such as marinated tofu or cooked black beans — to mix and match for quick meals throughout the week,” she says. “If you can, buying items such as pre-washed and pre-chopped veggies, and already-cooked grains, such as frozen brown rice, is super helpful too.”
FYI, it’s crucial that vegan eaters focus on including a variety of foods and colors in their diet to build a nutritionally balanced plate, says Springer. The body doesn't use plant-based iron as effectively as meat-derived iron (meaning veg eaters need to consume more than double the amount of iron as omnivores), per the National Institutes of Health, and meat and dairy products are often the default way for omnivores to get protein, calcium, and vitamin D. All that's to say newfound vegans need to put a little extra thought into the foods they're adding to their plate, says Ansari. When creating your meals, make sure each one features a rainbow of fruits and vegetables (or at least a few different colors), a two-ounce serving of whole grains, and a plant-based source of protein, such as beans, tofu, tempeh, edamame, or nuts and seeds, she adds.
One thing you don’t have to worry about concocting from scratch: Non-dairy milks, such as soy, almond, oat, hemp, or cashew “milk”. While homemade versions tend to be less processed, they’re pretty time-consuming to make, says Springer. “I always use store-bought non-dairy alternatives since they tend to be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and they even come in vacuum-sealed, shelf-stable varieties,” she adds. Translation: There’s no need to invest in an entire nut milk-making kit.
Expect some initial changes to your digestion.
By upping your intake of plant foods on a vegan diet for beginners, you’ll also be increasing the amount of fiber in your diet, which helps lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and keep you regular, according to the Cleveland Clinic. You might start noticing some changes with digestion, as a result of eating more fiber, says Ansari. “You initially may notice some changes in bowel habits, more gas, or even a little bit of abdominal pain, so make sure you’re hydrating really well during your transition to a vegan diet,” she says. Reminder, fiber pulls water into the colon in order to produce soft, bulky stools and prevent constipation, per the Clinic, so hitting your H2O goals (roughly 91 to 125 ounces per day, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine) is key.
Be aware of potential nutrient deficiencies.
Filling your plate entirely with plant foods can also make it challenging to get your fill of certain nutrients, particularly vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, says Springer. A nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, vitamin B12 is primarily found in off-limits animal foods (think: meat, fish, milk, and eggs) and is sometimes added to vegan-friendly breakfast cereals and nutritional yeasts, according to the NIH. Without enough of it, you might feel tired and weak, experience a loss of appetite, or feel constipated, according to the NIH. Yikes. That’s why Springer recommends vegan eaters take a methylated vitamin B12 supplement to hit the recommended daily allowance of 2.4 micrograms.
Getting the right proportions of omega-3 fatty acids — which help build brain cells and keep your heart healthy — may also be a concern with a vegan diet for beginners, says Springer. Even though vegan-friendly foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans boast plenty of ALA (a type of omega-3 that your body can’t produce on its own), they’re missing EPA (which is important for brain health) and DHA (which may help lower triglyceride levels) — omega-3s found primarily in fish, fish oils, and krill oils, per the NIH. Seaweed, nori, spirulina, and chlorella *are* vegan sources of EPA and DHA, but it’s not exactly practical to get your fill by munching on these foods alone, says Springer. And if you become overall deficient in omega-3s, you might develop rough, scaly skin and dermatitis, according to the NIH. TL;DR: Vegans should consider taking an algae-based omega-3 supplement to have a sufficient intake, says Springer.
A quick word of caution: Dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. So before you add one to your wellness routine, chat your plans over with your doc to find the best dosage and brand for your needs.
Consider meeting with a dietitian.
Even if you think you’ve got a handle on your vegan diet plan, there’s no harm in chatting with a dietitian about your new eating style to make 100-percent certain you’re on the right track. “A vegan diet can be extremely beneficial and health-promoting, but only if it is followed properly,” says Springer. “It is crucial to get the necessary nutrition education in order to adopt a well-planned, balanced, nutrient-dense vegan diet so that the maximum benefits can be achieved.” Plus, meeting with a dietitian periodically can ensure you’re getting all your nutrient needs — particularly those ones that are easy to lack when following a vegan diet plan, she adds. (And if you can't meet with a dietitian, try booking an appointment with your primary care physician or contact the Nutrition Information Specialists at the USDA's National Agricultural Library for additional resources.)
Vegan Diet for Beginners Meal Ideas
With hunks of meat no longer taking up half your plate, your omnivorous, out-of-the-loop family, friends, and partner might automatically assume you don’t eat much else besides raw veggies. But in reality, meals on a vegan diet plan can be just as flavorful — and mouth-watering — as ones featuring animal products.
For breakfast, Ansari recommends noshing on a bowl of oatmeal, made with almond or soy milk or whole-wheat toast fixed with peanut butter and honey. Her all-time favorite: Vegan waffles (re: egg-free) smeared with nut butter, drizzled with honey, and sprinkled with fresh berries. At lunchtime, whip up a quinoa bowl featuring roasted carrots and collard greens or toss together a Greek salad paired with pita bread and hummus, she says. When dinner rolls around, nosh on lentil soup topped with avocado and a side of garlicky sourdough bread; a brown rice bowl with tofu, roasted veggies, and a curry sauce; or quinoa tabbouleh with teriyaki-marinated tofu, pita bread, and hummus, adds Ansari.
If none of these vegan meal ideas tickle your tastebuds, try one of these plant-based recipes — all of which offer filling, gut-boosting fiber, muscle-building protein, and tons of essential nutrients. And yes, a vegan dessert is more than welcome on your plate.
- Three Vegan Recipes You Can Make In Less Than 20 Minutes, from Beyoncé's Nutritionist
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- Vegan Kale and Mushroom Soup
- Vegan Mushroom, Kale, and Quinoa Enchiladas
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- You Can Make These Vegan Holiday Cookies with Just 5 Ingredients
- Recipe Ideas for Vegan Energy Balls for Protein In a Pinch
- Make These Vegan Milkshakes When You Want a Creamy Treat
No matter which dishes you decide to make, though, remember to transition to a vegan diet for beginners by making small changes to your plate — not completely overhauling it. Most of all, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to eat a chicken breast instead of tempeh one night. “It’s important to focus on progress, not perfection,” says Springer. “Any opportunity to incorporate more whole plant foods will be beneficial, so try not to worry so much about eliminating them entirely. Instead, focus on making most of your plate consist of whole plant foods.”