What Is a Vegan Diet? (Plus, Benefits and Drawbacks to Consider)
Make Meatless Monday an everyday occurrence — and ditch animal-derived products entirely — and you'll start reaping the numerous health benefits of a vegan diet.
Whether you follow the Mediterranean diet or keto meal plan or something else entirely, you're likely no stranger to fielding people's flawed views about your eating style and its effects on your health. Vegan dieters, in particular, often face misconceptions that they subsist entirely on “rabbit food” and can’t possibly get enough protein.
But if MythBusters has proven anything, it’s that even the longest-standing misconceptions can be debunked. Here, a nutritionist sets the record straight on what a vegan diet actually entails (spoiler: it’s much more than just eating fruits and veggies), as well as the biggest benefits of a vegan diet — and its drawbacks.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
In general, someone who follows a vegan diet fills their plate entirely with 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 — vegan eaters avoid all animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, as well as ingredients that originated from an animal, such as gelatin and honey, she explains. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About the Differences Between a Vegan Vs Vegetarian Diet)
Though “plant-based” and “vegan” are often used interchangeably, there is, in fact, a difference between the two terms. Vegan eaters only consume plant foods, while plant-based eaters primarily consume them but may still eat some animal products, either in limited amounts or sporadically, says Springer. For instance, a plant-based meal might feature a quinoa-based grain bowl topped with roasted veggies, avocado, dairy-free dressing, and a small piece of grilled chicken, while a vegan version would swap that chicken with tofu.
To make matters even more confusing, there are a few different styles of eating within the vegan camp itself. Some eaters stick to a “whole foods, plant-based” vegan diet, meaning they eat all plant foods but try to limit processed ones (think: meat alternatives or packaged snacks). Others follow a raw vegan diet, cutting out any foods that have been cooked above 118°F and eating only fresh, fermented, or low-heat/dehydrated foods. “While I love its emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, [a raw vegan diet] does restrict certain plant-based foods that are loaded with nutrients, such as whole grains and tofu, and can be challenging to sustain long-term,” says Springer.
There’s also the group that Springer likes to call “junk food vegans.” “[These people] don’t eat animal products but get most of their calories from processed foods, vegan substitutes (i.e. fake meat, non-dairy cheese), and other nutrient-poor items that may be naturally vegan but certainly aren’t healthy, such as French fries and candy,” she says.
The Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Vegan diets promote a healthy gut.
Turns out, nixing the meat and loading your plate with veggies, beans, seeds, and whole grains can do your gut some good. These vegan foods are packed with fiber — the part of the plants that your body can’t absorb or digest — which not only makes you feel full and satisfied but also aids in digestion and helps keep your number twos regular, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. What’s more, a study of nearly 58,000 people showed that maintaining a high-fiber diet — such as by following a vegan diet — is linked with a reduced risk of developing colon cancer. To hit the United States Department of Agriculture's recommended daily intake of 28 grams of fiber a day and reap this benefit of a vegan diet, nosh on fiber-rich foods such as white beans, chickpeas, artichokes, pumpkin seeds, and avocados.
Vegan diets may lower the risk of developing diabetes.
Once again, you can thank all the fiber for this benefit of a vegan diet. ICYDK, type 2 diabetes develops when your body does not make enough or use insulin well, which can cause blood sugar levels to become too high for a prolonged period of time. But increasing fiber intake can help lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity, which allows cells to use blood glucose more effectively and further reduces blood sugar, according to an article in the journal Nutrition Reviews. Case in point: In another study of more than 60,000 people, only 2.9 percent of the vegan participants had developed type 2 diabetes, compared to 7.6 percent of the non-vegetarian (aka meat-eating) participants. (Related: The 10 Diabetes Symptoms Women Need to Know About)
Vegan diets are rich in antioxidants.
Along with fiber, naturally vegan fruits and veggies are loaded with antioxidants, substances that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals (a type of unstable molecule) that can damage cells. When these free radicals build up in cells, they can harm other molecules, which may increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke, according to the National Cancer Institute.
What's more, science has shown that you can get other health perks by eating these antioxidant-rich foods. For example, vitamin A (found in broccoli, carrots, and squash), vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and potatoes), and vitamin E (found in nuts and seeds) are all antioxidants that play a key role in supporting a healthy immune system — and might just help you stave off a nasty cold.
Vegan diets support a healthy heart.
As tasty as they may be to omnivores, animal-derived foods such as beef, pork, cream, butter, and cheese have high amounts of saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels and can ultimately increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. On the flip side, “a vegan diet is very low in saturated fat, so it can also help to reduce the risk of obesity and other related conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease,” says Springer. (Related: The Expert-Approved Guide to Good Fats vs. Bad Fats)
It’s important to mention, though, that many baked goods and fried foods also contain high levels of saturated fats, so vegan eaters who load their plates with “cheese” fries and processed plant foods aren’t necessarily going to reap these heart perks. “All of these health benefits are associated with a whole foods plant-based approach with minimal processed foods, rather than a vegan diet that relies heavily on vegan ‘junk food,’” explains Springer.
The Drawbacks of Following a Vegan Diet
Vegans may need to put in extra effort to get enough iron and calcium.
While it’s possible to get your fill of nutrients on a vegan diet, Springer says it can be challenging, especially when it comes to iron — a mineral that’s used to make proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and to muscles. The body doesn’t absorb the type of iron found in plant foods as efficiently as the type found in animal foods, which is why the National Institutes of Health recommends vegetarians and vegans consume nearly twice as much iron (amounting to 36 milligrams per day) as omnivores. To reach your quota on a vegan diet, Springer suggests loading your plate with iron-rich foods, such as beans, seeds (such as pumpkin, hemp, chia, and sesame), and leafy greens, such as spinach. Consider pairing these foods with others that are packed with vitamin C — such as strawberries, peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts — as doing so can enhance iron absorption, she adds.
Since omnivores typically turn to animal products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese for calcium and vitamin D — nutrients that support bone health — Springer recommends vegans use non-dairy milk that is fortified with those nutrients (aka added to the product). For example, Silk Almond Milk (Buy It, $3, target.com) and Silk Soy Milk (Buy It, $3, target.com) are both fortified with calcium and vitamin D to help you get your fill.
Still, those vegan alternatives may cost you a bigger chunk of change than the OG dairy product, says Springer. So if budget's a concern, try to fill up with plant foods that are packed with those nutrients naturally, including kale, broccoli, and whole grains for calcium and fortified cereals and orange juice for vitamin D. (Related: 10 Nutrition Mistakes Vegans Make — and How to Fix Them)
Vegans may need to take supplements for certain nutrients.
Other vitamins are even tougher to come by. Vitamin B12 — a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy — for example, is primarily found in animal foods (i.e. meat, dairy, and eggs) and is added to some cereals and nutritional yeast, per the NIH. In order to get the recommended daily allowance of 2.4 micrograms, Springer recommends vegans take a methylated vitamin B12 supplement, such as Methyl B12 (Buy It, $14, amazon.com). (Just know that supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so talk it over with your doc for specific recommendations on the best dosage and type of supplement for you.)
On the same token, vegan eaters may need some support getting the right proportions of omega-3 fatty acids, which help build brain cells and keep your heart healthy. Flaxseeds, for instance, boast plenty of ALA (an essential omega-3 that your body can’t make on its own), but they don’t have DHA (which is important for brain health) and EPA (which may help lower triglyceride levels), omega-3s that are primarily found in fish products, says Springer. The body can naturally convert ALA into DHA and EPA, but only in small amounts, according to the NIH. And since it can be challenging to get enough of those specific types of omega-3s through vegan foods (i.e. seaweed, nori, spirulina, chlorella), Springer recommends vegans consider taking an algae-based omega-3 supplement, such as Nordic Naturals' (Buy It, $37, amazon.com). Just make sure to avoid those made from non-vegan ingredients such as fish, fish oils, and krill oils. (Again, these supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, so chat with your doc before snagging any old supplement off the store shelf.)
Vegans might miss out on protein if they don’t plan properly.
There’s long been a misconception that vegans don’t eat enough protein by ditching animal products entirely, but that’s not always the case, says Springer. “If someone following a vegan diet consumes adequate calories and variety from a balance of all the vegan food groups, they should get adequate protein,” she explains. That means noshing on protein-heavy plant foods such as beans, quinoa, tempeh, tofu, hemp seeds, spirulina, buckwheat, and whole grains. (Or try one of these vegan-friendly protein powders.)
Who Should Avoid a Vegan Diet?
Even though the benefits of a vegan diet run aplenty, certain people might want to steer clear of the eating style. Those following a ketogenic diet — which centers around high-fat and low-carb foods — may struggle to get enough calories and nutrients if they were to simultaneously take on a vegan diet, says Springer. (In case you didn't know, fruits and veggies tend to be carb-heavy).
Likewise, folks who need to limit their fiber intake for medical reasons (such as a person with Crohn’s disease who’s experiencing a flare-up) may find that the fibrous meals involved in the vegan diet can cause additional discomfort, she adds. And since it involves cutting out so many foods, Springer cautions those with a history of disordered eating against trying the vegan diet, as it might reignite restrictive behaviors. TL;DR: If you’re even the slightest bit unsure about taking on a vegan diet, talk with your doctor or dietitian to make sure it’s the right fit for you.
Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
All things considered, there’s no clear-cut answer as to whether or not a vegan diet is healthy for every person willing to give it a go. “As with any diet, it really comes down to the individual,” says Springer. “Some people will feel fantastic following a vegan diet, while other people may not tolerate it as well. You know your body best, so if you try veganism and it doesn’t work for you, you can still reap the benefits of a diet rich in plant foods overall.”