The vegan diet has become increasingly popular worldwide, with vegans swearing off not just food with animal-derived ingredients, but other animal products as well.
Despite the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, it also comes with risks, such as vitamin deficiencies, anemia, and hormonal imbalances. So if you do decide to go vegan, it’s important that you adopt a healthy vegan diet.
Similar to a vegetarian diet, the choice to eat vegan is a personal one. If you’re considering eliminating all animal products, it’s worth figuring out if plant-based diets are all they’re cracked up to be.
What Is Vegan Food & What Is a Vegan Diet?
Vegan food is food that doesn’t contain animals or animal byproducts of any sort. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t just mean the food itself, but also the ingredients of the ingredients, the packaging, and the overall production and shipping process.
Vegan food doesn’t exploit or abuse animals in its creation or consumption. A vegan diet solely includes those foods that fit within this category. Fruits and vegetables are an obvious example of vegan foods.
Once considered a niche diet, it’s since become more mainstream, with the number of vegans in England alone increasing by 350% between 2006 and 2016.
What Are Vegans?
The term “vegan” is derived from the first and last two letters of “vegetarian” and dates back to 1944, when vegetarians broke away from England’s Leicester Vegetarian Society to form the Vegan Society. In addition to refraining from meat, vegans don’t eat eggs, dairy, or any other foods of animal origin. Vegans go beyond refraining from eating animal foods and don’t wear clothes or use products made from animal skin.
Though veganism’s definition has changed over the past few decades, the Vegan Society defines it as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purposes.” In short, they remove any products from their lives that involve animals, animal exploitation, or animal cruelty in their production.
So it’s not just about food—vegans avoid fur, leather, zoos, petting farms, and circuses, instead opting for animal sanctuaries, which boast better conditions for animals. Instead of simply a diet, it’s a lifestyle.
What Do Vegans Eat?
When researching vegan diets, it’s easy to find which foods to avoid, but finding out specifically which foods are vegan can be more difficult. While fruits and vegetables are obvious examples, vegan food includes myriad options, some of which you may be unfamiliar with.
Whole grains and cereals
Whole grains and cereals provide complex carbs, B vitamins, iron, and minerals. When you adopt a vegan lifestyle, you eat foods you may not have tried before, such as the ancient grains farro, barley, and quinoa.
Algae, seaweed, and other leafy greens
Often added to soups, stews, and pasta dishes, these can be a great source of protein, iron, iodine, and other essential nutrients.
Legumes are a large food group that includes chickpeas, peanuts, peas, lentils, and many types of beans. Legumes have protein, iron, and healthy fats, all nutrients that vegan diets tend to be short on. Legumes also include soybeans, which is where tofu comes from. Tofu is a staple in most vegan diets.
Seeds and nuts
Stealthy non-vegan foods and ingredients
You might think that following a vegan diet is easy—just avoid foods made out of or from animals, right? Wrong. It’s not actually that easy. Several foods that would otherwise be vegan are processed with non-vegan ingredients. If you see any of these ingredients on a label, your food is probably not vegan.
Most refined sugar is filtered and whitened with a product called “bone char,” which is the ground-up bones of animals, usually cows. Sugar labeled as “organic,” “raw,” or “unrefined” is not processed with animal bone char.
Beer is processed with a clarifying agent called “isinglass.” Also known as fish glue, this is created using the membranes of certain fishes’ air/swim bladders, commonly called “sounds.” Though this is included in a pescatarian diet, it’s a strict no-no for vegans.
Quite a few companies don’t use isinglass or other animal products, including:
- Anderson Valley Brewing Company
- Bayhawk Ales
- Bristol Brewing Company
- Capitol City Brewing Company
- Diamond Bear Brewing Company
The above companies, among others, are responsible for hundreds of different beers, including Budweiser and its offshoots, Carlsberg and India Pale Ale.
L. cysteine is a type of amino acid that functions as a dough conditioner in processed breads and bakery products. While L. cysteine can be sourced from plant products, it often comes from bird feathers, animal hooves, and even human hair.
Though whey boasts potential health benefits, such as helping with weight loss and having anti-cancer properties, it’s a by-product of the cheese-making process, so it contains an extensive amount of dairy.
Gelatin is found in countless products, including cosmetics, yogurts, marshmallows, and ice cream. It’s made from animal collagen, typically taken from the bones, skin, and other leftovers from pigs and cows after they’ve been slaughtered by the meat industry.
Types of Vegan Diets
When many people think of a vegan diet, they assume there’s one diet to follow—simply one that doesn’t contain any animal products. That isn’t the case, however. There are multiple vegan diets, in fact, each with their own various health benefits and dietary restrictions. They do, however, all follow the same principle—focusing on only plant-based foods. Here are some of the most common popular vegan diet trends:
Also known as a plant-based diet, practitioners of the whole-food diet limit themselves to whole plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and legumes.
Similar to the whole-food vegan diet, the raw food diet goes a step further and excludes foods that need to be cooked at over 118°F (48°C). While it seems a bit eccentric, it’s not unheard of for public figures to subscribe to this diet. Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson is one of them.
The 80/10/10 diet demands that practitioners get 80% of their calories from carbs, while the remaining 20% is split evenly between protein and fats.
A high-carb, low-fat diet, this is similar to the 80/10/10 diet, although it focuses on starchy foods like rice and potatoes instead of fruits.
Raw Till 4
As the name implies, this low-fat diet encourages practitioners to solely eat raw foods up until 4 p.m., before cooking a plant-based dinner.
Similar to the raw-food diet, this focuses on plant-based foods that are either raw or minimally cooked. Temperatures are kept as low as possible with this approach.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t focus on eating junk food all day, at least not intentionally, although teens around the world probably subscribe to a similarly titled diet. Instead, it entails eating heavily processed vegan foods that replicate mock meats, cheeses, and desserts.
This type of vegan diet is not a healthy vegan diet, and in fact can result in too much sodium, too few essential nutrients, and hormonal imbalances from an overuse of soy protein isolate.
Why Switch to a Vegan Diet
The vegan diet’s popularity has soared for multiple reasons, with ethics and health being the most common. Ethical vegans believe that all animals should be left to live and shouldn’t be consumed or exploited, while proponents also highlight the various health benefits the diet provides. Then there are apparent environmental concerns. The logic behind switching to a vegan diet is more than understandable, so it’s worth breaking down each of these reasons.
Animal agriculture is directly linked to climate change through the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) it creates, with meat eaters being responsible for between two and two-and-a-half times the number of GHGEs than those who follow vegan diets. When these diets are calorie-matched, vegans are responsible for 53% fewer GHGEs released into the environment than their meat-eating counterparts. Goats, cattle, and sheep appear to be the leading drivers of these emissions per gram of protein they create.
Then there are the land resources that a meat diet requires. In land terms alone, producing animal protein needs between 6 and 17 times the amount of land that soybean protein production needs. It also needs between 2 and 3 times the amount of water, depending on rainfall and similar factors. By 2050, it’s estimated that the resources needed to fuel humanity’s current system will exceed what the planet is capable of sustaining.
Vegans believe that, like humans, animals have a right to a life free from suffering and pain, arguing that breeding them for consumption is ethically wrong. As such, they’re against killing an animal to wear its skin or fur or eat its flesh. They argue that modern farming practices, despite claims of being humane, cause psychological trauma and harm, pointing toward the small cages many animals live in from birth until death.
Vegans also note that because sustainable, ethical, and animal-friendly options are available, these practices are not only unethical but unnecessary. Regardless of the conditions that animals are reared and farmed in, vegans believe that, as conscious beings, animals shouldn’t be exploited by humanity for their meat, wool, eggs, honey, or milk.
A vegan diet boasts multiple health benefits, especially when compared to a diet high in red meat, which is linked to heart disease and other illnesses. A lower red meat intake is known to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease while also improving digestion. A vegan diet avoids red meat completely, eliminating the diet-related risks of developing such conditions.
The health benefits associated with veganism can be seen across three main areas, while also having a few additional minor advantages.
Vegans have a lower body mass index and weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts. While some of this may be related to other lifestyle choices, multiple studies show that vegan diets help people lose weight better than many other diets, including ones from the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP), American Dietetics Association (ADA), and the American Heart Association (AHA). It’s also been shown that people following a vegan diet lose more weight than those following a calorie-restricted one, perhaps because the higher dietary fiber intake of vegans reduces appetite.
Type 2 diabetes
A vegan diet has a direct impact on blood sugar and the risks of developing diabetes. With lower blood sugar levels, vegans have a higher insulin sensitivity and are up to 78% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes when compared to meat eaters. The diet also reduces blood sugar levels by up to 2.4 times when compared to diets recommended by the American Dietetics Association and American Heart Association.
Experts speculate that this is also because of the high fiber intake, which could have an impact on blood sugar’s response to the diet. That impact may also help with the weight loss benefits mentioned above.
Though research is still in early stages, observational studies suggest that vegans are 42% less likely to die from heart disease and are 75% less likely to suffer from high blood pressure. These data have been enhanced by randomized controlled studies, which show that a vegan diet reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, overall cholesterol, and blood sugar levels compared to other diets. Each of these contribute to heart-related deaths, with vegans being 46% less likely to die from such conditions.
A vegan diet also helps with arthritis, reducing many of its main symptoms, including joint swelling and morning stiffness. While it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for arthritis treatments, it can manage the pain associated with the condition.
Risks of a Vegan Diet
Though a vegan lifestyle offers many health benefits, it also has its risks. Before eliminating all animal products from your diet, you should be aware of the following health risks.
Legume proteins contain anti-nutrients, which block the absorption of nutrients and can cause intestinal permeability. Over time, that risks a condition known as “leaky gut.” Other foods that contain anti-nutrients include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and other leafy greens, whole grains, and tea and coffee.
Soy beans have phytoestrogens, chemicals that are typically given to women experiencing menopause. These can elevate estrogen levels in the body, which may lead to hormonal imbalances.
Isoflavones, also in soy products, are linked to cases of breast cancer. It’s important to eat a balanced vegan diet and only a small or moderate amount of soy products, especially those containing soy protein isolate, to avoid the risks associated with breast cancer.
A lack of hemoglobin and lowered levels of iron in the vegan diet means anemia is a risk. Supplements can reduce the risk of an imbalance, but supplements are not as easily absorbed into the body as food, so they’re not a perfect alternative. Meat eaters typically get iron from red meat. Iron is, however, abundant in leafy greens, a food present in any healthy vegan diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids, or healthy fats, which are found abundantly in fish and fish oils, aren’t available in large amounts in a standard vegan diet. A decreased risk of this increases the risk of depression and can increase heart disease risk. There are foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, albeit in smaller amounts, including walnuts, seeds, edamame, and seaweed.
B12 is only found naturally in animal-based products, being responsible for DNA and red blood cell formation, elements only present in animals. Vegans miss out on this vital vitamin by default. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms.
Let’s Talk Dietary Supplements
The risks associated with a plant-based diet can be life altering, although that doesn’t mean that people considering it can’t minimize them. Supplements can be an effective way of doing so, and those that wellness professionals recommend include the following supplements:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
By taking each of the above in the right doses, vegans can get their recommended nutrient intake while still avoiding animal cruelty and exploitation. Consumers should take care to ensure the option they choose is vegan friendly and also consider packaging and other animal-derived ingredients.
Vegan Diet: Wrapping Up
There are multiple reasons to eat vegan and follow a plant-based diet. While a vegan diet can simply be a way to stay healthy, it’s also part of an overall lifestyle choice for those whose ethics demand a conscious consideration of animal welfare and the welfare of the environment they live in.
It’s far from a risk-free diet, but by taking a smart approach, vegans can get all the nutrients they need from plant sources.
Do vegans eat fish?
No. That vegans eat fish is a common misconception among non-vegans. As explained above, vegans don’t eat any animal-based foods or use any products that exploit animals. They avoid all animal foods, including fish. People may confuse this for pescatarian, a type of vegetarian who refrains from eating most meats but is willing to eat fish.
What is the main food in vegan diets?
While this can depend on the type of vegan diet a person follows, it typically comprises whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Vegans also eat bread, pasta, and rice.