The Pros and Cons of Going Vegan: A First-Timer's Guide

The decision to adopt a vegan nutrition plan happens for many reasons. Some choose the diet because of environmental or ethical concerns, while others have specific health or weight loss goals tied to their choice. You’ve probably heard about veganism or maybe you know someone who follows a vegan diet.

If you’re considering going that route yourself, it’s important that you make the right food choices in order to meet your nutritional needs, since you’ll be eliminating sources of a few key nutrients such as protein, zinc, and calcium.

Interest in plant-based foods and meat alternatives – and plant-based diets in general – is becoming more widespread. We recently conducted a global survey of eating habits among 28,000 respondents in 30 countries to understand how the pandemic is influencing their diets.

We found that:

If you’re considering adopting a vegan diet for the first time, it’s worth understanding the pros and cons. Just like any other diet change, there can be benefits and challenges to it.

The Benefits of a Vegan Diet

Not to be confused with the vegetarian diet, which mainly excludes animal flesh, the vegan diet is more restrictive, excluding not only animal flesh but also all animal products, including milk, eggs, and honey.

Despite these omissions, there are a number of potential benefits to a vegan plan, according to a recent review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

Due to the nature of the diet, vegans tend to be more mindful of what they put into their bodies – something everyone can practice, vegan or not.  In order to reap the health benefits of the diet, it’s important to focus on creating a healthy balanced diet with an abundance of nutrient-dense foods.

The Challenges of a Vegan Diet

As vegan diets become more popular and food manufacturers are offering more vegan options, you might be swayed by a “vegan-friendly” package label. But just because an item is touted as vegan, doesn’t necessarily make it healthy. After all, potato chips and diet soda can be considered vegan, but they offer very little in the way of nutrition.

Because the vegan diet is quite restrictive, getting all the nutrients your body needs can be challenging. Without dairy products, for example, you will need to ensure you get adequate calcium and vitamin D. Leafy greens and tofu can provide calcium – so can calcium-fortified foods such as soy milk or orange juice. Many milk alternatives are also fortified with vitamin D, as are some breakfast cereals. Another good source of vitamin D is mushrooms.

And since animal proteins are good sources of iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, you will need to find alternative sources of these nutrients to ensure all your nutrition needs are met.  Since there are no reliable plant sources of vitamin B12, vegans usually need to obtain this nutrient from fortified foods and/or supplements. Zinc, on the other hand, is fairly widespread in the plant world. Oats, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, and tempeh are all good sources.

Because the diet excludes all animal products, obtaining enough protein on a vegan diet takes some careful planning. But it can be done by choosing from a variety of plant protein sources such as beans, lentils, whole grains (such as quinoa or oats), tofu, and tempeh.

How to Get Adequate Protein When Going Vegan

Dietary proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, which the body uses to manufacture important proteins. Of the 21 amino acids that occur in foods, nine are considered essential because the body can’t make them – so, they have to come from the diet.

Animal proteins are “complete” proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids. But – with the exception of soybeans – most plant foods lack one or more essential amino acids, so they’re considered incomplete. And it’s important that your body have an ample supply of these essential nutrients.

Even though most plant proteins are incomplete, there is a relatively easy fix. Since different plant proteins have different amino acid profiles, consuming a wide variety of foods helps to ensure that the body will get all the essential building blocks it needs. When you consume a range of plant proteins throughout the day, you’re more likely to meet your needs.

For example, the essential amino acid that tends to be lacking in beans, peas, and lentils is abundant in whole-grains. And, conveniently, what the grains lack, the beans can provide. The beans and grains don’t need to be eaten at the same time, but you’ll often find these “complementary proteins” together on the vegan plate – such as a pairing of rice with beans or a bowl of lentil soup with whole-grain bread.

One of the benefits of plant-based protein powders (with protein derived from sources such as soy, pea, rice, quinoa, and hemp) is that they offer protein for relatively few calories and are generally designed to provide all 9 essential amino acids. They are also easy to add to foods such as protein shakes, oatmeal, and soups to boost protein – and, you can individually tailor how much protein powder to use, depending on your individual needs.

Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND –Sr.Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan BowermanM.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman earned a B.S. in biology with distinction from the University of Colorado, and received her M.S. in food science and nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a registered dietitian, holds two board certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and is a Fellow of the Academy.