Considering the Vegan Diet? Here’s What You Need to Know

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.

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.

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

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition offers a review of the vegan diet, listing a number of health benefits and recommendations.

Here are a few observations:

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.

So, to take advantage of the health benefits of the diet, focus on healthful eating, and not simply because the label on the package implies that it’s “vegan-friendly.”  Just because an item is vegan, doesn’t necessarily make it healthy. Potato chips and diet soda can be considered vegan, but are they good for you?

The Challenges of a Vegan Diet

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, as well as 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 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 foods such as beans, lentils, whole grains and soy-based tofu and tempeh.

How to Get Adequate Protein When on the Vegan Diet

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.

There is a relatively easy fix for this, however. 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. The essential amino acid that tends to be lacking in beans, peas and lentils, for example, is abundant in whole grains.

And, conveniently, what the grains lack, the beans can provide. The foods don’t need to be eaten at the same time, but you’ll often find these “complementary proteins” 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 (from soy, pea, rice, quinoa and hemp) is that they offer protein for relatively few calories. 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.