What Is a Vegan Diet? Vegan Facts, Benefits & Precautions

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Vegans choose to avoid eating all animal products for a combination of reasons, which typically include better health, easier weight loss or maintenance, protection against chronic diseases, and even a positive effect on the world around them. Those are just some of the benefits of a vegan diet.

In contrast, each year, the average American consumes more than 200 pounds of meat and poultry, which is about three times the global average. In addition, the average adult living in the U.S. consumes 607 pounds of milk, cheese and other dairy products each year, plus around 79 pounds of fat a year (including some from low-quality animal products), a whopping 22 pounds more than consumed in the 1980s. (1)

One of the biggest problems facing us today is that the mass production of factory-farmed animal products usually doesn’t take into account the welfare of either the animals involved or us, the consumers. Another major player in this equation is the environment, since a large body of research now shows how much the industrialized livestock and dairy production take a serious toll on the ecosystem. For example, these industries appear to be accountable for a quarter or more of the total greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to alarming climate changes. (2)

It’s clear by now that many adults (and children too) living in western, industrialized nations tend to eat too much packaged foods, often too many animal products and, to top it off, usually too little plant foods too. Processed foods of all kinds, including low-quality meats and dairy products, are now produced in an increasingly mechanized manner that makes them more shelf-stable, cheap and convenient than ever before. Add in synthetic flavor enhancers, lots of sodium and added sugar too and you’ve got products that tend to be very tasty, calorie-dense and easy to overconsume.

Following a vegan diet is one way to avoid the dangers of conventional meat and dairy. So what do vegans eat? What are the benefits of a vegan diet, and how can you follow one? Let’s take a look.


Popular Vegan Diet Questions Answered

What is a vegan diet?

Vegans are vegetarians that take things one step further, avoiding all animal products in their diets. Many vegans make a commitment to eat more plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, along with 100 percent whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. In addition to making a commitment to eat fewer animal products, most also work on limiting ultra-processed foods, like white carbs and too much sugar (even though they’re technically ‘vegan”).

There’s several variations and definitions when talking about vegetarianism. Here are the most common:

  • Vegan — Abstain from ALL animal products and consume only plant-based foods (NO meat, fish, eggs or dairy). (3)
  • Vegetarian — Diet consists of plant-based foods and includes eggs and dairy.
  • Pescetarian — Diet includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, beans, eggs, dairy and fish (No poultry, beef, or red meat).
  • Raw vegan — A raw food diet consists of raw (usually all vegan) foods that have not been heated over 46º C or 115º F. When you decide to go on a raw vegan food diet, you’re only allowed to eat limited foods, which can make it hard to stick with long term.

What do vegans eat? 

Fruit and/or vegetables tend to make an appearance in almost every vegan meal. For example, for breakfast instead of eating bacon and eggs, someone with a sensible vegan diet might have oatmeal, fruit, nuts, coconut milk and seeds. For lunch, it might be rice and beans with a salad. Throughout the day, vegans might snack on nuts, raw veggies and hummus, and more fruit. And for dinner, foods like tofu or beans, grains, sweet potato and more veggies are common.

Depending on the exact type of plant-based diet someone follows, vegans/vegetarians typically eat:

  • All kinds of fruits and vegetables, including some that are raw
  • Sprouts
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Roots and root vegetables (squash included)
  • Fresh herbs and spices
  • Seaweeds
  • Sprouted whole grains
  • Soaked legumes and beans
  • Fresh and fruit vegetable juices
  • Cold-pressed oils like coconut oil or olive oil
  • Nut butters
  • Nut milks
  • Unprocessed olives and avocado for healthy fats
  • Fermented foods like miso and kimchi
  • Pure maple syrup
  • Dried fruits and vegetables
  • Vinegars and food that has been cured by vinegar
  • Raw cocoa/dark chocolate

Note that if you’re a raw vegan, some of these foods are further limited. Foods that are allowed in limited amounts on a vegan diet are those that have not been heated over 115º F.

What do vegans avoid eating?

Vegans eat NO meat, fish, eggs or dairy. They also might not consume honey or any products made with any sort of animal-derived ingredients like gelatin. Despite excluding meat, dairy, eggs and fish, not all vegan diets resemble one another — since you can avoid animal foods and still consume many unhealthy ingredients like white bread, refined oils and lots of sugar.

A healthy vegan diet is one composed largely of unprocessed plants. Depending on the reasons someone chooses to go vegan, that person might try very hard to avoid all animal products, junk foods, and also hyper-processed carbs or packaged vegan products made to be dairy or meat alternatives.

Can you eat bread as a vegan? This depends on if you eat only raw vegan foods or avoid gluten (a protein found in wheat). Those who are raw vegan or gluten-free vegan don’t consume grains or other foods made with wheat flour. However, it’s more common for vegans to include wheat and other cooked grains in their diets in order to have more variety. In this case, yes, vegans eat bread.

 

Processed meat overload - Dr. Axe

 


Is It Healthy to Be a Vegan?

Some studies have found that compared to lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets (those who eat eggs and dairy but not meat), vegan diets seem to offer additional protection for obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular mortality. (4) According to a report published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association,  “Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.” (5)

A vegan diet, when carefully planned and executed, can be healthy for most people — however, it’s not always a good idea for everyone. Studies show that there are some nutrient deficiencies that tend to be higher among vegans, especially those consuming processed diets or struggling with other health conditions (like anemia, for example, or being underweight) that interfere with normal nutrient absorption.

Because a vegan diet can be both hard to follow long term and also potentially problematic, some people prefer to stick with a “flexitarian” approach to eating less animal products instead. For example, you might not consider yourself a vegan or even a vegetarian, but you can still make a conscious effort to limit your intake of animal products, focusing on eating plant foods the majority of the time. With this flexible approach you might still choose to have animal products several times per week but probably not every single day.

Switching to a vegan diet is considered a healthy move by many, but it may not be all it’s cracked up to be in some bases. Below are some of the downsides to eating a completely vegan diet long term (more than several months): (6)

  1. Protein deficiency (lack of amino acids). Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle and are important for cellular health and proper metabolism. Too little protein can call muscle wasting, cognitive changes, mood swings and weakness.
  2. Low levels of vitamin B12. You can only get vitamin B12 in substantial amounts by consuming meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, so vegans usually need to take supplements.
  3. Lower intake of other nutrients like zinc, sometimes calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Higher intake of antinutrients like phytic acid. There are grains, beans and legumes, such as raw soybeans, lentils and mung beans, that may contain trypsin inhibitors. These inhibitors can block key digestive enzymes. Also, grains can contain phytic acid that can keep you from digesting calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. However, soaking and sprouting your grains and legumes can greatly reduce phytic acid.
  5. Potential inability to put on muscle. This may be due to the lack of certain vitamins that we normally get from meat and fish.
  6. Overconsumption of carbohydrates. One of the most common trends I’ve found from working with hundreds of vegans and vegetarians is that they tend to overconsume carbohydrates and hidden sugar foods. Eating too many carbs can cause candida and yeast overgrowth along with weight grain. There are some vegans who have created a better balance, but this is far from the majority.
  7. Fatigue and feeling exhausted. Again, this is usually due to the lack of certain vitamins and minerals that we normally get from meat and fish, such as iron and B vitamins.

5 Vegan Diet Benefits

1. You’ll Likely Lose Weight

Cross-sectional studies of plant-based eaters (vegetarians and vegans) have shown that on average they have a relatively low BMI, especially vegans. (7) If you change your diet to favor plants and unprocessed foods, you’re very likely (although not guaranteed) to consume fewer calories than you did when you were eating the standard American diet that’s high in things like sugar, refined carbs, dairy and low-quality meat.

More than a quarter of the calories in many Americans’ diets come from highly processed and damaging carbohydrates, like soda and sweetened grain products, while another quarter come from animal products. Plants have fewer calories relative to their weight — in other words, they have a lower caloric density and are also nutrient-dense. They’re also high-fiber foods and filling, which can help curb food and calorie intake more easily.

2. Improved Gut Health

Health markers like your weight, body composition, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol depend on many variables: physical activity, age, body composition, time of day, stress, sex, hormones and, of course, your diet. All of these also influence your gut health, which in turn determines many processes in your body beyond just digestive health. Consuming a plant-based diet can make it easier to get enough prebiotics and probiotics to maintain a healthy gut environment.

The “good bacteria” that make up someone’s healthy microbiome need fiber from plant foods along with probiotics to flourish. Recent studies have revealed the roles that microbes in the gut play in numerous aspects of health, from burning calories to keeping us mentally sharp. A 2014 report published in the journal Nutrients states, “The vegan gut profile appears to be unique in several characteristics, including a reduced abundance of pathobionts and a greater abundance of protective species. Reduced levels of inflammation may be the key feature linking the vegan gut microbiota with protective health effects.” (8)

3. Higher Intake of Antioxidants and Enzymes

Vegans tend to consume lots of fresh produce, often in raw form. This can provide many protective antioxidants that fight free radical damage and also boost vital enzyme content. When cooked over a certain temperature, the enzymes found in foods become destabilized. Enzymes are important because they’re needed to break down the food into smaller nutritional units that the body can handle.

While the pancreas and other cells make enzymes in the body, raw foods provide more enzymes for the body to use. In a diet of purely cooked foods, the pancreas and other organs are overworked, because there is no external enzyme source, and as a result, they become exhausted. Eating a variety of veggies and including raw foods can help reverse this process.

4. Protection Against Metabolic Syndrome

When done the right way, a healthy vegan diet can help keep you protected from metabolic syndrome risk factors — like high blood pressure, diabetes and insulin resistance. However, it’s important to note that not every vegan diet will have this benefit; the quality of carbs in someone’s diet (processed or unprocessed) and overall nutrient intake are strong determining factors.

Hypoglycemia is a blood sugar condition that occurs when there is an imbalance between glucose and insulin levels. If you consume “simple sugars” (processed carbohydrates) that make your glucose and insulin levels spike quickly, the sudden drop in blood sugar that ensues leaves you hungry and sometimes dizzy and anxious too. Eating an unhealthy diet that’s high in sugar, low in fiber, and high in inflammatory or processed foods means your glucose levels rise and plummet rapidly, and possibly that your insulin levels are too high and continue to rise higher, setting the stage for diabetes. A poor diet also impacts your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.

Consuming more whole foods and plant foods as part of a vegan diet can help lower inflammation, facilitate with hormone balance and keep this from happening. But again, not every vegan diet will guarantee this.

5. Less Impact on the Environment

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture, forestry and other land use accounts for 24 percent of  global greenhouse gas emissions each year, mostly due to cultivation of crops and livestock along with deforestation (clearing forests to have more land for livestock to live).

This estimate does not even include the CO2 that ecosystems remove from the atmosphere each year in other ways related to the livestock industry, such as through processing and transporting of animal products, or from the impact that deforestation has on dead organic matter and soils. Neither does it reflect the serious issues of toxic waste runoff from factory farms, causing chemicals and pollution to make their way into the water supply. Moreover, concerns like hormones and antibiotics used in the livestock and dairy industries impacting both the ecosystem and food supply are considerations.

There are multiple environmental benefits to consuming less factory-farm animal products and rather purchasing sustainable, grass-fed products. For some people, they’re motivated enough to cut out animal products from their diets all together for these reasons.

 

Vegan diet risks vs. benefits - Dr. Axe

 


Vegan Diet Plan Guidelines (+ Paleo Vegan!)

In my opinion, you might want to consider some alternatives to a strict vegan diet, including “Paleo vegan.”

Compared to strictly being vegan, usually as a vegetarian or pescetarian you’re able to get plenty of protein (amino acids) and vitamin B12 without supplementation, so overall I prefer those approaches. That being said, if you’re a vegan I strongly suggest you supplement with vitamin B12 and consume plant-based protein powder daily and also include plenty of nuts, seeds, mushrooms, beans, seaweed and higher protein grains (like quinoa, for example) in your diet.

Then there’s the option to try a “paleo vegan” diet, which basically means you avoid most or all animal foods but also added sugar and processed grains or soy products. On a paleo diet, typically foods like meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots and nuts are encouraged, but all grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar and processed oils are not allowed. Because there would be hardly anything left to eat if you followed both of these plans (paleo AND vegan), modifications usually need to be made in order to offer enough variety. Most raw foodists and fruitarians (such as those doing the “80/10/10 diet”) follow a vegan paleo diet, but this isn’t easy long term and might not provide enough calories. (9)

You might also try the flexitarian approach, perhaps keeping your intake of animal foods to only one to three times weekly. A major benefit in terms of this lifestyle is that you get more minerals, omega-3 fats, protein and healthy fats overall in your diet. Regardless of whether you choose to eat a vegan diet all the time or not, I recommend focusing on these dietary habits, which are the cornerstones of health no matter what your preferences are:

  • Increase your consumption of whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat less junk and high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. In other words, cut the majority of processed, packaged foods (even vegan kinds) from your diet.
  • Vary the types of protein foods in your diet if you do eat animal foods. With industrial production of meat and hyper-processed foods, the opportunities to eat non-plant foods have become overwhelming. This makes overeating meat, cheese and animal fats easier than ever before, so try to consciously include more plant protein (like legumes or beans) into your diet at least some days.
  • Eat mindfully, or sensibly, in terms of practicing portion control, eating the amount your body truly needs to stay energized, and avoiding eating for comfort reasons. Mindful eating can help you make sure you don’t consistently overeat, whether it’s vegan food or not.

Precautions When Going on a Vegan Diet

At the end of the day, each one of us reacts to eating in a certain way a bit differently. It’s important to pay attention to how dietary changes affect you and to make changes based on what’s actually healthiest, rather than just following how someone else tells you should should eat.

I personally consume about 70 percent raw plant-based foods but also about 30 percent high-quality animal foods — like organic grass-fed beef, organic pastured dairy, wild-caught fish (wild-caught salmon is my favorite), and free-range organic poultry and eggs. I’ve tried a number of diets, including vegetarian, vegan and pescetarian, and have found I really feel the best following this ratio. I call this ratio the healing foods diet and have also found this to have the best results with my patients. Here’s the new, updated Healing Food Shopping List so you can have an extensive food guide to follow.

The bottom line: Always pay attention to your own “biofeedback,” monitoring how you feel as you make changes to your diet. Focus on factors beyond just your weight too — for instance your energy levels, mental well-being, sleep, libido, skin health, digestion and cognition/concentration.


Final Thoughts on a Vegan Diet

  • A vegan diet is one that excludes ALL animal products, focusing instead on plant-based foods. NO meat, fish, eggs or dairy are included in a vegan diet, while all types of fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, grains and herbs/spices are.
  • Benefits of eating a vegan diet can include weight management, heart health, reduced risk for metabolic syndrome, high antioxidant intake and improved gut health.
  • Risks associated with vegan diets, however, include low intake of certain nutrients like B vitamins, iron, calcium and omega-3s, along with low protein intake and potentially weakness/fatigue.
  • Make sure to listen to your body and follow a balanced, well-rounded diet devoid of processed foods, no matter if you follow a vegan diet or not.

Read Next: 16 Vegan Recipes in a Jar


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