What is a vegan diet? Protein, health benefits, and more
LAST UPDATED: Jan 27, 2022
3 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Meatless Mondays have gone mainstream, and lots of people are choosing to go vegan 100% of the time. Thanks to grocery aisles packed with vegan products and an internet full of vegan recipes, getting the nutrients you need from vegan food has never been easier.
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What is a vegan diet?
Let's start with the basics. Like vegetarianism, veganism is a diet that focuses on eating plant-based foods. But there are some key differences between the two. While both exclude meat, vegetarians still eat animal products like dairy, eggs, gelatin, and honey.
A vegan diet excludes any food that comes from animals. Some people even avoid other non-food products that are animal-derived, such as leather clothing and makeup with animal-derived ingredients (Sakkas, 2020).
Benefits of a vegan diet
People have different reasons for going vegan––and it isn’t always about animal welfare.
Veganism and the environment
As the climate changes, many people are looking at dietary changes as a way to reduce their carbon footprint.
In one study, Oxford University researchers calculated the carbon footprint of 40 products that make up 90% of all food eaten by humans. They determined that a vegan diet produced the lowest amount of carbon emissions and was the single most impactful thing individuals could do for the planet.
For context: even beef produced with the most sustainable practices is responsible for six times more greenhouse gas emissions and 36 times more land use (often deforested property) than plant proteins like peas.
Even if you aren’t ready to trade an omnivore diet for a vegan one, swapping a meal that includes red meat for a plant-based one just once a week can cut down your annual carbon footprint by almost 10% (Poore, 2018).
Health benefits of a vegan diet
Another huge selling point of a vegan diet is it’s extremely healthy––as long as you’re getting a variety of plant-based foods.
A diverse vegan diet is rich in antioxidants, calcium, dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and polyphenols (micronutrients abundant in plants). Because there are no animal products in this diet, it’s packed with fruits and veggies, whole grains, low-fat and high-protein legumes like beans, and doesn’t include any animal-derived saturated fats (Sakkas, 2020).
Fruits and veggies, legumes, and grains (cereals) are particularly high in dietary fiber. Chickpeas and flaxseed (which also work as an egg substitute) are both good sources of fiber, not to mention omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Dietary fiber has been linked to better cardiovascular health, boosted immunity, and improved intestinal health––and most Americans aren’t getting enough of it (Quagliani, 2017).
There are also plenty of vegan options for dairy products like vegan cheese and ice cream, so you won't have to go without those creamy indulgences.
Note that if you aren’t eating the right foods (or enough food in general), a vegan lifestyle can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Some warning signs of a deficiency are fatigue, brittle hair and nails, or loss of hair (Guo, 2017; Sakkas, 2020).
Do I need a supplement on a vegan diet?
If you’re worried about not getting enough vitamins and minerals, you can always turn to supplements. You can find a multivitamin or supplements that include calcium, iron, niacin, omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, and zinc.
You can get enough of all these through vegan products, although sometimes it can be tricky (and time consuming) to find all the right ingredients you need to keep healthy. On that note, vegan diets do tend to be rich in vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin Β6, vitamin C, E, as well as iron, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and folate (Bakaloudi, 2021; Rogerson, 2017).
Sources of vegan protein
Since meat is the go-to protein source for many people, figuring out how to get protein while adhering to a vegan diet can seem daunting at first.
Once you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to find protein from plant sources. As a bonus, it can also be a lot cheaper than buying meat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that you get at least 50 grams of protein daily (FDA, 2020).
Soy products such as seitan, tempeh, and tofu are great meat alternatives and are packed with protein. A fungus-based protein source called mycoprotein is often molded into vegan “chicken” nuggets. Beans and lentils are also fiber-filled staples of the vegan diet that can add bulk and protein to a meatless meal. Chia seeds, Ezekiel bread, hemp seeds, nuts, spirulina, and quinoa are also vegan sources of protein. Even kale has a small amount of protein.
You also don’t have to buy expensive protein powders (though you certainly can, just make sure they aren’t whey, which is made from milk). Be aware that processed mock meat products like Beyond Beef aren’t automatically good for you just because they’re vegan; they can still contain lots of salt and saturated fat, so make sure to check the label so you know what you’re getting (Harnack, 2021).
Looking up local vegan restaurants in your area can help introduce you to new dining-out options and give you ideas for vegan meal plans.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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Quagliani, D, & Felt-Gunderson, P. (2016). Closing America’s fiber intake gap. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 11 (1), 80-85. doi:10.1177/1559827615588079. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6124841/
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Sakkas, H., Bozidis, P., Touzios, C., Kolios, D., Athanasiou, G., Athanasopoulou, E., et al. (2020). Nutritional status and the influence of the vegan diet on the gut microbiota and human health. Medicina, 56 (2), 88. doi:10.3390/medicina56020088. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7073751/
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