Once associated almost exclusively with granola-crunching hippies, veganism isn’t nearly as fringe as it was, say, 30 years ago. Even Beyonce has dabbled in it, and Liam Hemsworth and Ellen Degeneres have been vegan for years.
Still, it can draw blank stares or skeptical eyebrow raises from those who aren’t entirely familiar with the concept.
Some people think “vegan” is an abbreviated way to say “vegetarian.” Others are convinced that being vegan means eating salads three meals a day (it doesn’t). Let’s start clearing some things up.
A vegan diet focuses on plant-based foods and beverages and excludes all animal products. The goal is to eliminate the use and harm of living beings.
While vegetarians still eat dairy and eggs, vegans remove any and all animal byproducts and foods that involve animals in their processing methods. Meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are taken off the plate and replaced with veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and grains.
We’re focusing on the eating aspect of going vegan here, but veganism is thought of as an entire lifestyle. Many people apply its principles beyond food, steering clear of clothes, makeup, personal care items, medications, and entertainment options that exploit animals or use animal products.
We should also note that a vegan diet is not automatically a low carb or low fat diet. It’s about cutting the meat, not the macros.
- Veggies. In case the “veg” part of “vegan” didn’t make that clear.
- Fruits. No limits on nature’s candy.
- Grains. Experiment with varieties beyond plain old bread, pasta, and rice. Think quinoa, freekeh, couscous, farro, and barley.
- Legumes. Meet your new primary protein sources.
- Nuts and seeds. So. Much. Almond. Butter. And don’t forget cashews — they’ll become a staple to provide a creamy consistency in dairy-free dishes.
- Tofu and tempeh. There’s a whole world of non-boring tofu recipes out there.
- Plant-based oils (and other fats). Cold-pressed is best. Avocados will also be your friends.
- Natural sweeteners. Honey isn’t allowed (ya know, bees), but you’ll sweeten up life (in moderation) with coconut sugar, maple syrup, and agave.
To boost your vitamin intake, mineral absorption, or gut health, add fermented foods like seaweed, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso paste, plus a source of vitamin B-12 (like nutritional yeast, which adds a cheesy taste).
- Animal proteins. Beef, pork, poultry, and seafood are all off the table.
- Eggs. Scrambled tofu is just as good — don’t worry.
- Dairy. Cashew “mac and cheese” and almond milk lattes await.
- Bee products. Sorry, honey.
- Animal oils and fats. Careful — lard and fish oils can sneak into the most unexpected places.
Replace these foods with balanced vegan alternatives (read: plenty of legumes, quinoa, nut butters, and tofu) and trust us, you’ll still get plenty of protein.
- Certain breads. That glossy top comes from egg wash, and doughs can sneak in honey, egg yolks, or even protein from poultry feathers.
- Condiments, dressings, sauces. Anchovies in Worcestershire sauce, eggs in mayo, dairy in ranch dressing, cheese in store-bought pesto.
- Sugars. The process of making refined white sugar involves animal bone char — definitely not vegan.
- Deep-fried foods. Your onion rings could be dredged in an eggy batter or fried in animal fat.
- Gummy candies, Jell-O, marshmallows. These sticky sweets most often get their chewy, jiggly texture from gelatin, which comes from boiling down the skin and bones of animals.
- Food/drinks with red coloring: Believe it or not, that bright red “natural” color comes from the extract of crushed and boiled beetles. Can’t make this stuff up.
Nicole W. (2013). Secret ingredients: Who knows what’s in your food? DOI: 10.1289/ehp.121-a126
- Roasted salted peanuts. Gelatin is used to help the salt stick to the peanuts.
- Certain alcohols. Clear hard liquors = generally safe. Imported beers and wines that might be made with a fish gelatin = not-so-happy hour.
- Juices. Omega-3 and vitamin D-fortified OJ might get those “heart-healthy” boosts from ingredients like fish oil and sheep’s wool-derived lanolin.
1. Read labels for red flags
Check packaged food labels for words like castoreum, casein, lactose, rennet, shellac, and whey. They all refer to proteins, thickeners, and other additives sourced from animals.
Read the fine print too — that’s where non-vegan allergens like milk or eggs are mentioned.
2. Be prepared
Whether you’re on the road or just eating out, planning ahead can be the difference between being happy or hangry. Pack vegan-friendly, portable snacks and don’t be shy about calling restaurants to ask about vegan options (don’t worry — they won’t think you’re weird).
3. Swap it out
Instead of jumping right into the uncharted territory of hemp/pea protein/cashew milk/kale smoothies, make the transition easier by finding vegan ways to re-create your favorite dishes.
Satisfy an egg craving with scrambled tofu, make mac and cheese with cashew sauce instead of dairy, try bean-based burgers instead of beef patties.
You can even make vegan bacon. And while the focus should be on whole foods, eating a processed vegan hot dog once in a while isn’t gonna kill ya.
4. Take a supplement
Being vegan has lots of health benefits, but cutting out animal products can also leave a few nutritional gaps in your diet.
You can prevent deficiencies in iron, vitamins D and B-12, omega-3s, iodine, and zinc by taking supplements or being diligent about eating vegan foods rich in those nutrients, like seaweed, nutritional yeast, lentils, and walnuts.
5. Focus on adding, not subtracting
Nobody loves being told what they can’t have. Animal products may no longer be “allowed,” but if your grocery cart is packed with sweet potatoes, quinoa, spinach, bananas, berries, tofu, beans, and almond milk, it’ll be pretty hard to feel deprived.
6. Be kind to yourself
Veganism is all about being kind to animals and the planet, but what’s the point if you aren’t kind to yourself too?!
Give yourself a break if you slip up from time to time, be patient if your taste buds take a while to adjust, and don’t stress if you can’t be 100 percent committed to being vegan 100 percent of the time.
7. Buddy up
No lifestyle change is easy to make alone. Join online or in-person vegan communities via social media, meetups, or forums.
It’s so much more fun — and helpful — when you have fellow herbivores to help you stay motivated, swap recipes, answer questions, and generally feel less like the only vegan in the world.
Because if Beyonce’s tried it, we all should, right? Just kidding. There’s lots of anecdotal and scientific evidence on the life-changing benefits of vegan diets, and it goes much further than just lower numbers on the scale.
From reducing your carbon footprint to potentially increasing your good karma, there are plenty of reasons people go vegan.
Assuming you aren’t eating Oreos all day every day (they ARE vegan) or relying solely on processed foods, research shows that a varied, healthy vegan diet can play a significant role in improving overall health.
Here are just a few of the effects of eating real, whole foods over time:
- weight loss
Moore WJ, et al. (2015). Dietary adherence and acceptability of five different diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets, for weight loss: The New DIETs study. DOI: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.06.011
- lower blood sugar
Lee YM, et al. (2016). Effect of a brown rice based vegan diet and conventional diabetic diet on glycemic control of patients with type 2 diabetes: A 12-week randomized clinical trial. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155918
- improved blood pressure
Tuso PJ, et al. (2013). Nutritional update for physicians: Plant-based diets. DOI: 10.7812/TPP/12-085
- lower cholesterol
Wang F, et al. (2015). Effects of vegetarian diets on blood lipids: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.115.002408
- lower risk of heart disease and cancer
Dinu M, et al. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447
- fewer symptoms of arthritis
Clinton CM, et al. (2015). Whole-foods, plant-based diet alleviates the symptoms of osteoarthritis. DOI: 10.1155/2015/708152
- reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Grant WB. (2016). Using multicountry ecological and observational studies to determine dietary risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2016.1161566
Aside from the nutritional benefits, many people find a sense of gratification on a moral level through going vegan. It’s an exercise in compassion for all beings, from the tiniest insects to massive mammals to sea-dwellers of all kinds.
The argument is that eating meat-free not only spares animals (however ethically raised) from slaughter or suffering but also keeps human workers from being forced to work in less-than-ideal slaughterhouse conditions.
For the planet
Want to do something good for the planet? Ditching animal agriculture could help.
Plant-based diets like veganism have been shown to contribute to decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, water wastage, deforestation, and other environmental side effects of large-scale meat production.
When everything from orange juice and sugar to beauty products potentially contains animal-derived ingredients, being vegan isn’t as straightforward as some might think.
If you’re ditching meat, dairy, and eggs but taking regular prescription medication (tested on animals), does that make you less of a “real vegan”? If your favorite nondairy creamer contains trace amounts of casein, have you failed at veganism?
The answer is this: It’s up to you.
Some vegans are super particular about the nuts and bolts, while others are more chill about the beer they’re drinking (not always vegan) and aren’t fussed about what kind of bread they’re served when they’re out to brunch.
While Judgy McJudgersons might say what they will, you get to decide where you fall on the spectrum, depending on what works for you, your body, and your lifestyle.
If you’ve been killing your workouts, sleeping like a baby, and generally feeling awesome and you passed your last physical with flying colors, you probably want to stick with your current diet, vegan or not.
On the flip side, if you have severe nutritional deficiencies (think iron, vitamin B-12, etc.), switching to a diet that makes it even more challenging to get enough of those nutrients may not be the best idea.
But if you’re sick of feeling sluggish, your cholesterol counts are kinda concerning, or you’re simply curious about what an entirely plant-based diet can do for you, consider giving veganism a shot.
You might love everything about it. You may realize you feel better without dairy, but you’re also much happier drinking that non-vegan Guinness once in a while.
You’ll likely discover that veggies are anything but boring. You just never know until you try.
Does vegan = gluten-free?
No. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It isn’t an animal product, so it qualifies as vegan.
Is veganism healthy?
If you’re eating a balanced diet including a variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins, veganism can be extremely beneficial for your overall health.
If you’re eating 90 percent refined carbs, making meals out of processed foods, or neglecting supplements, you may be vegan, but you might not be so healthy.
Can you eat dairy if you’re a vegan?
No. Dairy products from cows, goats, and sheep are all animal-derived and therefore off-limits on a vegan diet.
Can you eat fish if you’re a vegan?
Nope. Fish were once alive. Anything that was once alive = a no-no for vegans.
Is being a vegan good for weight loss?
Many people find that cutting out animal products translates to lower numbers on the scale, but adopting a vegan diet doesn’t automatically put you on the road to weight loss. It all depends on how and what you’re eating.
Plant-based foods tend to be less energy-dense than meat and dairy, but there are plenty of high calorie vegan foods out there (oh, hello, vegan cookies) that can not only contribute to weight gain but also skimp on nutrients.
Is being a vegan expensive?
Not if you’re mostly eating whole foods. Legumes, produce, and grains are some of the most affordable items at the store.
If you’re piling your grocery cart high with frozen dinners or specialty foods like meat substitutes and vegan cheeses, though, your wallet might feel the pinch (along with your waistline).
How do vegans get protein?
If you’re eating whole foods, pounding those protein shakes really isn’t that necessary. But if you do buy protein powder, read the label carefully and make sure it’s 100 percent plant-based.
What are the side effects of becoming a vegan?
We’ll start with the good stuff: Many people who go vegan experience higher energy levels, improved blood pressure, lower cholesterol, clearer skin, and better sleep.
At the same time, it’s not all rosy if you aren’t careful. Possible negative effects include deficiencies in nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12; sudden hunger pangs; intense cravings; fatigue; and digestive issues.
Many of these effects go away over time, particularly if you’re eating a balanced diet and getting enough calories. But it’s important to monitor your symptoms and see a doctor if some don’t seem to go away.
What foods can you eat if you’re vegan?
Where to start?! Veggies galore! Fruit for days! Any grain you like! Holy guacamole. All the seeds. Your pick of beans, nuts, and seeds! Check out the much more comprehensive list above.
What’s the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian?
While vegetarians still consume dairy and eggs, vegans avoid any and all animal byproducts. They also tend to avoid foods that involve animals in their processing methods, like beer.
Many vegans also avoid items that are made from animal products, like fur coats and leather shoes. Vegans may also choose beauty products and cosmetics stamped with “cruelty-free” and “vegan.”
So, are you feeling ready to transition to being a vegan to help yourself, other beings, and the planet? Rad. Ease into it gradually, patiently, and sensibly. We hope our tips make the switch as smooth as possible.
Work with your doctor, eat lots of whole foods, check the labels on everything, and take supplements to give your body a boost. Most importantly, veganism is all about compassion — and that includes compassion for yourself.
Be patient with yourself and this new lifestyle. You got this.