Been secretly curious about #veganlife and wondering if you could swing it? We know you can. And with this guide, we’re going to help you get there by taking the guesswork out of buying, cooking, and eating vegan-approved foods. Expect your fiber intake to go up as you chow down on produce, nuts, beans, and whole grains, and to learn the many ways to answer the dreaded “where do vegans get their protein?” question. At the same time, rest assured that dessert can totally be part of the plan.
From alternative ingredients that make vegan mac and cheese possible to unexpected hidden sources of animal products to look out for, this “manual” provides essential info as well as some lesser-known secrets to make vegan life healthy, stress free, and of course, delicious.
The Dos: What You Can Eat
Duh. There shouldn’t really be any restrictions on vegetables on an average vegan diet. The only advice we’ll give you is to make sure you keep your veggie intake is varied and colorful (in other words, try not to fall into a broccoli rut).
- Acorn squash
- Artichoke hearts
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Butter lettuce
- Butternut squash
- Collard Greens
- Spaghetti squash
- Sweet Potato
- Swiss Chard
Fresh and Dried Fruits
Like vegetables, fresh fruits are one of the main pillars of a vegan diet. Some varieties, like mangos and grapes, are higher in fructose than, say berries, but unless you’re really trying to watch your sugar intake, the natural kind in fresh fruit shouldn’t be much of an issue. If you’re munching on the dried stuff, know that many come with sugar added, so check the ingredients on the package and watch your portions.
- Avocados (yes, it’s a fruit!)
Cereals and Grains
All grains are fair game on a vegan diet, but complex carbohydrates are higher-quality energy sources—and even contribute to better gut health
—so try to stick with whole-grain, fiber-rich options instead of refined flours. Get creative with your complex carbs by adding ancient grains into your rotation in addition to the usual brown rice and whole-wheat bread. Most items on this list can be found in the baking, organic, or international food aisle at your supermarket (although some of the more unusual ones like sorghum or freekeh may require a trip to the specialty grocery store). Many of these grains can be found in dried pasta products too.
- Oats and oat bran
- Rice (white and brown)
- White flour
- Whole-wheat flour
Contrary to popular (and annoying) belief, it isn’t hard to get enough protein on a vegan diet. Not only do many vegetables and grains come with surprisingly high protein counts, but there are plenty of plant-based foods with protein as their main nutrient. From fermented soy to sunflower seed butter to chickpeas, here are several easy answers to the “how do you get your protein?” question that vegans face all too often.
- Adzuki beans
- Black beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Brazil Nuts
- Broad beans
- Butter beans
- Fava beans
- Kidney beans
- Lentils (green, red, yellow, brown)
- Lima beans
- Macadamia nuts
- Mung beans
- Navy beans
- Pinto beans
- Pine nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Snow peas
- Soy, rice, hemp, or pea protein powders
- Split peas
- String beans
- Sunflower seeds
- Tahini (sesame seed butter)
- Wheat protein (seitan)
- White beans
Butter is a no-no for vegans, but most plant-based oils are OK for consumption in moderation. If you’re particular about how your oil is processed, avoid refined types and look for “expeller-pressed” or “cold-pressed” on the label.
- Almond oil
- Avocado oil
- Canola oil
- Coconut oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Macadamia oil
- Olive oil
- Rice bran oil
- Sesame oil
Several forms of sugar are a-OK on a vegan diet. On one hand, this is great news (what’s life without a brownie every now and then, right?); on the other, vegan desserts, beverages, cereals, and baked goods can be just as high in sugar as their non-vegan counterparts. So inhaling that daily breakfast muffin just because it’s dairy-free and eggless may not be as great an idea as you may think. That said, here are some vegan-approved sweeteners.
- Agave nectar
- Beet Sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Raw cane sugar
- Palm sugar
- Maple Syrup
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are the ultimate secret weapons for adding tons of flavor to your food without resorting to processed condiments or unnecessary extra oil. Practically all of them are vegan-friendly, so season liberally.
- Chili powder
- Green onion
- Ground ginger
Look to these foods if you need an extra boost in terms of protein and vitamin intake, mineral absorption, or gut health.
- Seaweed (for protein): kelp, spirulina, and agar agar
- Fermented foods (for dairy-free, gut-aiding bacteria): miso paste, natto, tempeh kimchi, sauerkraut
- Sprouted foods (for zinc absorption): sprouted beans, nuts, lentils, rice, quinoa, and bread
- Nutritional Yeast (for vitamin B12 and protein)
The Don’ts: What You Should Avoid
As you start stocking up on vegan-friendly foods, here are the items to toss from your kitchen, steer clear of at the store, and opt out of at restaurants.
We’re stating the obvious here, but animal proteins of any kind are off the vegan meal plan.
Say good-bye to milks and milk-based products that come from animal sources (don’t worry, vegan alternatives await!).
- Cow’s milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Goat’s milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Sheep’s milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Ice cream
- Margarine (many types contain whey, a milk-derived protein)
- Milk chocolate
- White chocolate
Eggs and egg products
Fresh eggs, foods made with eggs, all the eggs. There are plenty of vegan egg substitutes, though.
- Chicken, duck, quail, or fish eggs
- Fresh pasta
Not only are bee products animal-derived, but there’s no guarantee for whether they come from bees that have been ethically treated. Swap out foods like honey easily with vegan-friendly alternatives such as maple syrup.
- Bee pollen
- Royal jelly
These can be found in boxed cake mixes, pie crusts, refried beans, packaged chips, canned soups, and even, sometimes, juice. Read ingredient labels carefully to avoid them.
- Fish oils and extract
- Poultry fats and extracts
- Gelatin (a protein made from the bones or tendons of cows or pigs, most commonly)
Sneaky Foods You Think Are Vegan but Aren't
All vegans know to skip the meat aisle at the supermarket. What isn’t as obvious is identifying foods that appear vegan, but contain ingredients that are anything but. You’d be surprised at the animal products hiding inside some of the most seemingly safe foods. Stay one step ahead by keeping informed and reading those ingredient labels.
Bakery and packaged breads can contain eggs in their dough as well as on top as a wash to achieve that glossy sheen on top. Many breads also contain L-cysteine, a protein derived from poultry feathers, or lecithin, which can come from egg yolks. Finally, breads can sometimes sneak in honey.
The process to make refined white sugar involves animal bone char—definitely not vegan! Even brown sugar, powdered sugar, and raw sugar aren’t always safe, since most of the time they’re made from refined white sugar.
Condiments can be vegan landmines, containing anything from eggs and cheese to anchovies. Be wary of:
- Worcestershire sauce
- Caesar dressing (contains eggs and dairy)
- Ranch Dressing (contains dairy)
- Fish sauce
French fries, onion rings, tempura, etc. can all contain eggs in their batter or be fried in animal fat.
Store-Bought Pasta Sauces
That store-bought pesto more often than not contains cheese. You may even find cheese or milk in jarred marinara sauce.
Gummy Candies, Jams, Jell-O, and Marshmallows
These sticky sweets get their chewy, jiggly texture from gelatin.
Red Candies, Punch, Ice Cream, etc.
That bright red may be passed off as “natural color,” but that vague term hides the fact that it’s derived from the extract of crushed and boiled beetles. Note that hard candies also contain shellac, another bug-derived product.
Roasted Salted Peanuts
Many brands use gelatin to help the salt stick to the peanuts. You’re much better off buying raw peanuts and roasting them yourself!
Most clear hard liquors are vegan, but you may want to put down that mug of Guinness. Many imported beer and wine varieties are made with isinglass, a gelatin that comes from fish. There are loads of vegan-friendly beers and wines, though (check out the Resources section below), so it’s worth doing your homework before you head to happy hour.
Juice or Soda
If your morning juice carton touts itself as “heart-healthy,” it’s likely that those added omega-3 fatty acids come from fish oil and the vitamin D comes from sheep’s wool-derived lanolin. Insect dyes can also be added to color sodas like cola drinks.
Paleo Pantry Staples
An exhaustive list would be at least a few pages long. You can always work your way up, but start simple with these 11 must-have pantry items to make everything from breakfast to dessert much easier.1. Cooking oil: California Olive Ranch Every Day Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This cold-pressed olive oil ensures that the oil has been made simply through mechanical pressing, without chemicals or refining processes that compromise its nutritional value or taste.2. Canned or dried beans: Eden Organic
Pick two to three of your favorite beans from this brand to have on hand (try black beans, chickpeas, and red kidney beans to start) at all times. They’re an excellent source of protein and fiber, the canned varieties need no pre-cooking, and they work in everything from salads to soups to burgers.3. Protein: Bob’s Red Mill White Quinoa
Quinoa is a higher-protein alternative to rice or pasta, and can easily be used for breakfast, salads, stir-fries, and even desserts. Plus, it cooks up in just 15 minutes!4. Grains: Tinkyada Brown Rice Spaghetti
Quick and versatile, pasta is a go-to option for vegan weeknight dinners. It’s good to have a variety of shapes on hand, but start with brown rice spaghetti; it gets you some extra fiber without the dense, cardboard-like texture that many whole-wheat pastas can have, and holds up well to both light and richer sauces.5. Condiment: Thrive Coconut Aminos
Trust us, you’ll be making a lot of stir-fries, and you may even start venturing into homemade sauces, dressings, and marinades. While you can opt for regular soy sauce, vegans who are iffy about its fermentation process (it potentially involves non-vegan beer) prefer wheat-free tamari or coconut aminos, which is made from coconut sap but tastes pretty much like soy sauce.6. Spice: Frank’s Red Hot Original
A few dashes of this hot sauce are enough to banish any lingering thoughts of vegan food being bland. Frank’s Red Hot Original comes with no added sugars and has flavor in addition to heat thanks to garlic powder. We recommend putting it on… well, pretty much anything.7. Sweetener: NOW Foods Real Food Organic Maple Syrup Grade A
Whether you’re topping pancakes, baking cookies, or even making salad dressing, maple syrup is a delicious and even more versatile alternative to honey or refined white sugar.8. Milk Substitute: Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk
The mild flavor of almond milk is as tasty for drinking straight-up as it is for cooking or baking with. Silk’s comes without carrageenan, a thickening agent that comes from seaweed and can potentially cause gastrointestinal distress.9. Canned Tomatoes: Muir Glen Organic Diced Tomatoes
Soups, stews, curries, and pasta sauces are bound to make regular appearances in your meal rotation. Having these canned tomatoes (BPA-free!) around can help those come together in a flash and save you the time of actually chopping tomatoes.10. Dates: Natural Delights Medjool Dates
Another natural sweetener, dates (especially the plump, soft Medjool variety) can come in super handy for vegan baking, raw energy balls, smoothies, adding to your overnight oats/quinoa, or plain old snacking.11. Nutritional Yeast: BRAGG Premium Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is many a vegan’s kitchen obsession, and for good reason. It’s high in protein, fiber, and vitamin B12, with a cheesy flavor that’s seriously addictive. Anyone who tries this usually never turns back.12. Nut Butter: Smucker’s Natural Creamy Peanut Butter
Almond butter is arguably healthier, but we’re going to stick with peanut butter here, since it’s useful not just for spreading on toast, but also for peanut sauces and marinades that work great in stir-fries and noodle dishes. Just make sure your jar contains nothing but peanuts and maybe salt.