Learn about the Vegan Diet: What it is, the foods that are allowed, the benefits and things to consider. This diet is plant-based with vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit as staples, eliminating any animal-based foods or products.
Eating a vegan diet was mostly unheard-of a few decades ago. Maybe you had that one friend, the one who liked to burn incense and was into yoga way before anyone else was, but that was likely it. Today, vegan has gone relatively mainstream–with entire restaurants, stores, blogs, publications and more dedicated to the particular diet.
What does being vegan mean? It means that animal products–including dairy and fish–are forbidden. There are varying interpretations to this. Some people are more flexible, allowing for specific cultural foods or customs to still play a role in their life, and others are more strict, requiring that food be cooked entirely in the absence of animal products (i.e., not in the same pan) and eschewing products like honey and eggs, for example.
If you are wanting to add more plant-based foods to your diet, preparing a meal for a loved one, or looking to live a vegan lifestyle, below are the basics to get you started.
What is the Vegan Diet?
For vegan eaters, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will make up a diet. Compared to vegetarian diets which exclude meat, fish, and poultry, vegan foods, eliminate all animal-based products as well as dairy milk, cheese, eggs, and honey, plus no wearing of clothes made from animals.
Since going vegan means removing a lot of protein sources from eating meat and other nutrients, diets need to be well thought out and planned, to ensure that you stay healthy and obtain all of the essential nutrients.
Vegetables should be the star of the show–many are packed with protein, along with other beneficial vitamins, and being fiber-full means they’ll keep you satiated, too. In general, a good trick is to stick to the rainbow: make sure you have a variety of colors on the plate (this is a good tip for anyone, regardless of diet).
Aside from making vegetables the main event, many vegan diners and cooks like to experiment with vegan sources of protein and meat substitutes. This can include:
- Seitan, textured vegetable protein, tempeh, tofu, lentils, black beans, and mushrooms.
- Grains like quinoa, oats, wheat berries, cornmeal, freekeh, rice, bulgur, barley, and farro provides protein, fiber, and nutrients to each meal.
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, peanuts, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hulled hemp hearts can provide healthy fats like omega-3’s and monosaturated fats and some protein.
- The soy-based compounds show up in a variety of processed foods, as well, like ready-to-eat faux meat dishes and frozen foods. If you’re going vegan for health reasons, it’s wise to avoid these products as they can be just as unhealthy as other processed foods.
You can get creative with fruits and vegetables, too.
- Jackfruit is a tough, fleshy fruit that works wonderfully in barbecue recipes.
- Butternut squash and cauliflower can be grilled or roasted like a steak.
- Breadfruit works terrific slathered in olive oil and tossed on the grill.
- Beets can be added to burgers to add texture and color.
- Nutrient-dense dark greens like kale, spinach, and swiss chard give a nutrient a fiber boost to any salad or side dish.
- Nutritional yeast, soy sauce, and miso paste can add rich umami flavors to dishes, condiments, and homemade vegan cheeses.
- Plant-based oils like coconut, vegetable, olive, and avocado are popular for cooking and baking.
What about egg substitutes?
- Soft tofu can be used to make breakfast scrambles or silken tofu for baking.
- Flax eggs can be made to mimic the texture of egg whites and acts as an emulsifier in baking by combining ground flaxseeds with water or dairy-free milk. Typically 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed mixed with 3 tablespoons water, stir and allow to sit for 10 minutes before adding.
- Aquafaba is the starchy liquid from canned chickpeas that can be whipped into a foam and added to baked goods for structure, like macarons and meringues.
- Leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder plus an acid like lemon juice can give vegan baked recipes an extra lift!
- Powdered egg replacer like Ener-G and Bob’s Red Mill egg replacer can be used for in baking.
Going vegan may also be easier than you thought. Here’s a shortlist of popular foods or dishes that are either naturally vegan or can easily be made so, to get you started:
- Hummus and salsas
- Non-dairy milk like almond, cashew, soy, coconut, oat
- Condiments like organic ketchup and mustard
- Peanut butter
- Salads, soups, and stews
- Casseroles, curries, and stir-frys
- Pasta dishes or zoodles like zucchini noodles
- Tacos, burritos, and enchiladas made with dairy-free cheese
- Grain bowls
Vegan diet benefits and considerations
Consuming a vegan diet that is packed with fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains that are low-in-fat may provide some perks. Many who go vegan enjoy health benefits–some report clearer skin and brain function, and many experience weight loss. Some research has shown benefits which may include lowering the risk of getting type 2 diabetes and heart disease, as well as lowering blood pressure, glucose levels and triglycerides.
One challenge when eating vegan foods is most plants are not complete proteins, missing some essential amino acids which can only be obtained through diet, with the exception of quinoa and soybeans. This is important because amino acids are building blocks for protein formation and repair and maintenance of tissues in the body. Make sure to eat a diverse range of plant-based proteins like nuts, lentils, beans, tofu, and rice daily.
Other nutrients to incorporate include vitamin B12, iron, calcium, Vitamin D and fish-free Omega-3s–all of these can be found in plants, but you’ll have to work a little bit harder to makes sure they get into your diet.
Are you a vegan? Or have you tried this diet? I’d love to know your experiences in the comments section below!