Contents - Click a link to skip to the section you want to read
- 1 What is a vegan diet?
- 2 Are there different types of vegan diets?
- 3 Why are vegans vegan?
- 4 Is going vegan difficult?
- 5 Do I need to be 100% vegan to follow a plant-based diet?
- 6 What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?
- 7 What happens to your body on a vegan diet?
- 8 Will I be in the bathroom all day?
- 9 Will I be constantly hungry?
- 10 Food groups and the vegan diet
- 11 How to start a plant-based diet
- 12 Tips for sticking to a vegan diet
- 13 Staying healthy on a vegan diet
- 14 Staying within budget on a vegan diet
- 15 Explaining your decision to go vegan to others
- 16 Go forth with confidence, my little vegans!
If you’ve just gone vegan or are thinking about going vegan, chances are you may feel a bit underprepared and overwhelmed. Going vegan can seem like a daunting commitment, but with the right knowledge and some helpful tips, you’ll be able to embrace this monumental change with confidence and joy.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll cover the what, why, and how of going vegan so you can make the change safely and easily. Now let’s get to it!
What is a vegan diet?
Before we can get into the nitty gritty details of how to go vegan, let’s establish a clear-cut definition of what a vegan diet is: a completely plant-based diet that omits all animal products, not just meat. That may seem straightforward enough, but some folks may still be confused about what foods are considered animal products.
Non-vegan foods to avoid
Non-vegan foods include anything that was an animal or derived from an animal. That includes meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, honey, and gelatin. There are also some more obscure animal by-products, like casein (a milk protein) and L. cysteine (an amino acid commonly derived from bird feathers). You’ll eventually familiarize yourself with many of these by-products, but when you’re first transitioning to a vegan diet, it’s best to focus on avoiding the most obvious animal-based ingredients rather than trying to memorize a bunch of cryptic, unpronounceable ingredients.
A simple trick to quickly rule out non-vegan products is to skip down to the allergen information at the very bottom of a list of ingredients. That will let you know right away whether that product contains milk or eggs without having to scan through every ingredient.
Foods to eat on a plant-based diet
You may be thinking, “Well, you just listed pretty much everything I’m used to eating as ‘non-vegan’– what does that leave me?” Don’t fret! Believe it or not, there’s a lot more that you can eat than what you can’t as a vegan, including thousands of vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds that can be combined in infinite ways to create a diverse, delicious plant-based diet.
There are also tons of vegan snacks, sweets, meat and dairy alternatives, desserts, and other goodies, but these should serve as the occasional treat, not a mainstay in a healthy vegan diet. Otherwise, you may inadvertently turn yourself into a junk food vegan!
Are there different types of vegan diets?
Eliminating animal products from your diet doesn’t suddenly mean that you have to stick to a strict regimen of leafy greens, rice, and tofu, because just as there isn’t one, single omnivorous diet, there isn’t just one way to eat as a vegan.
Some vegans choose to eat a completely raw diet in which foods are never heated above 118°F (or 48°C). This is done primarily for health reasons, as it’s believed that cooking certain foods can destroy essential nutrients and vitamins.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum of veganism, there are the aforementioned junk food vegans who load up on heavily processed foods like frozen meals and sugary snacks, and may go a day or five without eating a single green vegetable.
You can also be a gluten-free vegan, paleo vegan, whole foods plant-based vegan, or even a freegan (meaning you get most of your food by dumpster diving — yeah, it’s not for everyone).
Whatever way you choose to be vegan, the keyword to remember is “balance” — because some foods are actually more nutritious when cooked, and a scoop of ice cream every now and then isn’t going to negate all the wonderful benefits of a vegan diet!
Why are vegans vegan?
Just as important as the “how” of being vegan is the “why,” because your reason(s) for going vegan can be the difference between being vegan for a month or vegan for a lifetime.
One of the most common and compelling reasons that vegans go vegan is a love for animals. Animals raised for food are often confined in filthy, cramped pens or cages, mutilated, pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, forcibly impregnated, and brutally slaughtered. This level of cruelty is the rule of animal agriculture, not the exception, whether the animals are raised in a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) or on a small family farm.
Wishing to not be complicit in animal cruelty is a powerful reason to go vegan, but other important motivators include personal health and concern for the environment. We’ll explore the health benefits of a vegan diet in more detail later on, but if you’d like to know how veganism can help save the planet, check out these 9 Environmental Reasons To Go Vegan.
Having a multifaceted motivation for going vegan will strengthen your convictions when things get tough and make you more likely to become a lifelong vegan.
Is going vegan difficult?
It wasn’t long ago that vegan-friendly alternatives to meat and dairy included little more than cardboard-like veggie patties and soy milk. Nowadays, thanks to a growing interest in veganism, there are endless varieties of delicious plant-based alternatives to animal products available at your local grocery store.
There are also lots more options for eating out as a vegan than there were just ten years ago. Vegan restaurants are sprouting up around the world, and non-vegan restaurants are expanding their plant-based options — even fast food chains like Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco now offer meatless options!
That’s not to say that going vegan is completely without its struggles. As with any major change in your lifestyle or diet, it takes some getting used to. Rather than assuming that you’ll always be able to find something to eat wherever you go, you’re far better off doing some planning and prepping. This may be as simple as keeping vegan snacks on you when you go out, or downloading an app that helps you find vegan-friendly restaurants near you quickly and easily.
With practice, these habits will become second nature, and being vegan will be a piece of plant-based cake.
Do I need to be 100% vegan to follow a plant-based diet?
Although the words “vegan” and “plant-based” are often used interchangeably, they come with different social connotations that distinguish them from one another.
A vegan is someone who not only eats a plant-based diet, but also adheres to the philosophy that non-human animals don’t exist for human use, whether as food, clothing, entertainment, or scientific test subjects. Not everyone who follows a plant-based diet necessarily identifies as a vegan or chooses to follow that lifestyle, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you’ve chosen to eat a plant-based diet, you’re not obligated to immediately throw out your favorite leather jacket and cosmetics that have been tested on animals, or attend a circus protest. While following a vegan lifestyle is a great way to spread compassion and live by your ethics, it’s not something that can or should be forced upon you; you can only commit to it if and when you feel ready.
What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?
No matter what your motivations are for going vegan, you can expect to enjoy great health benefits from a plant-based diet. Here are some of the best, evidence-based benefits of going vegan.
Reduced risk of heart disease
Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the US, but a healthy vegan diet may be the key to preventing this deadly disease. Heart disease, or coronary artery disease, is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries, which is most commonly attributed to one’s diet. The intake of saturated fats and cholesterol via animal products, such as red meat, is positively correlated with risk of heart disease. In other words, the more animal products you eat, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. Luckily, a healthy plant-based diet contains very little saturated fat and no cholesterol whatsoever, helping to keep your arteries clear and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Lower average body weight
The conventional, meat-heavy Western diet has been linked to obesity, which can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease and shorten your life expectancy. The good news is, vegans have a lower average body mass index (BMI) than non-vegans due to the absence of fattening meat and dairy products and concentration of macronutrient-rich plant foods in their diet. Although more research needs to be done to definitively prove that veganism can prevent obesity, the evidence is extremely promising.
May reduce cancer risk
Research about cancer prevention is leading us away from animal products and closer to a plant-based diet. Studies have found that animal foods, especially red meat, can increase one’s risk of developing cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. On the other hand, a well-balanced, plant-based diet that’s rich in antioxidants, fiber, and essential nutrients and low in fat, sugar, and processed foods can significantly reduce your risk of developing certain cancers, including colon, breast, and prostate cancers.
Improved blood sugar levels
Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and diabetes affect hundreds of millions of people globally, but a growing body of research is pointing toward a plant-based diet as a solution for both of these conditions. Animal products have been shown to increase your body’s resistance to insulin, the hormone needed to keep blood glucose levels in check, which elevates your risk of developing diabetes. A completely vegan diet has been shown to be the most effective diet at lowering blood glucose levels and managing diabetes.
What happens to your body on a vegan diet?
You may notice some changes in your health and body when you first transition to a vegan diet. Many new vegans report feeling more energetic and lighter in the first few weeks to couple of months of their transition. This is a result of eating fruits, veggies, greens, and seeds full of essential nutrients that were deficient or completely absent in a diet made up primarily of meat, dairy, and simple carbs.
You’ll also likely have more regular trips to the bathroom due to an increase in fiber-rich plant foods and water (but you could become a bit too regular if you aren’t careful). We’ll go over what to expect in the bathroom as a vegan in more detail in the next section.
After the first few months on a vegan diet, you may start to notice clearer skin due to the elimination of inflammatory animal foods like dairy, which has been linked to acne. At this point, your body will have likely depleted its stores of Vitamin D, which can be made from sunlight, but is also most commonly consumed in animal products. You can avoid a Vitamin D deficiency on a vegan diet by eating fortified foods and/or mushrooms, or by taking a vegan Vitamin D supplement. You may also start to notice some weight loss at this point, provided you’re eating a balanced, whole foods diet.
After about a year of being vegan, your body is still changing, but perhaps not in ways that you can see. Most importantly, your body may be running low on its supply of Vitamin B12. That’s why it’s especially important as a vegan to make a point to eat foods fortified with B12 every day, or to take a vegan-friendly B12 supplement.
While these aren’t the only changes that your body will experience on a vegan diet, and they may vary from person to person, this is the gist of what most people can expect to happen.
Will I be in the bathroom all day?
Everybody poops, but if you’re eating a well-balanced vegan diet, you’ll be pooping a bit more than the average person — and that’s a good thing! A plant-based diet high in fiber will not only make your trips to the bathroom more regular and comfortable, but higher dietary fiber has been shown to decrease your risk of colon cancer.
That being said, you can have too much of a good thing! If you add too much fiber to your diet too quickly when you first switch to a vegan diet, you may be afflicted with gassiness, loose movements, stomach cramps, and/or constipation. Don’t worry, the discomfort will pass! Just give your body a few weeks to adjust to the change in your diet.
For a more in-depth look at how a plant-based diet will change your bathroom experience, check out 5 Things to Expect in the Bathroom When You Swap Animals for Plants
Will I be constantly hungry?
It’s easy to feel full on a plant-based diet, but when you first go vegan, you may experience some persistent hunger pangs. With the proper meal planning and a balanced diet, these issues are easily avoidable.
Plant-based foods typically have far fewer calories than animal-based foods, which can be great for maintaining a trimmer, healthier physique, but this lower caloric content also leave you feeling hungry. Increasing your healthy food portions can make up for the caloric deficit and keep those hunger pangs at bay.
When increasing your portions, you want to make sure that you’re eating larger portions of nutrient-dense foods rather than loading up on simple carbs, like bread or pasta, that you’ll burn off quickly. A belly-filling, nourishing meal should consist of greens and veggies, plant-based protein (beans, lentils, tofu, etc.), and quality carbs (think barley or quinoa rather than white rice or potatoes). To give you a better idea of what a healthy, balanced vegan meal looks like, check out these 19 Buddha Bowls for some serious food-spiration.
Snacking can also help you feel fuller longer, but that’s not an invitation to load up on chips and cookies! Gravitate toward healthy, hunger-busting snacks that will enrich your diet. These may include anything from nuts and seeds, which are full of satiating, good-for-you fats, to whole grain crackers, veggies and hummus, and fresh fruits.
Protein bars and granola bars may seem like convenient snacks, and they can be useful in a pinch, but because they’re usually quite high in sugar, they should never be your go-to snack or a meal replacement.
With well-balanced meals, healthy snacks, and plenty of water, feeling full on a vegan diet is a no-brainer!
Food groups and the vegan diet
I’ve mentioned a “well-balanced” vegan diet several times so far, but if you’ve eaten mostly animal products your whole life, it may be difficult to imagine how a diet can be balanced without meat, eggs, and dairy. To give you a clearer picture of what a properly balanced plant-based diet looks like, we’ll break down the main vegan food groups.
Carbs are the basic building blocks of any healthy diet. They’re your main source of energy, so it’s important that you choose quality carbs.
Some healthy vegan carbohydrates: Sweet potatoes, fruit, whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley, amaranth, millet, beans and other legumes, corn
Recommended daily intake: 45-65% of your daily calorie intake, or about 225-325g on a 2,000 calorie diet
Protein is essential for building and repairing our bodies’ cells and tissues, creating disease-fighting antibodies, and much more. All plants contain some protein, but some have far more than others.
Protein-dense plant foods: Tofu, tempeh, legumes, seitan, nuts and nut butters, whole grains
Recommended daily intake: 0.8g per 1 kg (or about 2 lbs) of body weight
Fats provide energy, insulate your body, support cell growth and help your body absorb certain nutrients. Some fats are definitely healthier than others, but even the best fats should be consumed in moderation.
Healthy vegan fats: Avocadoes, nuts and natural nut butters (without added oils or sugars), seeds, dark chocolate (the less sugar, the better), edamame and soybeans, olives
Recommended daily intake: 20 – 35% of your total daily calories (which breaks down to about 44 – 77g for a 2,000 calorie diet)
As we discussed in “Will I be in the bathroom all day?” fiber is essential for keeping you regular. It’s also believed to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. Fiber can only come from plant-based sources, which explains why so many omnivores are deficient in this important nutrient.
Fiber-rich vegan foods: Lentils, beans, raspberries, artichokes, whole grain and sprouted grain bread, oats, chia seeds, and dark chocolate, to name a few
Recommended daily intake: 21g for women under 50, 25g for women over 50, 30g for men under 50, 38g for men over 50
Calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc are just a few of the minerals that you need to include your diet to keep your body functioning healthily. Fortunately, plants provide us with all the essential minerals we need.
Mineral-rich foods: Kale and other dark leafy greens, seeds, nuts, lentils and other legumes, tofu, grains — pretty much everything you eat on a vegan diet!
Recommended daily intake
- Calcium: About 500 – 700 mg
- Iron: 8 mg for adult males (over 18 years old) and 11 mg for adult women
- Magnesium: 310 – 420 mg
- Potassium: Recommended daily intake varies widely from 1,600 to 4,700 mg
- Zinc: 8 mg for men, 11 mg for women
There’s a whole alphabet of vitamins that should be included in our diet, but some of the most crucial ones are Vitamins A, B, C, and D. As we discussed earlier, some vitamins, such as B12 and D, are most readily provided via supplements, but the best way to incorporate vitamins or any other nutrient in your diet is through whole foods.
Vitamin A: Supports healthy vision, immune system, reproductive system, and most vital organs
Vegan sources: Orange and yellow vegetables and dark, leafy greens
Recommended daily amount: 900 μg (micrograms) for men, 700 μg for women
B vitamins: Fulfill several important metabolic functions, including converting food into energy. The B vitamins and their alternate names are B1/thiamin, B2/riboflavin, B3/niacin, B5/pantothenic acid, B6/pyridoxine, B7/biotin, B9/folate, B12/cyanocobalamin.
Vegan sources: Dark leafy greens (B9), legumes (B9 and B6), sunflower seeds (B1, B3, B6), fortified breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast (B12), soy milk (B2), sweet potatoes (B5), almonds (B2)
Recommended daily amounts: See here
Vitamin C: Grows and repairs tissues
Vegan sources: Peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, papaya, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries, parsley, kale
Recommended daily amount: About 60 mg
Vitamin D: Needed in order for body to absorb calcium, promotes bone growth
Vegan sources: Mushrooms, fortified plant milks, vegan supplements, tofu, sunshine
Recommended daily amount: About 15 micrograms
How to start a plant-based diet
Once you’ve learned about the amazing health benefits of going vegan, the horrible way that farmed animals are treated, and how animal agriculture is destroying the planet, you may be tempted to jump into a vegan lifestyle right away. Some people are able to go vegan overnight without a problem, but for the rest of us, a slower transition is much safer, healthier, and more sustainable.
You can start by eating one plant-based meal per day, or eating completely vegan one day per week, and then gradually increasing your intake of plants as you eliminate animal products from your diet. This slow transition will give your body more time to adjust to new foods and extra fiber. You’ll also have more time to discover what vegan foods you like or dislike and get more comfortable with preparing plant-based meals.
As you transition, you may also find it helpful to make vegan versions of your favorite dishes. A fear that many new vegans and vegan-curious folks have is that they’ll “miss out” on the foods that they’ve always loved, whether it’s a famous fast food burger or an old family recipe. “Veganizing” these beloved foods will ease your transition and open your eyes to the remarkable versatility of plant-based eating.
Sampling a variety of different vegan meat and dairy alternatives is another way to help you wean yourself off of animal products. As much as you may detest the cruelty and cholesterol that comes with every bite of an animal product, it’s perfectly natural to crave those flavors and textures, so just find a plant-based alternative that mimics those qualities instead.
There’s a variety of vegan deli slices, ice creams, cheeses, and just about anything else you can think of, and finding ones that you like can ease your transition. Just keep in mind that these kinds of products are luxury items and should only make up the smallest percentage of your diet once you’ve settled comfortably into your vegan lifestyle or diet.
Tips for sticking to a vegan diet
Nearly anyone can go vegan, but it takes some effort to actually stay vegan. A 2014 survey found that a whopping 84 percent of vegans and vegetarians eventually go back to eating meat but understanding why this happens can help you avoid becoming part of that statistic.
One of the main reasons why some vegans revert back to eating animal products is because they lack the right motivation to stay vegan. That same study found that, of those vegetarians and vegans who’d fallen off the wagon, 58% of them had gone veg*n purely for health reasons. Better health can be a great motivator to eat a plant-based diet; however, if that’s the only reason why you’ve chosen to swear off animal products, you’re more likely to talk yourself out of eating completely vegan.
On the other hand, if you’ve adopted a firm ethical stance in your veganism, you’ll likely find it that much harder to justify eating any animal products whatsoever, because you’re aware of the immense suffering and ecological destruction involved.
Another stumbling block that most new vegans face is the social pressure to eat animal products, especially at social gatherings that normalize and even glorify the consumption of meat and dairy. Being the lone vegan at a friend’s birthday party, your family barbeque, or lunch with coworkers can feel isolating, and it may be tempting to put your principles aside for the sake of feeling included and “normal.”
You can help resist temptation by being well-prepared. For example, rather than showing up empty-handed at a non-vegan potluck and scrounging together a sad plate of carrot sticks and potato chips, bring your own tasty vegan dish to share.
If you’re going out to eat with other non-vegans, suggest a vegan-friendly restaurant if possible, or take a couple of minutes before going out to research the menu at the restaurant of their choice and identify their vegan options.
Simple, proactive choices like these can make your life as a vegan a whole lot easier — and the easier it is, the more likely you are to stick with it.
Befriending other vegans, whether online or in person, is another great way to build a support system and keep yourself on track. Just keep in mind that confidence and conviction in your decision to be vegan come with practice, so be patient and forgiving with yourself as you become accustomed to this new way of eating and living.
Staying healthy on a vegan diet
As we’ve seen so far in this guide, a vegan diet can be extremely beneficial for your health. However, an imbalanced vegan diet, such as one that’s high in sugar and fat or doesn’t include enough vegetables and legumes, can lead to poor health later on. To help you avoid those pitfalls, here are some tips to help you stay healthy on a vegan diet.
Do I need to worry about nutrition?
New vegans may worry that they won’t be able to meet their daily requirements for protein, iron, and calcium on a completely plant-based diet, but it can be done. They key to meeting these needs is balance.
A plant-based diet that includes healthy carbs (think brown rice, quinoa, barley, sweet potatoes, etc. rather than white bread and potatoes), vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes should cover most of your nutritional bases.
That being said, there are certain vitamins that are somewhat more difficult to find in plant foods and may be best supplied through supplements.
Read next: 35 Vegan Calcium Sources
Recommended supplements for vegans
The vitamin that you’ll most often see supplemented in vegan diets is B12. This vitamin is believed to play key roles in the formation of red blood cells, maintaining eye, bone, and brain health, and fighting off depression.
Some plant-based foods, such as soy milk, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast, are often fortified with this vitamin, but if you’re not regularly consuming these fortified foods, the best way to avoid B12 deficiency is by taking a supplement. If you need help choosing a supplement, check out our recommendations for the best vegan B12 supplements.
You may also consider adding a Vitamin D supplement to your diet, especially during the darker winter months. You can get this crucial vitamin as a vegan by consuming lots of mushrooms, tofu, and fortified plant-based milks and soaking up about 30 minutes of sunshine every day, but if that isn’t possible or practical, a supplement may be your best choice.
To learn more about supplementing a vegan diet with Vitamin D, check out Vegan Vitamin D: How To Get Enough On a Plant-Based Diet.
Remember, the best way to obtain vitamins and other nutrients is through whole foods, but there’s no shame in using supplements to round out your diet.
Staying within budget on a vegan diet
Veganism is often written off by critics as a bougie trend reserved for a wealthy, privileged elite, but a vegan diet is for everyone, even those living on a budget.
To save money on a vegan diet, limit the amount of pricey, novelty vegan products, like fancy nut cheeses and frozen plant-based meals, that you buy. It bears repeating that these are luxury items, not dietary staples!
Of course, where you buy your groceries makes all the difference when you’re living on a budget. Thankfully, you can eat a completely plant-based diet without ever stepping foot in an expensive health food store. Your regular grocery store chains, ethnic markets, and even some dollar stores can supply you with all the food you need without breaking the bank.
And of course, if you’re on a budget, you’ll need to resist the urge to regularly eat out or order delivery (which can be really challenging if you happen to live near a great vegan restaurant — fight the temptation!). Preparing meals at home as much as possible and limiting food waste by
properly storing leftovers are surefire ways to help you reduce your food bills.
Explaining your decision to go vegan to others
When you go vegan, you may be eager to share everything you’ve learned with your friends and family. What you may find, though, is that they might not be very receptive to your message. It can be difficult to be met with this kind of resistance, but maintaining a positive attitude and refraining from verbally attacking non-vegans (no matter how frustrated you may be!) will help you avoid being typecast as “The Angry Vegan.”
If someone asks you why you’re vegan, keeping your answer brief but meaningful does more good than a long-winded answer that tries to cover every aspect of veganism at once. Something along the lines of “When I realized that I could be healthy without hurting animals, going vegan seemed like the most logical choice for me” gets the point across without seeming “preachy” and can strike up a more productive conversation.
While some folks may be curious about your veganism, others may respond with ridicule, but try not to take their jokes and derisive comments to heart. Instead, respond to them with patience, compassion, and a good sense of humor to demonstrate that you can stand by your principles without judging others or allowing them to belittle your beliefs.
Go forth with confidence, my little vegans!
Going and staying vegan takes a certain amount of trial and error, perseverance, and personal growth. You will make mistakes and face challenges, but that’s the beauty of embarking on this journey! I hope that this guide can offer you the clarity, support, and advice you need to keep you going in the right direction. With time, patience, and practice, you’ll find that becoming vegan may be one of the most rewarding and enriching choices you could possibly make.
Have you recently gone vegan or are thinking about going vegan? What other questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cristina fulfills her passion for animals and writing by working as an attendant at a dog daycare by day, and writing for HappyHappyVegan by night.
Before joining HHV’s team, Cristina wrote and edited petitions that focused on animal rights and environmental issues. She’s traveled the US with PETA’s youth outreach division, peta2, and Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) to educate thousands of college students about veganism and animal agriculture. As a vegan for nine years, she’s extremely grateful to live in Southern California, where there is no shortage of amazing vegan eats and events. She shares a home with her boyfriend, their Australian Cattle Dog, Piper, and her beloved houseplants.