The Vegan Diet

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 03, 2023
11 min read

A vegan diet includes only plant foods—fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. People who follow a vegan diet don't eat any animal foods, including dairy, eggs, and honey.

About 3% of Americans follow a vegan diet. Their reasons for eating this way vary. Some vegans do it to improve their health, as research shows that a plant-based diet could lower the risk of certain diseases. Others stay away from meat because they don't want to harm animals or because they want to protect the environment.

If you've thought about trying a vegan diet, you might wonder if this way of eating is right for you. Although you can get some real benefits from going meatless, there are a few challenges, too.

Vegan vs. vegetarian

It's easy to confuse veganism and vegetarianism. They're quite similar. But a vegan diet is stricter than a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians don't eat the flesh of animals, such as meat, poultry, and fish, but they often eat dairy and eggs. Vegans don't eat any animal foods. This even includes foods that are produced by animals, such as honey.

What is veganism?

Dietary vegans follow a vegan diet specifically for health benefits. For others, veganism is a way of life focused on protecting animals and the environment. Ethical vegans avoid harming animals by not eating any animal or animal-derived foods. They also avoid using materials that originate from animals, such as wool and leather, and they don't use products that have been tested on animals. Environmental welfare is also a concern to many vegans. Research shows that a vegan diet has much less impact on Earth's climate than one that includes animal products.

There's no one-size-fits-all vegan diet. Whether you're a vegan for dietary purposes or for ethical reasonsor bothyour diet may differ from that of other vegans. Usually, these differences are aimed at a particular health outcome. Here are a few of the most common types of vegan diets.

Raw vegan diet: Raw vegans eat only raw plant foods. A raw vegan diet consists mainly of uncooked fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, sprouted and soaked grains, cold-pressed oils, and fermented foods such as kimchi and miso. The theory behind this diet is that cooking breaks down nutrients and reduces the nutritional value. It's true that cooking foods may cause some losses of nutrients such as vitamin C and B vitamins. But cooking foods can also increase the amount of healthy compounds in some foods. For example, cooking tomatoes increases the amount of the antioxidant lycopene.

A raw vegan diet has pros and cons. It may be higher in fruits and vegetables that provide vitamins and minerals, fiber for digestive health, and antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. But raw vegan diets are very restrictive, which could cause you to get too little of other important nutrients including protein, vitamins D and B12, calcium, iron, and iodine. For most people, a raw vegan diet is safe in the short term, but long-term raw vegan diets could be risky.

Vegan keto diet: The keto diet is a very low-carb, high-fat, and moderate-protein diet. A keto diet is usually rich in animal foods, but it can be adapted for veganism. On this diet, you aim for 75%-80% of your calories to come from fat, 10%-20% from protein, and 5%-10% from carbs. To achieve this balance, you focus on eating high-fat vegan foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, and coconut and olive oils. You'll restrict grains and foods made with them, such as bread and pasta. You also limit starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, as well as beans and legumes. And you'll cut high-sugar tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, and bananas, as well as fruit juices and sweets. Like a raw vegan diet, a vegan keto diet is very restrictive and could lead to nutrient deficiencies. It may be safe in the short term, but in the long term, it could pose serious health risks.

Vegan diabetic diet: A diabetic diet is moderately low in carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic, refined carbs that quickly raise blood sugar. Whole grains, beans, and legumes are high in fiber, which can help control blood sugar. Protein from beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh and seitan, along with healthy fats from avocado, nuts, seeds, and coconut and olive oils, can also keep your blood sugar stable.

High-protein vegan diet: Protein is one of the nutrients often lacking in a vegan diet. A high-protein vegan diet addresses this by focusing on higher-protein plant foods. These may include:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa
  • Seitan
  • Oats

Some people use vegan protein supplements, usually made from legumes, such as soy and peas. This type of diet is popular among vegan athletes and bodybuilders, who need more protein to support muscle growth and repair. It's safe for most people, as long as it has enough variety to ensure you get all the nutrients you need.

Alkaline vegan diet: The alkaline diet prioritizes foods based on their pH value. Foods with a low pH are considered acidic, and foods with a high pH are alkaline. People who follow this diet believe that eating less acidic foods can aid weight loss, increase energy, and prevent long-term chronic illness. But these benefits haven't been proven.

The alkaline diet is naturally based around vegan foods, including:

  • Fruits
  • Nonstarchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, and broccoli
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa and oats
  • Nuts and seeds

Strict alkaline dieters believe that foods like lentils, tofu, soybeans and soymilk, and tempeh are acidic and should be avoided. But these are some of the main protein sources for vegans. Restricting them could put you at a risk of not getting enough protein.

Vegan anti-inflammatory diet: Balanced vegan diets are naturally anti-inflammatory. Research shows that eating fewer animal foods can reduce inflammation linked to diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. To reap these benefits, you focus on fresh, whole foods and limit sugars and highly processed foods, which can increase inflammation.

Mediterranean vegan diet: This is the vegan version of the popular Mediterranean diet. It's rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and unsaturated oils. But unlike the original diet, it lacks fish, dairy, and eggs. This is a safe diet for almost everyone, as long as there's enough variety to ensure you get enough protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Low-carb vegan diet: Plant foods are often higher in carbohydrates than animal foods. This makes it challenging to follow a vegan low-carb diet but not impossible. Quite a few vegan foods are low in carbs, including:

  • Nonstarchy vegetables, such as bell peppers, broccoli, zucchini, and leafy greens
  • High-fat fruits, such as avocados and olives
  • Low-sugar fruits, such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, watermelon, and cantaloupe
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy foods like tofu
  • Olive, avocado, and coconut oils

A low-carb vegan diet is healthy for most people as long as you include a variety of low-carb plant foods.

If you have a health condition, always talk to your doctor before changing your diet.

On a vegan diet, you can eat foods made from plants, including:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes such as peas, beans, and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Breads, rice, and pasta
  • Vegetable oils

You can eat them whole or in prepared or processed foods like:

Tofu:Tofu, or bean curd, is made from coagulated soybeans and water. It has a mild flavor and can be found in soft, firm, and extra firm varieties.

Seitan: Made from wheat gluten, it has a chewy texture and savory flavor.

Tempeh: This fermented soy product has a much firmer texture than tofu, as well as a stronger, nuttier flavor.

Vegan meats: Made from vegan protein sources, they're seasoned and molded to resemble meat products like burgers, chicken nuggets, and hot dogs. They're convenient for making quick vegan meals.

Plant-based milks: Made from nuts, seeds, or grains, they can be used in most of the same ways dairy milk can. Their flavor, consistency, and nutrients depend on the type of plant used to make the milk.

Vegan cheese: They are usually made from nuts, such as cashews and almonds, or from soy and vegetable oil. Other ingredients are added to provide a cheese-like flavor and texture. Many can be sliced, melted, or crumbled.

There are many other vegan versions of standard foods, including:

  • Yogurt
  • Mayonnaise and other condiments
  • Honey
  • Ice cream
  • Butter

Is yeast vegan?

Many common foods and beverages contain yeast, including bread, beer and wine, vinegar, and fermented foods. Many vegans eat nutritional yeast, which has a cheesy flavor and is a good plant-based source of vitamin B12. But technically, yeast is livingso does that mean it's not vegan? A very small percentage of vegans, called "level 5 vegans," avoid yeast. But for all other vegans, it's perfectly fine to eat.

Vegan baking alternatives

Just because you give up animal foods doesn't mean you can't enjoy baking and eating the fruits of your labors. Plant-based milk, yogurt, and cream can stand in for dairy. To replace an egg:

  • Mix 2 tablespoons of corn starch with 2 tablespoons of water
  • Mix 1 tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flaxseeds with 3 tablespoons of water
  • Use 3 tablespoons of nut butter or ¼ cup of applesauce or mashed banana

Are Oreos vegan?

It depends on how strict your vegan diet is. Classic Oreos, as well as other types of sandwich cookies, don't contain animal products. But some types do, and they're made on the same equipment as the plant-based products. So there could be cross-contamination. Also, most cane sugar is made using bone char as a whitening agent. Very strict vegans will avoid Oreos because of this.

Vegans don't eat any foods made from animals, including:

  • Beef, pork, lamb, and other red meat
  • Chicken, duck, and other poultry
  • Fish or shellfish such as crabs, clams, and mussels
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Milk, cream, ice cream, and other dairy products
  • Mayonnaise (because it includes egg yolks)
  • Honey

A well-planned vegan diet can provide all the nutrients you need. But because vegans are more limited in their food choices than vegetarians and meat eaters, it's harder to plan a balanced diet.

The best way to get everything you need is to focus on variety. Include a little of everything in your daily dietfruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and fortified plant-based dairy products. Also, make sure you're eating plenty of foods high in the nutrients that vegans are more likely to be deficient in. These foods can help fill in the gaps:

Vegan sources of calcium: Plant milk and orange juice fortified with calcium, blackstrap molasses, tofu processed with calcium or nigari, soy yogurt, collard greens, tempeh, turnip greens

Vegan sources of vitamin D: Fortified cereals, bread, orange juice, and plant milk

Vegan sources of vitamin B12: Cereals, breads, plant milk, and meat substitutes fortified with B12; nutritional yeast

Vegan sources of iron: Fortified breads and cereals, soybeans, dark leafy greens, beans, rice, pasta

Vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids:Walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, edamame (soybeans), seaweed, algae

Research has shown that plant-based diets can improve your health and reduce your risk of many diseases.

One large study found that eating primarily plant-based foods lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes by 23%. Another found that men who follow a vegan diet had a 35% lower risk of prostate cancer than those who ate a diet that included animal foods. Still another concluded that people who follow plant-based diets have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. A plant-based diet may also help you better maintain your weight than a diet that includes animal products.

Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and other vegan staples are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help protect against disease. Plant-based diets also tend to be lower in unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol.

A vegan diet can be very nutritious, but there are some potential risks. Avoiding animal foods can shortchange you on a few nutrients, like protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. You need protein to power all the chemical reactions in your body. Calcium strengthens your bones and teeth. Omega-3 fatty acids keep your cells healthy and protect your heart by shielding against heart disease and stroke.

These nutrients are especially important for children's growing bodies and during pregnancy. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children and even infants can thrive on a vegan diet. But it's crucial for these diets to be well planned and balanced. If you have a health condition, talk to your doctor before starting a vegan diet. There may be reasons why a vegan diet isn't the best diet for you.

A vegan diet is only as healthy as you make it. Products like "vegan" ice cream, cookies, and candy are tempting, but don't overdo them. If you eat high-fat and processed foods in large portions, you may end up with many of the same health problems you'd have on a meat-based diet.

Vegans can get all the nutrients they need from a balanced diet. But in certain situations, supplements may help.

For example, highly active people may need extra protein. A plant-based protein supplement could come in handy. If you don't eat fortified cereals or other fortified products and you don't like nutritional yeast, you might find it hard to get all the B12 you need. In that case, taking a B12 supplement can be helpful. Menstruation can cause you to need more iron. If you can't get enough iron from your vegan diet, your doctor may recommend a supplement.

It's best to consult your doctor before taking a supplement. They can do a blood test to see if you're deficient in any nutrient. If you don't have a deficiency, supplements aren't helpful and, in some cases, could be harmful.

It's perfectly safe to eat a vegan diet when you're pregnant. But you have to be diligent about getting the nutrients you need, including iron, vitamin B12, calcium, protein, vitamin D, and iodine. Folate, or folic acid, is another important nutrient you need during pregnancy. It's found in:

  • Fortified cereals, bread, and pasta
  • Peanuts
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Orange juice
  • Beans

Your doctor may also recommend a folic acid supplement—and other supplements—if you're unable to meet your nutritional needs through diet alone.

Vegan and breastfeeding

The same balanced diet you follow during pregnancy will provide the nutrients you need while nursing. One review study found no difference in the nutritional quality of breast milk among nonvegetarians, vegetarians, and vegans.

Does the idea of a vegan diet interest you, but you're not sure how to start? If you want, you could plunge right in and cut out all poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy at once. Or you could take a more gradual approach and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat at each meal.

If removing all animal products from your diet feels overwhelming, try a less strict approach. Some diets focus on plants but still leave wiggle room for other types of foods:

  • Pescatarian: No meat and poultry but you can still eat fish
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Plant-based diet, plus dairy and eggs
  • Flexitarian: Plant-based diet that occasionally includes animal products

Your doctor or a dietitian can help you choose the right foods as you start a vegetarian or vegan diet. It's very important to get help from an expert if you have a health condition or are pregnant to make sure you get the right mix of nutrients.