The rising popularity in vegan and plant-based diets is hard to miss with everyone from athletes to health pros and celebrities touting their benefits. Not to mention the huge buzz (and debate) that the Netflix documentary The Game Changers caused on the topic. Naturally, more people than ever are curious about the diet that nixes all meat and animal-based products.
A vegan diet is comprised of all plant-based foods.
As controversial as the vegan diet is in the wellness space, it’s been around for a long time.
Below, a registered dietician helps explain the basics of a vegan diet, as well as the health benefits and potential problems with going vegan.
What is a vegan diet?
“A vegan diet excludes all meat, poultry, fish and animal products such as dairy and eggs,” says Whitney English Tabaie, a registered dietician nutritionist. “Most vegans also avoid wearing or purchasing nonfood items that are made from animal products.”
How exactly someone follows a vegan diet depends on personal preferences. For example, some vegans will include soy products or meat alternatives like Beyond Meat, while some people avoid soy or processed protein alternatives. But the basic principles remain the same: Vegans do not eat any product that came from an animal, even if it’s a derivative like milk.
Many people group vegans, vegetarians and plant-based diets together, but they are all quite different. Vegetarians may include some animal products in their diets, like eggs or dairy. Plant-based diets revolve around plants like fruits and veggies, but there is no strict avoidance of meat, fish or dairy.
The protein question
The most common concern that people have when it comes to vegan diets involves protein intake. Many people rely on meat, eggs, fish or dairy as their protein sources — it’s often the main part of the meal. So when you remove all of those things, the protein options aren’t obvious.
According to Tabaie, most people believe that you can’t get enough protein from plants, but according to her it is possible. “First of all, we really don’t need as much protein as most people think,” she says. “The average daily reference intake of protein is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. Most people consume significantly more protein than necessary.”
So where do vegans get their protein from?
Most plants do not contain the nine essential amino acids that are found in animal protein and seafood that constitute a “complete” protein. If you follow a vegan diet, it’s important to understand the difference between complete and incomplete proteins so that your body gets adequate protein.
Some people try to combine different incomplete proteins to “form” a complete protein amino acid profile in the same meal, which you can do if you’d like. But according to the Cleveland Clinic, if you make an effort to include a variety of different complete and incomplete proteins throughout your day, your protein needs should be fine.
Examples of vegan foods that are incomplete proteins, but contain some protein:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Whole grains
Vegan foods that are complete proteins:
- Whole sources of soy (tofu, edamame, tempeh, miso)
- Hemp seeds
Benefits of veganism
“Vegan or plant-based diets have been shown in numerous studies to decrease the risk of (and even reverse) many lifestyle diseases including obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” Tabaie says.
One top reason why people ditch animal products is because of health concerns surrounding meat. Public health officials and health practitioners have historically encouraged people to eat less meat, specifically red meat and processed meat such as bacon, for better health. Recent research challenged this idea, however, and found a weaker link between red and processed meat and chronic illnesses than previously thought.
Another controversial topic when it comes to animal products is saturated fat. Saturated fat is found in meat and dairy products, and some plant-based foods like coconut oil, and many have believed it to be a culprit behind heart disease. Recent research found, however, that saturated fat does not clog the arteries and that heart disease is instead a chronic inflammatory condition.
Even though meat, animal products and saturated fat may not be as bad for your health as previously thought, some people prefer to avoid meat due to ethical reasons or personal preference. And there are numerous studies that point to the health benefits of a vegan or more plant-based diet.
Potential problems with the vegan diet
Besides the chance that you won’t get enough protein if you’re not careful to include the right types of foods, there are several other nutrients that you can be at risk of missing out on in a vegan diet.
“While a well-planned vegan diet can be very beneficial and longevity-promoting, simply avoiding animal products does not guarantee health,” Tabaie says. “Certain nutrients are low in a plant-based diet, or absent in the case of B12, so vegans or plant-based eaters must supplement to ensure proper nutrition.”
Nutrients to consider supplementing on a vegan diet, according to Tabaie:
- B12: Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods, so Tabaie recommends all vegan and vegetarians supplement it.
- Vitamin D: Tabaie says nixing fish, eggs and fortified milk can put you at risk for vitamin D deficiency.
- Calcium: Milk is not the only dietary source of calcium — plenty of plants, like beans and nuts, contain it naturally. But Tabaie says if you’re not careful with which plants you include, you could be low.
- Iron: Plant-based foods do contain iron, but the iron is not as easily absorbed in the body as the iron found in meat. Tabaie suggests including iron absorption enhancers, like vitamin C, with your iron-rich food. You should not supplement iron without getting your levels checked and consulting with a doctor first.
- Iodine: Iodine is found naturally in seafood and dairy. It is also in iodized salt, but if you don’t use that salt you could be lacking in iodine. Tabaie recommends salting your food with iodized salt to ensure you get some iodine in your diet.
- Selenium: Selenium is found in seafood, so if you’re plant-based you may be low. You can get selenium in Brazil nuts, which are rich in the mineral — she suggests eating about one per day to ensure you meet your needs.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Omega 3s are found in fish, but supplements are also derived from fish, so many vegans opt out of taking them. You can get omega 3s from a vegan-friendly source: algae oil.