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What is a vegan diet? A comprehensive beginner's guide

Everything you need to know about going vegan.

The word “vegan” may conjure up images of celebrities downing expensive green juices after their sunrise yoga class. But eating vegan is more than just another buzzy fad diet. Yes, veganism does have its share of celebrity adherents, but that doesn't mean it's a fashion trend. Lizzo went vegan in 2020 and her TikTok recipe inspirations have since gone viral.

But while Lizzo is definitely a trendsetter, she's not jumping on some diet bandwagon. Lizzo has stated openly that she didn't go vegan to lose weight or make a political statement. Instead, she's focused on the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. “Health is what happens on the inside," Lizzo said. Lizzo, as usual, is right. A vegan diet can be a smart choice for many people; one that can improve your health, prevent or help control a variety of health conditions — and yes, it can help you lose weight if that’s your goal.

What is a vegan diet?

The vegan diet is defined by what you exclude from your food options. In the simplest terms, a vegan diet means not eating animals or foods that come from animals — like eggs, milk, cheese or honey. While it may seem restrictive in some ways — especially for those who rely heavily on animal products — eating vegan can also open up a world of possibilities when it comes to getting creative with nutrient-dense, plant-based foods.

Health benefits of a vegan diet

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegan eating can be a healthy diet for people of all ages — including children, pregnant and lactating women, and athletes.

A vegan diet may help you:

  • Lose weight and maintain a healthy BMI.
  • Promote general health.
  • Prevent or control diabetes.
  • Improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and preventing high blood pressure.
  • Boost your mood.
Roasted Squash and Chickpeas with Hot Honey
NYTCREDIT: David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
Spice-Roasted Honeynut Squash and Chickpeas are a great choice for a filling high-protein meal.David Malosh for The New York Times

Can a vegan diet help you lose weight?

Research found that compared to eating a low-fat diet, people eating a vegan diet lost more than three times as much weight after two years. Research also suggests that for people with type 2 diabetes, eating vegan may help them better manage their condition, as well as help boost mood and weight loss and lower cholesterol. And since you’ll be cutting out foods that are linked to poor health when eaten in excess — like meat, butter and cheese — a vegan diet will promote your health overall.

What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?

Data suggests people who eat vegan, on average, tend to have lower BMIs and be less likely to develop hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome compared to non-vegetarians and other types of vegetarians.

To see those benefits, you need to eat foods that are minimally processed, since they tend to be the most nutrient-dense for the calories, said Gabrielle Turner-McGrievy, RD, associate professor in the department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior in the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina (who studies the health benefits of vegan eating).

“You can do an unhealthy version of really any diet," Turner-McGrievy explained. Basically, living on peanut butter sandwiches and dairy-free packaged foods isn't a healthy way to go vegan or to see any kind of benefits.

How do you eat a vegan diet?

As long as you’re not eating animals or animal products, you’re following a vegan diet. But just because a food is vegan doesn’t mean it’s necessarily part of a healthy diet.

Candy, french fries and potato chips can all be vegan, but they also tend to be high in fat and low in fiber, which means they won’t fill you up and you’re more likely to eat more than a healthy portion, explained Shapiro. “A lot of clients come to me who put on weight after going vegan because the quick and easy-to-grab foods aren’t always so healthy.”

Focus on plants and whole foods, the less processed the better, Shapiro said. Get protein from nuts, seeds, beans and other legumes. Eat healthy fats, like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds. When it comes to carbohydrates, choose nutrient-dense ones, like whole grains, potatoes, legumes and fresh fruits. Try non-dairy milks and yogurts. And definitely do eat lots of vegetables.

For packaged foods: check the label for ingredients you recognize and can pronounce, Shapiro said.

Above shot, caponata pizza on wooden chopping board, marble benchtop, as seen on Mary McCartney Serves It Up, season 3.
This Skillet Flatbread Caponata Pizza will fill those pizza cravings — without the cheese. Discovery+

Foods you can eat on a vegan diet:

  • All fruits and vegetables
  • Beans
  • Bread and baked goods that don't contain dairy or eggs
  • Chocolate
  • Dairy alternative milks — like oat milk, soy milk and coconut milk
  • Grains — like oats, wheat and corn
  • Legumes
  • Meat substitutes — like tofu, tempeh, seitan and many plant-based burgers
  • Nut-based cheeses
  • Oils derived from plants — like olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Seeds

Sample vegan diet meal plan

Wondering what your plate may look like when following a vegan diet? Shapiro broke it down:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with chia seeds, blueberries and cinnamon

Lunch: Large salad of mixed greens, olives, a variety of vegetables, edamame and hemp seeds

Snack: 1/2 cup coconut yogurt mixed with cashews and goji berries

Dinner: Lentil based pasta, tossed with vegan pesto, spinach, broccoli and peas

Dessert: Small scoop vegan ice cream like those made by Daily Harvest or Van Lehwen

Supplements you may need on a vegan diet

The only vitamin you’re really missing out on is vitamin B12, which is only found in animals, Shapiro explained. Do consider a supplement, she said.

Other vitamins that you might not be getting enough are iron (plants have iron, but our bodies don’t absorb it as well as the type found in animal sources) and zinc (which is found in some, but not all vegetables). Dairy products (which are not vegan) tend to be good sources of calcium and vitamin D, but many dairy alternatives (like nut milks and coconut yogurts) are fortified with these nutrients.

Common questions about a vegan diet

While most of us have heard of veganism, it can seem confusing if you've never tried it before. Here are some of the most common questions people have about vegan diets:

Can vegans eat eggs?

Typically, vegans do not eat eggs. Because eggs come from animals — birds, in this case, eggs are considered animal products and therefore not vegan. But there are a lot of tasty egg replacements on the market and some substitutes that you might already have on hand — like flaxseeds or applesauce, which can be used to replace eggs in baked goods. Chefs have even devised strategies to make egg rolls vegan, so even if you choose to cut eggs out of your diet you really don't have to miss out on anything.

Can vegans drink alcohol?

Yes, vegans can drink most alcoholic beverages. With the exception of creme-based liqueurs, most spirits are vegan. That being said, some wine and beer distillers do use animal products when they're making beverages, so you'll likely want to stay away from those. But there are so many vegan wine and beer options that it's hard to imagine that your drive to imbibe will be hindered by a vegan diet.

Do vegans drink coffee?

Yes, vegans can drink coffee if they want to. Coffee beans come from the coffee plant, an evergreen that grows in equatorial regions. The beans are then roasted, ground and brewed into the beverage we call coffee. A lot of well-loved coffee drinks, however, traditionally have milk in them — like lattes and cappuccinos. But there are a ton of non-dairy milks available almost anywhere.

Why is honey not vegan?

As you probably know, honey is produced by bees. You may not know that insects are animals, and therefore, bees are animals and honey is an animal product. Most vegans avoid animal products of any kind, including honey. But there is a growing movement of people who follow what they call a "beegan" diet, or a diet that includes honey and bee pollen.

Foods to avoid on a vegan diet

There are many vegan alternatives to popular foods and grocery stores are full of vegan substitutes, but there are still some foods — and additives — that vegans avoid.

Here are some things that vegans don't eat:

  • All meat and poultry
  • All dairy products — like milk and cheese
  • Eggs
  • Honey
  • Omega-3 fatty acids that come from fish
  • Gelatin, which is made from the connective tissue of cows and pigs
  • Food additives that come from animal sources — like include E120, E322, E422, E 471, E542, E631, E901 and E904
  • Vitamin D3 derived from fish or lanolin
  • Cochineal or carmine — a red food coloring made of insect scales
  • Isinglass — a gelatin-like substance made from fish bladders that is sometimes used in the making of beer and wine
  • Dairy additives — whey, casein and lactose are dairy products

Is a vegan diet a good choice long term?

Done right — focusing on whole and minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods — a vegan diet offers a lot of health benefits for people of all ages and lifestyles. Educate yourself, however, before you start. As always, start with your doctor, who will be able to recommend the best eating plan for you and a dietitian will be able to help guide you along your nutritional path.

Is a vegan diet a good choice for you?

“Done correctly, it’s beneficial for anyone,” explained Amy Shapiro, RD, founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City. Eating vegan (if you’re doing it the healthy way) can benefit people who have heart disease and/or high cholesterol and are looking to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their diets, Shapiro says. It can also help people control diabetes and lose weight, so it’s a good option for those looking to slim down.

Eating vegan (along with other types of plant-based diets) is also good for the planetFarming animals for food is known to be one of the big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change. And it can be friendly on your wallet, too, according to another study from Turner-McGrievy and her colleagues. “Dried beans and rice are a lot less expensive than beef,” she said.

If your plate is currently filled with meat, fish and eggs, start by eating vegan a few times a week. This can make the transition easier, by giving you time to experiment with vegan recipes and slowly shift your mindset to building a meal around plant-based foods.

Diets similar to the vegan diet

raspberry tart
No-Cook Chocolate and Raspberry Tart is a great way to soothe your sweet tooth sans dairy.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Vegan diet recipes