The word "vegan" may conjure up images of celebrities downing $10 green juice after their Sunday morning yoga class. But the eating plan is much more than another buzzy diet trend. Lizzo is one of the most recent celebs to subscribe to the eating philosophy, not to lose weight or make a political statement, but because she said, "health is what happens on the inside."
And she's 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 exactly? Put simply, it is one where you’re not eating animals or foods that come from animals (like eggs, milk, cheese or honey). And while it is restrictive in some ways (especially for those who rely heavily on animal products), it also opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to getting creative with nutrient-dense, plant-based foods.
What does the research say about the 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.
The 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
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.
Data also 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.
But 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, PhD, 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.”
Is the vegan diet a good choice for you?
“Done correctly, it’s beneficial for anyone,” explained Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, 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 planet. Farming 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.
What can you eat on 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.
What a day on a vegan diet may look like:
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
Can you get all the nutrients you need from 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.
The vegan diet is similar to:
- Vegetarian diet, which cuts out meat and seafood, but allows some animal protein like eggs and yogurt
- Pescatarian diet, a mostly vegetarian diet that allows seafood
- Flexitarian diet, a mostly vegetarian diet that permits some animal protein
Is the 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. Consider talking to a dietitian, reading books, stocking your pantry, taking a vegan cooking class or watching some Youtube videos. And as always, start with your doctor, who will be able to recommend the best eating plan for you.