Written by: Kelley R. Hill, MSN, RN-BC
In a Nutshell
- The most restrictive of the plant-based diets
- Permits plant-based foods only, which includes grains and legumes, but no animal products
- Often must be accompanied by supplements, especially when first starting
The vegan diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. It is low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
A vegan diet requires a lot of education and careful meal planning to achieve proper nutrition.
Believe it or not, there are a variety of different vegan diets:
- Starch Solution
- Raw Till 4
- Junk-food (discussed below)
While many restaurants are now offering vegan options, healthful variety is still scarce, and choices often contain loads of added salt or sugar. These selections can lead you to the “French fry diet,” otherwise known as the vegan junk food diet, which is the result of getting stuck on heavily processed foods and not eating a sufficient variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The vegan junk food diet comprises chips, cookies, cereals, candies, other desserts, fried vegetables, and highly processed meat substitutes. Even some plant-based dairy alternatives have added sugars.
This diet can save you money as protein sources like beans and lentils are much cheaper than animal meats. They are also more readily available.
Because of the restrictive nature of this diet and the rather large nutritional learning curve for those making the switch to no animal products, nutritional supplements are encouraged. Protein, calcium, iron, B-vitamins (especially B-12), and others are essential to good health and are abundant in animal products. The elimination of animal products makes these more difficult to consume in adequate quantities. The following supplements should be considered:
- Vitamin B-12
- Vitamin D
- EPA and DHA (omega-3s)
- (possibly) Protein
Of note: Honey is considered an animal product, as it is produced by a living creature – bees – and therefore restricted from the vegan diet.
Scientific & Expert Support
Some research directly suggests that a vegan diet may reduce risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Vegans also appeared to have the lowest rates of cancer of any diet. There is also an abundance of evidence on the benefits of eating more plant foods to reduce disease risk, as well as improve immunity and gut health.
There is and has always been great concern, however, that the diet lacks adequate B-12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and iodine. These nutrients are essential for preventing increased risk of anemia, bone density loss, neurologic disorders, goiters, and other conditions such as muscle weakness and slowed healing.
Those who are recovering from or are at risk for developing an eating disorder should not attempt this diet.
You should always consult with your physician, and ideally a registered dietician (RD) or nutritionist, before radically changing your diet or eating habits. Especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, are taking prescription medications, or have existing health conditions.
Some supplements should not be taken at the same time, as it reduces their ability to get into your system. Calcium should not be taken at the same time as iron or zinc.
Strength of Evidence: A
There is an abundance of quality, patient-centered evidence that supports eating more plant foods for many health reasons. There is a moderate amount of evidence directly supporting the vegan diet, though also quality evidence demonstrating important deficiencies.
Since the vegan diet is so restrictive and requires a lot of education and careful planning, it may be beneficial to progress to a vegan diet in stages of animal product elimination while learning how to meal prep and maintain adequate nutrition as a vegan.
Caporuscio, J., & Marengo, K. (2019, June 10). Almond, hemp, oat, soy, and cow’s milk: Which is best? Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325425
Chen, Z., Zuurmond, M.G., van der Schaft, N., Nano, J., Wijnhoven, H.A.H., Ikram, M.A., Franco, O.H., & Voortman, T. (2018). Plant versus animal based diets and insulin resistance, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes: The Rotterdam study. European Journal of Epidemiology, 33(9), 883-893.
Cleveland Clinic. (2019, February 01). Vegetarian basics. Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17593-vegetarianism--heart-health
Fetters, K.A. (2019, September 30). 12 things you need to know before going vegan. Health – Nutrition. Retrieved from: https://www.health.com/nutrition/12-things-you-need-to-know-before-going-vegan
Harvard Medical School. (2014, April). Is a vegetarian or vegan diet for you? Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/is-a-vegetarian-or-vegan-diet-for-you
Harvard University – Harvard Medical School. (2020). Special health report – The diet review. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2019, October 30). How plant-based food helps fight cancer. Mayo Clinic – Healthy Lifestyle: Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/how-plant-based-food-helps-fight-cancer/art-20457590
McVeigh, J. (2016, March 16). Vegans may lack essential nutrient intake. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/vegans-may-lack-essential-nutrient-intake-mayo-clinic-study-reports/Sign up here for reminder texts that can help you stay on top of your treatment plan.