Plant-Based Eating Is More Than a Trend—Here’s What It Takes to Go Vegan

Photo: Stocksy / Natasa Mandic
Ask someone five years ago about whether they'd consider going vegan, and you likely would have been answered with an eye-roll or a grimace. Now, people are gladly adding oat milk to their coffee and trying Beyond Meat when it hits their grocery store, and even traditional companies like Tyson are trying to meet the growing (non-meat) demand with their own innovations. It's a major reason why we're convinced there's never been a better time to go plant-based, if that's your thing.

However, veganism can be a tough sell, which perhaps explains why a 2018 Gallup poll found that only 3 percent of Americans consider themselves fully vegan (only a slight gain from 2 percent of Americans in 2012). People on a vegan diet avoid all foods containing animal products, from meat and poultry to dairy, eggs, and gelatin. Complicating matters is the fact that animal-derived ingredients can pop up in surprising places, says Vandana Sheth, RD, a vegetarian nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Gelatin is in some yogurts, fruit cups, and candies, for example, while lard shows up in some tortillas and beans—meaning a vegan often has to do careful reading of ingredient lists on packaged foods and at restaurants to ensure they're not consuming any animal products accidentally. Instead, they load up on plant foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

There's often an animal rights component to the eating plan—many vegans believe that any product made with animals is exploitative and unethical, so they also avoid honey and other goods made with animal products, including leather and cosmetics, soaps, and shampoos. “It’s less of a diet and more of a lifestyle,” says Alex Caspero, RD, a nutritionist and plant-based chef.

However, despite the potential drawbacks for newbies, the vegan diet comes with some important benefits for one's health (and for the planet). Here's what Sheth and Caspero want you to know before trying the diet for yourself.

Vegan diet benefits are pretty impressive (if done properly)

Sheth and Caspero tell me that there are two main benefits to going vegan:

1. Eating more produce is good for your health. Plant-based diets are inherently rich in in disease-fighting fiber and phytonutrients because you're just eating more vegetables, fruits, and grains. In fact, research suggests that veganism may reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. The eating plan could also benefit your brain health. Conversely, diets high in red meat and other animal products are associated with poor health outcomes, like increased cancer and diabetes risk. “When you switch animal proteins and fats for plant versions, you do see health benefits,” says Caspero.

2. Consuming fewer animal products is better for the planet (and for animals). Despite the best efforts of certain sustainably-minded meat and dairy companies, experts generally agree that cutting back on animal products is one of the biggest things a person can do to combat climate change. “If you talk about the individual changes we can make for a more healthy, sustainable planet, diet is at the forefront,” Caspero says.

To wit, a 2013 report by the United Nations estimated that livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-caused global carbon emissions. In general, more resources go into growing a pound of meat than a pound of a plant-based food—the Environmental Working Group, for example, reports that beef production creates 13 times more greenhouse gases than the production of vegetable-based proteins.

Of course, not eating animal products also means that a person is not contributing to the captivity and death of animals, and added bonus for people who feel really strongly about animal welfare. That morality aspect may offer extra motivation to make it easier to stick to the eating plan. “To clients who are really vegans for animal welfare, grilled cheese isn’t a food; it’s such a turnoff,” says Caspero.

Is plant-based beef from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat healthy? Watch the video below to see what a registered dietitian thinks:

3 common pitfalls to avoid

While a vegan diet can be very healthy, it's definitely a restrictive eating plan and thus is not for everyone. It takes a bit more dedication to maintain than a more flexitarian, Mediterranean-style diet. And because so many foods are off-limits, that can make it tough to adhere to—and potentially can lead to some downsides, say Caspero and Sheth.

1. You can become deficient in some vitamins and minerals. If you eat a vegan diet of mostly whole, fresh plants, nuts, and seeds, you’re likely getting nearly all of the nutrients you need. But if you’re new to this way of eating, it’s still a good idea to work with a dietician or doctor to be sure you’re getting a balanced diet. “One of the biggest problems I see in my practice is not being open to the idea of supplementation,” says Caspero.

Here are the key nutrients vegans may miss out on:

  • Vitamin B12 supports energy levels and brain function. Since B12 is only found in significant amounts in animal-based foods—and it’s tough to get enough even from fortified vegan options—Caspero recommends all vegans take a supplement.
  • Calcium doesn’t only come from milk, contrary to what the dairy board would have you believe. This bone-building mineral is also in many plant-based foods, including broccoli, bok choy, calcium-set tofu, chia seeds, and lentils. As long as you’re cutting back on processed foods and eating a fresh and varied diet, Caspero says, you should reach your 1000 milligrams-per-day goal.
  • Vitamin D plays a key role in balancing mood and blood sugar levels, Sheth notes. You can get 400 IU daily from fortified foods like plant-based milks and fruit juices. Depending on how they’re grown, mushrooms are also a good source, says Sheth (check the label).
  • Iron levels are sometimes low in vegans, but Caspero says it’s not a concern for those who regularly eat plant-based proteins like beans and lentils. Pair them with foods rich in vitamin C to boost your absorption rate four- to six-fold. “We naturally combine the two, like pairing beans with salsa,” she says. Women need 18 milligrams daily; if your doctor finds you have a deficiency, you’ll need to take a supplement, she adds.

On that note, here are the three supplements an RD says every woman should consider taking: 

Both Caspero and Sheth stress that it’s a myth that vegans don’t get enough protein. As long as you regularly eat protein-filled plant-based foods—beans, soy, nuts, oatmeal, and whole grain bread—it’s no sweat to hit your daily target (0.8 grams per pound of body weight, or usually around 50 to 80 grams of protein per day). In fact, they say many people are at risk of eating too much protein. “Protein is satiating, but it isn’t magic. Excess leads to weight gain and increased risk of diseases like colorectal and prostate cancer,” Caspero notes.

2. Going vegan takes planning. It’s easier than ever these days to find vegan options at the grocery store and most restaurants. Still, eating out with friends and family takes a bit of advance research. “You don’t have to make big deal, but you want to be able to enjoy yourself,” says Sheth. She recommends calling restaurants in advance to request on- or off-menu vegan choices, so that when you arrive with a group it’s already settled. For dinners at a friend’s home, ask in advance what they’re serving. If there isn’t an option that works for you, offer to bring a plant-based entrée or side dish. “You take the burden off of the host, and they’ll know that you may not be eating certain things,” says Sheth.

3. It’s easy to get fooled by the vegan health halo. It’s nice to think that simply avoiding animal-based foods makes for a healthy diet. But most processed vegan burgers still contain a lot of fat and sodium to taste good. Likewise, potato chips and cookies might be vegan—but they’re still made from fried potatoes and sugar. “Just because something has a vegan label doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier,” Caspero says.

Choosing the wrong foods or relying too much on super processed options can result in a pretty unhealthy diet devoid of the micronutrients you need. But the same can be true for any eating pattern. “If you’re Paleo and just eat chicken all day, you’ll be seriously deficient in calcium and vitamin K,” notes Caspero.

The secret, Sheth says, is to opt for mostly fresh foods. At each meal, fill half of your plate with fruits and veggies; a quarter with whole grains (brown rice, whole grain bread, sweet potatoes); and a quarter with protein (beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds). When you choose packaged vegan foods, check the ingredients label and pick options with as many whole ingredients as possible. Need help and menu inspiration? Consider working with a registered vegetarian dietician (find one at AND).

The bottom line: Whether or not you go vegan, pretty much all of us can stand to eat more plants. “You don’t have to be 100-percent vegan to reap the health benefits,” says Caspero. If you decide that it's a route that you want to take, focus on whole foods as much as possible, and don't forget to talk to your doctor about your potential supplementation needs.

Originally published August 6, 2019. Updated December 23, 2019.

Interested in trying a vegan diet? Here's how to do the Mediterranean diet with a vegan twist. And here are some air fryer recipes that make vegan staples way more delicious.

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