Vegan Diet: Health Benefits, Foods And Tips – Forbes

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Plant-based eating plans are increasing in popularity, from Meatless Mondays to veganism. If you’re considering a vegan lifestyle in an effort to be healthier, for animal welfare reasons, or simply to decrease your carbon footprint, it’s important to consider how the lifestyle may affect your daily life. When well-planned, plant-based diets have numerous health benefits—as long as you make sure your nutrient needs are met.
Here’s everything you need to know about starting a vegan diet, plus health benefits and expert tips for success.
A vegan diet is mainly composed of produce, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, which serve as a plant-based source of nutrients, says Kayleen Eslinger, a registered dietitian at Medical Offices of Manhattan in New York. Any animal products or byproducts—including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and honey—are avoided, she says
The terms vegan and vegetarian diet are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are distinctly different ways of eating, says Nicole Roach, a registered dietitian at Northwell Health’s Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Unlike a vegan eating plan, where no animals or any animal products are consumed at all, a vegetarian diet typically incorporates some animal products, such as milk or eggs, she explains. What’s more, there are several types of vegetarian eating plans; according to Roach, these types include:
On a vegan diet, all animal products–and products derived from animals like honey, milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs–are eliminated from your eating plan, says Kara Burnstine, a registered dietitian at Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami. Lesser-known products to avoid as a vegan include gelatin, carmine (a colorant derived from insects), pepsin (an ingredient often used in leather made from pig stomach), whey and casein, which are all derived from animals, she says.
It’s also important to note that if you are considering to veganism as a lifestyle, it also means avoidance of animal products other than just for food consumption, such as wearing no fur or leather and using no personal care products with animal-derived ingredients.
While animal products are to be avoided, vegans can eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, says Eslinger. They include:
When done in a healthy way, following a vegan diet may show improvements in various areas including improving heart health, reducing diabetes and cancer risk and promoting weight loss, says Roach.
A plant-based diet is typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, says Burnstine. Indeed, a 2019 review in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that plant-based diets that minimize the consumption of animal products are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a lower risk of death from all causes[1].
Chronic illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer (such as colorectal cancer) can be linked to high meat and dairy consumption, says Eslinger. Studies indicate that vegan and vegetarian diets are linked to a decreased risk of these conditions[2].
Weight loss is a potential effect of veganism, says Burnstine. In one randomized study, participants following a vegan diet over a 16-week period lost an average of 13 pounds versus a group following the Mediterranean diet, who did not experience weight loss[3]. Even so, Burnstine says it’s important to assure you’re getting adequate fiber, focus on eating whole foods versus refined and highly processed foods, and keep total calories in mind when trying to lose weight. Activity levels also play a key role in weight loss efforts.
Because a vegan diet is restrictive, it can be challenging to always get adequate protein and other nutrients, says Burnstine. In fact, a 2021 review found that a vegan diet can be linked to a reduced intake of vitamins B2, B12 and D, as well as niacin (vitamin B3), iodine, zinc, calcium, potassium and selenium[4].
Before you start a vegan eating plan, Burnstine recommends speaking with a dietitian, like a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), to assist with education and meal planning and to learn about your personalized nutrition needs. This may mean choosing plant-based options rich in nutrients or adding a daily vitamin or supplement, adds Roach.
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Taking a slow approach, starting with one plant-based meal a day and then increasing it to two meals after mastering the habit, is one good way to begin a vegan eating plan, notes Roach. Though it’s important to choose the pathway that works best for you. She emphasizes the importance of consuming a wide variety of fiber rich foods such as whole fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains in appropriate portions. And be mindful of overall saturated fat content. According to the American Heart Association, it’s best to consume less than 13 grams of saturated fat per day[5].
Eslinger encourages investigating the wide range of plant-based equivalents that are on the market, including vegan meat alternatives, dairy-free cheeses, plant-based milks and vegan versions of your favorite sweets. They can enhance your meals with variety and well-known flavors, she says. Read labels to assure these picks fit into your healthy eating repertoire since being a 100-percent plant-based item doesn’t mean it’s automatically 100-percent healthful.
A few fun and easy ways to incorporate vegan dishes into your eating plan, according to Burnstine, include:
Lightly mix (pulse) your ingredients in a food processor, form patties, add oil to a pan and cook for about three to four minutes per side, until cooked through.
Most importantly, notes Burstine, if you decide to embrace a vegan lifestyle, focus on all the foods you can eat, enjoy and know are good for you instead of the ones you’re giving up.
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Heidi Borst is a freelance journalist, healthcare content writer and certified nutrition coach with a love of all things health and wellness. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Good Housekeeping, MSN, Yahoo and more. Based in Wilmington, North Carolina, Borst is a lifelong runner and general fitness enthusiast who is passionate about the physical and mental benefits of sleep and self-care.
Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., C.D.N., is a plant-forward registered dietitian nutritionist, classically-trained chef, award-winning cookbook author, professional recipe developer, media personality, spokesperson and food writer. She’s the author of several cookbooks, including her newest, The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook. Newgent has been a healthy culinary instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education for more than 20 years and is a private plant-based cooking coach. She’s also a former national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and has made guest appearances on dozens of television news shows, including Good Morning America. Jackie Newgent is based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her plant-based recipes on her blog.