Vegan Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Filling—it’s rich in high-fiber foods
  • Health and environmental benefits
  • Really restrictive
  • Can be lots of work

Do's & Don'ts

Don't: Eat any animal products See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Balanced.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Vegetarian Diet, Eco-Atkins, Raw Food Diet

The aim:

Depends, but may include weight loss, heart health, and diabetes prevention or control.

The claim:

Going vegan could help shed pounds and fend off chronic diseases.

The theory:

You can cook up a perfectly healthy, meat- and dairy-free menu that supports weight loss and reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

How does the Vegan Diet work?

While vegetarians eliminate meat, fish, and poultry, vegans take it a step further, excluding all animal products—even dairy and eggs. (Vegans are often animal rights activists who don’t believe in using animal products for any purpose.) So say goodbye to refried beans with lard, margarine made with whey, and anything with gelatin, which comes from animal bones and hooves, too. Fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes will be your staples.

Exactly how you shape your diet each day is up to you, but you’ll typically aim for 6 servings of grains, likely from bread and calcium-fortified cereal; 5 servings of legumes, nuts, and other types of protein, like peanut butter, chickpeas, tofu, potatoes, and soy milk; and 4 daily servings of veggies, 2 servings of fruit, and 2 servings of healthy fats, like sesame oil, avocado, and coconut, according to an American Dietetic Association guide. There’s also no need to give up dessert: Vegans can eat baked goods (cupcakes and cobbler, for example) made without butter, eggs, or albumin.

Need more guidance? The Internet is full of good information, and countless books offer structured vegan meal plans and recipes. The Kind Diet by actress Alicia Silverstone ($21.99), for example, outlines potential benefits of going vegan, answers common questions, and contains a glossary of common terms. It guides readers through the process of converting and is packed with recipes. And the Skinny Bitch series—which includes the cookbook Skinny Bitch in the Kitch—offers nutrition tips and recipes.

You don’t have to go cold turkey. You could start by preparing a couple meat-free dishes each week, and gradually make more substitutions—tofu in stir fry instead of chicken, say, or grilled veggie burgers instead of beef. If your aim is also weight loss, amp up your exercise routine and eat fewer calories than your daily recommended max.

Will you lose weight?

Likely. Research shows vegans tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less, and have a lower body mass index (a measure of body fat) than their meat-eating counterparts. If you’re doing it right—i.e., eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains—you’ll likely feel full on fewer calories than you’re allowed each day. With that “calorie deficit” and a little physical activity, you’re bound to shed pounds. How quickly and whether you keep them off is up to you.

Here’s what several key studies have to say about veganism:

  • In one study, 99 participants with type 2 diabetes followed either a vegan diet or a diet based on American Diabetes Association guidelines. After 22 weeks, the vegans lost an average of 13 pounds vs. 9 in the ADA group, according to findings published in 2006 in Diabetes Care. If you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help stave off some diseases.
  • In another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999, researchers tracked 45 people: 20 meat-eaters and 25 vegans who’d been following the approach for an average of 12 years. Body mass index was appreciably lower among the vegans, nine of whom had a BMI of below 19, the researchers found; a BMI below 18.5 suggest a person is underweight.
  • More than 60 overweight, postmenopausal women were split into two groups: half followed a vegan diet, and the other half followed a National Cholesterol Education Program diet (low in fat and dietary cholesterol). After a year, vegan dieters lost more weight than did the NCEP group: 10.8 pounds compared with 3.9 pounds. The pattern held up after two years, when the vegans still weighed 6.8 pounds less than they did when the study began, compared with 1.8 pounds for the NCEP group, according to findings published in 2007 in Obesity.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

It could. An eating pattern heavy on fruits and veggies, but light on saturated fat and salt, is considered the best way to keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay.

  • In a 12-year study that compared 6,000 vegetarians with 5,000 meat-eaters, researchers found that vegans had a 57 percent lower risk of ischemic heart disease than the meat-eaters. (The condition describes reduced heart pumping due to coronary artery disease, and often leads to heart failure.) Vegetarians had a 24 percent lower risk. The vegans did better than the vegetarians because eggs and cheese can increase the risk of heart disease, the researchers speculated. By the end of the study, vegans had the lowest total and “bad” LDL cholesterol: 165.9 and 88.2 milligrams per deciliter, respectively. Meat-eaters’ total cholesterol averaged 205.3 mg/dL, and their LDL was 122.6 mg/dL, according to findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999.
  • In the 2006 Diabetes Care study mentioned in the above weight loss section, researchers concluded that vegan diets have a lipid- and cholesterol-lowering effect, likely because they eliminate dietary cholesterol (plant products are cholesterol-free) and are low in saturated fat. The soluble fiber found in plant-protein also helps to lower cholesterol, according to the report. After 22 weeks, LDL cholesterol dropped 21.2 percent in the vegan group, compared with 10.7 percent in the group following American Diabetes Association guidelines. Triglycerides fell from 140.3 mg/dL to 118.2—which is important, because high triglycerides can jeopardize heart health. And systolic blood pressure dropped from a borderline-high 123.8 to 120, while diastolic fell from a normal 77.9 to an even lower 72.8.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

It appears to be a good option for both.

Prevention: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. If going meat- and dairy-free helps you lose weight and keep it off, you’ll stand a better chance of staving off the disease. Some research has linked veganism with a lower diabetes risk.

Control: Vegan diets are healthful for people with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. And because there are no rigid meal plans or prepackaged meals, you can ensure that what you’re eating doesn’t go against your doctor’s advice.

  • In the 2006 Diabetes Care study mentioned in the above weight loss and heart sections, which involved 99 people with type 2 diabetes, both a vegan diet and an ADA-dietary guidelines diet improved control of blood sugar levels. However, the benefit was more profound in the vegan group. Researchers also found that vegan diets may have a beneficial effect on hemoglobin A1C levels, a measure of blood sugar over time. After 22 weeks, the vegans decreased their hemoglobin A1C levels by .96 percentage points, compared with 0.56 among the ADA dieters. And 43 percent of vegan dieters reduced the number of diabetes medications they were taking, while just 26 percent of the ADA group did.

Are there health risks?

If you create a sensible plan, you should be safe. But if you have a health condition, check with your doctor before going vegan.

Vegans often don’t get enough calcium, which can cause weak bones that break easily, according to a study published in Pediatric Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism in 2010. And in a report on the health effects of a vegan diet published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009, researchers warned that vegans often don’t get enough vitamin D, vitamin B-12, and zinc. They’re also often low in the n-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are important for brain, eye, and cardiovascular health. Supplements might be necessary.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. If you make healthful choices, you should stay within the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat. And the fats you do get will likely be the healthy, unsaturated kind found in avocado, nuts and cold-pressed oils.

Protein. Veganism should keep you within the acceptable range for protein consumption.

Carbohydrates. It’s in line with the recommendation that carbs supply 45 to 65 percent of daily calories.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older or African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, that limit is 1,500 mg. It’s up to you to stay under your cap, but it shouldn’t be too hard since you’re eating fresh produce and ditching heavily processed foods.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount—22 to 34 grams for adults—helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. Lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and other legumes are high-fiber, so you should easily meet the recommendation.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. How much potassium you get on a vegan diet is entirely up to you, but because you’re almost certainly eating more fruits and veggies than you were before, you’ll likely get more potassium than most.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. Vegans shouldn’t have a problem meeting the standard with the help of dark green veggies, calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, almond butter, and soy yogurt.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Fortified soy milk along with wheat gluten and soy products are good sources.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who get too little sunlight need to meet the government’s recommended 15 micrograms a day with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. Foods that contain vitamin D are typically animal-derived, so it may be difficult for vegans to meet the standard. A supplement may be necessary.

Supplement recommended? N/A

How easy is it to follow?

How difficult is the idea of a turkey-free Thanksgiving and morning cereal without the milk? Be mindful that healthy veganism requires planning, especially if you’re a newbie.

Convenience:

When you want to cook, there’s a recipe somewhere that’ll suit your taste buds. Still, veganism takes some work and creativity. It’s up to you to plan meals around plant protein rather than animal protein.

Recipes. Limitless. Vegan magazines, books, and websites abound, offering suggestions for every meal and cuisine.

Eating out. Doable, but options may be limited. Garden vegetable soup and steamed veggies make good appetizers. Entrée salads are your best bet, but don’t forget to hold the bacon bits, croutons, and cheese. For dessert, go with fresh fruit.

Alcohol. Only certain types of alcohol are vegan-friendly. Some wines, for example, are filtered through gelatin, egg whites and isinglass, made from fish bladders. Check which brands are OK on http://www.barnivore.com.

Timesavers. None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them, and prepare them.

Extras. N/A

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. If you’ve built a healthful vegan diet around fiber-packed veggies, fruits, and whole grains, you shouldn’t feel hungry between meals.

Taste:

You’re preparing the food—if it doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame. Try reinventing your favorites: Go for black-bean instead of steak burritos, or if chicken stir-fry is your thing, use tofu instead of poultry. And consider replacing turkey meatballs or the meat in spaghetti sauce with white beans. There are lots of dessert options, too, including raspberry lavender cupcakes, gingerbread pumpkin seed brittle, cherry-berry peanut butter cobbler, and poppy seed scones. (Often, treats are made using non-dairy milk, soy or coconut creamer, flaxseeds, chickpea flour, vegan cream cheese, and even vegan sprinkles.)

How much does it cost?

It’s moderately pricey. Fruits, vegetables, and soy products—which should be filling your cart if you’re doing it right—are generally more expensive than heavily processed foods like white bread, sugary cereals, and sweets. But bypassing the butcher will help keep the tab reasonable.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Vegan diets can be easily adapted—choose your preference for more information.

The vegan diet also counts as a vegetarian plan.

People with celiac disease, who can’t tolerate gluten, should have no problem with the help of gluten-free protein like nuts, beans, and lentils.

Doable. Eating lots of fruits and veggies generally keeps the sodium count low.

Yes, you can make sure your diet is kosher.

Yes, you can make your diet conform to halal guidelines.

What is the role of exercise?

Veganism only has rules on what you can and cannot eat, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise. No matter the diet, the more you move, the quicker you’ll see the pounds come off—and you’ll reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart problems, and other chronic diseases. Adults are generally encouraged to get at least 2 ½ hours of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) each week, along with a couple days of muscle-strengthening activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips to get you started.


Last updated by Angela Haupt | December 16, 2013

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