What Does It Mean To Be Vegan?

A person eating a vegan lunch

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As vegan diets become more popular, you may wonder what vegan means and how it’s different from vegetarian. The main difference is that a vegan diet excludes all animal foods and animal byproducts. Vegetarian diets don’t include meat, fish, poultry, or seafood but may include eggs, honey, milk, and dairy products.

Research has shown that both vegan and vegetarian diets can offer many health benefits, but there are drawbacks to each, too. Read on to learn about vegan diets, what you can eat, and the pros and cons.

What Foods Are Vegan?

Vegans don’t eat any foods that contain animal products. That means their diets exclude all meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy, as well as honey or foods with additives that come from animals, such as gelatin (from cows and pigs) or whey (from milk).

Vegans choose from an array of plant foods. Some vegan choices include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Grains
  • Vegetable oils like olive, canola, sesame, and avocado
  • Legumes
  • Grain products
  • Pasta
  • Bread 
  • Soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame
  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives

What Are Vegan Meat and Dairy Alternatives?

Vegans and vegetarians are still a tiny percentage of the population, but their numbers have grown significantly in the past few years. The more people who eat this way, the more vegan options manufacturers add.

Health food stores usually carry a wide range of vegetarian and vegan options. Traditional grocery store chains and retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and even Walmart now do too.

Some vegan alternatives to traditional animal-based products include plant-based meat, milk, and dairy substitutes. Their nutritional content can vary, and some plant-based options are highly processed and may be higher in sodium, lower in protein, and higher in saturated fat than the original. If you’re concerned about nutritional content, check the label to see how they compare.

Some vegan plant-based meat and dairy alternatives include:

  • Meat alternatives made from mushrooms, algae, cereals, or legumes like black beans
  • Plant-based deli and ground meat alternatives that contain protein from soy or other beans or texturized vegetable protein (TVP)
  • Cheese-like products created from water and vegetable oils or fats with added vegetable protein
  • Plant-based milk from hemp, oat, soybeans, almonds, rice, or other plant sources. It's often fortified with nutrients vegans and vegetarians may lack, like Vitamin D

What Foods Are Not Vegan?

Foods that are not vegan are any foods made with animal products or their derivatives.

Some foods that are not vegan include:

  • Meat
  • Fish and seafood
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Honey
  • Milk
  • Dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and ice cream
  • Prepared and prepackaged products with animal-derived ingredients

Many premade foods are not vegan despite being mostly plant-based. That’s because they use things made from animal tissues or products. Vegans may pass on bakery muffins, for example, because they contain whey or packaged noodles made with egg.

Non-vegan food ingredients of animal origin include:

  • Albumen, which comes from eggs
  • Beeswax
  • Lard
  • Tallow
  • Isinglass, fish gelatin added to some alcoholic beverages during fermentation
  • Whey, lactose, and casein from milk
  • Gelatin, made from the hides, bones, and connective tissue of pigs and cows
  • Glycerol, which is sometimes made of animal fat
  • Disodium inosinate, a food additive sometimes made from meat or fish

What's Vegan Leather?

Some vegans also shun cosmetic and household products tested on animals and clothing derived from animal sources. You may have heard of vegan leather, which is faux leather not made from animal skin. It may be polyurethane or a variety of eco-friendly materials.

There’s also a soybean substitute for cashmere that some animal welfare groups call “vegetable cashmere.” The original version usually comes from goats.

Other materials vegans forgo: 

  • Silk (made from the boiled cocoons of silkworm larvae) 
  • Suede
  • Wool 
  • Felt, which may contain fibers of animal origin
  • Angora, made from Angora rabbit hair
  • Pashmina, a type of fine cashmere made from goat hair
  • Mohair, which comes from goats
  • Fur
  • Feathers
  • Ivory
  • Pearls
  • Bone
  • Down

Vegans may instead wear clothing made of:

  • Organic cotton
  • Linen
  • Seaweed
  • Wood
  • Beech tree fiber
  • Hemp
  • Soybeans
  • rPET (recycled polyester)
  • Coconut fiber

The Benefits of a Vegan Diet

Vegan diets come with many potential health and environmental benefits. A nutrient-dense, calorie-balanced vegan diet has the potential to help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight. A vegan diet might also lower the risk of several chronic diseases.

Reduces Risk of Chronic Disease

A 2021 review of the literature found that well-planned vegan diets could help prevent cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that make you more likely to experience a stroke, insulin resistance, diabetes, coronary artery disease, or other life-threatening conditions.

There’s evidence that diets high in plant foods, fruits, and vegetables may also help you maintain a healthy weight. 

A 2020 analysis of 19 studies found that plant-based diets (including vegan diets) helped people with certain conditions achieve a healthier weight.

Those conditions included:

Researchers think the higher fiber content, lower energy intake, and different nutrient composition of plant-based diets were responsible for the risk reduction.

A 2019 study of 219 adults who were overweight or had obesity had similar results. Researchers in that study also found that eating more legumes was strongly associated with weight loss.

A 2019 analysis of nine studies that included more than 307,000 people found that plant-based eating patterns were associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The association was even stronger when people ate more of healthful plant foods such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.

A 2020 study that looked at more than 416,104 people found that higher intakes of plant protein were associated with a somewhat lower risk of all causes of death, including cardiovascular disease.

Increases the Nutrients in Your Diet

Some people like to focus on what vegans leave out of their diets. But researchers have found that vegans take in plenty more of certain vitamins, minerals and nutrients than meat-eaters.

They include:

Helps The Environment

Many people choose a plant-based diet for environmental reasons. Some studies indicate that raising animals for meat, especially cows, takes a heavier toll on soil, water, and the atmosphere than cultivating grains, fruits, and vegetables.

A 2021 review of the literature found that plant-based diets are more sustainable than animal-based ones and use fewer resources such as farmland and water. The review authors found that plant foods produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Plant protein was much less costly to produce than animal protein in terms of resources and environmental impact.

The review found that it takes 74 times less water and eight times less land to get the same amount of protein from tofu as beef. Studies have found that making plant-based products uses fewer resources than making meat, whether you’re judging by weight, calorie, or serving size. Others have concluded that raising cattle takes up to 100 times the resources of plant-based food.

What Are The Risks of a Vegan Diet?

A vegan diet isn’t automatically an improvement over your normal eating pattern. There’s limited evidence to suggest that vegan diets are healthier than other diets that include some meat or animal products. That might be because there are fewer vegan people to study, and diets vary so much from person to person.

French fries, potato chips, and coconut milk can all be vegan and enjoyable treats. Eating too much of them and leaving out unprocessed foods can mean you don't get all the nutrients you need. Some vegan meat and cheese alternatives are highly processed. They may have fat, sugar, or salt levels higher than the original.

As with any other eating plan, you will choose from a variety of foods that can enhance your health and lower your risk of weight gain and lifestyle conditions, or the opposite. Even if you eat mostly nutritious, healthy vegan foods, you may lack certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Having Low Vitamin and Mineral Levels

If you follow a vegan diet, you may need to take supplements or eat fortified foods.

A 2021 review of studies found that vegans may lack important nutrients. Vegan diets have the lowest levels of protein intake when compared to all other diets, including vegetarian ones. They can also lack enough Omega-3 fatty acids, which are more readily available from animal foods.

If you follow a vegan diet and don’t supplement, you’ll lack Vitamin B12 because your body can’t make it, and you can only get it from animal foods, supplements, and fortified foods. Your body needs it for a healthy central nervous system and to make red blood cells, among other things. Bacteria create the B12 in vegan supplements.

Vegan diets are associated with low intakes of:

The 2021 review found vegan diets might cause you to lack other micronutrients, but that lack may not always lead to health problems. A 2017 study of 206 people, including 53 vegans, found that vegans who ate a well-balanced diet with supplements and fortified foods were able to meet all of their nutritional requirements.

Not Having Enough Protein

Vegan diets tend to contain the least protein of any other eating pattern. Protein is in every cell in your body. You need it to repair or replace cells. Pregnant women, children, and adolescents also need it for growth. Many health organizations recommend that you get between 10-35% of your energy intake from protein.

You can get all the protein you need from protein-rich plant sources such as legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Authors of a 2021 review of 20 years of nutritional data recommended plant-based eaters consume fortified foods and a wider variety of nutrient-dense plant foods.

Consuming More Processed Foods

You might think of meat and dairy alternatives when you think of protein. Or, you might be tempted to turn to pre-made microwave vegan meals or frozen treats more often than not.

If so, keep in mind that they can be highly processed and contain too much sugar or salt and too little of the good-for-you plant nutrients. That includes vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber that fills you up. And if you get too much of your intake from them, you may not get enough nutrients from other foods.

The manufacturers of highly processed plant-based products have focused on taste, texture, and palatability rather than on nutrient density. That means that these alternatives may have around the same calories as traditional meat or cheese products but less protein, zinc, B12, calcium, and potassium. They may also have more salt and fat.

In terms of nutrition, it’s better to stick to less processed foods.

A Quick Review

Both vegan and vegetarian diets exclude all beef, pork, poultry, fish, seafood, and meat products. Vegans also forgo dairy, honey, eggs, and any product of animal origin.

Vegan diets can help you stay at a healthy weight and reduce your risk of chronic disease. They also reduce the environmental impacts of food production. If you switch to a vegan diet, remember that you will likely need some supplements to replace nutrients you’ve been getting from animal sources.

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