Vegan Diet Guide: How To, What You Can And Cannot Eat + Top Benefits

Our nutrition coach delves into the health outcomes of plant-powered living.

Picking the right diet for your health needs can be challenging.

It often feels like there are so many diets to choose from coupled with a neverending slew of anecdotal testaments about the “best diet for weight loss“ or “the healthiest diet plan“ from friends, family members, online sources, and media.

The vegan diet is a popular diet choice for those looking to improve their health and potentially lose weight.

But, what can you eat on a vegan diet? What are the pros and cons? Is it good for weight loss? And is the vegan diet healthy?

In this nutrition guide, we will discuss how to follow the vegan diet, the foods you can eat on a vegan meal plan, the differences between vegan vs vegetarian diets, and the general pros and cons so you can decide if the vegan diet is right for you.

Let’s get started!

A person holding a sign that says Vegan.

What Is the Vegan Diet?

The vegan diet is a strict plant-based diet that eliminates all animal products and animal-derived food products of every type. 

This includes eggs, dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cottage cheese, etc., as well as food products like honey, which may contain components of bees.

Instead, the vegan diet plan focuses on consuming whole, natural, unprocessed plant-based foods.

These include food such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes like beans and lentils, soy, sea vegetables such as seaweed and spirulina, herbs, and plant-based fats and oils such as avocado, flaxseed oil, and olive oil.

The vegan diet may also extend beyond dietary habits to lifestyle practices as well.

“Ethical vegans” are generally considered to be people who choose to follow a vegan diet for ethical or moral reasons regarding animal rights and animal cruelty.

They may also choose not to wear leather, not support or use products from companies that do testing on animals, and not consume wine that has been aged or filtered with fish-derived products.

Aside from ethical vegans who might have a vegan lifestyle in addition to a vegan eating plan, the main difference between a vegetarian and vegan diet is that most vegetarians will eat eggs and/or dairy products either regularly or occasionally, whereas vegans do not eat any of these foods.

The vegan diet would also be more strict in removing things like honey.

Salads.

What is the difference between vegan vs vegetarian diets?

While vegan meal plans eliminate all animal products and animal-derived food products, a vegetarian diet can include eggs and/or dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, and butter.

For this reason, you may hear the vegetarian diet referred to as an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet, with the ovo- prefix referring to eggs and the lacto prefix referring to lactose or dairy-based foods.

Of course, some vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy while some vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs, so there can also be some variation in the types of vegetarian diets and vegetarian eating patterns.

However, the general distinction when comparing the vegan and vegetarian diets is that both are plant-based diets, but a vegetarian diet is less strict and may include eggs, dairy products, and honey. 

Vegetable bowl.

What Can You Eat On a Vegan Diet?

The vegan diet food list is restricted to only plant-based foods and foods that are made without any animal-derived ingredients.

Here are the main foods that should be consumed on a healthy vegan meal plan:

Food You Can Eat On A Vegan Diet

  • Non-starchy Vegetables: Spinach, kale, lettuce, chard, other leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, mushrooms, artichokes, etc.
  • Starchy Vegetables and Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, parsnips, beets, peas, corn, yams, rutabaga, turnips, etc.
  • Fruits
  • Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, soy (tofu, tempeh)
  • Whole grains of all types 
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Sea vegetables: Seaweed, nori, kelp, spirulina
  • Seitan (vital wheat gluten, which is a vegan meat substitute or plant-based protein found in a lot of vegan meat alternatives)
  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Herbs and Spices
  • Healthy fats: Avocado, olive oil, flaxseed oil, etc.

You do not need to count calories to follow the vegan diet, but if you are trying to lose or gain weight, it can be helpful to count calories.

However, regardless of whether you are following the vegan diet for weight loss, weight maintenance, or even weight gain, the goal should be to consume the most natural, unprocessed foods and minimize processed foods, foods with added sugar, refined grains, hydrogenated oils, excess salt, artificial and chemical ingredients. 

A heart shaped bowl of vegetables.

What Can’t You Eat On a Vegan Diet?

Here are the types of foods to avoid on a vegan diet plan:

Food To Avoid On A Vegan Diet

  • Beef: Steak, hamburger, roast beef, ground beef, etc.
  • Pork: Ham, bacon, pork chops, ribs
  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck, quail, capon, goose, squab, chicken nuggets, turkey bacon, etc.
  • Lamb, mutton, goat, bison, antelope, alligator, rabbit, game meats
  • Fish: Salmon, tuna, trout, halibut, anchovies, bass, sardines, mackerel, cod, sushi, fish sticks, etc.
  • Seafood: Clams, mussels, shrimp, lobsters, scallops, eel, crab, etc.
  • Eggs
  • Dairy: Milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, frozen yogurt
  • Mayonnaise (because it has egg yolks)
  • Honey
  • Certain wines because fish-derived ingredients are used for filtering the wine
  • Foods With Animal Ingredients: Canned soups made with beef stock, chicken stock, etc.; split pea soup with ham, jello (or products with gelatin derived from animal hooves), Worcestershire sauce or sauces with anchovy paste, pizza with pepperoni or meat, pasta with meat sauce, etc.
A variety of vegetables and grains

What Are the Pros and Cons of a Vegan Diet?

There are several potential vegan diet benefits1Derbyshire, E. J. (2017). Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers in Nutrition3(55). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2016.00055 but, in order to reap the vegan diet health benefits, your diet should focus on eating plant-based whole foods, such as legumes, soy, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, nutritional yeast, and seitan, along with some eggs and dairy.

Just because you are avoiding animal products does not mean that your diet is going to be healthy; you still need to make nutritious choices and minimize processed and refined foods.

It is certainly possible to follow an unhealthy vegan diet by eating lots of processed vegan foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and sodium. 

With that disclaimer aside, some of the benefits of a vegan diet meal plan with plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and other high-fiber, antioxidant-rich foods include the following:

An arugula salad.
  • Reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, which are two of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.2Lee, K. W., Loh, H. C., Ching, S. M., Devaraj, N. K., & Hoo, F. K. (2020). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Pressure Lowering: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis and Trial Sequential Analysis. Nutrients12(6). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061604
  • Reducing the risk of heart disease.3Tong, T. Y. N., Appleby, P. N., Bradbury, K. E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R. C., Clarke, R., & Key, T. J. (2019). Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ366(8212), l4897. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4897 Observational studies have found that people following a vegan diet may have as much as a 75% lower risk of developing hypertension,4Le, L., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts. Nutrients6(6), 2131–2147. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu6062131 which is high blood pressure, and a 42% decreased risk of dying from heart disease.5Tuso, P., Ismail, M., Ha, B., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal17(2), 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085
  • Improving markers of health. For example, numerous studies have found that transitioning to a vegan diet improves cholesterol, decreases blood pressure, and lowers the risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a stroke.6Wang, F., Zheng, J., Yang, B., Jiang, J., Fu, Y., & Li, D. (2015). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the American Heart Association4(10). https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.115.002408
  • Reducing the risk of diabetes. For example, studies that have looked at the effects of following a vegetarian or vegan diet have found that these diets decrease the relative risk of developing type two diabetes by about 12%, with an even greater risk reduction seen in those who follow a fully vegan diet.7Lee, Y., & Park, K. (2017). Adherence to a Vegetarian Diet and Diabetes Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients9(6), 603. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9060603
  • Decreasing HbA1c levels (3-month average of blood sugar readings) more than when eating an omnivorous diet in people who have type 2 diabetes.8Yokoyama, Y., Barnard, N. D., Levin, S. M., & Watanabe, M. (2014). Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy4(5), 373–382. https://doi.org/10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
  • Reducing the risk of several types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.9Orlich, M. J., Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J., Fan, J., Sveen, L., Bennett, H., Knutsen, S. F., Beeson, W. L., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Butler, T. L., Herring, R. P., & Fraser, G. E. (2015). Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Colorectal Cancers. JAMA Internal Medicine175(5), 767. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.59 This may be because high-fiber diets help promote digestion and support the healthy gut bacteria.
  • Potentially aiding weight loss, as several research studies have found that people who follow a plant-based diet may lose more weight than those following an omnivorous diet.10Huang, R.-Y., Huang, C.-C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2016). Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of General Internal Medicine31(1), 109–116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7
A variety of vegetables and grains.

The most common risk of the vegan diet meal plan is the potential to develop nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.11Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684

Studies have found that vegans tend to have lower bone density, and this is likely attributable to the lack of foods with calcium and vitamin D.

Supplements may help ensure you don’t experience deficiencies that may compromise your health.

Additionally, the restrictive nature of vegan meal plans may decrease adherence to the vegan diet for weight loss.

Overall, the goal of the foods you should eat on a vegan meal plan follows the principles of a healthy lifestyle dietary approach rather than a restrictive weight loss diet.

However, given the potential risk of developing nutritional deficiencies with a vegan food diet, you should consider working with a registered dietician or nutritionist to develop the best meal plan for your needs.12R, P., Sj, P., S, R., D, C.-D., & D, L. (2013, February 1). How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutrition Reviews. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23356638/

‌For more ideas about what to eat on a plant-based diet, check out our plant-based diet guide here.

The words, plant based.

References

  • 1
    Derbyshire, E. J. (2017). Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers in Nutrition3(55). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2016.00055
  • 2
    Lee, K. W., Loh, H. C., Ching, S. M., Devaraj, N. K., & Hoo, F. K. (2020). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Pressure Lowering: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis and Trial Sequential Analysis. Nutrients12(6). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061604
  • 3
    Tong, T. Y. N., Appleby, P. N., Bradbury, K. E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R. C., Clarke, R., & Key, T. J. (2019). Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ366(8212), l4897. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4897
  • 4
    Le, L., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts. Nutrients6(6), 2131–2147. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu6062131
  • 5
    Tuso, P., Ismail, M., Ha, B., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal17(2), 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085
  • 6
    Wang, F., Zheng, J., Yang, B., Jiang, J., Fu, Y., & Li, D. (2015). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the American Heart Association4(10). https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.115.002408
  • 7
    Lee, Y., & Park, K. (2017). Adherence to a Vegetarian Diet and Diabetes Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients9(6), 603. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9060603
  • 8
    Yokoyama, Y., Barnard, N. D., Levin, S. M., & Watanabe, M. (2014). Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy4(5), 373–382. https://doi.org/10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
  • 9
    Orlich, M. J., Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J., Fan, J., Sveen, L., Bennett, H., Knutsen, S. F., Beeson, W. L., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Butler, T. L., Herring, R. P., & Fraser, G. E. (2015). Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Colorectal Cancers. JAMA Internal Medicine175(5), 767. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.59
  • 10
    Huang, R.-Y., Huang, C.-C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2016). Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of General Internal Medicine31(1), 109–116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7
  • 11
    Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684
  • 12
    R, P., Sj, P., S, R., D, C.-D., & D, L. (2013, February 1). How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutrition Reviews. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23356638/
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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