Topic Overview

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan (say "VEE-gun" or "VAY-gun") diet is a total vegetarian diet. Besides not eating meat, vegans don't eat food that comes from animals in any way. That includes milk products, eggs, honey, and gelatin (which comes from bones and other animal tissue).

There are many reasons why some people choose a vegan diet:

  • It can be healthier than other diets.
  • Some people think it's wrong to use animals for food.
  • Some religions forbid eating meat.
  • A vegan diet can cost less than a diet that includes meat.
  • Eating less meat can be better for the environment, because most meat is commercially farmed.
  • Some people don't like the taste of meat.

Is a vegan diet healthy?

If properly planned, a vegan diet can provide all the nutrients you need. In general, people who don't eat meat:footnote 1

Good health could be related to a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Keep a balance

As a vegan, you can still eat a balanced diet.

  • Substitutes for 1 oz (28 g) of meat:
    • ¼ cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils
    • ½ oz (1 Tbsp) nuts or seeds
    • ¼ cup tofu or tempeh
    • 1 Tbsp peanut butter
  • Substitutes for dairy:
    • Soy milk fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. You can also try fortified milks made from rice, almonds, or oats. Count 1 cup (8 fl oz) as one serving.
    • Fortified soy cheese and soy yogurt.

How can vegans eat a balanced diet?

You may be worried that you won't get all the nutrients you need with a vegan diet. But as long as you eat a variety of foods, there are only a few things you need to pay special attention to.

  • Calcium for people who don't eat milk products. If you don't get your calcium from milk products, you need to eat a lot of other calcium-rich foods. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk, and orange juice are good choices. Calcium-fortified means that the manufacturer has added calcium to the food. Other foods that have calcium include certain legumes, certain leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tofu. If you don't use calcium-fortified foods, ask your doctor if you should take a daily calcium supplement.
  • Vitamin D for people who don't eat milk products. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is important to keep bones strong. People who don't eat milk products can use fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals.
  • Iron. Getting enough iron is not a problem for vegans who take care to eat a wide variety of food. Our bodies don't absorb iron from plant foods as well as they absorb iron from meats. So it's important for vegans to regularly eat iron-rich foods. Vegan iron sources include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils; leafy green vegetables; and iron-fortified grain products. And eating foods rich in vitamin C will help your body absorb iron.
  • Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 comes from animal sources only. If you are a vegan, you'll need to rely on food that is fortified with this vitamin (for example, soy milk and breakfast cereals) or take supplements. This is especially important for vegan women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

You can also get the vitamins and minerals listed above as supplements.

Like everyone else, vegans also need to make sure they get the following nutrients:

  • Protein. When considering a vegan diet, many people worry that they will not get enough protein. But eating a wide variety of protein-rich foods such as soy products, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds will give you the protein you need.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Without fish and eggs in your diet, you need to find other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as hemp seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, certain leafy green vegetables, soybean oil, canola oil, and sea vegetables (such as arame, dulse, nori, kelp, kombu or wakame).
  • Zinc. Your body absorbs zinc better when it comes from meat than when it comes from plants. But vegans don't usually have a problem getting enough zinc if they eat lots of other foods that are good sources of zinc, including whole-grain breads, cooked dried beans and lentils, soy foods, and vegetables.

Is it safe for children to be vegans?

A well-planned vegan diet can be healthy for children. Young vegan children tend to be slightly smaller but still within normal growth ranges. And they tend to catch up to other children in size as they get older.

If you are raising a child on a vegan diet, consider the following:

  • Babies who get only breast milk should have supplements of iron after the age of 4 to 6 months (or you can add iron-fortified cereal).
  • A vitamin D supplement may be appropriate for children under 1 year of age. Talk with your doctor about how much and what sources of vitamin D are right for your child.
  • Breastfed babies of vegan mothers need vitamin B12 supplements if the mother's diet is not fortified.
  • When you use soy milk, make sure that it's full-fat soy milk. Children younger than 2 years need the extra fat for brain and nerve development. And talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to make sure that your child is getting enough fat.
  • Vegan diets can contain a lot of fiber. Fiber is great because it fills you up without adding a lot of calories. But children have small stomachs, and the fiber they eat can fill them up before they get enough calories. Frequent meals and snacks—with plenty of cereals, legumes, and nuts—will help children get the energy and nutrients they need for healthy growth.

What if your teenager decides to become a vegan?

With careful planning, a vegan diet can be very healthy for teens. In fact, it can be a great way to get them into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.

If your teen decides to become a vegan, teach him or her how to plan meals to get all the right nutrients every day. Teens need calcium and vitamin D. And iron is especially important for teen girls who are menstruating. Talk with your doctor about how much of these vitamins and minerals your child needs. Ask if your teen needs to take a daily supplement.

You may want your teen to talk to a registered dietitian to learn how to plan a healthy vegan diet.

It's important to find out why your teen wants to follow a vegan diet. Some teens adopt a vegan diet as a way to lose weight, and "being a vegan" can hide an eating disorder like anorexia.

References

Citations

  1. Craig WJ, et al. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7): 1266–1282. Available online: http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357.

Other Works Consulted

  • Craig WJ (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5): 1627S–1633S.
  • Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2013). Vegetarian diets. In Understanding Nutrition, 13th ed., pp. 62–67. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator

Current as ofJuly 26, 2016