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Learn about a vegan diet for beginners and the potential pros and cons of veganism. Going plant-based has both benefits and risks.
Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.
It may surprise you to read that veganism has been around for over 2,000 years. While there isn’t clear evidence to delineate vegetarianism and veganism for early adopters, followers of both the Buddha and Pythagoras engaged in strict diets eschewing animal products.
American vegetarianism and veganism have a rich history as well; Benjamin Franklin followed a vegan diet for a period of time, and vegetarianism flourished throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The term “vegetarian” was coined in the mid-1800s, along with the founding of the American Vegetarian Society. Both the term “vegan” and The Vegan Society were founded in 1944.
Veganism has gained popularity in recent years, especially the last decade or so. Now, with a culture of social media influencers and the multitude of vegan products hitting the shelves, it’s easier than ever before to be vegan or plant-based. Stores are starting to carry everything from plant-based protein powders to butter-flavored coconut oil and documentaries such as “Forks Over Knives” and “Cowspiracy” have planted the seed of veganism in the minds of many.
What is Veganism?
Veganism differs from vegetarianism. Vegetarians may consume fish, eggs, and dairy, while vegans abstain from all animal products; this includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and products containing gelatin or food coloring derived from animals. Strict vegans may also avoid honey since it is an animal by-product. A properly balanced vegan diet will focus on vegetables and fruits, with the addition of grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes.
Vegans also generally adopt a lifestyle based around their beliefs. Some people have compared it to a cult based on the backlash that people get when they stop being vegan. I know, because it happened to me. While I was only bullied online, some former vegans have received death treats.
Over the past decade, the American Dietetic Association announced that vegetarian and vegan diets may be considered nutritionally adequate and even help reverse or prevent certain health conditions. Pre-clinical research and formal research studies on veganism are not numerous. While vegetarianism is more widely studied and understood, veganism is still being evaluated. Here are some commonly perceived benefits of a vegan diet.
Veganism is a unique lifestyle as its followers have both moral and health reasons for adopting it. Most vegans will tout animal welfare as the number one benefit of veganism. Most vegans stand against animal exploitation and cruelty, which are all too often components of conventional meat and dairy industries. However, some may adopt veganism or vegetarianism for religious reasons. Religions such as Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism advocate against the use of animal products.
The meat and dairy industries continue to grow globally. Concern continues to grow regarding the amount of energy and water needed to sustain these industries. Vegans believe that the production of meat and animal products is harming the environment. In particular, the vegan movement cites the increasing amount of crops needed for conventionally-raised animals and fish and the energy involved in butchering and transportation.
Prevention of cardio-metabolic disease
Research has found that properly-planned plant-based diets, particularly vegan diets, help reduce the risk of cardio-metabolic diseases like atherosclerosis and high blood pressure.
Increased nutrient sufficiency
Compared to a standard American diet which is often high in processed foods, a vegan diet is higher in nutrients. The increased fruit consumption on a vegan diet also provides a high number of antioxidants.
Reduced Risk of Obesity and Type II Diabetes
Following a vegan diet has been associated with reduced risks of obesity and Type II diabetes. Vegans typically have a lower body weight and the vegan diet has been found to lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) levels in people with Type II diabetes. There is also speculation that the lower glycemic load of a plant-based diet contributes to a reduced risk of diabetes.
Due to its focus on fruits and vegetables, a vegetarian diet may help prevent or reduce the risk of some cancers.
Can you get enough nutrients on a vegan diet?
Despite claims, a vegan diet does not supply you with all the nutrients you need in adequate amounts. For populations that require increased nutrients or who have special nutrient needs such as growing children, pregnant women, pre-menopausal women, athletes, and the elderly, a vegan diet is inadequate without supplementation. In fact, there are some serious problems with a plant based diet.
If you follow a strict vegan diet, particularly if you are one of the populations listed above, it’s best to continuously monitor your nutrient intake and incorporate the following supplements into your routine:
B12: Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods only, though some processed foods may be fortified with synthetic B12.
Iron: It’s important to have your iron levels tested. Women are particularly at risk of iron deficiency or anemia if they follow a vegan diet without iron supplementation.
Vitamin D: Food sources of vitamin D include cold-water fish, liver, egg yolks, and dairy, but you can also manufacture Vitamin D through adequate sun exposure. Some mushrooms are also excellent sources of Vitamin D. Most people, vegan or not, need to have their vitamin D levels tests and generally require supplementation.
Zinc: Zinc is primarily found in animal products, though it can be found in lower amounts in nuts and seeds and some grains and legumes.
Omega-3: While Omega-3 fatty acids may be found in some nuts and seeds, they do not contain the most bioavailable form of Omega-3. Plant foods contain ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid), which is poorly converted in the body to its usable forms of EPA (Eeicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid).
Sources of EPA and DHA include fish, eggs, and grass-fed red meat in some cases. Adequate intake of Omega-3s can be reached through fish oil supplementation, though this is an animal by-product. Vegan algae-based EPA/DHA supplements do exist, but there hasn’t been much research on the quality of fish-based EPA/DHA and algae-based EPA/DHA.
Vitamin A: Preformed Vitamin A in the form of retinol is only found in animal products. Plant sources of beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, may not be fully converted in the body.
Signs That a Vegan Diet Might be Right for You
So how do you know if a vegan diet might be right for you? You can only give it a try. While trialing a vegan diet for beginners, here are some signs that a plant-based diet might be right for you.
You tolerate beans, grains, and soy well
Legumes and grains are staples in a vegan diet because they provide the nutrients and protein that are usually found in animal products. If you don’t notice any digestive or blood sugar issues after regularly consuming grains and legumes, you may do well on a vegan diet.
Soy is also used commonly in vegan diets because it is a complete protein. Soy can have its own issues, though. Some research shows that eating too much soy can be dangerous.
You feel good after eating a plant-based meal
“Feeling good” is subjective, but in general, you want to feel energized, satiated, and have stable blood sugar after your meals. If you can achieve this eating a plant-based meal, you may not need to include animal products in your diet or at all of your meals.
You don’t have gut issues
If you have a healthy gut and don’t notice any digestive issues, you may be able to thrive on a vegan diet. Since vegans rely on nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains, those with compromised gut function may find the diet worsens their condition. Excess fiber consumption may be a concern for some as well, but if the additional fiber from a plant-based diet helps your digestion, you may be a prime candidate for veganism.
You’re able to maintain a healthy weight
Vegans typically have lower body weight. If you’re overweight and find that veganism helps you lose excess weight, it may be a reasonable diet for you. If you’re average weight and find that you’re able to maintain a healthy weight on veganism, you may also want to continue your plant-based diet.
Signs That a Vegan Diet isn’t Right for You
So you’re trialing a vegan diet–how do you know if are having negative vegan side effects and you might need to incorporate animal products again? A vegan diet isn’t for everyone. You may feel great initially, but find that you’re not thriving. Here are some signs that you need to consider adding animal products back into your diet.
Nutrient deficiency is the first sign that a vegan diet isn’t working for you. Specifically, anemia (low iron levels), low B12 levels, and low zinc levels may show up on your lab work.
If you’re having trouble with steady energy, or feel tired all the time, it may be your diet. This is due to nutrient deficiencies such as low iron, low B vitamins, low Vitamin D, and potentially others. It may also be due to an unintentional caloric restriction as animal foods are typically more calorically-dense, and omitting them from your diet can lead to inadvertent undereating.
Gas, bloating, and other digestive issues
If you feel gassy or bloated after a meal, or have other issues with bowel movements or digestion, a vegan diet may be the culprit. Vegan diets are typically high in fiber, lower in fat, and high in antinutrients. Excess fiber and antinutrients can irritate your intestinal lining, while a low-fat diet may decrease your body’s production and secretion of bile, leading to issues with digestion.
Cravings are your body’s way to communicate that something is missing in your diet. If you have intense cravings for sugar, chocolate, carbohydrates, protein, etc. you are likely deficient in one or more micro- or macronutrients.
If you find you aren’t satiated after meals or have blood sugar regulation issues, your diet may be the cause. Vegan diets may not supply enough fat and protein to keep you satiated.
Feeling isolated or emotionally unstable
A vegan diet is a restrictive diet that requires a healthy emotional state and healthy body image. Otherwise, it could lead to orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with healthy foods). It is extremely important that your diet doesn’t socially isolate you or lead to diet obsession.
Hormonal imbalances, particularly in women, can manifest as a variety of symptoms. Common symptoms of a hormone imbalance from veganism may include hair loss, brittle nails/bones, dull or inflamed skin, dizziness, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle), painful periods, and weight loss. Women of childbearing age have unique caloric and nutrient requirements for optimal health, and attaining a calorically and nutrient sufficient diet without animal products may be difficult.
Suggestions for Beginners
If you choose to explore veganism, it’s best to prepare. Here are some suggestions for a safe way to go vegan.
1. Give it a six-week trial
Six weeks will give you enough time to transition into your new diet and monitor for any issues. Choose a six-week period where your life will be relatively normal and calm; it may not be the best idea to sign up for that 5k run your second week of going vegan.
This way, you can isolate variables and know that any new issues are the result of your new diet. Before your trial period, prepare yourself with a fully stocked fridge and pantry and an arsenal of healthy vegan recipes.
2. Consult a dietitian or qualified healthcare provider
Before starting a vegan diet, consult your doctor or another qualified practitioner to ensure going vegan is safe for you. If you get the green light, you may want to consider consulting a dietitian who specializes in plant-based diets for support and help. They can help you form a diet plan and offer emotional support as well.
3. Monitor lab work
Make sure to get blood work done before going vegan, and monitor throughout those first six weeks. It is important to test for deficiencies so you can adjust your diet or add supplements as necessary. If your blood work shows nutrient deficiencies at the end of your trial period, you’ll need to reconsider your approach.
4. Give yourself some grace
It’s not easy transitioning to a new diet, especially one that restricts food groups. Be flexible with your approach; an all-or-nothing attitude to veganism may not serve you. If your diet is causing you stress, it is not the best thing for your health. Remember that you can’t “fail” a diet; consider each meal as a new starting point, and have the self-awareness to recognize when your diet isn’t working for you.
5. Avoid processed vegan foods
This is incredibly important! If you move from a Standard American Diet to a vegan diet high in processed foods, you aren’t doing yourself any good. Veganism is popular at the moment and companies are taking advantage of the hype, flooding the market with “healthy” junk food slapped with a “vegan” label.
Focusing on processed foods such as fake meat instead of plants will lead to nutrient deficiencies. Instead of being lured by marketing tactics, take care to ensure at least 80% of your diet is filled with fresh produce, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and legumes.
There is no doubt that vegan and plant-based diets have both benefits and drawbacks. If you are drawn to trying a vegan diet, the best bet may be to give it a 6-week trial period and evaluate your health and satisfaction as you move forward.