The Benefits of Being Vegan for a Week (or a Month!)

Once You’re Over the Hump it’s Smooth Sailing

If you’re thinking of trying out the vegan thing, you’ll be relieved to learn that sticking to the diet becomes easier with every passing week. In fact, by the time you make it to the three week mark, you will likely find that the lifestyle has become second nature and is nearly effortless to continue. So the point of this guide is to give you all the hand-holding you need to get through your first few weeks. After three weeks you of course still won’t know half the tips and tricks a vegan of ten years will know, but you’ll nevertheless be well past the tricky part and nicely equipped to stay vegan if that’s what you want to do.

So let’s start first with the most important piece of advice I can possibly offer: going vegan is not about cutting meat, milk, and eggs out of your diet—it’s about crowding them out. When you cut out animal-based foods the resultant experience entails sacrifice and deprivation. But when you crowd them out there’s no feeling of sacrifice at all, because you’re abandoning old foods in favor of new ones that taste better and are more satisfying. And every time you discover a new vegan food that you adore, the animal-based foods you grew up eating get pushed further to the margins.

When it comes to successfully transitioning to a vegan diet the name of the game is trying as many new foods as possible. You of course won’t love—or even like—everything you try. But every time you find something you enjoy it’ll displace some of the non-vegan foods you’re currently accustomed to eating. Trying as many new foods as possible means learning about all the vegan options that exist, both at groceries and at restaurants. And if you can get a few simple cooking skills under your belt while you’re at it, your meal options will expand beyond belief.

Shopping for Vegan Food

Going vegan will probably inspire you to do your grocery shopping in more places, since the best vegan food products are rarely found in typical supermarkets. That said, every supermarket will sell basic vegan staples like beans, rice, pasta, tomato sauce, and soymilk. Unfortunately, supermarkets typically sell the healthier organic versions of these products at full list price, making them significantly more expensive than most natural food stores. Supermarkets usually have good produce sections, although you can usually find better and fresher produce elsewhere. All that said, supermarkets are certainly more accommodating to vegans than they once were. Many supermarkets today have an array of vegan meats and cheeses, a natural foods aisle, or even an entire section of the store devoted to healthier foods.

A good natural food store generally beats a supermarket in every important respect. Just keep in mind that some purportedly “natural food stores” are really just vitamin shops, with exorbitant prices on the paltry selection of foods they sell. You can typically identify these stores in an instant because they’ll lack a produce section, and will have more aisles devoted to pills than to food.

But the best natural food stores are vegan heaven. They’ll carry all sorts of terrific vegan goodies that offer familiar flavors and absolute convenience: ice cream, mayo, frozen pizza, pot pies. Maybe the best thing about natural food stores is their bulk sections, where you can find everything from nuts to dried beans to granola to coffee—you’ll discover that you can save a fortune buying these items in bulk. The produce section will generally offer higher quality fruits and vegetables than what a supermarket sells—often with a serious effort to source locally and organic. Most natural foods stores have a large deli featuring plenty of vegan items. These delis are great for new vegans because they’ll let you discover a wealth of new foods. Any item you like tends to be something that can be quickly made at home, at minimal cost.

Don’t forget farmers’ markets. There’s no way to get fresher produce. On top of that, nearly 100 percent of your food dollar spent at a farmers’ market supports agriculture in your community. There’s probably at least one farmers’ market near you. The USDA maintains an extensive directory of these markets, and there’s another excellent directory maintained by

One variant of farmers’ markets involves subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box. Under this system, you’ll pay a fixed fee every week for a box containing a share of what your farmer grows. The farmer gets guaranteed income for the growing season and you get a steady supply of fruits and vegetables straight from the farm.

And finally,

is a ridiculously convenient way to cheaply buy a variety of terrific vegan food items, many of which are unavailable locally. Check our vegan grocery page for a frequently-updated collection of our favorites.

Vegan Cooking Made Easy

One of the best ways to ease your transition to a vegan diet is to develop your cooking chops. It takes only an hour or two to acquire basic cooking skills that benefit you for the rest of your life. Tahini dressing is so easy to prepare, for instance, that there’s really no way to mess it up. Roasted vegetables are scarcely any harder, and you won’t believe how good they taste. And even a stir-fry is an incredibly simple affair.

One great thing about roasted vegetables and stir-fries is that you can continually experiment with new combinations, so even if you eat these foods every day you’ll never get sick of them. And with stir fries, you can change up the grains you serve them over, as well as the sauces you use as accompaniments. Peanut sauce is just as easy to make as tahini dressing, and it’ll change your life. Both are superb over stir-fried vegetables.

Add in some sandwiches and you’ll really start seeing how easy it all is. Just like stir-fries, sandwiches are incredibly versatile—you can constantly change up the bread, the filling, and the spreads—giving you an unlimited variety of combinations. And if you get tired of bread, just swap in a whole grain tortilla and turn your sandwich into a wrap. Need more sandwich ideas? Check out the book, Vegan Sandwiches Save the Day!

Soups are right up there with sandwiches in terms of ease of preparation and possible varieties. There are all sorts of stocks you could use, from miso to vegetable to coconut milk. And you can likewise use a different assortment of veggies, spices, and herbs every time. Buy yourself a slow-cooker you’ll gain the ability to start all these soups in minutes, then go away for a few hours with no need to babysit your creation. When you return you’ll have something heavenly. There are a number of vegan soup cookbooks

in print.

And finally, don’t forget what might be the easiest meal ever: fruit smoothies. All you need is a blender, frozen fruit, and vegan milk (soy, coconut, rice, or almond) and you’re all set. It takes less than two minutes to make a smoothie and less than one minute to clean up. And once again, you can continually vary the ingredients so you can have a smoothie every day without ever getting tired of it. Maybe almond milk and frozen raspberries today, coconut milk and frozen blueberries tomorrow, and soymilk and frozen peaches the day after. Also remember that smoothies are a great base for your daily dose of Omega 3s. Just dump a tablespoon of ground flax into your smoothie prior to blending and you’ll be getting essential alpha-linolenic acids.

I call stir-fries, roasted vegetables, soups, smoothies, and sandwiches “core foods” because they can all be prepared in minutes, in an unlimited number of ways. You can master the preparation of all these foods without purchasing a single cookbook. That said, if you want to take your cooking skills to the next level, there are hundreds of terrific vegan cookbooks in print. Start with one that’s intended for simple daily cooking, since these are the sorts of recipes you’ll probably make most often. A few great ones are, Quick-Fix Vegan

, Everyday Happy Herbivore, and Nom Yourself. If you want to get a little fancier, two highly-regarded cookbooks are Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen, and The Oh She Glows Cookbook.

Naturally, these cookbook recommendations only scratch the surface of what’s out there. We maintain a page at featuring all the best and latest vegan cookbooks.

Eating Out

Once upon a time, vegetarian restaurants were few and far between, and most of these restaurants smothered practically everything they served with cheese and eggs. Today most mid-sized towns have at least a few vegan-friendly restaurants. And there are hundreds of all-vegan restaurants around the world. The rapidly-expanding Veggie Grill and Native Foods Café chains each have more than twenty restaurants in the United States, and Loving Hut has more than thirty.

If there are no vegan restaurants near you, chances are you can still find a great vegan meal at a local restaurant. The easiest way to find vegan-friendly food in your area is to hit and type vegan into the searchbox. That’ll bring up reviews mentioning the vegan offerings of every restaurant near you.

By far the most vegan-friendly of all cuisines is Middle Eastern, but you’re also likely to find great vegan options at Italian, Ethiopian, Mexican and Indian restaurants. All of these cuisines may include hidden animal ingredients, so be sure to check out the preceding links to learn of the pitfalls and possibilities.

Vegan Nutrition

No matter where you buy most your groceries, keep in mind that most people—vegans and meat-eaters alike—don’t eat nearly enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Go out of your way to emphasize dark green leafy vegetables, which calorie-for-calorie are perhaps the most nutrient-rich foods you can possibly eat.

If you don’t tend to include enough fruits and vegetables in your diet, here’s a life-changing grocery shopping habit to cultivate: before you approach the cash register, look into your cart and check to ensure that it contains a substantial amount of produce. If you’ve fallen short steer your cart back to the produce section and buy some more! After all, it’s impossible to eat enough fruits and vegetables if you don’t buy them in the first place.

Some vegans operate under the wrongheaded assumption that, merely by being vegan, they’re exempt from having to think about nutrition. While there’s a grain of truth here, in that vegetables are generally packed with nutrients, it’s still quite possible to develop a deficiency on a vegan diet. In fact, even if you fill your diet with healthy foods, you can still fall short on key nutrients. It’s extraordinarily important, for instance, that vegans either take a B-12 supplement several times a week, or eat a substantial amount of B-12 fortified foods. And there are numerous other ways to trip up. Nutrients like calcium, zinc, iron, and iodine are all worth paying attention to. Our vitamins page has links to supplements that are of special interest to vegans.

The best book to read on the topic of vegan nutrition is Vegan for Life

, by Jack Norris RD and Ginny Messina RD, MPH. Jack also maintains an outstanding website on vegan nutrition, and Ginny blogs regularly on the topic.

Books and Movies

One of the keys to steamrolling through your first few weeks as a vegan is to give yourself regular reminders of why you’ve decided to make this change. The more passion you feel for your new lifestyle the easier it will be. Books and movies can go a long way toward cranking up your level of enthusiasm.

For many new vegans nothing is a greater motivator than learning about factory farming. In any case, everyone ought to be well-informed about the systematic cruelties practiced by animal agribusiness. Two great books on the subject are Eating Animals

by Jonathan Safran Foer and Bleating Hearts by Mark Hawthorne. Eating Animals is a beautifully written and relatively non-traumatizing read given its focus on meat production and factory farms. Bleating Hearts is a more thorough investigation of animal cruelty, not just on factory farms, but in every domain where humans raise or confine animals for profit (laboratories, circuses, zoos, puppy mills, and so forth.)

Alternately, if you’re especially interested the health benefits of becoming vegan, some inspiring books include:

  • No Meat Athlete, by Matt Frazier
  • Finding Ultra, by Rich Roll
  • Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, by Robert Cheeke
  • Eat and Run, by Scott Jurek

Books like these are not only incredibly encouraging for people in the midst of moving to a plant-strong diet, they can provide valuable information when it comes to making the switch in as healthful manner as possible.

I hope this article is offering you some vital information, but you’ll get a lot more out of reading a book-length introduction to vegan living. This article was distilled from my book, The Ultimate Vegan Guide

. Probably the most comprehensive book on the topic is Kristy Turner’s But I Could Never Go Vegan!. In addition to loads of great advice, Turner’s book features 125 recipes, and there is gorgeous full-color photography throughout. Two other popular introductions to veganism are Main Street Vegan and How to Be Vegan. Any of these books will give you a level of familiarity with being vegan that would take years to achieve on your own.

If there’s one component of vegan living that really benefits from book-length guides, it’s vegan advocacy. There are all sorts of techniques and possibilities for protecting animals that aren’t at all obvious. Two of the best introductory titles include Striking at the Roots

, and The Animal Activist’s Handbook. After you’ve read one of these books and you’re ready for a more advanced text, the book to read is Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart.

Movies are likewise an essential part of learning about food politics and vegan-oriented issues. The right films can acquaint you with factory farming to a degree that no book can convey. For this sort of thing the three films to watch are “Earthlings

,” “The Ghosts In Our Machine,” and “The Cove.” These films are admittedly deeply troubling to watch, but witnessing them is almost guaranteed to increase your level of commitment to your diet and to becoming a more effective advocate.

If you’re more in the mood for a gentler introduction to the benefits of plant-based living you’ll enjoy films like “Vegucated

,” “May I Be Frank,” and “Fast Food Nation.”

Moving Beyond Diet

As you settle into following a vegan diet, you may decide to expand your commitment beyond food to include all your shopping choices. That mostly means paying extra attention when you shop for cosmetics and clothing.

Many cosmetics contain animal ingredients, and most brands are also tested on animals. Check out our guide to animal ingredients, so you can know the most common components of cosmetics that are sourced from animals. It’s easy to find cosmetics that carry labels indicating that they were produced without animal testing. These brands are often found in natural food stores. You can also check our cosmetics guide and bath and beauty page for vegan, cruelty-free brands available for purchase from

Leather, wool, silk and down are fairly easy to avoid. Just follow the preceding links to learn about the cruelties associated with these products, and how they can be replaced with vegan alternatives. Beyond shoes and clothing, leather is also frequently used to make furniture and car seats, but there’s no shortage of cars and couches that shun leather in favor of cloth upholstery.

Final Thoughts

Remember that the whole point of moving towards a vegan diet is not to be the world’s most perfect vegan for a week or a month—it’s to making a lasting and satisfying lifelong change. So if you slip up and consume animal products, whether accidentally or deliberately, don’t beat yourself up over it—and certainly don’t use the transgression as an excuse to ditch your vegan lifestyle entirely. There might be a lesson you can take away, perhaps that a given food contains animal products, or perhaps that there’s a terrific vegan alternative you can eat next time instead of the item you just consumed. So don’t focus on being perfect—just keep making steady progress.

Remember that most vegans eat a vastly more diverse and interesting diet than do omnivores. Long-term vegans often cringe when reminiscing over the teeny variety of the foods they ate before switching their diets.

Let’s now recap the main advice from this article, since if you adhere to these points you’ll not only have a very easy few weeks on a vegan diet, you’ll also be ideally positioned to embrace it as a permanent lifestyle.

  • Try new foods at every opportunity.
  • Get ahold of Vegan for Life and read up on nutrition.
  • Develop your cooking skills, and learn how to make stir-fries, soups, sandwiches, smoothies, and salads.
  • Pick up a couple simple everyday cookbooks like Quick-Fix Vegan and Short-Cut Vegan.
  • Take your B-12!
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. Everybody slips once in a while, especially in the beginning, and a momentary lapse is no reason to call everything off.
  • Watch a few movies.

That’s it. You can do this, and it’ll be easier and more fulfilling than you’ve ever imagined!

Every year more and more people are making the decision to go vegan, and for good reason! There are so many amazing ways that veganism can improve our lives – fantastic health benefits, less stress on our environment, more efficient ways to use our resources, and many more!

There are so many unique reasons someone might choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle. When thinking about transitioning to veganism it’s important to ponder your morals and the reasons why this lifestyle speaks to you. A big lifestyle change is easier to sustain if you wholeheartedly believe in your decision. Think about the standards you hold yourself accountable to, and what guides you as you decide what is right and what is wrong.

In the consumer culture we live in today we show support with money. Every purchase we make is like a vote of support. When we buy commercial products our money is voting in support of not only the product but also the practices and morals of the company. For this reason it’s important to be an educated consumer so that with every dollar you spend, you’re supporting something you truly believe in.

Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

A vegan diet can be one of the healthiest ways to live. Plant-based diets should contain plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Because vegan diets often rely heavily on these healthy staples, they tend to be higher in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fibre. Healthy vegan diets are abundant with vitamins B1, C, and E, folic acid, magnesium, and iron while also being low in cholesterol and saturated fats.

A plant-based vegan diet can reduce the risk of mortality from conditions such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Some cancers including prostate and colon cancer

Vegan diets can be healthy for anyone of any age, including children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly. It’s important to note that vegans need to pay special attention to their diets to avoid specific nutrient deficiencies. There is little risk of deficiency in a well-planned vegan diet. For more information regarding vegan nutrition, visit our resource Nutrition on a Vegan Diet. Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina is also a fantastic resource for ensuring optimal health while living a vegan lifestyle.

Effects on the Environment & Use of Resources

There was a time during our evolution when eating meat was necessary to our survival. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we’re here today! However, our environment won’t be able to support our current level of food production for much longer. In 2010, the UN released a report encouraging a global move away from animal products. The report states, “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

Breeding, raising, and feeding animals for food is a tremendously inefficient use of our natural resources. Animals raised for food production are fed over half of the all the world’s crops. As our population grows, we require more and more agricultural space. 60% of worldwide deforestation results from land being converted for use as agricultural land, much of which is used for grazing cattle. An estimated 14% of the world’s population (over 850,000,000 people) suffer from undernourishment while we continue to waste valuable agricultural land and resources to produce animal products, therefore obtaining only a fraction of the potential caloric value. Continuing this foolish management of our natural resources is simply not sustainable.

Following a vegan lifestyle contributes less air pollution and puts less stress on our natural resources by requiring less land, fossil fuels, and water. As the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, a widespread movement towards vegan lifestyle is the most effective way to reduce pressure on our environment and may be absolutely crucial to our survival as a species.

Animal Welfare

Many people identify themselves as animal lovers, yet intentionally or not, this rarely extends to the animals we use for food. There are a lot of misconceptions about how animal products are obtained and we often turn a blind eye towards inhumane animal agricultural practices. Animal welfare is an issue we like to push out of our minds, even when it’s presented to us in an objective manner.

Factory farming exhibits some of the most severe examples of animal cruelty for food production. Unfortunately, factory farming offers the most competitive prices and makes the most profit, so it’s difficult and in some cases impossible for smaller establishments to survive without adopting the same principles. The competition from large corporations has made it extremely difficult for anyone to offer more humane alternatives as it is simply not as profitable. Factory farming is an absolutely horrifying business, the focus is on production and profit, the well-being of the animals and workers involved is nearly non-existent. It all comes down to money.

Here is a brief overview of only some of the routine practices of the animal agriculture industry. These are watered down versions of what happens on a daily basis to millions of animals every day. If this disturbs you, I highly recommend looking deeper into these issues as there is much more to learn. At the end of this post we’ve provided some documentaries, books, and online resources for learning more.

The Meat Industry

The lives of animals raised for slaughter are miserable to say the least. The animals are kept in overcrowded areas with little or no room to move, the environment is filthy, and the air is thick with the smell of ammonia and bodily waste. The animals suffer injuries which are often left untreated, from broken bones to burns and lesions from constant contact with their own waste.

With the focus on profit, time is money, which means that slaughterhouses process as many animals as possible in any given day. It’s common for the production lines to be moving so fast that the methods used to kill the animals are rarely effective and cause a great deal of suffering and pain. Because of the quick processing time many of the animals are still alive, terrified, and in unimaginable amounts of pain during skinning, scalding, and dismemberment.

These are routine practices – millions of animals endure this cruelty and torture every single day and it’s not only the animals that suffer. Slaughterhouse workers are at an enormous risk as well. Cattle often weigh over a ton and are prone to thrashing and kicking, putting the workers in great danger of serious injuries. Many workers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and admit to taking out their frustrations on the animals. Workers can also become violent at home, and abuse drugs or alcohol in an attempt to assuage their own guilt and anxiety over what they have witnessed or participated in.

The Dairy Industry

Due to prolonged time spent in these awful conditions, the lives of production animals are as bad, if not worse, than the animals raised for slaughter. Again, the focus is on profit – by minimizing the amount of space and time it takes to obtain animal products, profit is maximized.

To maintain milk production, dairy cows must be repeatedly and forcibly artificially inseminated. After birth, the calves are removed from their mothers within 24-72 hours. The sooner, the better as the relationship between mothers and their calves strengthen over time and the separation is extremely stressful for both animals. Milk that is produced for the calf is harvested for human consumption and the calves are fed a powdered milk replacement. Calves born of dairy cows are used for different purposes depending on their gender. Females begin their lives as dairy cows at 13 months of age. Males are slaughtered for veal within anywhere from just a few hours old up to 4 months of age. The veal industry is a direct by-product of the dairy industry.

While a cow’s natural lifespan can exceed 20 years, most dairy cows are killed by the age of 4 and sold as beef. The lifespan of a dairy cow before slaughter is dependent on it’s ability to produce milk. 90% of dairy cows killed are for reasons such as infertility, mastitis (infection of 1 or more udders), lameness, and low production levels.

The Egg Industry

Chickens are selectively bred, either for egg production or meat consumption. Chicks bred for egg production are separated by gender. Females become egg-laying hens while male chicks are useless for egg production and can’t be used for meat production so they are killed immediately after hatching. Egg laying hens are kept in small, overcrowded cages, sometimes with so little room that the animal cannot even turn around. Cage free chickens are often kept in large warehouses that are so crowded that the animals are debeaked to prevent cannibalism in the flock.

Commercial egg producers sometimes practice forced molting on entire flocks of hens. Forced molting is achieved by removing food and starving hens for 1-2 weeks and also occasionally includes water deprivation. This results in better egg quality with only a slight reduction in the quantity of the eggs produced.

While chickens can live for more than 10 years, egg laying hens are slaughtered between the age of 2-2.5 years old as this is when egg production begins to decline.

Again, this is a very brief overview of only some of the inhumane practices of animal agriculture. The suffering endured by these animals is of an unimaginable magnitude. Some people may choose to buy organic “humane” or “cage-free” meat, dairy, and eggs, unfortunately these terms aren’t regulated and are used to mislead consumers. For the most part, buying these “humane” animal products is simply a waste of money as the animals lives aren’t much, if any, better than their “inhumane” counterparts.

There are many ways in which our society exploits and tortures animals, from animal testing to the use of furs and leather. There are many resources at the end of this post so that you can do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

Regardless of concerns over animal cruelty in factory farms, there’s another issue at hand when considering animal welfare. Should we be treating animals as commodities at all? As humans, do we reserve the right to use animals as we please? Many vegans believe that we should not. We no longer need to rely on animals for food or clothing, so it does seem self-indulgent to continue to put our cravings, appetites, and desires ahead of the lives and well-being of other living creatures. This issue is one where people tend to either agree or disagree and it’s often very difficult to sway someone to agree with your point of view. It’s something that deserves a little research and time spent to decide where you stand on the issue.

Arguments Against Veganism

There are a great deal of arguments made against veganism, however most of them manage to be both invalid and irrelevant. Widespread veganism is absolutely crucial to our survival as a species. Veganism has little to do with the food chain, what “nature” intended, or biological factors. The issue with these arguments is that they don’t address the relevant reasons to adopt a vegan lifestyle and instead focus on trivial matters.

When it comes down to it:

  • Following a plant-based diet is healthy for our bodies and the environment.
  • In this day and age we simply do not require animal products for sustenance, clothing, or shelter.
  • We are currently wasting mass amounts of resources by using them to support the growth of animals we intend to kill. These are resources that could be used to feed undernourished people in the world and could be part of the solution to famine.
  • Things have changed drastically since our hunter-gatherer days. We’re now producing such a vast quantity of animal products that we are decimating our natural resources and destroying our environment. Widespread veganism is now fundamentally crucial to our survival as a species.
  • All animals are sentient beings and are capable of feeling pain and a wide range of emotions including fear, sadness, and loneliness. If you feel disturbed at the idea of animal abuse against dogs and cats, you must try to understand that cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals used for food production are no different. Food production animals are being abused and tortured, and that is putting it lightly. When you spend money on meat, eggs, dairy, animal based products, products that employ animal testing, animals at entertainment, etc., you are effectively saying to that company “I support what you are doing”, and what they are doing is abusing animals for profit.

Suggestions for Learning More

There are a wide variety of resources available for learning about why more and more people are deciding to go vegan. There are some very informative documentaries, books, and websites that are worth looking into.

It’s very upsetting and often distressing to look behind the curtain of the animal agriculture industry. If this is your first time researching animal welfare issues, please prepare yourself to experience a wide range of emotions. It’s very common to feel deep sadness and a lot of anger as you learn more. I encourage you to look into these issues because it’s important that whether or not you choose to transition to a vegan lifestyle, you are at least aware of the steps that were taken to produce the food or products that you eat or use. Some of the most powerful “light bulb” moments in most non-vegans’ lives come from seeing hidden camera footage of the treatment of food production animals, which is horrifying, to say the least.


Veganism – Wikipedia article
The ethics of eating meat – Wikipedia article
Intensive animal farming – Wikipedia article
Why Go Vegan? – The Vegan Society website
Resources – The Vegan Society Website
10 Arguments Against Vegansim – Care2 website
UNEP – 2010 Energy and Agriculture Priority List for Sustainable 21st Century


Becoming Vegan, Express Edition: The Everyday Guide to Plant-based Nutrition
No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution
The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World
Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness and the Future of Life on Earth
Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry


Vegucated (watch online)
Food, Inc. (watch online)
Food Matters (watch online)
Forks Over Knives
Earthlings ()

Continue to The Basics of Veganism Part 3 →

Nutrition on a Vegan Diet

June 13, 2017 – 10:43 BST The health benefits of going vegetarian, even if you cut out meat just one day a week, including preventing heart disease

Are you the sort of person who says they couldn’t live without bacon? Or the kind who simply can’t imagine having to eat nut roast instead of your usual roast chicken? We thought we’d look into how giving up meat for just one day a week can be beneficial. These six benefits might just be enough to make vegetarian or vegan life look a whole lot more appealing than it did before.

1. It will help you to cut out potentially dangerous processed meats

A massive part of a fry-up is the sausages and bacon you cram into your mouth to ease your hangover, and hey, it’s fine to enjoy that. But a report released by the World Health Organization warns that processed meats rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer. Elisa Allen, director of PETA UK, says: “According to the findings, 50g of processed meat a day – the equivalent of one sausage or less than two slices of bacon – increases the chance of developing bowel cancer by 18 per cent.” Avocado on toast on the other hand? Go for it…

STORY: The Hairy Bikers’ guide to going vegetarian

2. It could help prevent heart disease

(Peter Byrne/PA)

Eating less meat is likely to help with many areas of your health, and another one of the top benefits is you’ll be looking after your heart. “Eating foods with animal fats in is literally killing us,” says Elisa. “Coronary heart disease, which is linked to a meat-based diet, is the leading cause of death in the UK. “The good news is that we can help prevent the majority of cardiovascular diseases simply by adopting a plant-based diet.” While diving right in and giving up meat altogether might be daunting at first, one day a week is a good start and could make you feel like you’re heading towards a healthier lifestyle.

3. You’ll be getting more nutrients, minerals and fibre in your diet

It’s #WorldMEatFreeDay – will you eat only plant-based today?

— The Fruit People (@TheFruitPeople) June 12, 2017

Fat-loss coach and vegetarian Karen Austin says on the one day you don’t eat meat you’ll be including other foods into your diet that you may not naturally consider – more veg essentially – and so will be including more nutrients, minerals and fibre in your diet. “These little changes of going meat-free for a day will add up over the weeks and months. It will not only give us more natural nutrients and minerals and increased fibre – making us healthier – but reduce the amount of man-made, high-saturated, chemical-filled meat we eat,” says Karen.

RECIPE: Jamie Oliver’s Mega veggie burgers with garden salad & basil dressing

4. You’re doing your bit to save the planet

— Conscious Eating (@ConsciousFood) June 12, 2017

Of course, not eating meat has huge benefits not just for ourselves. You may have heard it before, but we’ll say it again – meat production is a leading cause of climate change, water depletion, soil erosion and most other environmental problems, according to United Nations scientists. Elisa says: “Forget energy-efficient light bulbs or hybrid cars – the best thing we can do to help the environment is to stop eating animal flesh.”

Eating vegetables and grains directly instead of funnelling them through animals uses far less land and water – and that’s why the UN has said that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from the worst effects of climate change. Who are we to argue with them? Of course, you might think one day a week won’t make much difference, but every little helps.

5. You’d be helping to fight world hunger

(Steve Parsons/PA)

More than half the world’s crops are used to feed farmed animals, not people. “That’s a hugely inefficient way to feed the world’s more than 7 billion inhabitants (more than 1 billion of whom currently go hungry),” says Elisa. So, you could do your bit and eat the crops directly, rather than eat the animals – it’s much more sustainable. And you’re bound to feel good about yourself by doing it.

STORY: How to host a vegetarian BBQ your carnivore friends will love too

6. You can eat some seriously delicious food

What if, on the days you were eating meat-free, you tried out recipes for some seriously yummy veggie food? Treat yourself to a new cookbook maybe, or get following some veggie food bloggers on Instagram for inspiration – try Zanna van Dijk (she’s especially good when it comes to brunching). You’ll soon see that you can have meat-free versions of hamburgers and chicken sandwiches that may well make the thought of eating the real thing a distant memory. And vegan foods are becoming more and more delicious too – yes, you can still have things like ice cream. Elisa says: “As the demand for vegan food skyrockets, companies are coming out with more and more delicious vegan meat and non-dairy foods which have all the taste of the real stuff, but none of the cholesterol or cruelty.”

See all of our delicious recipes here.

Veganism, the plant-based diet which shuns meat and dairy, is having its time in the sun. Since 2008, there has been a 350% increase in the number of self-described vegans in the UK alone. Where this motivation stems from is varied, but includes concerns about animal welfare, worries about the environment and religious reasons.

Many people, though, seek a healthier diet. Research suggests that veganism can have health benefits, if well planned. For those who have pursued a diet rich in meat and dairy for most of their lives, embarking on a vegan diet can lead to significant changes within the body.

The first few weeks

The first thing that someone starting a vegan diet might notice is an energy boost with the removal of the processed meat that is found in many omnivorous diets, in favour of fruit, vegetables and nuts. These foods will boost your vitamin, mineral and fibre levels and thinking ahead about your meals and snacks rather than relying on convenience foods can help sustain consistent energy levels.

As time without animal products grows into weeks, there is likely to be a shift in bowel function either towards a more regular, healthy pattern or an increase in bloating, wind and loose motions. This is due to the higher fibre content of a vegan diet and the simultaneous increase in carbohydrates that ferment in the gut and can cause irritable bowel syndrome.

This may settle eventually and could lead to some positive changes in the diversity of the bacteria in the colon, depending on whether a vegan diet is made up of processed food and refined carbohydrates or is well planned and balanced. Although not proven yet, scientists believe that a high species diversity for gut bacteria could be beneficial for the whole system, in the same way that ecosystems are stronger as a result of lots of different types of species thriving.

3D model of the human intestinal tissue with bacteria.

Three to six months later

Several months into a vegan diet and some people may find that the increase in fruit and vegetables and reduced processed food can help acne to clear up. By this point however, your stores of vitamin D might be dropping as key sources of it in our diet come from meat, fish and dairy, and it isn’t always noticeable until it’s too late. Vitamin D isn’t well understood but it’s essential in keeping bones, teeth and muscles healthy and deficiency has been linked with cancer, heart disease, migraines and depression.

This is because vitamin D stores are only thought to last about two months in the body. How long your stores last will depend on the time of year that you decide to go vegan because the body can make vitamin D from sunlight. Making sure you eat plenty of fortified foods or take a supplement is important, especially in the winter months.

These foods are high in vitamin D but much of them aren’t vegan.

Within a few months, a well-balanced vegan diet which is low in salt and processed food may have impressive benefits for cardiovascular health, helping to prevent heart disease, stroke and reducing the risk of diabetes. As the intake of nutrients like iron, zinc and calcium are reduced on a vegan diet, our bodies get better at absorbing them from the intestine. The adaptation may be enough to prevent deficiencies in some people but not for everyone, in which case supplements can fill the shortfall.

From six months to several years on

Approaching a year on a vegan diet, vitamin B12 stores may become depleted. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is essential to the healthy functioning of blood and nerve cells and can only be found in animal products. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include breathlessness, exhaustion, poor memory and tingling in the hands and feet.

B12 deficiency is easily prevented by eating three portions of fortified food per day or taking a supplement, but managing it is very important, as any deficiency would negate the benefits of a vegan diet for heart disease and stroke risk and can cause permanent nerve and brain damage.

A few years down the line and even our bones will start to notice the change. Our skeleton is a mineral store and up until the age of 30 we can add minerals to it from our diet, but after that, our bones can’t absorb minerals anymore and so getting enough calcium when we’re young is vital.

A high-calcium diet while young helps bones resist falls and bumps throughout life.

After the age of 30, our bodies harvest the calcium from our skeleton for use in the body, and if we don’t replenish the calcium in our blood through our diet, our bones fill the deficit and become brittle as a result.

Vegetables rich in calcium like kale and brocolli may protect bones, but many vegans don’t meet their calcium requirements and there is a 30% increased risk of fracture among vegans when compared to vegetarians and omnivores. Plant-based calcium is also harder to absorb and therefore supplements or plenty of fortified foods is recommended.

When contemplating the years ahead on a vegan diet, balance is key. Well-balanced vegan diets may have major health benefits. Many of those benefits can be offset by deficiencies if the diet isn’t managed carefully, but supermarkets and food outlets are making it easier than ever to enjoy a varied and exciting vegan diet and our appetite for meat overall is declining. With the right preparation, a vegan diet can be good for human health.

More on evidence-based articles about veganism and diets:

  • Go vegan because capitalism exploits animals, not because eating them is wrong

  • Five ways to encourage people to reduce their meat intake – without them even realising

  • Why frequent dieting makes you put on weight – and what to do about it

I went vegan for 10 weeks and this is what happened to my body and mindset

Not long ago, telling people you were vegan would’ve elicited a unilaterally hostile response.

There would’ve been gasps and sighs and maybe even condolences offered, as you mourned the death of your bordering-on-obsessive halloumi habit.

Now, when plant-based diets are more popular than ever before, vegans are far more likely to be met with congratulations than commiserations – probably from fellow vegans – and after having been vegan for 10 weeks myself, I can already see why.

Download the new Independent Premium app

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

I’ll admit, I was sceptical at first. For me, Veganuary – where non-vegans commit to trying veganism for the entire month of January – was predicated by parmesan cravings and actual dreams about pizza (in case you hadn’t guessed, cheese and I had a special relationship).

However, when I once didn’t think I’d make it past a full day (day one of Veganuary was obviously New Year’s Day and my hungover self was desperately seeking doughnuts), I’ve now been completely plant-based for 10 weeks and I don’t see myself giving it up anytime soon.

Let me explain.

While I don’t quite identify as an evangelical vegan – I don’t take pictures of my meals and ‘I <3 vegetables’ is not listed on my dating app bio – the positive changes I’ve noticed in such a short period of time have been enough to keep me going.

Sure, there are a few non-vegan foods I find myself yearning for (no points for guessing what), but on the whole, the mental and physical benefits I’ve noticed far outweigh the few niggling cravings.

Ethical and environmental benefits aside, there are endless studies that document the myriad health benefits reaped by vegans, including lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease and protecting you against diabetes.

So, here are just a few of the things I’ve noticed since I went cold (and meatless) turkey.

I’ve become a yoga-obsessed radioactive unicorn

Okay not quite, but this is probably one of the sarcastic jabs I would’ve made last year when vegan friends raved rabid about the benefits of chickpea pasta while I happily scoffed down a cheeseburger.

I have however, discovered a newfound love of yoga. Again, I’m not quite at the enlightened “spiritual” level that the vegan yogi stereotype perpetuates – whereby I hiccup in “oms”, end sentences with “namaste” and sweat coconut water – but I relish in this slower and more mindful way of exercising, which just so happens to neatly align with my more mindful way of eating.

In fact, restraint is one of the key components in the classical definition of yoga, known as “ahimsa”, which in Hindu and Buddhist traditions also translates to “compassion”.

My digestion is tickety boo

Studies show that vegans benefit from good gut health thanks to an increase in fibre intake. This can subsequently lead to lower levels of inflammation and elevated digestive health. This is definitely something I’ve noticed.

Despite eating no more or less than I was before in terms of calories, I find that I digest almost every meal I’ve consumed within the hour – regardless of how quickly or greedily I might’ve eaten it. Plus, on the odd occasion when I do eat a little more than I probably should (because vegans are only human too), I feel back to normal in no time.

Whereas a heavy meal the night before would’ve once left me rising the next day with a heavy stomach plagued by pangs of self-loathing, now, it’s like it never happened.

Also, I’m hardly ever bloated: a godsend for my high-waisted jeans, which can now make it through even the most gluttonous of days fully zipped and buttoned.

I have more energy

“But, aren’t you tired all the time?” said every non-vegan to every vegan ever.

Actually, no. Obviously if I’ve had a night out on the tiles till 4am like the wayward 23-year-old I am, then yes, it’s likely that I will feel a bit sleepy the next day, regardless of my diet.

But for the most part, I feel more energised than I ever did in my meat and cheese-feasting days.

For example, I no longer get that 4pm slump after one too many cappuccinos and most mornings I wake up before my alarm – I know, I am virtuous vegan, hear me roar.

My skin is clearer

This was something I read might happen – and to be honest, I wasn’t convinced until I returned to work after a holiday in the US – at which point I was a six-week-old vegan – and three colleagues complimented me on my “glowing” skin.

Naturally, I proceeded to walk around the office for an entire week like the smug, spotless vixen that I now am.

I have learned to indulge ‘the vegan way’

Ah hummus, pitta bread and peanut butter, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Ah raw vegan chocolate… I do love thee too, but your £8.99 price tag bears the black mark of retailers capitalising on “vulnerable” and “hungry” vegans who ought to know better.

After just a few weeks of being vegan, I quickly learned that there are ways to indulge in plant-based treats without succumbing to the inflated price tags and readily-available junk food staples that just to happen to be vegan (think Oreos and French fries).

In fact, there are a number of indulgent vegan foods on offer that are both pocket and waistline-friendly, when consumed in moderation.

So, if you have recently gone vegan and you find yourself slowly sinking into social Siberia, where people judge, scorn and impose their preconceived notions onto you of what veganism should or shouldn’t be (this happens quite a lot to me), remember that your identity is not dictated by your diet – and thank goodness for that.

This article was originally published in March 2018

As a registered dietitian and experienced meal prepper I eat a lot of vegetables already, but I wanted to see what going vegan—basically adding even more plant-based foods to my diet, while also removing any animal products (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy)—would be like and what it would do for me. For one week, I challenged myself to follow a vegan diet. I wanted to try this for a few reasons, including the health benefits associated with following a plant-based diet. After all, nutritious eating is a journey, not a destination, so there is always room to try new things and see what works for you. My family would not be partaking in this one-week vegan challenge I created for myself, so I also wanted to see what it would be like to have different dietary requirements than my family, especially because I’m the household’s main cook. I also wanted to do this so I could better relate to my clients who are vegan or who are interested in trying veganism.

Following a plant-based diet isn’t just about cutting out the animal products. You want to ensure you’re addressing all the nutrients you might miss out on when you stop eating meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. The key to following a nutritiously adequate vegan diet is to do a bit of planning. I paid particular attention to my protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. I’m also breastfeeding my 1-year-old, so I wanted to ensure I am eating enough food so that my milk supply isn’t affected. Again, this just required a bit of forethought and planning. If you want to switch to a vegan diet, talk to a registered dietitian who can help you make sure you’re getting everything you need.

After taking into account my nutritional requirements as well as what I love to eat my plan looked like this (see the recipes below!):

Breakfast: Chia seed pudding with bananas and peanut butter
Snack 1: Za’atar tofu fries with hummus
Lunch: Roasted Tandoori power bowl with avocado dressing
Snack 2: Pomegranate
Dinner: Vegetarian chili
Snack 3: Sesame chocolate energy bites

After a week of being vegan, I felt great energy wise. My milk supply wasn’t affected either, which I think is primarily due to the fact that the meals met my calorie requirement. My biggest concern going into the week was that I wouldn’t feel full because there was no meat or chicken on my plate. Surprisingly, I wasn’t able to finish most meals because they were quite hearty and satisfying. I did miss cheese, though, and realized through this experience how much cheese I actually consume. I impressed myself with how many more vegetables I was eating. I now realize that before I tried this challenge, I always planned my meals with animal protein as the main focus, but this week made me look at vegetables as the star of the meal.

When I was home, I enjoyed following my vegan meal plan. It was when I was going out that it was a bit challenging. I tried my best to pack my own meals and snacks but I realized that when I was out and not around a trendy vegan spot, the vegan options available weren’t always the most sound. For instance, if we stopped at a halal burger joint, I would be limited to having fries only. It was this sense of restriction that I didn’t like. I also had a batch of granola I made but since it used honey, it technically wasn’t vegan, which felt a bit wasteful.

“Assuming you’re consuming many fruits and vegetables, you’re also getting more phytochemicals and antioxidants from your diet,” she says. Both these powerful substances significantly reduce the risk of chronic illnesses.

Con: Vegan diets are lacking in some vital nutrients.

Unfortunately, a diet that excludes all animal products does have some nutritional drawbacks.

Rodriguez cites calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12 and folate—all of which are present in meat and dairy—as key nutrients a vegan diet can lack. Over time, inadequate consumption of these can result in a host of problems, including loss of bone and muscle mass, she says.

The reduced or even (in some extreme cases) non-existent levels of vitamin B-12 in a strict vegan diet are of particular concern to Keller. Vitamin B-12 has many implications for the smooth running of the central nervous system and for optimizing metabolic functions and in her view, it’s very difficult to get adequate amounts of B-12 from fruits and vegetables alone.

“If you’re not getting enough B-12, you may feel weakness, fatigue, constipation, and lack of appetite,” Keller says. “Without proper amounts of B-12, an infant cannot thrive, and as we age, we have fewer of the gastric acids that synthesize the B-12 from foods, so that’s why my recommendation for B-12 is so strong.”

Pro: There are alternative sources of B-12, one of those important nutrients.

While Mangels—who has been a vegan for 25 years—agrees that vitamin B-12 is only found in meat, dairy and eggs, she also points out that there are plenty of other sources for this important nutrient that many vegans can and do include in their diets. Vitamin B-12 is present in fortified foods, including cereals and plant milk (soy and other), in tofu, and in nutritional yeast, she says.

And while Rodriguez advocates a “foods first” philosophy, she also believes that “there is a sound rationale for supplements,” for vitamin B-12 and other key nutrients, which many vegans do take. Her caveat there, though, would be to ensure that supplements “are taken with reason and not in excess to avoid toxicity.”

Pro: It’s getting easier and easier to buy plant proteins.

The United Nations has declared 2016 as The International Year of Pulses, to heighten public awareness of their nutritional benefits and their importance to sustainable agriculture and food security worldwide.

Pulses, an important faction of the broader legume family, have been a staple food of many cultures around the world for centuries and they are just one example of the numerous forms of alternative protein sources that are now available for those who don’t eat meat or consume dairy.

While animal products offer a complete package of all the essential amino acids that our body needs (and are an omnivores go-to for them), pulses—which include dried peas, kidney beans, chickpeas, fava beans, black beans and adzuki beans, among others—are an unparalleled source of complete plant protein, Montag says, containing all the essential amino acids we require.

Con: Relying on pulses for protein can bring on…discomfort.

But getting the most out of legumes, pulses and other alternative forms of protein requires paying constant attention to combining them with the right grains to ensure proper nutrition, something that many Americans still find difficult to do, Keller says, because it requires a certain amount of planning.

Digesting alternative protein sources can also prove challenging to people who are not used to them: “They can make you feel bloated, they can make your digestive tract feel off,” Keller says. “Many people will feel bad because of this as their system adjusts and they’re not making the necessary adjustments as far as hydration goes to accommodate these new protein sources, so they just feel uncomfortable.”

Pro: Veganism is more environmentally sustainable.

That it takes approximately 1,600 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef is no secret. Scientists established that fact more than a decade ago and they have also shown that producing one pound of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing one pound of grain protein.

The Pros and Cons of a Vegan Diet

Going vegan? Give it time. Making the lifestyle change all at once can be overwhelming. Instead, cut back on animal products gradually, and incorporate more plant-based foods one by one. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling along the way. If you’re not feeling your best, it might not be the right diet for you.

You’ve heard of a vegetarian diet – no meat, fish, or poultry. But vegans take it a step further by cutting out all animal products. What’s the upside to this strict diet? Read on to find out its pros and cons.


An improved health potential

Vegan diets are cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. If you’re at risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease or cancer, this could be an ideal diet for you. Just be sure to discuss it with your doctor before you take the plunge.

An increase in antioxidants

A vegan diet is full of antioxidant-
rich foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and more. Antioxidants are important because they have the ability to protect your cells from free radicals caused by a number of things including pollutants in the air such as tobacco smoke and radiation.

A lifestyle choice

Many people choose to adopt the vegan diet because of their love for animals and their desire for animals to live a humane life. In addition, vegan values include concern for the environment, as a vegan lifestyle often supports sustainable agriculture and reduces the carbon footprint associated with meat-producing operations.


Another reason to read food labels? A seemingly vegan food might just contain ingredients that aren’t suitable for a vegan diet. Take for example gelatin, which is derived from meat, and whey, which is derived from milk. Whey can be found in many granolas, breads, and more.

Sticking to a strict diet

In addition to not eating meat, fish, or poultry, vegans steer clear of any animal products and by-products. That includes honey, eggs, dairy, cosmetics derived from animal products, and more. If you choose to go vegan, you may have a hard time choosing from the menu when dining out.

Potential vitamin and mineral loss

There are vegan sources for most nutrients, but it might be a challenge to consume enough of them. Take iron and vitamin D for example. Vitamin D isn’t typically found in the vegan diet, but can be obtained through exposure to sunlight. When people think iron, they typically think meat. But beans and leafy greens are also good sources, and you can increase iron absorption by coupling them with foods that are rich in vitamin C. You’ll also need to supplement vitamin B12, which only occurs naturally in animal foods.

A lack of protein

A healthy diet should incorporate some form of protein into every meal. Since vegans forego typical protein sources like meat and eggs, they have to incorporate it through different means. If you’re thinking about going vegan, it’s time to stock up on plant-based protein such as soy, quinoa, lentils, and beans. And beware of overly-processed meat substitutes, which can be packed with sodium and preservatives. Check labels before opting for that frozen tofu burger!

See Related Articles

Plant-Based Protein

Meal Prep Like a Pro

Becoming a vegetarian

Updated: October 23, 2018Published: October, 2009

People become vegetarians for many reasons, including health, religious convictions, concerns about animal welfare or the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use of environmental resources. Some people follow a largely vegetarian diet because they can’t afford to eat meat. Becoming a vegetarian has become more appealing and accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh produce, more vegetarian dining options, and the growing culinary influence of cultures with largely plant-based diets.

Approximately six to eight million adults in the United States eat no meat, fish, or poultry, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization that disseminates information about vegetarianism. Several million more have eliminated red meat but still eat chicken or fish. About two million have become vegans, forgoing not only animal flesh but also animal-based products such as milk, cheese, eggs, and gelatin.

Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating. Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses. According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

“Appropriately planned” is the operative term. Unless you follow recommended guidelines on nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, becoming a vegetarian won’t necessarily be good for you. A diet of soda, cheese pizza, and candy, after all, is technically “vegetarian.” For health, it’s important to make sure that you eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s also vital to replace saturated and trans fats with good fats, such as those found in nuts, olive oil, and canola oil. And always keep in mind that if you eat too many calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, plant-based foods, you’ll gain weight. So it’s also important to practice portion control, read food labels, and engage in regular physical activity.

You can get many of the health benefits of being vegetarian without going all the way. For example, a Mediterranean eating pattern — known to be associated with longer life and reduced risk of several chronic illnesses — features an emphasis on plant foods with a sparing use of meat. Even if you don’t want to become a complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein — beans or tofu, for example — or fish instead of meat a couple of times a week.

Only you can decide whether a vegetarian diet is right for you. If better health is your goal, here are some things to consider.

Varieties of vegetarians

Strictly speaking, vegetarians are people who don’t eat meat, poultry, or seafood. But people with many different dietary patterns call themselves vegetarians, including the following:

Vegans (total vegetarians): Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or any products derived from animals, including eggs, dairy products, and gelatin.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Do not eat meat, poultry, or fish, but do eat eggs and dairy products.

Lacto vegetarians: Eat no meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but do consume dairy products.

Ovo vegetarians: Eat no meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but do eat eggs.

Partial vegetarians: Avoid meat but may eat fish (pesco-vegetarian, pescatarian) or poultry (pollo-vegetarian).

Can becoming a vegetarian protect you against major diseases?

Maybe. Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and flavonoids. As a result, they’re likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.

But there still aren’t enough data to say exactly how a vegetarian diet influences long-term health. It’s difficult to tease out the influence of vegetarianism from other practices that vegetarians are more likely to follow, such as not smoking, not drinking excessively, and getting adequate exercise. But here’s what some of the research has shown so far:

Heart disease. There’s some evidence that vegetarians have a lower risk for cardiac events (such as a heart attack) and death from cardiac causes. In one of the largest studies — a combined analysis of data from five prospective studies involving more than 76,000 participants published several years ago — vegetarians were, on average, 25% less likely to die of heart disease. This result confirmed earlier findings from studies comparing vegetarian and nonvegetarian Seventh-day Adventists (members of this religious group avoid caffeine and don’t drink or smoke; about 40% are vegetarians). In another study involving 65,000 people in the Oxford cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford), researchers found a 19% lower risk of death from heart disease among vegetarians. However, there were few deaths in either group, so the observed differences may have been due to chance.

For heart protection, it’s best to choose high-fiber whole grains and legumes, which are digested slowly and have a low glycemic index — that is, they help keep blood sugar levels steady. Soluble fiber also helps reduce cholesterol levels. Refined carbohydrates and starches like potatoes, white rice, and white-flour products cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which increases the risk of heart attack and diabetes (a risk factor for heart disease).

Nuts are also heart-protective. They have a low glycemic index and contain many antioxidants, vegetable protein, fiber, minerals, and healthy fatty acids. The downside: nuts pack a lot of calories, so restrict your daily intake to a small handful (about an ounce). The upside: because of their fat content, even a small amount of nuts can satisfy the appetite.

Walnuts, in particular, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have many health benefits. Even so, fish are the best source of omega-3s, and it’s not clear whether plant-derived omega-3s are an adequate substitute for fish in the diet. One study suggests that omega-3s from walnuts and fish both work to lower heart disease risk, but by different routes. Walnut omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) help reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while omega-3s from fish (eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

Cancer. Hundreds of studies suggest that eating lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, and there’s evidence that vegetarians have a lower incidence of cancer than nonvegetarians do. But the differences aren’t large. A vegetarian diet can make it easier to get the recommended minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, but a purely vegetarian diet is not necessarily better than a plant-based diet that also includes fish or poultry. For example, in a pooled analysis of data from the Oxford Vegetarian Study and EPIC-Oxford, fish-eaters had a lower risk of certain cancers than vegetarians.

If you stop eating red meat (whether or not you become a vegetarian), you’ll eliminate a risk factor for colon cancer. It’s not clear whether avoiding all animal products reduces the risk further. Vegetarians usually have lower levels of potentially carcinogenic substances in their colons, but studies comparing cancer rates in vegetarians and nonvegetarians have shown inconsistent results.

Type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that a predominantly plant-based diet can reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes. In studies of Seventh-day Adventists, vegetarians’ risk of developing diabetes was half that of nonvegetarians, even after taking BMI into account. The Harvard-based Women’s Health Study found a similar correlation between eating red meat (especially processed meats, such as bacon and hot dogs) and diabetes risk, after adjusting for BMI, total calorie intake, and exercise.

What about bone health?

Some women are reluctant to try a vegetarian diet — especially one that doesn’t include calcium-rich dairy products — because they’re concerned about osteoporosis. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (see “Varieties of vegetarians”) consume at least as much calcium as meat-eaters, but vegans typically consume less. In the EPIC-Oxford study, 75% of vegans got less than the recommended daily amount of calcium, and vegans in general had a relatively high rate of fractures. But vegans who consumed at least 525 milligrams of calcium per day were not especially vulnerable to fractures.

Certain vegetables can supply calcium, including bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale. (Spinach and Swiss chard, which also contain calcium, are not such good choices, because along with the calcium they have oxalates, which make it harder for the body to absorb calcium.) Moreover, the high potassium and magnesium content of fruits and vegetables reduces blood acidity, lowering the urinary excretion of calcium.

People who follow a vegetarian diet and especially a vegan diet may be at risk of getting insufficient vitamin D and vitamin K, both needed for bone health. Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K, vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of soy milk, rice milk, organic orange juice, and breakfast cereals. They may also want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement.

Selected resources

Becoming a vegetarian requires planning and knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Here are some resources that can help:

American Dietetic Association

The Vegetarian Resource Group

Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom

What about the health risks of being vegetarian?

Concerns about vegetarian diets have focused mainly on the following nutrients:

Protein. Research shows that lacto-ovo vegetarians generally get the recommended daily amount of protein, which is easily obtained from dairy products and eggs. (Women need about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Because the protein in vegetables is somewhat different from animal protein, vegans may need 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.) There are many plant sources that can help vegans meet their protein needs, including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, soy products, and whole grains (for example, wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice). Vegetarians used to be told that they had to combine “complementary” plant proteins (rice with beans, for example) at every meal to get all the amino acids contained in meat protein. Now, health experts say that such rigid planning is unnecessary. According to the American Dietetic Association, eating a wide variety of protein sources every day is sufficient.

Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, but those products include dairy foods and eggs, so most vegetarians get all they need. If you avoid animal products altogether, you should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (certain soy and rice beverages and breakfast cereals) or take a vitamin B12 supplement to avoid a deficiency, which can cause neurological problems and pernicious anemia.

Iron. Studies show that in Western countries, vegetarians tend to get the same amount of iron as meat eaters. But the iron in meat (especially red meat) is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant foods, known as non-heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron is enhanced by vitamin C and other acids found in fruits and vegetables, but it may be inhibited by the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts.

Zinc. Phytic acid in whole grains, seeds, beans, and legumes also reduces zinc absorption, but vegetarians in Western countries do not appear to be zinc-deficient.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Diets that include no fish or eggs are low in EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA in plant foods to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. Vegans can get DHA from algae supplements, which increase blood levels of DHA as well as EPA (by a process called retroversion). DHA-fortified breakfast bars and soy milk are also available. Official dietary guidelines recommend 1.10 grams per day of ALA for women, but vegetarians who consume little or no EPA and DHA should probably get more than that. Good ALA sources include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy.

For more on eating for optimum health, buy the Harvard Special Health Report Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Downside of vegan diet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *