Veganism 101: What You Can and Can’t Eat, Vegan Diet Health Benefits and More

Learn the dos and don'ts of a vegan diet, plus how being vegan affects more than what you eat.

Perhaps you’ve read an interview with a famous vegan like Alicia Silverstone, Moby, Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen DeGeneres, Portia De Rossi, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson. Perhaps you found the cutest motorcycle jacket made out of vegan leather, and found yourself wondering what is vegan leather, exactly? Maybe you got so mixed up trying to distinguish between a plant-based diet and a vegan diet that you did an internet search for “vegan definition.”

Whatever it was that brought you here, welcome to Veganism 101! In this primer, we’ll go over what you can and can’t eat on a vegan diet, familiar foods you’ll be surprised to learn are 100% vegan, top health benefits associated with the vegan diet, and how being a vegan affects way more than what you put on your plate.

Defining Veganism

First things first, what does veganism mean? According to The Vegan Society, whose founder Donald Watson actually coined the term “vegan,” it means: “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.”

The roots of veganism can be traced back at least two centuries, and as early as 1806, prominent public figures like Dr. William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley voiced moral objections to eating eggs and dairy. In 1944, Donald Watson brought together Elsie Shrigley and four other “non-dairy vegetarians,” as they called themselves at the time, to form a society to advocate their views.

One of the first items of business was finding a better word to describe those beliefs. After rejecting “dairyban,” “vitan,” and “benevore,” the society adopted “vegan.” As Donald Watson later explained, vegan marks “the beginning and end of vegetarian.” The society, which was registered as a charity in 1964, still operates today.

While being a practicing vegan can involve many different aspects, eating a plant-based diet that’s devoid of all meat, dairy, eggs, and honey, as well as eliminating products made from leather or tested on animals, is at the core of the vegan lifestyle.

What’s Allowed on a Vegan Diet?

When talking about the vegan diet, the focus tends to be on what you can’t eat, which is a shame since there are so, so many more things that you can eat. In fact, seeking out plant-based and vegan recipes could introduce you to a whole new culinary world filled with rich and exciting foods and flavors. A vegan diet includes all the fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, beans, and pulses out there, which can be combined in an infinite number of ways. As long as you’re open-minded, you’ll find pretty much any dish you like can be adapted to be vegan.

And now, the nitty gritty. Here are six foods to avoid on the vegan diet and nine foods to embrace.

Here is what it means to be vegan.

6 Foods to Avoid on the Vegan Diet

If you’re following a vegan diet, that means avoiding all animal flesh and animal byproducts (like milk and honey), as well as all foods containing ingredients derived from animals. That means no:

  • Meat and poultry: Bid farewell to beef, lamb, pork, venison, chicken, turkey, goose, duck, and quail. Whether wild or farm-raised, all kinds of animal flesh are out.
  • Fish and seafood: You’ll also eliminate all food hauled out of the sea, including fish, squid, shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels, scallops, and so on.
  • Dairy: Cow, goat, and sheep’s milk are all out, as are yogurt, kefir, butter, ghee, cream, ice cream, and all other dairy products.
  • Eggs: Whether sourced from birds or fish, eggs are not allowed on a vegan diet.
  • Bee byproducts: This includes not only honey, but also bee pollen and royal jelly too.
  • Ingredients derived from animals: This category can be tricky and requires close label reading. Some items to look for include whey, casein, lactose, gelatin, cochineal, isinglass, and L-cysteine.

9 Foods to Embrace on the Vegan Diet

A vegan diet does not need to be synonymous with deprivation. Not only can you reap the bounty of whole wealth from the plant kingdom, but you can also find ingenious plant-based replacements for non-vegan foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables: Adopting a vegan diet gives you an opportunity to branch out beyond your old standbys—did you know bok choy, watercress, kale, and mustard greens contain high concentrations of iron and calcium, nutrients we tend to associate with meat and dairy? You can also try using fruits and vegetables in new ways, for instance, jackfruit tacos or stewed carrot “pulled pork.”
  • Nuts and nut butters: From almonds to macadamias to walnuts and beyond! If you stay away from the overly processed, sugar-laden varieties, nut butters can be just as nutritious as nuts themselves. Depending on the nuts, they can deliver iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and/or vitamin E.
  • Legumes: Beans and lentils and peas, oh my! To meet your body’s amino acid needs while eating a vegan diet, you’ll definitely want to incorporate plenty of legumes.  And take the time to learn how to cook them well!
  • Tofu, tempeh, and seitan: Often used to make plant-based meats, like burgers, sausages, deli slices, and more, these versatile, protein-dense foods have proven health benefits and can take the place of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and even cheese in many recipes.
  • Seeds: Add these to salads, veggie bowls, and smoothies to up your nutrient intake. Hemp, chia, and flax all contain impressive amounts of protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Plant-based milks, yogurts, and cheeses: Again, make sure to choose ones that are minimally processed and don’t contain unnecessary additives and chemicals. Whenever possible, though, go for varieties that have been fortified with calcium and vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
  • Ancient grains and pseudocereals: Yes, this means quinoa, but also spelt, teff, buckwheat, amaranth, and more. These foods are time-tested powerhouses that provide varying potent combinations of complex carbs, fiber, iron, B-vitamins, and several minerals.
  • Algae: Yes, seriously. Blue-green algae like chlorella and spirulina are complete proteins, while other kinds of algae can help you meet your iodine needs.
  • Nutritional yeast: Called “nooch” by its fans, this umami-bomb can add a cheesy flavor to vegan dishes and (if it’s a fortified variety) increase your vitamin B12 intake.

21 Surprising Vegan Foods

Here are 21 foods that you'd be surprised are vegan.

Vegan food often gets equated with rabbit food, literally. It’s true that eating a vegan diet can be a great way to maximize your intake of health-promoting veggies, ancient grains, fermented foods, and more. But if you want to enjoy some less-nutritious, totally delicious, “accidentally” vegan snacks, there are more options out there than you probably realize.

PETA maintains a list of foods that, while not created intentionally to be marketed to vegans, contain no animal-derived ingredients. You can find these foods in just about any major grocery store.

  • Cap’n Crunch Peanut Butter Crunch
  • Ritz Whole Wheat Crackers
  • Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup
  • Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
  • Simply Asia Sesame Teriyaki Noodle Bowl

PETA continually updates the list to reflect changes to the ingredients used to make different products, but still recommends that you read labels prior to purchasing just in case.

While the following list hasn’t been vetted as extensively as the one created by PETA, these popular snack foods are also reportedly vegan:

  • Airheads
  • Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos
  • Fritos
  • Sara Lee Dutch Apple Pie
  • Nutter Butter Cookies
  • Oreos
  • Sour Patch Kids
  • Swedish Fish
  • Thin Mints
  • Twizzlers
  • Fruit by the Foot
  • Duncan Hines Whipped Frosting
  • SuperPretzel Soft Pretzels
  • Smucker’s Uncrustables
  • Wheat Thins
  • Cracker Jack

Top Vegan Diet Health Benefits

Adopting a vegan diet has been linked to numerous health benefits. Weight loss, decreased risk of diabetes, and improved heart health are the three benefits with the strongest scientific backing.

Masses of high-quality findings show that vegan diets help people lose weight by naturally reducing the amount of calories they eat. A 2017 meta-analysis found a connection between a vegan diet and a decreased body mass index (BMI), while a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that vegans tend to be thinner.

It is, of course, possible that factors other than diet influenced those findings; for instance, overall healthier lifestyle choices like increased levels of physical activity.

But randomized controlled studies, which account for external factors, also reveal a link between a vegan diet and weight loss. A vegan diet has shown to be more effective in supporting weight loss than diets recommended by the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the American Heart Association, and the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP).

A vegan diet continues to yield the most impressive results when when pitted against other plant-based diets, and participants lose more weight than individuals following calorie-restricted diets, even when they focus on eating until full instead.

There’s also compelling evidence showing that a vegan diet can lower blood sugar levels and help prevent you from developing type 2 diabetes. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegans have lower rates of insulin resistance and higher insulin sensitivity than omnivores. And researchers from the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University in California found that a vegan diet can significantly lower your risk of type two diabetes—by up to 78%, in fact!

Observational studies indicate that a vegan diet can lower your blood pressure as well as your overall risk of dying from heart disease, and randomized controlled studies support that hypothesis. A systematic review found that a vegan diet can effectively lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, which in turn reduces your overall risk of heart disease.

A vegan diet can also…

  • Decrease your cancer risk: A vegan diet can lower your risk of developing cancer by 15%, according to this study.
  • Alleviate symptoms of arthritis: Cutting animal products out of your diet can help to treat pain, joint swelling, and morning stiffness caused by both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Improve your kidney function: A vegan diet, especially one featuring soy protein, can help to maintain and enhance kidney function.
  • Help prevent you from developing Alzheimer’s disease: Observational studies have identified a connection between a vegan diet and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are the top 7 health benefits of being vegan.

Veganism Goes Beyond What You Eat

While diet is a major part of veganism, there’s so much more to it than that. Remember, the definition of veganism is all about avoiding exploiting animals for any purpose. Not eating any animal-derived foods certainly furthers that goal, but you’ll also need to put conscious thought into the clothes, accessories, and personal care products you buy.

Even the medications you take may contain animal products like gelatin or lactose. While no vegan advocates recommend discontinuing prescribed medications, you can ask your doctor if it’s possible to prescribe pills that don’t contain those ingredients.

Many vegans also choose to donate their money only to organizations that do not perform tests on animals. A number of vegan advocacy groups compile lists you can use if you’d like to make that a component of your charitable donation decision-making process.

It’s also common for vegans to avoid visiting zoos or aquariums or taking part in dog or horse racing. That’s not to say you can’t spend time near animals if you’re vegan, but simply that you prioritize compassionate ways of doing so that put the well-being of the animals first, like animal sanctuaries.

Here is what you need to know about veganism.

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