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Vegan Diet: A Beginners Guide to Veganism
vegan diet
Diet & Exercise

Vegan Diet: A Beginners Guide to Veganism

This can be an incredibly positive step in your self-development!

Veganism is one of the fastest growing movements in the world. 

Between 2004 and 2019, there was a 300 percent increase in veganism, with an estimated 10 million Americans now free from meat and other animal products. The plant-based food market is on the rise, too, estimated to grow to $162 billion across the next decade.

With concerns over animal welfare, sustainability, and more options for those looking for alternative plant-based foods, now is the easiest time to consider taking the plunge into veganism. If you’ve been used to meat or animal products making up a substantial part of your diet, the shift can feel intimidating. However, the health benefits cannot be denied.

So where do you begin? This article will cover the basics of a vegan diet. More specifically, a healthy vegan diet. Let’s begin.

What is veganism?

vegan diet for beginners
(Alexander Spatari / Getty)

Firstly, it’s important to note the difference between veganism and a plant-based diet. Although they’re similar in terms of what foods someone consumes, veganism itself is a conscious movement. 

The Vegan Society define veganism as follows:

"Veganism is a philosophy and 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals." 

Why you might start: Animal welfare, environment, health concerns

Typically, people follow vegan diets for three core reasons. The first is concerns of animal welfare, due to mass production and animal slaughter. The second is the environment (avoiding meat and dairy foods is the “single biggest way” to reduce your carbon footprint.) The third is concerns over health, particularly the link between a vegan diet and reduced inflammation, which could reduce the risk factor of disease.

Personally, I don’t believe in policing labels, or people choosing who qualifies as vegan and who doesn’t. But in a nutshell, if you’re avoiding animal products and your motivation is linked to concerns over ethics or animal cruelty, you’re close to veganism. If your diet is motivated purely for health, you’re closer to plant-based, vegetarian diets, as it doesn’t necessarily fit the philosophy of veganism.

How easy is adopting a healthy vegan diet?

Vegan diets tend to provide fantastic results, but making the switch can be a difficult challenge to start. 

A few years ago, my diet consisted of four eggs per day, gallons of milk, and as much animal protein as I could consume. I was into weight training and my diet reflected the conventional wisdom — to get enough protein, and to build muscle, you have to be eating plenty of animal products. Chicken, beef, tuna, sausages, bacon… My fridge was fully stocked, and the thought of ever trying a vegan diet was laughable.

I was curious, though. I had an intuitive feeling that my meat consumption didn’t quite feel right, something which surfaced during meditation. But my biggest concern was how to stay healthy and how to continue to fuel my workouts. Would I get enough protein on a vegan diet? Would I get the nutrients I need?

Performance booster?

As someone who was quite clued up on nutrition, I had a lot of concerns. Like a lot of people, there was a lightbulb moment, which for me came from watching the documentary Game Changers. The focus was not only on the vegan diet, but how many top-performing athletes were able to perform better by giving up animal products.

What resonated with me was the focus on a healthy vegan diet. All of this is to say, a vegan diet, within itself, can be incredibly easy — fries, crisps, cookies, plant-based meats and other processed vegan foods (sometimes called “vegan junk food vegan diet”) all qualify, and they’re easy. But there’s a necessity when going vegan to cover the basics of nutritious foods and to educate yourself around essential nutrients.

Are vegan diets healthy?

At the risk of stating the obvious, a healthy vegan diet is healthy. In other words, vegan nutrition that offers a balance of whole foods and a relevant amount of calories is great for your health. 

veganism for health
(Tim Robberts / Getty)

In addition to reduced inflammation, a vegan diet has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, reduced risk of diabetes, a lower body mass index, plus a wide range of other benefits.

Myths and misconceptions

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around a vegan diet that have been dispelled in recent years. Particularly concerns over malnutrition or a lack of protein. However, there is a need for vigilance. 

The biggest cause for concern is a lack of vitamin B12, which is easily remedied by fortified foods or supplements. Most nutrients are adequately covered by eating a varied diet full of vegetables and other food sources.

There are also valid concerns over the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fats. “Essential” fats and nutrients are those that the body itself doesn’t produce, and have to be sourced from food. Omega-3 fatty acids are typically found in fish, though there are plant-based alternatives, such as chia seeds, walnuts, and various plant oils. 

what is a vegan diet
(Lucy Lambriex / Getty)

So there does have to be an element of care with a vegan diet. But, considering food is the fuel you put in the body, this ideally would be the case anyway. And what better choice to begin conscious eating than with a shift towards a more sustainable diet?

Can a vegan diet help you lose weight?

Additionally, a vegan diet can help you lose some pounds, as they are typically lower in calories. Keep in mind that weight loss is exclusively linked to calorie consumption. 

To lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you consume — this is known as a calorie deficit. A vegan diet excludes a lot of the stuff you want to avoid putting in your body, but fermented plant foods, peanut butter and vitamin D alone won’t lead to losing weight. There are, however, multiple studies demonstrating those who eat plant-based tended to have lower BMI.

That’s partly due to the consumption of fruits and veggies that are high in fiber and packed full of nutrients. Vegan foods tend to be much lower in calories than meat or animal-based alternatives. Think of cheese, red meat, and dairy. So it’s in effect more of a challenge to eat enough calories to put on weight with plant-based foods.

Again, though, this largely depends on overall diet and not veganism as a magic solution. A vegan junk food diet, compared to someone who eats meat and dairy as part of an overall balanced diet, won’t be as healthy.

What are examples of vegan foods?

I went vegan overnight. I watched Game Changers, and the next day went to the supermarket and stocked up on vegan foods, such as beans, lentils, and quinoa. I tend to do things in extremes, mind you. So while I maintained a strictly vegan diet with only plant-based foods for three years, I did recently decided to phase in eggs a few times per week.

But the whole process revolutionized my approach to food. I couldn’t rely on meat being the main component. So I got more creative and researched vegan recipes, and discovered foods I’d overlooked. It actually made me appreciate food more, and the variety of tastes that whole foods provide. 

When I first went home after turning vegan, my mum tried her best to make sure I had what I needed. She’d often ask me, “is this vegan?” and was always surprised when I answered yes to many foods.

Point being, any natural food which isn’t meat or animal-based is vegan. I say natural food because many processed foods have hidden ingredients. You’d be amazed at what foods have milk powder, cheese, or eggs listed. 

The biggest surprise for me was finding milk powder in ready salted crisps! It does take time to adjust to spotting hidden ingredients, but mostly, vegan foods are easily accessible and every. For example:

what is vegan food
(Photo by Cathy Scola / Getty)
healthy vegan diet
(Arx0nt / Getty)

What I’ve found most useful is categorizing foods by their nutritional value. It takes time to build up a knowledge base, but it’s worth it. For example, understanding that cashews, spinach, and pumpkin seeds are high in iron will ensure you spread them across your diet.

Tips for starting a vegan diet and not eat meat or animal foods

If you’re considering a vegan diet, you’re more likely to succeed and maintain the lifestyle change for a longer period of time if you’re prepared. Get insight into the Stages of Change Model, and where you’re at in the process. 

That you’re reading this article suggests you’re already contemplating, researching, and starting to put a plan together. That’s a great start. The below steps will help you take the leap.

Research, research, research

This article is just the beginning. Although I did go vegan overnight, I had already spent years researching nutrition, which gave me a solid foundation. Unfortunately, schools don’t do a great job of educating kids on how to eat healthily, so it might take some independent research. 

Start with general areas, such as calorie consumption, basic nutritional needs, the difference between carbs, fats, and protein. Then move on to vegan-specifics. 

Will you take supplements? How will you ensure you’re getting a balanced diet? Do you have recipes or fallbacks for when you’re busy, to avoid relying on junk food? The better the plan, the more equipped you’ll be to do things right.

Understand the value of different foods

The beauty of a vegan diet is that most of your needs are covered by getting a good balance of whole foods — things like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, spinach, beans, legumes, lentils, chickpeas. If you’re mixing things up, you’ll more than likely be hitting your nutritional targets. 

How much of an adjustment this is depends on your diet before turning vegan. If you eat a lot of processed foods and not a lot of veg, it might take time to develop new healthy habits.

As touched upon above, it pays to know which nutrients you’re getting from what food sources. This is as easy as a quick Google search for “which vegan foods contain iron” or similar. Once you’ve researched the main nutrients vegans need to be conscious of (websites such as the Vegan Society contain all of this information) then you can stock up your fridges.

Explore recipes based on your newfound knowledge

One of the benefits of veganism becoming more popular is the amount of tasty, easy-to-make vegan recipes available online. Veganism isn’t a trade-off of taste or satisfaction, quite the opposite! Once you’ve researched and learned about what nutrients you need, and you’ve stocked up on relevant foods, then you can search based on those foods.

I always base my meals around a protein source, a grain, and vegetables. For example, I might cook a curry that contains chickpeas, lots of different vegetables, and rice or quinoa, to add extra carbs and density to the meal. You can try searching for recipes based on meals you already enjoy, to find vegan alternatives. This is where the abundance of vegan-alternative foods makes things so much easier.

Stay connected to the motivation behind the choice

Despite veganism rising in popularity, it’s still a huge undertaking. If you’ve been used to eating meat, in the beginning, you might feel restricted. You might have friends and family who continue eating meat and expect you to do the same. Or you might find yourself on holiday, or in situations, where you feel limited in your choices. 

In those moments it’s always powerful to stay connected to the bigger picture.

You might even consider getting clarity around what this is. What inspires you? What values do you feel you’re aligning with by making the choice to cut out animal products? This is where it also helps to have a community of people who are also on a plant-based diet, to share inspiration, recipe ideas, or look for support when things get tough.

In conclusion   

It’s never been a better time to give veganism a go. Remember, you don’t have to make a lifetime commitment. Try it out, and see if it’s for you. 

Know that it is a challenge in the beginning, but many people, myself included, find a whole host of benefits for choosing to cut out animal products and embrace the leafy greens that make it completely worthwhile.

From supporting animal welfare, reducing your impact on the environment, and becoming more conscious of the foods you eat, a vegan diet has the potential to be one of the most positive lifestyle changes you can make. 

Oh, and did I mention you can still eat chocolate?

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If all this was a little serious for you, maybe take a lighter approach and read up on these funny food quotes to get you back in the right mindset

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