Being vegan means not consuming anything that comes from another animal. No meat, dairy, or eggs...and no leather, fur, wool, or down. Many vegans, like myself, also choose not to eat honey or purchase silk. Veganism could be seen as a lifestyle that informs dietary choices. A core precept of veganism is nonviolence towards all living beings, which defines what vegans don't eat rather than what we do eat. Despite a diverse and highly variable diet, vegans generally enjoy health benefits not achieved with any other well-studied eating pattern; however, not all plant-based diets are equally healthy (see below).
The perceived barriers to a vegan lifestyle are barriers erected by culture. If you were raised in a culture or household that consumed a predominately plant-based diet, then getting nutrient-dense plant-based meals that you loved would require negligible effort. In the West, it can seem like every dish is doused with dairy, has egg baked in, or has flesh as its centerpiece (hence the health crisis in the West).
One cultural barrier new vegans can experience in the West is disapproval from peers and family. Engaging with vegan ideals can create a measurable cognitive dissonance in nonvegans. The contemporary moral zeitgeist in the West reacts to this dissonance by maintaining a fiction that consuming our fellow animals is normal, necessary, and natural. Any unbiased inspection of this fiction exposes it as tragically absurd or incoherent. We will dive deeper into the social-psychological barriers in another article; in this writing I hope to help new vegans find their way to an enjoyable and healthy plant-based diet as quick as possible. Note: there are many resources on the web dedicated specifically to plant-based eating, which have more complete and well-organized resources than we do; some of those resources are linked at the end of this article.
Plant-based foods that intentionally mimic animal-sourced foods are sometimes called "transition foods". As a vegan, I have had my best bacon-cheese burgers, pizzas, Philly cheese steaks, meatball subs, the Italian and Mexican dishes I love, and every decedent dessert. There are great plant-based versions of virtually any food that traditionally includes animal-sourced ingredients. Many new and great transition foods hit the market every year, and they are increasingly prevalent in grocery chains and restaurants across the US. SponsorTruth.org is not affiliated with any product or for-profit company, but we have composed a page of transition foods arranged by category, to help new vegans make the transition. In most cases, these transition foods aren't as unhealthy as their animal-sourced counterparts, but as with any diet you need to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes; we recommend beginning your transition to a whole-food plant-based diet as soon as possible if optimal health is your goal.
Whole-food plant-based diet
A whole-food diet doesn't require shopping at the organic grocery chain Whole Foods...you can shop anywhere! The definition of a whole food seems somewhat malleable, but a good rule of thumb is that the ingredients label can get away with listing a single ingredient (e.g., carrots, beans, bananas, rice), or that no "processing" was required. Processing isn't particularly well-defined either, but for the purposes of healthy eating, the pejorative "processed food" can mean something healthy has been removed or something unhealthy has been added. By this definition, all animal-sourced food is processed because healthy fibrous plant foods are converted to calorie-dense food devoid of fiber and enriched for cholesterol and disease-causing fats. The food processer in this scenario is the animal himself, representing an antiquated and unethical food production system and humankind's first addiction to processed food.
I find a 100% whole-food plant-based diet too strict. In 2017, this is going make most restaurants and social gatherings difficult to navigate. Personally, around 80-90% of my diet is whole food. My breakfast is almost always the same: steal-cut oats with chopped fruit and walnuts and a grapefruit with the juice squeezed into a glass of ice water; this is 100% whole food. Whole foods that are my daily staples for lunch and dinner include hummus, avocado, brown rice, black beans, kidney beans, chick peas (garbanzo beans), walnuts, peanuts, almonds, tempeh, tofu, plenty of leafy greens (especially spinach and kale), and fruits and vegetables of many different colors (for plants, color diversity can indicate nutrient diversity).
I find I can mix these whole-food ingredients together many ways to create great-tasting meals. I also include ingredients that are not typically whole foods, such as vegan dressings, condiments, tortillas, or bread. A smoothie made of frozen fruit, ground flax seed, and water is my go-to for dessert. A couple times a week, I fall back to some transition food. Drink plenty of water, and avoid fruit juice and soda. Tip: frozen fruit is much more affordable if you buy in bulk at Walmart or Costco. Frozen bananas are great because they make the smoothie creamy; you can either buy fresh, peel, and freeze, or sometimes find them already frozen at Walmart. Tip: Ezekiel breads are flourless, which is great if your trying to stay close to a whole-food diet. These breads are sprouted and almost always in the freezer section. Their seasame bread is my personal favorite.
Calcium is famously associated with healthy bones and teeth, and is also essential for brain and cardiovascular function. A well-balanced plant-based diet including plenty of leafy greens is calcium rich, and as a bonus you'll get lots of vitamin K, which is important for calcium activity. Kale in particular is loaded with calcium and vitamin K. Plant-based milks (soy, coconut, almond, etc.) are often fortified with lots of calcium (just check the label). If you don't like plant-based milk, you could take a calcium pill once in awhile for safe measure. Tip: chopped and washed kale is now available in almost every grocery chain, respresenting a convenient and cheap way to get a true super food. If it's too earthy for you at first, steam, boil, or sautee it and add it to you favorite rice dish. Personally, I like a raw kale salad with raisins, walnuts, and Lite Apple Cider Vinaigrette dressing (Ken's). Unless you're a level-five vegan, you probably won't enjoy the stalk raw :)
Vitamin D is required for absorption of calcium and other minerals. The evidence in support of the importance of vitamin D is overwhelming, but the amount and source is a subject of disagreement. For the past decade there has been a huge vitamin D craze in the nutrition and health communities, and as I write this the Journal of the American Medical Association has just published a paper showing that people are taking too much (vitamin D is fat soluble, so taking too much is harmful). The easiest ways to meet your vitamin D requirements are vitamin D-fortified plant-based milks (typically 3.5 cups hits your daily requirement, just check the label), a vitamin D3 supplement, and limited but regular sun exposure. The sun is actually the natural way for us animals to get vitamin D, but our modern lifestyle means many of us are indoors all day. Personally, I try and get about 20 minutes of direct afternoon sun any day I can, and take 2000 IU of vegan vitamin D3 once or twice a week (it's cheap...just make sure it's vegan!). Tip: sorry, but I have to remind you that overexposure to the sun really is dangerous. Skin cancer is prevalent and aggressive, and the sun is among the most common causes of premature skin aging and cataracts. Limit sun exposure or wear sunscreen and UV-blocking sunglasses. Tip: mushrooms are among the best known sources of vitamin D, but their vitamin D levels also depend on sun exposure (so don't apply sunscreen to your mushrooms :)
Vitamin B12 is only synthesized in microbes. When animals eat plants from the ground and drink unsterile water, they consume these microbes and in turn get B12. If your water is sterile and root-crops washed, you’re unlikely to get any detectable B12. Furthermore, even if you consume unsterile plants and water you’d still unlikely get the recommended daily intake of vitamin B12, which is around 2.4 micrograms for people 14 and up. Thus, contemporary humans are faced with the dilemma of supplementing their B12 with animal parts or with B12 that has been purified and used to fortify other foods or made into a pill; if you’re vegan, the choice is obvious. Personally, I take a pill or get my B12 from a plant-based milk such as soy, almond, or coconut (just read the label, you’ll find most plant-based milks are fortified). Current scientific thought is that vitamin B12 is important for healthy brain function, preventing anemia, and possibly heart health, so you really should supplement.
The case for omega-3 fatty acids is a little more complicated. You need to eat a specific type of short-chain omega-3, which in turn your body can convert to long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Because some scientific studies concluded that this conversion process was insufficient in modern humans, long-chain omega-3 fatty acid supplements were praised by doctors and nutrition specialists for about a decade or so. In particular, supplementing the long-chain omegas EPA and DHA was recommended for brain and cardiovascular health. As more and more studies accrued, this finding was deemed inconclusive. Personally, I take an omega-3 supplement with DHA and EPA once or twice a week, and assume it’s doing some good and no harm.
Vegan EPA and DHA
EPA and DHA are synthesized in algae. Fish eat algae, and EPA and DHA concentrate in fish livers. Most omega-3 DHA-EPA pills you find at the store are derived from fish or fish liver (i.e., not vegan!). You can go online and get algal omega-3 DHA-EPA on the cheap and have it delivered to your home. With a little searching, you can find it for less than 25-cents per dose (for instance, Deva brand from Swanson Health Products). Again, it isn’t clear that taking this supplement is necessary for optimal health. If you get some, store it in your freezer.
The essential short-chain omega-3 ALA Finally, back to the short-chain omega-3 I mentioned at the beginning of this section, which is sometimes called “ALA” on food packaging. There are several great sources of ALA, including walnuts, soybeans, chia, kiwifruit, and flaxseed. I personally have a handful of walnuts per day (either on a salad or oatmeal) and a half cup of ground flaxseed every couple of days in a fruit smoothie. For what it’s worth, with walnuts, flaxseed, and the aforementioned algal omegas, my serum omegas are always in their target range when I get them checked. Tip: walnuts are very affordable if you get the big 32-oz bag at Costco or Walmart, otherwise they can be spendy. Tip: store your ground flaxseed in the fridge to keep it fresh.
If you're a bodybuilder, then you need to read a nutrition guide for vegan body builders (just Google it). Otherwise, just eat a balanced whole-food plant-based diet and your protein intake will be more than sufficient.
Happy cow is a great mobile app that pins all vegan- and vegetarian-friendly restaurants near your current location or anywhere you search. They break your options down, so you know if you're getting a full-on vegan establishment, or if you'll be eating the black-bean burger. They also have a great website.
Is it vegan? is a mobile app that actually allows you to scan ingredients labels on food packaging, and tells you whether or not the contents are truly vegan.
Barnivore is a popular old resource for your vegan alcohol needs (yes, sadly a reasonable fraction of alcoholic beverages, in particular wines, are not vegan). If you want something on your mobile device, find the Free Vegan Alcohol Guide in your devices app store.
Vegan Starter Kit is a comprehensive and well-organized resource for new vegans, outlining the why and how of veganism, and a guide to vegan consumerism including food, clothing, and household supplies. Vegan nutrition and cooking are also covered.
The International Vegan Association guide Demystifying Vegan Nutrition is a short two-page .pdf that is a must read on vegan nutrition. Their 28-page Vegan Starter Kit is one of the most complete guides to everything vegan.
NutritionFacts.org is the webs most comprehensive resource for nutrition, Dr. Michael Greger it's foremost expert.