'Vegan' has become a buzzy word of late. A growing number of people are aware of veganism's potential nutritional and environmental benefits thanks to the fact that vegan foods and products are cropping up everywhere from food trucks to supermarkets to Michelin-star restaurants. It's even been the topic of numerous documentary films and star-studded endorsements from the likes of Bill Clinton and Ariana Grande. And with social media making it easier to share, like, buy, or try, veganism is experiencing a surge in popularity.
If all the publicity has made you stop to consider if you want to go vegan, but you're not sure exactly what it means (or where to start), you've come to the right place. Read on for an in-depth guide on what being a vegan entails, the benefits it can offer, and some helpful resources to help you get started.
What does 'vegan' mean?
The Vegan Society defines veganism as a way of living that avoids all forms of exploitation or cruelty toward animals, as much as is practically possible. Hence, the term vegan refers to anything that's free of animal products, or made using animals. That means more obvious things like meat, fish, milk, cheese, and eggs, but it also includes products even partially derived from animals — including a few surprise ingredients you may not expect (spoiler alert: wine). We'll get into those more a little later.
Veganism is more than just a diet — for many, it's a philosophy to consume compassionately in all areas of life. So whether that means saying no to animal-derived furniture or clothing that's made of fur or leather, vegans will also avoid personal or household products tested on animals or that contain animal products in them.
You'll start to find different camps of thought when it comes to certain foods and products, though. For instance, some consider honey to be non-vegan, since it's made by a living creature, while others feel okay to consume it if it's ethically raised. There's also debate around whether second-hand animal products, like a leather jacket from a thrift store, can be included in a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle.
But regardless of where others stand on the more nuanced aspects of veganism, the important thing is that you take the time to decide for yourself why you're interested in becoming a vegan — and decide what rules feel right for you and your personal goals.
Why go vegan?
There are a number of reasons people cite for going vegan. Not only can it potentially lower your risk of disease and improve overall health, it's also a way to advocate for animals, protect the environment, and create a more sustainable future. Here's a look at the benefits veganism can provide:
Health benefits of veganism
Many studies, like this one from NIH, confirm that vegan diets are an effective strategy for weight loss and obesity prevention. Many plant-based foods are high in fiber, which keep you fuller longer, and contain less of the unhealthy fats that typically cause weight gain. Vegan diets also tend to naturally reduce your calorie intake without an active focus on cutting calories.
The benefits of a trimmer waistline go beyond vanity — it can have lifesaving effects, too. Even as little as a 5 percent decrease in body weight has been shown to lower the risk of chronic conditions linked to obesity, like heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
What's most impressive though, is the research around a vegan diet's ability to not only control, but to reverse the effects of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes. In another study by the National Institute of Health, researchers found that a plant-based diet controlled blood sugar three times more effectively than a traditional diabetes treatment diet that limited calories and carbohydrates.
Another study took it a step further and cut out even health-conscious food choices like skinless chicken, skim, milk, or baked fish in order to compare the effectiveness of a vegan diet to the standard diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). They found that even with unlimited portions of fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes, the vegan group lost more weight after a 74-week trial. And, 43 percent of the vegan group reduced their diabetes meds compared to only 26 percent of the ADA group.
Veganism means protecting animals
For many people, protecting animals is the primary motivation to become vegan.
Avoiding animal products is one of the most direct ways one can take a stand against animal cruelty and exploitation. By now, most people are aware of the inhumane conditions animals often endure on factory farms, thanks to documentaries like Cowspiracy and Food, Inc. And while some people try to mitigate the effects of harmful farming practices by buying products labeled 'free range,' 'cage-free,' or 'grass-fed,' the government doesn't set any definitions or requirements for them — which means that it's completely up to each company how they define that term.
Vegans believe any form of farming, even in its most humane form, exploits animals, so they choose not to participate in its consumption, no matter the label.
Of course, consuming less animal protein isn't just an ethical stand; it also has positive effects on our environment, as well!
Eating vegan helps the planet
Using data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries, a study published in the journal Science found that the collective strain meat and dairy production places on the environment is staggering. Their findings determined that current farming and food production systems are destroying wildlands, depleting water resources, and accelerating the rate of climate change. But, they said, eating a vegan diet could be the single most impactful way to help the planet.
With a growing world population plagued by food shortage concerns, vegans may have a head start on the solution to sustainability. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. predicts that by 2050, world meat production will have doubled. But, in the long run, there simply won't be enough land left to accommodate the livestock farms and feed farms needed to produce that amount of food. Currently, half of the world's habitable land is used for agriculture — but of that land, 77 percent is dedicated to livestock and the crops they need to feed off of. While livestock monopolizes the world's land, it provides only 18 percent of the world's calories, and 37 percent of its protein. In contrast, a plant-based diet would use a third of that land — and save a significant amount of water and energy resources at the same time.
Sounds pretty good, huh? From health benefits through environmental impact, a vegan diet, is good for us, good for animals, and good for the planet. But what about the nutritional implications of eating vegan?
Veganism and nutrition
One thing many people considering a vegan diet wonder about frequently is the nutritional impact of eating mostly plants. "How could I possibly get all the nutrients and protein I need," they think, "without eating any meat?"
The reality of the matter is, the vast majority of essential macro- and micro-nutrients your body needs to thrive can be found just as easily in plant-based products as in animal products. You just have to know where to look.
Vegan protein sources
One of the most commonly-asked about macronutrients for folks considering a vegan diet is protein. There's a common misperception that protein only comes from meats — like steak, poultry, and fish. But the reality of the matter is that there are plenty of vegan options that are incredibly high protein and can more than meet your daily dietary needs.
The average American adult, according to US dietary guidelines, should consume .36g of protein per pound of body weight per day. That means that a 130-pound woman needs about 47 grams of protein in a day to stay fit & healthy.
Now, let's look at some common vegan protein sources:
- 3 oz. of processed plant protein like tempeh (16g protein), tofu (8g protein), or seitan (20g protein) can contain over 1/3 of this daily requirement.
- 1 cup of cooked whole grains such as quinoa (8g protein) or spelt (11g protein) can make a hearty and protein-rich base for a meal.
- Half a cup of legumes like chickpeas (8g protein), beans (7g protein), or lentils (9g protein) is a great way to introduce a more savory protein element into a meal.
As you can see, protein is abundant in many plant-based foods, and it doesn't take many servings of these — especially across breakfast, lunch, and dinner — to hit that 47-gram mark. In fact, many vegans report finding that they don't even need to actively track their protein, because it's so common in plant-based foods that they achieve their recommended daily intake without making special dietary adjustments.
You may have heard the common recommendation 'eat in color' or 'eat the rainbow' — meaning that you should incorporate lots of colorful foods into your diet. This advice isn't just for aesthetic benefit; since foods that contain different nutrients tend to present in different colors in nature (and since many 'processed' foods end up being a dull brown), a colorful plate can be a quick-and-easy signifier of a nutritionally-balanced meal.
With veganism, it's particularly easy to eat in color. From orange sweet potatoes to crunchy greens to bright-red peppers and beets, the world of vegetables represents a vibrant spectrum of color — and of nutrition. Getting into the details of the nutrients in each vegetable is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that a colorful vegan plate is one of the best ways to ensure that you're consuming a balanced diet rich in the nutrients your body needs.
Potential nutrients to supplement
While a vegan diet is healthy overall, avoiding animal protein can make certain nutrients a little harder to get. For instance, calcium, iron, D3, and vitamin B12 exist in smaller quantities in plant foods than in animal ones. Below you can find plant-based sources that provide these essential nutrients, and how much:
Recommended Amount: 1,000-1,200 mg
|Fortified plant milks/juices (8 oz)
|Collard greens, kale, mustard or turnip greens (1 cup, cooked)
|Tofu (½ cup)
|Soybeans (½ cup cooked)
|Bok choy (1 cup, cooked)
|Edamame (1 cup, cooked)
|Tempeh (½ cup)
Recommended Amount: 8-18 mg
|Blackstrap molasses (2 tbsp)
|Lentils (1 cup, cooked)
|Tofu (½ cup)
|Spinach (1 cup, cooked)
|Kidney beans (1 cup, cooked)
|Chickpeas (1 cup, cooked)
|Soybeans (1 cup, cooked)
The only nutrient that can't be found in plant sources alone is vitamin B12 — it's found naturally in only animal foods, or added to some fortified foods like plant-based milks and cereals. The body uses B12 to produce red blood cells and keep the nervous system functioning, and also helps prevent anemia, which makes people feel tired and weak. If you go vegan, you may need a B12 supplement to make up for what you don't get from your diet (or the average adult, the daily recommended amount is 2.4 micrograms). If you are planning to switch to a vegan diet, be sure to consult your doctor for advice on whether any supplements are necessary.
The difference between a vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based diets
Flexatarian, Pescatarian, vegan, ovo-vegetarian — there are a lot of terms out there to describe types of diets that focus on eating more plants. Potato, po-tah-toe, tomato, to-mah-toe, right? Not quite. While these diets all limit animal products to varying extents, there are key differences between each. Typically, a plant-based diet isn't as strict as a vegan one. And even among vegetarians, what they do or don't eat can also differ. Here's a quick overview of what each includes and excludes:
|Type of Diet
|Semi-vegetarian / Flexatarian
|Vegetarian (or Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian)
Types of vegans
Vegans, like most groups of people, are not a monolith. Within the vegan community, there are many different types with varying principles, motivations, and restrictions:
Dietary vegans refrain from eating any animal products, usually due to health reasons. They may still use animal products in other areas, such as clothing, furniture, or cosmetics. But even within the community of dietary vegans, there are varying degrees of strictness. For instance, some will eat non-organic sugar or honey, while for others it's a definite "don't-touch."
While dietary vegans may make the change solely for health reasons, ethical vegans are driven instead by the desire to live a compassionate lifestyle free of animal exploitation. This philosophy extends beyond just diet, as ethical vegans will also avoid wearing wool, silk, or leather, visiting zoos /aquariums, and using cosmetics with animal ingredients. Ethical vegans believe it is not humans' place to take from animals merely because they can.
This subsect of vegans eats only fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains that have not been heated above 115 degrees. A raw vegan's intent is to eat foods as close to their natural form as possible.
Phew! That may seem like a lot of terminology — but the point is, veganism means different things to different people. If you're thinking of making the transition to veganism, we recommend that you think about why you want to make that transition (e.g., for health reasons, ethical reasons, to protect the planet, etc.) and then think about what restrictions you want to put on your diet, and on your lifestyle, to help meet those goals. It's important to remember that when it comes to food, every little bit helps. Even if you choose to only eat vegan for a day or two per week (Meatless Mondays, anyone?), you can still make an impact on your body and on our world.
Common foods that surprisingly aren't vegan
If you want to dive in headfirst and eliminate all animal products from your diet, you may be surprised at some of the items you'll be cutting. Animal products are present in — or are part of the production process for — many surprising foods, and strict veganism requires avoiding all of them.
In addition to the big no-nos (like dairy, meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish), here are a few unexpected foods and items you may not have realized may contain animal products:
We'll start with one of the more obvious ones: honey! Honey is produced by bees — and as such, is not technically vegan. It's also an ingredient in a surprising number of baked goods & pre-packaged foods. If you'd like to transition to a fully vegan diet, consider replacing honey with an alternate, plant-based sweetener like agave.
Here's a surprising one: bone char, which is made from cattle bones, is widely used by sugar manufacturers to filter and bleach sugar to whiten it. To make bone char, animal bones are heated at very high temperatures and reduced to carbon before being used in a refinery. While the sugar doesn't actually contain bone char, it does come into contact with it.
So does that make brown sugar vegan then? Not exactly. Since brown sugar is created by adding molasses to refined sugar, it still goes through the same bone char processing. However, if sugar is labeled organic or unrefined, these processes are not allowed by law — so you can be certain no animal byproducts were used in their production. Beet, coconut, and fruit sugar are a few additional vegan alternatives.
We know what you're thinking — wine is made from grapes! However, during the winemaking process, winemakers use fining agents to filter the wine of any cloudiness. Traditionally, fining agents used are made from bone marrow, milk protein (casein), egg whites (albumin) or fish bladder protein (isinglass). While these fining agents get filtered out of the wine with any hazy bits, some traces may be absorbed into the wine — which makes it off limits for strict vegans. But more commonly now, wine producers are using animal-friendly agents like bentonite clay, limestone, and plant casein, among others, which means vegans can sip to their heart's content. Just be sure to check the labels for any potentially offending ingredients!
Gelatin is used in marshmallows to hold their shape. As its name denotes, gelatin is a gelling agent from collagen in animal skin and bones. Nowadays, there are vegan versions you can find that are dairy-free and gelatin-free. Other common products known to contain gelatin include gel capsules, cheesecake, gummy bears, and Jell-O.
While most jams are plant-based, some brands use gelatin to hold the ingredients together. For a vegan-friendly version, look for ones made with pectin, which is derived from fruits.
Some apple juices are filtered using fish bladder protein, or isinglass. This is the same substance that makes some beer and wines not vegan, too.
Like apple juice, maple syrup is also sometimes filtered using ingredients that come from animals. Not all maple syrup is produced this way, though — so be sure to check with the manufacturer to ask how it's produced.
By the way — any Mosaic meal marked as vegan never includes any of these sneaky products. Look out for the icon next to our meals to indicate dishes that are 100% free of animal ingredients.
Does vegan always mean healthy?
Tater tots are vegan, as are chips and french fries! But would you consider them good for you? Junk food veganism is real, so just because something is labeled vegan, don't automatically assume it's good for you. A vegan diet is only as healthy as you make it. Loading up on sugary snacks or highly processed foods, even if they're vegan, can leave you with the same health problems you'd have on a meat-based diet. Fried vegan foods, vegan ice cream and cakes, and even some seemingly innocent plant-based meat substitutes can be just as high-fat and processed as their non-vegan counterparts. Always read the labels to confirm the ingredients and nutrient content and try to base your diet around nutrient-rich whole plants foods instead.
Here's a list of foods that, while technically vegan, aren't actually good for you:
To replace eggs and butter, vegan desserts often use starches, gums, and pectins to achieve a similar consistency and texture. However, these ingredients can increase the sugar and calorie content of desserts.
Another technically vegan treat you're better off without? Oreos. While the crunchy creme-filled cookies don't contain dairy or eggs, the amount of sodium, sugar, and carbs can hardly be classified as healthy.
Coconut oil is extremely high in saturated fat — 50 percent more than butter, in fact. Saturated fat is known to increase cholesterol levels and should be avoided at all costs. Olive oil is a much better alternative that contains heart-healthy fats.
Veggie chips can be just as bad for you as regular potato chips (which are also a vegetable, don't forget) — after all, they're still fried and topped with salt. Instead, look for kale, beet, or carrot chips that don't contain extra seasonings, which can pile on unnecessary sodium, sugar and calories.
While vegan cheese can be a non-dairy godsend for those who can't live without some version of the real thing, the ingredient list may raise the eyebrows of those trying to eat clean, minimally processed foods. Vegan cheeses often contain starches, thickeners, and high amounts of sodium to mimic cheese's texture and flavor.
Overly processed foods
Many foods marketed as vegan can seem healthy at first, but actually contain highly processed ingredients you should stay away from. For example, while soy is a common vegan alternative that's good for you, the benefits really only apply when you opt for minimally processed forms of it — think tempeh, tofu, miso, or edamame. These foods provide all the nutrition of soy without the high levels of processing soy protein isolate or soy flour undergo. High fructose corn syrup, added sodium, sugar, and preservatives are other hallmark ingredients of vegan foods that are overly processed.
With that said, eating plant-based foods in their closest-to-nature form is always best for you. That's why Mosaic was created: to provide minimally processed, convenient meals that are actually healthy. With less than 500 calories in most meals and all-real, plant-based ingredients, Mosaic provides a healthy plant-based alternative to many of the highly processed vegan and vegetarian foods out there.
How to get started with a vegan diet
If you want to start making a positive impact on your health and the environment but feel daunted at the prospect of going fully vegan, remember that something is better than nothing! A vegan diet requires a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but choosing to limit your consumption of animal products by even a little is a step towards a more sustainable future. Here's a few pieces of advice if you're looking to start:
- Do your research: If you're reading this guide, you're already taking the first steps to learn more about veganism. Identify your own personal reasons for going vegan and make sure you're well-informed about your own health needs. Everyone's body is different and you might need to take different steps to prepare for a vegan diet than others.
- Watch documentaries, read books and related resources, and reach out to others you know that are vegan or plant-based: They can all offer valuable insights and support to help you feel more confident about your transition.
- Add to your diet before you subtract: Rather than jumping to cut out animal products, start by incorporating more whole grains, beans, veggies, and tofu into your diet. This will help you familiarize yourself with more plant-based foods and get comfortable preparing them. Experiment with vegan recipes that look good and appeal to you!
- Find other small ways you can replace animal products with vegan ones: Non-dairy milk alternatives are an easy place to start, as well as swapping out butter for olive oil.
- Make the change gradually: Many people encourage a gradual transition from omnivore to pescatarian to vegetarian, and then eventually to vegan. This can make for less of a shock to your shopping and eating habits and ease you into the lifestyle.
Vegan chefs and bloggers to follow
You're not in it alone! The vegan community is massive and incredibly supportive, and there are lots of places you can get great ideas for vegan recipes and lifestyle hacks online. For example, these chefs and bloggers have made a name for themselves creating healthy, delicious meals that are vegan or plant-based. Take a look and see which of their creations you might want to try out:
- Denai Moore, creator of Dee's Table, is a chef and recipe developer who specializes in making modern vegan Jamaican food. Her Curry Spiced Squash and Chickpeas and Roasted Pepper Ackee Seasoned Rice are just two of her dishes we're dying to test out. Social: @dees_table
- Katie and Kate are two longtime friends cooking up recipes for their blog, Well Vegan, and they even have a cookbook called Frugal Vegan. Their jaw-droppingly styled photos of delicious vegan meals will have you scrolling (and your mouth watering!) for hours. Social: @well_vegan
- Jenn Sebestyn is the author of The Meatless Monday Family Cookbook, and provides tons of plant-based vegan recipes that are family-friendly on her blog, Veggie Inspired. Social: @veggie_inspired
- Brooklynne is a med-school student on the path to becoming a plant-based doctor. She shares inclusive health advice, mindfulness and stress management in addition to great plant-based recipes. Social: @beetsbybrooke
- George Lee, aka Chez Jorge shows how simple vegan cooking can be with his fun, digestible how-to videos. At only 19 years old, he's created remarkably delicious plant-based dupes for signature Asian recipes like mapo tofu, kimchi pancakes, and even vegan "sushi," and innovative desserts like double chocolate tofu donuts and black sesame cookies. Social: @chez.jorge
Resources and readings
Want to know more? Here are a few resources to check out:
- The Beet: One of our favorite sources of plant-based news and information on vegan living.
- One Green Planet: This eco-friendly website provides all things vegan — from food news to environmental and health updates, you can also find a plethora of plant-based recipes categorized helpfully by their main ingredient.
- Vegetarian Resource Group: The VRG is a non-profit organization that provides recipes and nutrition information dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism and the interrelated issues of health, nutrition, ecology, ethics.
- Happy Cow: It's like Yelp, but for vegans. Happy Cow provides real customer reviews of vegan restaurants in your area, and lets you know what natural food stores and vegan-friendly options are nearby.
- Finding Vegan: If you're having trouble deciding what to make for dinner, Finding Vegan provides an endless bank of tried-and-true vegan recipes submitted by bloggers.
- Bad Manners: This playful (and FYI, sometimes profane) brand provides meat-free recipes using a cool feature — you can filter potential meals based on meal type (appetizer, dinner, holidays, etc.) and ingredient you're looking to use.
Finally, here are a few more frequently asked questions about veganism:
Can I get enough protein on a vegan diet?
It may take a little strategic planning, but it's completely possible. Here are a few great plant-based sources of protein: seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, beans, green peas, spirulina, quinoa.
Can you really survive without eating any animal products?
You can do more than survive — you can thrive! While vegan bodybuilders and athletes are more extreme examples, they clearly illustrate that it's more than possible to survive without animal products. A well-planned diet of whole plant foods contains all the essential nutrients you need (with the exception of B12).
What vegan meals can I cook?
There are an endless amount of recipes online, as well as many great vegan cookbooks. Check out our list of recommended resources above for a ton of vegan meal ideas. And for days you want a break from the kitchen, Mosaic offers 20 Vegan Certified bowls you can order for delivery.
What does vegan certified mean?
The Vegan Certified logo is registered trademark intended to make vegan shopping easier. The logo helps vegans easily identify products made without animal ingredients, and that have not been tested by animals. Companies have to go through a stringent application and verification process in order to receive the Vegan Certified stamp of approval.
That's a (sundried tomato & vegan 'mozz') wrap! We hope you've found this guide useful. Don't be overwhelmed — no matter where you start, whether by reading or eating, taking steps to minimize our impact on the planet and incorporate more plant-based foods is better for us all. Thanks for reading!