How to Become a Vegan: A Beginner’s Guide
Ready to go vegan? This beginner's guide covers everything you need to know about how to become vegan, including nutrition advice, the risks and benefits, vegan ingredients, recipes, a 5-day sample menu, and more.
Vegan foods have gone mainstream, from oat milk at Starbucks to the announcement of the upcoming McPlant burger at McDonald’s. Vegan claims on new food products doubled globally between 2016 and 2020, according to consumer research group Mintel. And there’s no sign of the movement slowing down. That’s leading many people—yes, even meat eaters—to wonder about how to go vegan.
There’s a difference between eating vegan foods on occasion and going vegan. Currently, about 850,000 Canadians categorize themselves as vegan. It’s clear that more and more people are experimenting with veganism, or opting into vegan challenges that range from a week to a month or more.
If you’ve been wondering how to become vegan, either in the short term or for the long haul, you probably have questions, and you’ll need resources. We’ve got you covered. Use this handy beginner’s guide to learn how to adopt a 100 percent plant-based eating routine—without sacrificing nutrition or enjoyment.
What is veganism?
Diet-wise, eating vegan involves excluding all animal-based foods. That means no meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, or any ingredients derived from animal sources, including honey, collagen, and gelatin. In this guide, we’ll be focusing on food only.
It’s worth noting that as a lifestyle, veganism extends to not using products sourced from animals at all. This includes clothes made with leather, fur, wool, silk, and cashmere. Household goods, like skin-care products, beauty products and soaps, are also excluded if they are made with any animal-derived ingredients or tested on animals.
Why go vegan?
A vegan diet that includes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds is rich in fibre and health-protective phytochemicals and is low in saturated fat, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Plant-based diets are also more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products. That’s because plant-based foods use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage.
Health benefits of a vegan diet
Several published studies have linked a vegan diet to improved health outcomes and lower chronic disease risk. A 2015 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrition compared five diets: vegan, vegetarian, omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pescatarian. By the six-month mark, the vegan eaters had lost significantly more weight than those following the other diets.
Research published in 2020 in Medicina looked at the influence of a vegan diet on the gut microbiome. Scientists found that a vegan diet can increase beneficial microorganisms in the gut and reduce levels of harmful pathogens. These changes may result in reduced inflammation, and improvements in blood sugar regulation, cholesterol levels, and body weight.
Meanwhile, a 2014 study published in Nutrients concluded that compared to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, a vegan eating pattern offered additional protection against obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and death from heart disease.
For heart disease specifically, a vegan diet fared better than an American Heart Association–recommended diet in an eight-week randomized trial published in 2018 in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Researchers found that a vegan diet led to 32 percent lower levels of high‐sensitivity C‐reactive protein, a blood marker for inflammation and heart disease risk.
Risks of a vegan diet
A vegan diet must be well planned in order to prevent nutrient deficiencies and will likely require supplementation (more on this in the FAQ section below). Vegans need to carefully plan in order to obtain adequate amounts of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iodine, according to AND. For example, vitamin B12 is naturally found only in foods of animal origin, like meat, cheese, milk, and eggs. People who are vegan can get vitamin B12 from supplements and fortified foods, like plant-based milks or nutritional yeast.
A 2020 German study, published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, compared the vitamin and mineral status among those following a vegan diet with that of omnivores. Researchers noted that the vitamin B12 status of vegans was largely normal, but likely due to supplement use. The status of other key nutrients, including vitamin D and iron, didn’t significantly differ between the two groups. But iodine intake was lower among vegans. Too little iodine can lead to hypothyroidism.
Learning how to properly and consistently meet your nutrient needs on a vegan diet may require consultation with a registered dietitian who specializes in plant-based eating. This is particularly important if your diet is limited in any other way, such as if you have food allergies, food sensitivities, or any conditions that impact your digestive health, like celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that requires strict adherence to a gluten-free diet.
Keep in mind that it’s possible to eat a diet free of animal products that’s not necessarily good for your health, so it’s important to focus on your intake of healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
Essential ingredients for a vegan diet
Many people assume that going vegan is limiting because the definition of veganism revolves around what to not to eat. However, a vegan diet actually offers a wide range of food options and is easier to follow now than ever before.
A well-balanced vegan diet should include:
- A variety of veggies and fruits
- Whole grains, like oats, brown rice, and quinoa
- Pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas)
- Nuts and seeds
- Herbs and spices
- You can also incorporate vegan substitutes for foods that are conventionally made with animal products. These stand-ins, which can be found at most mainstream supermarkets, include vegan versions of milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and eggs, as well as vegan burgers and other faux meat products, like sausages.
Vegan meal planning
There are two main ways to approach vegan meal planning. One is to simply swap vegan alternatives for animal-based ingredients in your usual meals. For example, make tacos with Beyond Meat instead of ground beef, or use JUST Egg in an omelette in place of chicken eggs.
Or, you can build meals using whole plant-based foods, rather than vegan knockoffs. Filling and nutrient-rich vegan options include:
- A smoothie made with greens, plant protein powder, plant milk, fruit, and nut butter
- A grain bowl that includes greens, lentils, quinoa, and tahini sauce
- Black bean soup served with extra virgin olive oil sautéed veggies
- White bean and veggie chili topped with chopped avocado
To optimize your nutrient intake, aim for a wide variety of foods from various food groups rather than the same few vegan meals over and over. This strategy allows you to take in a broader spectrum of vitamins and minerals, as well as amino acids. The latter are protein building blocks used to maintain, heal, and repair protein tissues in your body, from muscle to immune cells. A varied vegan diet also allows for more flavours, textures, and cuisines.
Must-have kitchen gear for a vegan diet
Apart from your typical pots, pans, and cooking utensils, the most important appliance you’ll need for a vegan eating plan is a blender. It’s a must-have for whipping up smoothies, which offer a simple way to incorporate plant protein powder to help you hit your daily protein target. You can also use a blender to make hummus and soups, a couple vegan staples.
A slow cooker may also come in handy to make simple vegan dishes like stew, chowder, and curry, or to prepare dried bagged pulses, like beans and chickpeas. However, it’s perfectly fine to purchase time-saving ready-to-eat pulses. These include canned, boxed, frozen, steamed, and vacuum-sealed options.
Ways to incorporate vegan protein
The macronutrient of greatest concern on a vegan diet is protein. That’s because omnivores generally obtain protein from animal-based foods, and removing them can result in a protein gap. However, it’s entirely possible to meet your protein needs from vegan sources.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for a healthy adult with a minimal physical activity level is currently 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 150-pound adult, that’s about 55 grams of protein per day.
Whole plant foods provide various amounts of protein, from about 18 grams in a cup of cooked lentils to 8 grams in one cup of cooked quinoa and 6 grams in an ounce of almonds.
For much more concentrated sources of vegan protein, look for plant protein powders, which can easily provide 20 to 25 grams of protein in about a quarter cup portion. One good option is NOW pea protein powder. Store-bought vegan burgers can also pack 20 grams or more per patty. And extra-firm tofu, made from soy or pumpkin seeds, can provide 11 to 17 grams per 4-ounce portion.
To optimize your body’s ability to utilize protein, try to space out your protein intake fairly evenly throughout the day.
Vegan sources of calcium
Cutting out dairy products can lead to a calcium shortfall, but there are plenty of plant sources of this key mineral. These include whole plant foods such as white beans, which contain 161 mg per cup cooked.
Another good source: vegan products fortified with calcium. Ripple nondairy milk, for instance, provides 35 percent of the recommended Daily Value for calcium—that’s 50 percent more per cup than dairy milk.
Good news if you have a sweet tooth: Most dark chocolate is vegan! And vegan desserts and sweet treats are commonly found at mainstream supermarkets these days. Look for ice cream made with nut, oat, or coconut milk, and baked goods labeled vegan.
Q: Will I need to take supplements?
A: The short answer is yes, particularly to meet your vitamin B12 needs. While you can find B12 in fortified foods, like nutritional yeast and cereal, it’s important to obtain enough on a daily basis to prevent a deficiency. The best way to do that is to take a supplement.
According to a 2016 study published in Nutrients, one dose of 50 to 100 μg (mcg) daily, in the form of cyanocobalamin, could be sufficient to meet the daily B12 needs of healthy adults. But as a plant-based dietitian, I often recommend 250 μg/mcg daily. These amounts are higher than the vitamin’s RDA, due to its low degree of absorption.
Other nutrients that may require supplementation include vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Supplements of both can be made from either animal or plant-derived sources of these nutrients. So if you’re committed to being vegan, look for products that are entirely plant-based.
Other nutrients to be aware of when going vegan include iron and zinc, according to a position paper from the AND on vegetarian diets. Supplements may not be necessary, as these minerals can be found in vegan foods, but vegans need higher amounts than omnivores, again due to limited absorption.
Vegan iron sources include pulses, tofu, chia seeds, kale, and quinoa. Pair plant iron with vitamin C-rich foods, like red bell pepper, broccoli, and citrus, to up the mineral’s absorption. Plant-based zinc is found in soy, pulses, whole grains, and nuts. Soaking and sprouting improves zinc absorption. Finally, iodine, which is obtained through dairy and seafood by omnivores, can be found in iodized salt.
Q: Do I need to eat certain foods together to get enough protein?
A: No. Animal-based foods like eggs, dairy, fish, and meat are “complete” proteins, which means they contain all of the amino acids needed to build or repair protein tissues in the body, including muscle, skin, hair, hormones, and enzymes.
While plant foods contain amino acids, the content of some is quite low. Previously, some experts advised vegans to pair foods low in one essential amino acid with others that are high in that amino acid. For example, rice and beans complement one another, because the key amino acid low in beans is found in rice, and vice versa.
However, the notion that you must eat certain foods within the same meal is outdated. When enough calories are consumed from a healthful, varied vegan diet, an adequate supply of essential amino acids can be obtained within a 24-hour period. Your liver helps by storing various essential amino acids over the course of a day for later use.
Q: Is alcohol vegan?
A: Not necessarily. Nearly all distilled spirits, like vodka, tequila, gin, and whiskey, are vegan, with the exception of cream-based liqueurs. However, beer and wine can be made with animal-derived ingredients, including gelatin and egg whites. According to PETA, there are a number of vegan-friendly beer companies, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Look for natural wine or wine options labelled vegan, or wine brands that make vegan production part of their mission, such as Frey Vineyards.
Q: What about dining out?
A: Most restaurants now offer vegan options, from veggie burgers to vegan chili. And some pizza chains now offer vegan cheese. Another good bet for vegan fare is ethnic cuisine. You’ll find vegan entrees made with tofu at Asian restaurants, vegan Ethiopian dishes, and 100 percent plant-based Mediterranean options, like falafel and hummus. Check with Mexican establishments for which beans are prepared without pork, animal-based stock, or dairy, and go for cheeseless bean tacos or a taco salad.
Now that you know about how to become a vegan, learn about the top plant-based food trends of the year.