As a Certified Nutritional Practitioner, especially one who helps people transition to plant-based eating, I get asked this question all the time.
Many people tend to focus on what vegans DON’T eat. I prefer to focus on what they DO eat.
This article will explore some of the best vegan food options and why you might want to consider adopting a plant-based diet.
Keep reading if you want to learn:
- What a vegan diet is
- The difference between plant-based and vegan
- What vegans eat
- What vegans don’t eat
- Whether you can get all of the protein you need on a vegan diet
- How to grocery shop as a vegan
What Is a Vegan Diet?
Eating a vegan diet is making a conscious choice to avoid any and all animal products. This includes meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.
The avoidance of dairy and eggs separates veganism from vegetarianism.
There are many reasons people choose to follow a vegan diet. Some make the switch to improve their health, others are taking a stance against the killing or mistreatment of animals for consumption. Some religions avoid eating and using animal products, and more and more athletes are adopting whole-food, plant-based eating to gain an edge on their competition.
Vegan Vs. Plant-Based: What’s the Difference?
These terms tend to be used interchangeably, but there are some key differences.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, even honey.
A plant-based diet may be vegan, or it may be primarily based around eating plants with the addition of small amounts of animal products on occasion.
Often, when someone says they eat a vegan diet, or identifies as vegan, their dietary choices are but one component of a lifestyle that excludes the use of animal products. They likely choose to avoid animal products in clothing, handbags, and athletic gear, may choose eco-friendly modes of transportation, and may even avoid plant products that use excessive water or have a high environmental cost like almonds and avocados.
What Do Vegans Eat?
This is where I like to focus. Most foods are plants! Think about your typical diet or meal. A piece of meat, fish, or eggs, surrounded by vegetables, fruits, and grains. Most of the plate is made up of plants.
Vegans eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes.
Rice and beans, tempeh tacos, tofu and quinoa, dates and walnuts; delicious combinations are endless!
And, as pant-based and vegan eating grow in popularity, more and more companies are popping up with amazing mock meats, plant-based meat alternatives, non-dairy treats, and animal-product-free desserts.
What Do Vegans Avoid Eating?
Animal products. That’s it. Vegans avoid eating meat (beef, pork, and chicken), fish, eggs, dairy, and honey.
Vegans also avoid foods that are processed or contain ingredients derived from animals, such as gelatin (animal collagen), lanolin (sheep’s wool), and shellac (crushed beetles, commonly found in hard candies).
Doesn’t Protein Come From Animal Foods? How Do Vegans Get All the Protein They Need?
All protein is made by plants! Only plants have the ability to take nitrogen from soil and air, take it apart, and reassemble it as amino acids; the building blocks of protein.
We think of getting our protein from meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. But where do you think cows, pigs, chickens, and fish are getting all of their protein from?!
Regardless of where the protein comes from, our bodies will deconstruct the protein we eat into amino acids. These amino acids will then be used for energy, repair, and maintenance of our bodies.
There is no need to eat the middleman! Get your protein the same way the cow does.
Protein from plants is also far healthier than protein from animals. Plant proteins come packaged with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy fats. Animal proteins are void of any antioxidants and fiber, lacking in many vitamins and minerals, and are loaded with saturated fat.
Animal proteins are hard on our kidneys and liver, and animal fats cause blood sugar spikes by making cells resistant to insulin.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 kg = 1 pound) of body weight [1*]. Using this recommendation, a 185-pound person needs between 67 and 101 grams of protein each day! As long as you are eating enough calories, you will more than meet your protein needs.
Aim to eat between 10 and 15 percent of your daily calories from protein and you’ll be covered.
Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
Not inherently! A whole-food vegan diet is incredibly healthy and protective against the 15 leading causes of death worldwide (Greger, 2017). Junk food, however, is still junk food.
Like any “diet,” vegan or plant-based eating is only as healthy as the foods you choose to eat. Oreos are accidentally vegan (they are made without the use of animal products) but aren’t considered healthy. Vegan cookies are still cookies.
There is also an ever-expanding world of processed plant-based foods now, from mock meats to TV dinners. While these can really help if you are new to plant-based eating, and are fun to eat on occasion, they are loaded with sugar and salt, just like their non-plant-based alternatives.
Eating processed and/or “junk foods” is never healthy, regardless of diet. A balanced vegan diet is a healthy diet.
If a Whole-Food, Vegan Diet Is So Healthy, Why Do I Need to Take a B12 Supplement?
Many people need to take a B12 supplement. B12 is made by bacteria. Our ancestors got their B12 by eating foods straight from the ground that had not been thoroughly cleaned, or from drinking water with bacteria in it.
Today, however, we spray our crops, sanitize our drinking water, and clean our food before eating, effectively killing or washing away harmful bacteria along with any chemical residue.
Meat contains B12 because the animals eat food out of the ground and drink non-chlorinated water. Cows also absorb B12 through their large intestines. Humans do not.
Even those who eat meat may be at risk for B12 deficiency. Some vitamins and minerals, as well as our own digestive processes, can make it difficult for us to absorb all of the B12 we need. Because of this, many foods, both vegan and non-vegan, are fortified with B12.
I recommend most individuals take a 2,000 mcg vitamin B12 supplement weekly (1,000 mcg daily if you are over 65). It’s inexpensive and you don’t need to worry about taking too much (it’s water-soluble and any excess will simply end up in your urine). Personally, it’s a no-brainer insurance policy.
Grab the B-12 supplement I take.
To learn more about B12 and why it is essential for vegans and those following plant-based diets, see my article Essential Vegan Nutrients.
Is It Expensive to Follow a Vegan Diet?
Yes and no. Is it expensive not to be vegan? Yes and no. It all depends on what you choose to eat. As a non-vegan, you may choose prime rib or ground beef depending on your budget. In the same way, you can choose organic or non-organic, make decisions based on what’s in season (which affects the cost), or opt for beans and legumes instead of mock meats.
A vegan or plant-based diet can fit easily into any budget.
On the flip side, what is the expense of not eating a whole-food, plant-based, vegan diet? How expensive is a heart attack? What about Type II Diabetes medications? Or medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol?
When considering the high cost of an unhealthy diet, making the switch to a whole-food vegan diet makes good financial sense.
What Are Some Vegan Substitutes for Meat, Fish, Eggs, and Dairy?
10 years ago there weren’t many options. Boca Burgers were the height of technology for vegans at that point. However, as plant-based and vegan eating has become more common, food manufacturers have stepped up their game, and new companies have entered the field with amazing products.
Beyond Meat and Impossible make incredible mock meats.
Plant-based milk alternatives have exploded, with options including soy, almond, rice, oat, cashew, pea, and macadamia, just to name a few! See my Going Nuts Over Plant-Based Milks to learn more about them and which ones you should try.
These same plant-based milks are used to make non-dairy ice creams and yogurts. Try them out and find your favorites. Even Ben and Jerry’s is in the game! They started with a couple of non-dairy ice creams, but now they have almost as many non-dairy options as those made with milk.
Just Egg has an amazing egg replacement that scrambles or makes omelets like a champ. Or scramble up some tofu with a bit of onion powder, garlic powder, and turmeric for a high protein, cholesterol-free “scrambled egg” option. Amazing!
There are vegan options for sushi, fish, meatballs (I love Zesty!), chicken, deli meats, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and bacon. If you have a craving you can find a taste-match replacement!
Let’s Go Shopping: Tips for Navigating the Grocery Store.
Shopping on a vegan diet is easier than you may think. Start by walking the perimeter of your grocery store.
I like to begin in the produce aisle, which is where I get most of my food. Pick out delicious vegetables, fruits, and tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes). Load up! Go for as many colors as possible, and try one new item each month.
Shopping for your budget in the produce aisle is easy! Eat organic when you can, but choose the foods that fit your budget. If I need to make a choice and buy some organic and some non-organic I’ll usually try and focus my organic options on those foods whose skins I eat. I won’t worry about things like bananas, oranges, lemons, and avocados since I peel them. But I eat the skin of apples and zucchinis, so I’ll choose organic when possible.
Next, find the bulk section. This is where you will get your grains like rice, quinoa, oats, and pasta. Whole grains provide long-lasting energy and fiber. I eat these for breakfast and lunch every day, and usually at dinner time as well.
Continue walking the perimeter and hit up the bakery section to load up on some bread. Choose whole-grain breads, which are low glycemic (they will have less of an effect on your blood sugar) and loaded with fiber. My favorites are Ezekiel brand bread, or I choose pumpernickel, rye, or sprouted whole grains options.
Now, check out the refrigerated section for a wide variety of plant-based milk alternative products. I recommend starting with soy milk, if you are new to plant-based milks. Soy milk is incredibly healthy, is nutritionally the closest to cow’s milk, and most closely matches the consistency of what you’re used to. Choose unsweetened versions. My favorite types are always unsweetened vanilla. Check out non-dairy ice creams, yogurts, cheeses, sour cream, cream cheese – all non-dairy alternatives! Try them out and find your favorites!
Finally, see if your store has a natural foods section. This may be where you will find non-dairy alternatives, but also where you’ll find healthier options of canned and boxed foods. Look for low or sodium-free options, and read labels to make sure the foods you are choosing don’t have animal products included. Some foods will have the Vegan symbol on them, but not all, so look closely.
What if I Slip Up and Break My Vegan Streak?
Please don’t think of any type of healthy eating, or being vegan, as a streak. You are eating to fuel your body. Your diet does not need to become your identity or some competition you need to stress out about.
If you are new to eating a vegan diet, do your best. You are making a great decision for your health, for the health of our planet, and no one can argue that avoiding killing animals is a bad thing.
Enjoy the foods you are choosing to eat and try new things. Explore!
Most people eat the same basic foods day in and day out. I eat a far more varied and interesting diet as a vegan than I ever did as an omnivore.
If you have a craving for one of your favorite, day-to-day, or special treat animal foods, see if you can find an easy alternative. Beyond Meat makes meatballs, sausages, ground meat, and burgers, and you won’t notice a difference! They cook up beautifully, and you don’t need to worry about food-borne illnesses.
If you “slip”…no worries! Thinking you’re breaking your streak is going to crush you mentally, and likely make you think choosing to eat whole plant foods is more difficult than it is.
While we’re on the subject, please think of any “slips” in this way. If you are watching your calorie intake and you have a craving for some ice cream (choose non-dairy please), have some ice cream! Recognize that it’s ok. And then get back on track.
Habits take time to build!
You didn’t ruin your diet or your progress. Results take consistent effort over long periods of time. Don’t beat yourself up!
As a Vegan, Which Food Was the Hardest to Stop Eating?
Personally, fish was the most difficult to give up.
I Have always loved seafood. I also have always been told that seafood is healthy. Spoiler, it’s not!
I was a pescatarian for a long time. I continued eating fish, but no other animal products. As I learned more about how unhealthy seafood is and the environmental toll commercial fishing is taking on our planet, I decided to stop eating it.
Funny, two chronic inflammatory injuries I’d been dealing with for more than a year and a half, disappeared within two weeks of cutting fish out of my diet. I was shocked!
The mindset that helped me the most was to not think about any decisions I was making as “I’ll never get to eat that again.” Instead, I focused on each day and the amazing foods I was going to eat that day. Eventually, I had just gone so long without my favorite animal food (seafood), that I realized I didn’t even miss it. Now, I can’t even imagine eating it!
Feeling Intimidated By the Idea of Beginning a Vegan Diet?
Please don’t. It’s a journey and a step in the right direction. You are making a commendable decision, for your health, the environment, and for animals.
Start by looking at what you are already eating. Focus on meals you eat often that are already plant-based. Oatmeal for breakfast or peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.
Now, look at meals you eat that are almost entirely plant-based. Maybe you like rice, vegetables, and a chicken breast for dinner several nights a week. Maybe a deli sandwich for lunch or scrambled eggs for breakfast.
See if you can find a plant-based substitute. Tofu scramble or JUST eggs for breakfast, vegan deli slices in your sandwich, or dump your rice and vegetables into soft tacos with some refried beans, vegan cheese, and salsa for a delicious dinner. Try a couple of the plant-based milk alternatives available and add them to your oatmeal or any recipes that call for milk. Unsweetened vanilla options, regardless of the type of plant milk, are my favorite.
Want Some Plant-Based Recipes to Get You Started?
Check out my Recipes page for simple and delicious meals your whole family will love!
Conclusion: What Do Vegans Eat?
Vegans and those on a plant-based diet eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grain, and plant-based protein sources.
If you are new to vegan eating, remember that transitioning to a vegan diet should be a fun and exciting new adventure! Think about all of the amazing foods you get to eat!
Finally, if you currently take any medications (especially blood pressure medications), talk with your healthcare provider before beginning a fully vegan diet. The health benefits of whole-food, plant-based eating can be so extreme that your medication doses will likely need to be lowered!
- National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances. Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1989. 6, Protein and Amino Acids. [NCBI]
- Greger, Michael, and Gene Stone. How Not To Die. Macmillan, 2016.