Guide to vegan eating
Essential tips on how to thrive on a cruelty-free plant-based diet
This page is a compact resource for anyone considering removing animal products from their diet. There are many sources of information out there on going vegan. Some claim that it's easy and all you need is to take B12, while some nutrition sites provide more detailed information than you may want to navigate. Here we answer some basic questions, summarise some key science-based information and recommendations on nutrients to look out for and possibly supplement, and provide links to some of the best resources for finding more information and tips.
• Why go vegan?
• Is it all or nothing?
• Is it easy?
• Where do you get your protein?
• What supplements should I take?
• References and further reading
• Recipe sources
Why go vegan?
If you are reading this, it may be no surprise to you: there are few greater causes of preventable, intense suffering than the cruelty inflicted on non-human animals for human consumption and use. The ordeal of animals on so-called “factory farms” is horrendous. They are treated abusively as objects and often spend their entire lives in cramped, barren conditions, in many cases in cages where they cannot even move. Their lives end at slaughterhouses where most of them die in fear and often in great pain. The lives of dairy cows are no better, as they are repeatedly and forcibly impregnated, and their children are taken away from them and kept in solitary cages for veal production. Chickens are among the worst treated of all. All of them - cows, pigs, sheep, turkeys, chickens - are conscious, emotional beings with the ability to feel and show love. They are also intelligent, with abilities that rival those of our pet dogs and cats. Even fish, who lack the ability to display emotions on their faces, are surprisingly intelligent and feel emotions. When they are killed by suffocation or lifted up through a hook in the mouth they suffer greatly, and those raised on farms are also forced to spend their entire lives at extremely high densities.
Shifting to a plant-based diet has a direct impact in reducing animal suffering due to one’s eating habits. It also reduces one’s environmental imprint. Paying attention to a few details, plant-based eating can improve health and longevity while maintaining or increasing strength and endurance.
Is it all or nothing?
Ethics is not about purity. While it’s true that many people identify strongly with their vegan lifestyle, ethics is ultimately about achieving impact, and it's better to go part way than not at all. So do as much as you can to reduce animal product consumption. Most vegans were once omnivores, and not everyone can change their diet overnight. What matters is to be aware and take responsibility to move in the right direction. Some people find it easier to make radical changes, while others take a more gradual path. Aim high, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
Keep in mind that chickens kept in cages or crowded enclosures suffer greatly. And as they are small animals, many more of them are needed for the same amount of meat, so avoiding eating them or their eggs should be a high priority. Similarly, every fish eaten is a whole animal that suffered. Although the dairy industry is very cruel, small amounts of milk cause much less suffering than equal quantities of eggs, chicken meat and fish.
Is it easy?
It can be! The stronger your conviction - that it is hard to justify causing suffering for one's eating pleasure -, the easier it will be and the less you will feel tempted to revert. At the beginning, eating plant-based takes some getting used to, and yes, you may at times feel deprived of foods you are used to enjoying. But once you focus on all the variety of plant-based foods that you can eat, there's very little you'll be missing, and you'll be able to reassure yourself that you're doing your best to avoid harming animals with your diet. In fact, you may derive more pleasure from cooking, using spices, being creative and trying out new recipes (of which there are huge numbers - see the section below for a few references). Some things to consider:
- Animal-free meat substitutes, including amazing plant-based burgers, are becoming ever more sophisticated and widely available, so it is now possible to enjoy very similar taste and mouthfeel sensations on a plant-based diet.
- What about cheese? Vegan cheeses are also becoming more sophisticated, including a culture stage that creates a more complex taste. There are many brands of vegan cheese, and also simple cashew-based recipes you can follow at home, such as for a vegan mozzarella that makes for a great caprese salad.
- Grocery shopping becomes simpler as you skip the animal sections altogether (although that's sometimes where the plant-based meat replacements are stocked).
- Non-vegan restaurants will often be happy to prepare a vegan version of a dish. If they need to remove a key ingredient, make sure to ask them to replace it with something else!
- Aside from not contributing to cruelty to animals, you will probably be contributing to your own health (just make sure your diet is balanced, and supplement if necessary - see below) and reducing your own contribution to climate change and environmental degradation. An excellent way to “be the change you want to see in the world”!
Where do you get your protein?
This question has become a cliché among vegans! (Replies include photos of gorillas or, more relevantly, references to vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian - watch the excellent linked interview.) In fact, getting enough protein on a plant-based diet does not need to be difficult. Just remember, a healthy plant-based diet is not simply what you used to eat minus the animal products! Make sure you eat enough to get all the calories you need, and consume enough protein to get about 0.8 g per kg of body weight daily. Protein deficiency is generally considered rare, but it's worth paying attention to ensure you are getting enough in order to avoid fatigue and other potential symptoms.
Here's a little more detail. When consumed, plant proteins are broken down into the 20 constituent amino acids, which are then used by the body to build new proteins. Nine of these amino acids are essential for humans, meaning that the body cannot make them itself. Some sources of plant protein, such as soy and quinoa, have a balance between these 9 amino acids that is similar to human proteins, meaning that the protein can be used efficiently by the human body. Other sources may have less of one or more amino acids, which are then limiting. Lysine and methionine are two key amino acids that are present in some plants in lower amounts than in human proteins (grains tend to be low in lysine, legumes tend to be low in methionine). This is unlikely to be an issue unless you are mainly eating plant proteins low in one of these amino acids and your overall protein intake isn't above the minimum recommended level. In that case, it's good to eat complementary plant protein sources during the day, or to increase your total protein consumption to ensure that you are ingesting enough of all the amino acids needed. Mixing grains and legumes, and generally obtaining protein from several sources, is a good strategy for ensuring that you get enough of all the amino acids.
You can find more detailed information about the protein profile of each food at Nutrition Data, which also provides for each food a link to other protein sources with complementary amino acid profiles.
There are many good sources of plant protein, some of which contain >20% protein by weight, like many legumes and nuts. Sources of plant protein include:
Tofu, soy milk, beans, lentils, peas, quinoa, chickpeas, cashews, pistachios, chia seeds, flaxseeds (ground), pumpkin seeds, tempeh (made from cultured soybeans), vegetables such as cooked spinach, broccoli and cauliflower (since the density of protein and calories is low, eat generous portions), seitan (a tasty, versatile meat substitute you can also make at home, made of wheat gluten - it's highly protein dense though relatively low in lysine), almonds, peanuts, walnuts, hemp seeds, rice, oats, corn, other grains, tahini, sesame seeds, bread, pasta and potatoes (although the amount of protein in potatoes is very low compared to the carbohydrate content)
One effective way of boosting both your calorie and protein intake is by making smoothies with soy milk and high-protein sources such as nuts and seeds, protein powders (a more expensive option), healthy high-calorie foods like bananas and olive oil, and additional sources of flavour and nutrients like fruits and ginger.
What supplements should I take?
Don't be scared off by this section! Many vegans do just fine only supplementing with B12. But nutritional deficiencies can affect anyone, including many omnivores. Because a vegan diet can result in a lower intake in some nutrients, it's good to be aware of them. By paying attention to meeting your requirements and ensuring there are no gaps, you will likely be better covered than most omnivores and be able to take full advantage of the added health benefits of a plant-based diet.
A short summary of our recommendations, assuming an otherwise balanced diet:
- Essential: Vitamin B12, 100 µg daily or 1.5 µg twice daily (can also be obtained from a multivitamin)
- Essential if not regularly consuming iodised salt or seaweed: Iodine, 150 µg daily (can also be obtained from a multivitamin)
- Strongly recommended if getting little sun exposure: Vitamin D3 (vegan source), 2000-3000 IU daily (this is significantly more that the standard recommendation of 600 IU, to get potential full benefits)
- Strongly recommended if dietary intake is low: Calcium, ca. 400 mg daily
- Recommended: Long-chain Omega-3 (EPA/DHA) (non-fish vegan source), 250-500 mg daily
- Recommended (for long-term benefits): Vitamin K2, 100 µg daily (present in some multivitamins)
- Recommended, especially if diet is sub-optimal: Vegan multivitamin, 1 tablet every 1-3 days
- Consider: Creatine, 5 g daily
- Consider, especially with high degree of physical activity: Taurine, 1 g daily
Now, a bit more information:
Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria, and although our own gut bacteria produce it, it is not readily absorbed. Plants do not make B12. Neither do non-human animals, directly, although they are able to absorb B12 produced by bacteria in their own digestive tract, in the case of ruminants, or from eating soil, feces or animal-derived food. Animals raised for meat production are often fed B12, so the B12 that omnivores obtain from animal products is often not even “natural”. Even then, many omnivores are deficient in B12, especially when they get older. In our ancestral past, humans obtained B12 from a range of sources, including various small animals as well as traces of soil and water contaminated with bacteria.
B12 deficiency is serious and can cause anemia, cardiovascular problems and potentially irreversible neurological damage. Breastfed babies are particularly susceptible if their mothers are not consuming it. Because the liver can store B12, a deficiency may not become apparent for several years after eliminating it from the diet. Luckily, B12 is an inexpensive supplement.
The body only needs about 2.5 µg of B12 daily, though the recommended daily intake ranges from as little as 1.5 µg (UK) to 4 µg (European Food Safety Authority). However, its transport across the intestinal wall uses a specific protein, intrinsic factor, that is present in limited amounts, and only about 1.5 µg of B12 can be transported at a time. It then takes several hours for intrinsic factor levels to be replenished. For this reason, a single daily dose of 2.5 µg may not be sufficient.
One of the common recommendations for getting enough B12 is to take a 1 mg tablet 3 times a week, or a single dose of 2.5 mg once a week, with the B12 absorbed through a less efficient passive mechanism that transports about 1% of the total amount. It has long been believed that very high doses of B12 are harmless. However, there is some limited evidence from a recent observational study for an increased lung cancer risk in men who smoke and take high doses over many years, at least suggesting that very high doses of B12 might not always be harmless. A prudent recommendation is therefore to take a lower daily dose of ca. 100 µg, which should provide an adequate intake of 2.5 µg through a mixture of active + passive mechanisms. Alternatively, you can take much smaller amounts of B12 (e.g. 1.5 µg) twice a day so that the active mechanism is used twice – more closely mimicking how the body would normally obtain B12. Taking half a multivitamin tablet (which usually contains relatively low doses of B12) twice a day is one such option proposed by the Vegan Society. Also, some plant-based milks, such as soy milk, and other vegan foods may contain added B12 and provide a sufficient dose if consumed a few times a day, but check the amounts.
It's a good idea to have your B12 levels checked occasionally, but also MMA (methylmalonic acid) levels to rule out a false negative for B12 deficiency. Note that some people have a deficiency in intrinsic factor and therefore do require large doses and/or regular injections of B12 to ensure adequate uptake.
Vitamin D is necessary for healthy bones and preventing rickets, and it takes relatively little to meet this need. However, it has been found that vitamin D taken at higher doses has significant positive health effects in many areas, including the risks of certain cancers, falls among the elderly, and possibly cardiovascular disease, and it may reduce overall mortality. The body can make vitamin D through skin exposure to the sun. However, production is likely to be insufficient at more northerly latitudes during the winter, or if only your face and hands are exposed, you have dark skin, or you spend most of your time indoors. Vitamin D is not found in plants, but deficiency is also widespread among omnivores. Vitamin D supplementation at higher doses is therefore strongly recommended whenever sun exposure is insufficient.
There are two main forms of it available: vitamin D3 - the one produced in your skin - and vitamin D2. Traditionally, vitamin D3 is produced cheaply from lanolin, found in sheep’s wool. Although it is labelled “vegetarian”, the barbarity of industrial wool production makes this a source to avoid if possible. Vitamin D2 can be produced from mushrooms exposed to UV light and is vegan. Vegan vitamin D3 from lichen is now also commercially available. Since vitamin D2 levels in the body are not as stable as vitamin D3, it is preferable to take vitamin D3 if you have the option, though not essential. The European Food Safety Authority now defines 600 IU (15 µg) as an adequate intake level. However, a daily dose of 2000-3000 IU might provide greater benefits. Although it is possible to take too much vitamin D and create new health issues, the dosage recommended here is well below that level.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA)
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are potentially important for cardiovascular health, and they may also promote cognitive function and reduce the severity of depression. They are typically found in certain fish oils, as fish eat the algae that originally produce them. The body can convert one into the other, and it can also produce them from the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which is found in high quantities in chia seeds, flaxseeds (which need to be ground), walnuts, canola oil and other plant sources. However, levels of both EPA and DHA are substantially lower in vegans and might not be sufficient to obtain the full beneficial effects. Also, a high dietary intake of omega-6 fatty acids, found for example in sunflower and other vegetable oils and many other dietary sources, competes with short-chain omega-3 for conversion into long-chain fatty acids. Increasing the amount of ALA in your diet is important, as is reducing the relative amount of omega-6. However, a safe recommendation is to also take 250-500 mg of vegan EPA/DHA capsules daily. For women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, EPA/DHA supplementation may be especially important to ensure proper brain development in the child.
Vitamin K2 might be the most neglected vitamin worth supplementing, with evidence for numerous benefits, including skeletal and cardiovascular health and prevention of cancer. There are several forms of vitamin K2. One form, MK-4, can be produced in the human body from vitamin K1, which is found in various plants such as leafy greens. Other forms, most notably MK-7, are made by bacteria during fermentation. The conversion of vitamin K1 into vitamin K2 in the body is probably not sufficient to obtain optimal levels, and there are very few plant-based sources of vitamin K2. Fermented sources like sauerkraut have low levels, and the only reliable plant source with high levels is a Japanese food called “natto”, made from fermented soybeans. Unless you have a ready source of natto and enjoy the apparently peculiar taste, it is recommended to take a daily dose of 100 µg of vitamin K2 daily. It is also present in at least some multivitamins, such as VegVit.
Calcium is one of the few important minerals that might be difficult to get enough of as a vegan, with a recommended daily dose of about 1000 mg (somewhat higher for women, somewhat lower for men). If you can, it is best to obtain calcium from the diet. It is found in leafy vegetables, although the calcium in spinach and some other vegetables is bound to oxalates and poorly absorbed unless first boiled and the water drained. Chia seeds are one of the best sources, and almonds are another good source. If you do supplement, it is also important not to take too much. Although too little calcium may increase the risk of bone fractures, especially if you are older, too much calcium can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you are not getting enough calcium in your diet, you should take a relatively low supplemental dose of about 400 mg calcium daily, for example, as inexpensive antacid tablets containing calcium carbonate (as 40% of it is calcium, you would need 1000 mg of tablets), or as the more easily absorbed calcium citrate. Calcium-fortified non-dairy milks (e.g. soy, almond or rice) are another good source.
Creatine supplementation is not strictly necessary for good health, as the body can produce enough of it itself to avoid any serious consequences. However, vegans and vegetarians do have lower levels than omnivores, and there is clear evidence that supplementation can increase muscle mass and endurance, and possibly reduce depression and improve cognition. Given its low cost, consider supplementing with 5 g of creatine monohydrate daily.
Iodine is essential for thyroid function and is not readily found in sufficient amounts in most plants. It is found in high concentrations in seaweed and can also easily be obtained from iodised salt - make sure this is the salt you are consuming. Otherwise, it can be obtained in a daily multivitamin. The recommended daily intake is 150 µg.
Taurine is a non-essential amino acid made by the body. However, it is not found in plants, and levels have been found to be lower in vegans. Higher levels might be helpful for various body functions, including endurance as well as mental health. It is not found in multivitamins. You could consider supplementing with 1 g/day.
A vegan multivitamin taken daily or every 2-3 days can be a way of “topping off” and reducing the likelihood of deficiencies in any other nutrients (e.g. iron, selenium, zinc), although a balanced diet with all its various micronutrients remains the ideal source of vitamins and minerals, other than those mentioned above. A multivitamin can also serve as a daily source of vitamin B12 and iodine.
References and further reading
Vegan facts, guides and tips:
- Vegan Outreach and their section on going vegan eating own Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating
- Mercy for Animals and their dedicated site ChooseVeg.com
- The Vegan Society and their tips on How to go vegan
- Animal Aid and their dedicated site Go Vegan
- Vegan.com is another excellent resource, including a page on How to Go Vegan
- Happy Cow includes a worldwide restaurant guide
- Friendly and pragmatic vegans and vegetarians, a Facebook group where you can ask questions about veganism
- Vegan Health, an excellent information source from Jack Norris, RD, co-founder of Vegan Outreach
- Nutrition Facts from Michael Greger, M.D.
- Center for Nutrition Studies
Nutritional content of individual foods, including protein quality (amino acid balance):
Summary of scientific information about supplements and strength of evidence:
- Snake Oil Supplements (a one-page visualisation with links)
- Examine.com (a more complete summary of scientific evidence)
- Lists of top vegan blogs:
- A few popular recipe sites:
- Meat replacement:
- Easy buffalo mozzarella from top vegan cheesemaker Miyoko Schinner
- Egg white replacement: Facebook group with recipes and tips for using aquafaba (chickpea liquid)
Written by Jonathan Leighton, first published 2 May 2017, last updated 26 December 2020.
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