Vegans avoid eating all animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy. They also don’t eat food that has an animal source, like gelatin and honey. For many, veganism is about more than food choices. People choose to be vegan for health, ethical, and/or environmental reasons. Strict vegans do not use any products made from animals. This includes materials, such as leather, fur, silk, or wool. They also avoid using certain soaps and cosmetics.
Path to improved health
A well-planned vegan diet can offer you the fulfillment of following your beliefs and may give you the enjoyment of living a longer, healthier life. The vegan diet may provide health benefits, including:
- Lower cholesterol levels.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Lower intake of saturated fats.
- More vital nutrition.
- Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
- Healthier body weights.
The vegan lifestyle requires careful attention. It can be hard to get enough of the vitamins and minerals found in animal products. You have to eat a balance of foods to avoid health risks. Focus on including the nutrients below in your diet.
- Iron plays a key role in the production of red blood cells. These cells help carry oxygen throughout your body. Good sources of iron include beans, broccoli, raisins, wheat, and tofu. Iron-fortified cereals also are a good source. Iron found in non-meat sources is harder to digest. You should eat foods rich in vitamin C, such as oranges and broccoli. They help your body absorb iron.
- Protein is an important component for almost every part of your body. Your skin, bones, muscles and organs need protein to be healthy. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Without meat and dairy, you still need to consume essential amino acids. Vegans can get protein from nuts, peanut butter, seeds, grains, and legumes. Non-animal products like tofu and soymilk also provide protein. Vegans have to consider getting enough “complete proteins.” A complete protein contains all the amino acids your body needs to help maintain your metabolism.
- Calcium builds strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. This is a disease that weakens your bones and can cause breaks. Soybeans and dark leafy greens, like broccoli, bok choy, and kale, contain calcium. You also can drink fortified soymilk and juices. Calcium supplements also are available.
- Vitamin D also plays an important role in bone health. It helps your body absorb calcium and promote bone growth. Your body produces some vitamin D in response to sunlight. You should get 10 minutes of sun exposure 3 to 4 times a week, if possible. Based on where you live, this should be all the vitamin D you need. Make sure you always use safe practices in the sun. If you need more vitamin D, look for fortified products. This includes soymilk, rice milk, and some cereals.
- Vitamin B12 helps produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in fish, shellfish, meat, and dairy products. Try to eat products fortified with this vitamin. This includes soymilk and some cereals. Talk to your doctor about taking a B12 supplement. Check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain animal products.
- Zinc is vital to your immune system. You can find it in beans, nuts, and soy products.
- Omega-3 fatty acids improve your heart health and brain function. Flaxseed meal and oil are two sources. You also can look for food products fortified with omega-3 from a plant source. Talk to your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement. Check the label to make sure it doesn’t come from fish oil.
Vegans need to pay close attention to labels. This applies to food and supplements. Be aware of the following “small print” ingredients:
- Carmine/cochineal is a common food coloring. It comes from crushed beetles.
- Shellac is a glaze that comes from beetles. It is often found on shiny hard candies and sprinkles.
- Casein is a milk product sometimes found in protein shakes.
- Whey is a dairy product. It appears as an additive in a wide variety of foods.
Things to consider
As a vegan, you can have a lifetime of good health. However, this requires making balanced choices. Try not to indulge in junk foods. You should eat high quality foods with nutrients your body needs. Keep an eye out for signs of nutritional problems. This includes changes in your weight, skin, or hair.
If you have questions or concerns, talk to your family doctor. If you have special health needs, such as diabetes, consult your doctor before starting a new diet. They can help you make the best nutritional choices for your health.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What are the side effects of switching to a vegan diet?
- Can a vegan diet help manage certain diseases and conditions?
- Can I follow the vegan diet if I am pregnant or breastfeeding?
- Are there any medicines that might have animal products in them?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.