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What is a vegan diet?
A vegan (say "VEE-gun" or "VAY-gun") diet is a type of vegetarian diet. Besides not eating meat, vegans don't eat food that comes from animals in any way. That includes milk products, eggs, honey, and gelatin (which comes from bones and other animal tissue).
There are many reasons why some people choose a vegan diet.
- It can be healthier than other diets.
- Some people think it's wrong to use animals for food.
- Not eating meat is an important part of some religions.
- A vegan diet can cost less than a diet that includes meat.
- Eating less meat can be better for the environment.
What are the benefits?
In general, people who don't eat meat:
- Weigh less than people who eat meat.
- Are less likely to die of heart disease.
- Have lower cholesterol levels.
- Are less likely to get:
- High blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Prostate cancer.
- Colon cancer.
The health benefits may be related to a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
How do you get protein?
Protein is made of building blocks called amino acids. The human body can make some of these amino acids. But you must get the nine essential amino acids from food.
Protein isn't just found in meat. If you are looking for alternatives to meat, the following foods are equal to about 1 oz of meat.
- ¼ cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils
- ¼ cup tofu (about 2 ounces)
- 2 Tbsp hummus
- ½ ounce nuts or seeds (for example, 12 almonds or 7 walnut halves)
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter or other nut or seed butter
You can get more protein in your food by adding high-protein ingredients. For example, you can:
- Add powdered protein to fruit smoothies and cooked cereal.
- Add beans to soup and chili.
- Add nuts, seeds, or wheat germ to vegan yogurt.
- Spread peanut butter onto a banana.
You can also buy protein bars, drinks, and powders. Check the nutrition label for the amount of protein in each serving.
How do you eat a healthy vegan diet?
A healthy vegan diet includes mostly whole foods and less-processed foods in each meal. A vegan diet can give you most of the nutrients you need.
As long as you eat a variety of foods, there are only a few things you need to pay special attention to.
Foods that have calcium include certain legumes, certain leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tofu. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, nut milks, and orange juice are also good choices.
- Vitamin D.
Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is important to keep bones strong. Vegans can have nut milks, breakfast cereals, and other foods with added vitamin D.
Getting enough iron isn't a problem if you eat a wide variety of food. Vegan iron sources include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils; leafy green vegetables; and iron-fortified grain products. Eating foods rich in vitamin C will help your body absorb iron.
- Vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is found only in foods that come from animal sources. Vegans need to eat foods that are fortified with this vitamin (such as nut milks and breakfast cereals) or take a supplement that contains it.
Vegan sources of zinc include whole-grain breads, beans and lentils, soy foods, and vegetables.
- Omega-3 fatty acids.
Vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids include hemp seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, certain leafy green vegetables, soybean oil, and canola oil.
Is a vegetarian or vegan diet safe for children and teens?
A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy for children and teens. In fact, it can be a great way to get them into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.
Here are some things to think about at different stages of a child's life.
Supplements may be important.
- Babies who get only breast milk should have iron supplements after the age of 4 to 6 months (or you can add iron-fortified cereal).
- Breastfed babies of vegan mothers need vitamin B12 supplements if the mother's diet isn't fortified.
- A vitamin D supplement may be appropriate for children younger than 1 year of age. Talk with your doctor about how much and what sources of vitamin D are right for your child.
Children ages 1 to 2 years need extra fat for brain and nerve development.
- If you use milk, use whole milk. Don't use low-fat or fat-free milk. (Children younger than 12 months of age should not drink cow's milk.)
- If you use soy milk, make sure that it's full-fat soy milk.
- Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to make sure that your child is getting enough fat.
Vegan and vegetarian diets can contain a lot of fiber. Fiber fills you up without adding a lot of calories. But children have small stomachs. The fiber they eat can fill them up before they get enough calories. Frequent meals and snacks with plenty of whole grains, beans, and nuts will help children get the energy and nutrients they need for healthy growth.
Young children who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet tend to be slightly smaller but still within normal growth ranges. And they tend to catch up to other children in size as they get older.
Teens need plenty of calcium and vitamin D. And iron is especially important for teen girls who are menstruating. If your teen decides to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- Teach your teen how to plan meals to get all the right nutrients every day. You may want your teen to talk to a registered dietitian to learn how to plan a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.
- Talk with your doctor or dietitian about the vitamins and minerals your child needs. Ask if your teen needs to take a daily supplement.
- Find out why your teen wants to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some teens adopt this diet as a way to lose weight, and it can hide an eating disorder like anorexia.
Current as of: May 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
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