How to go vegan
In a nutshell, vegans follow a diet which is free of all animal products. As well as meat and fish, this includes dairy products, eggs and animal by-products such as honey and gelatine.
The vegan lifestyle is experiencing something of a boom. According to The Vegan Society, there are 600,000 vegans in Great Britain – a figure which has quadrupled since 2014. And, with so many new plant-based ranges appearing in supermarkets and restaurants, this upward trend is likely to continue.
That doesn’t mean that going vegan will be plain sailing. Becoming vegan can come with side-effects – some more welcome than others. You may have to deal with bloating, gas and tiredness, but on the upside, you could also benefit from weight loss and lower risk of heart disease and some cancers.
In this guide
What is a vegan diet?
The Vegan Society defines veganism as ‘a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose’.
What to avoid on a vegan diet
From a dietary perspective, vegans avoid eating any animal-derived ingredients. This means that a vegan diet needs to exclude foods including:
- Meat and fish
- Dairy products, including cheese, milk, yoghurt and milk proteins including whey and casein
- Animal by-products, including honey and gelatine
- Food or drink made with animal products, such as wine that has been filtered with egg white or isinglass (derived from fish bladders).
Vegan facts and figures
Health benefits of going vegan
The great news is that vegans can have healthy, well-balanced diets just like anyone else. That doesn’t mean that vegans are necessarily healthier. With the rise of vegan convenience foods, it’s still easy to eat too many processed products high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. But, with the right approach, you may find a range of health benefits from going vegan.
If your new diet includes an increase in fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, and reduces fat found in cheese and meat, it could lead to some weight loss.
For many of us, losing a few pounds can have a positive effect on our overall health, but if you lose too much weight – or already have a low Body Mass Index (BMI) – you may need to talk to your doctor about your body changes after going vegan.
A study by the University of Oxford found that people on a vegan or vegetarian diet had a 22% lower risk of heart disease than meat eaters.
Other research shows that the quality of the diet is crucial, though. Harvard University found that people following a healthy plant-based diet had a 25% lower chance of heart disease, whereas vegans and vegetarians eating unhealthy plant foods had a 32% higher chance.
Better long-term health
Want a diet that helps to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and rates of type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer? According to The Vegan Society there is some research to say that veganism ticks all these boxes.
Health challenges of going vegan
Adopting a vegan lifestyle can be a big change, and the side effects of a vegan diet aren’t always positive.
Nutritional deficiencies: Vegans need to be mindful of consuming enough iron, iodine, vitamin D, calcium, Vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. Deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to a range of side effects, including weight loss, hair loss and tiredness.
Bloating and stomach upsets: It’s not uncommon for vegans to experience stomach upsets, such as bloating and gas, thanks to the high fibre content of foods such as beans, pulses and vegetables. Follow our top tips to stop vegan bloating and gas if this is a problem for you.
Higher risk of stroke: There is some evidence to show that a higher risk of stroke could be a negative effect of a vegan diet – the University of Oxford found 20% higher rates of stroke in vegetarians and vegans than in meat eaters.
Challenges of a vegan diet
Perhaps the most important aspect of changing to a plant-based lifestyle is keeping a nutritionally balanced diet. If you experience weight loss, hair loss, lack of energy, loss of appetite or constipation, these could be negative effects of a vegan diet as a result of nutritional deficiencies.
Follow our advice on how to develop a vegan diet rich in all the nutrients your body needs – and always talk to your GP if you have any concerns.
Protein is essential for the body’s growth and repair and to maintain good health. Around 10-15% of the body’s dietary energy comes from protein, so it’s crucial to make sure you’re getting enough.
There are lots of vegan foods that are rich in protein – aim to include some of these foods in every meal to keep your protein levels up:
- Nuts and seeds – sprinkle on cereals, soups and salads or use nut butters and powders.
- Soya, seitan and tempeh – tofu, seitan and tempeh are all great meat substitutes, especially if you’re missing the chewy texture of meat. Soya milk and yoghurt are also rich in protein.
- Beans and lentils – a filling, protein-rich addition to soups, casseroles, dips and sauces.
We need calcium to help keep our bones and teeth strong. As it’s predominantly found in dairy products, it can be tricky for vegans to incorporate enough calcium-rich foods into their diets.
Good sources of calcium for vegans include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Dried fruit
- Soya, rice and oat milk.
Fish and seafood generally contain the highest levels of Omega-3, so vegans can struggle to include this ‘good’ fat in their diet. Don’t risk overlooking it though – Omega-3 may help lower the risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis.
There are two types of Omega-3 fats – read our article on 5 vegan foods high in Omega-3 to find out how to make sure you’re getting enough of both types.
Vitamin B12 is a big player when it comes to keeping our bodies’ nerve and blood cells healthy. It helps us fight fatigue and a deficiency can lead to anaemia, leaving us feeling extremely tired and faint.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources, such as meat, eggs, milk and cheese. So, vegan B12 sources only come from enriched products, such as yeast extracts, breakfast cereals and soya products.
Going vegan FAQs
This depends on your pre-vegan diet and lifestyle. For some, it’s a big change that takes re-education, for others the change may be quite natural. The best advice is to slowly reduce your intake of animal products until you’re confident that your body can get everything it needs on a vegan diet.
Vegans don’t eat any animal-derived ingredients, including meat and fish, dairy products, eggs and honey.
With the right understanding, there’s no reason why anyone cannot lead a healthy vegan lifestyle. But some people may need to take extra care – if you’re pregnant, raising young children as vegans or have anaemia or other nutritional deficiencies it’s wise to talk to your doctor before altering your diet.
It’s possible to get all the nutrients your body needs from a vegan diet, but it takes planning and a certain amount of dedication.
Supplements can help you to boost certain nutrients that you may find it harder to include regularly in your diet, but be aware that they won’t make a bad diet healthy.
What supplements do vegans need?
Here is an overview of the main supplements that people on a vegan diet may benefit from trying:
- Omega 3 – spirulina is a blue-green micro-algae packed full of Omega-3, taken in capsules or added to smoothies in a powder form. It’s one of the only vegan foods that contains EPA and DHA, the long chain Omega-3 fatty acids shared by fish and it makes a great alternative vegan Omega-3 supplement to fish oil supplements.
- Vitamin B12 – it’s recommended that adults get around 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day. Check the labels of the B12-enriched foods in your diet, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough, consider a supplement.
- Calcium – with so many calcium-rich vegan foods, you should find it possible to get the recommended 525 mg of calcium each day on a vegan diet. If not, many vegan calcium supplements are available.
- Iodine – iodine plays an important role in our thyroid function and metabolism. Seaweed can be a good source for vegans, however its content is variable and sometimes too high. To avoid any confusion, many vegans opt for supplements.
- Vitamin D – the body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, but if you aren’t getting enough naturally from exposure to the sun during the winter, a supplement may help.
Did you know?
The UK is the world’s most popular country for veganism, according to Google Trends, with more searches and activity around a vegan lifestyle, followed by the Australia and New Zealand.