A healthy vegan diet should consist of nutrient-dense whole foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as plant-based proteins from foods like beans, nuts, and legumes.
B12 and vitamin D are the most common nutritional deficiencies on a vegan diet, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of these vitamins through fortified foods or supplements.
Many studies show that vegan and plant-based eating can promote weight control, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, and help you live a longer, healthier life.
“I recommend vegan or plant-based diets for anyone who wants to prevent or manage lifestyle, diseases or who wants to optimize health,” says Sujatha Rajaram, PhD, a professor with the Center for Nutrition, Healthy Lifestyle and Disease Prevention at Loma Linda University.
So if you’re curious about going vegan, here’s a 7-day meal plan as well as more information on what to know about the vegan diet — both its benefits and downsides.
What to eat and drink on the vegan diet
“B12 and vitamin D,” are the most common nutritional deficiencies on a vegan diet, says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, who is a dietitian in private practice, author of “The Plant Powered Diet” and a vegan herself.
“The key to a healthy vegan diet is variety and balance,” says Palmer. As a general rule, Palmer suggests the following foods to eat and drink on a vegan diet:
Plant proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (in a variety of colors) at every meal
Beans and legumes, at every meal
Nuts and seeds daily
Fortified plant-based milk daily
Plant-based oils, like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil
Water often throughout the day
Eat in moderation:
Eat less often:
7-day sample vegan diet meal plan
According to Palmer, here is an example of a healthy 7-day vegan meal plan. Adjust portion size to what best fits your daily caloric needs. A typical 2,000 calorie diet might include three full meals that are each 600 calories, and two snacks that are 100 calories each.
Breakfast: Protein-rich, plant-based plain yogurt, such as those from Forager, Kite Hill and So Delicious, with berries and walnuts
Lunch: Tofu-kale-quinoa salad with vinaigrette
Dinner: Vegetable and chickpea stew with whole grain bread
Mid-morning snack: Fruit and nuts
Mid-afternoon snack: Vegetable-based smoothie, such as pumpkin or cucumber
Breakfast: Whole-wheat toast with mashed avocado and tempeh slices
Lunch: Greek vegetable salad topped with white beans and vinaigrette
Dinner: Seitan vegetable stir-fry with brown rice
Mid-morning snack: Whole grain flatbread with nut butter
Mid-afternoon snack: Fruit slices with nuts
Breakfast: Tofu scramble with spinach, tomato, and whole wheat bread
Lunch: Pasta cooked with bean, artichokes, kalamata olives, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, and herbs
Dinner: Chana masala with brown rice
Mid-morning snack: Plant-based yogurt and fruit
Mid-afternoon snack: Fruit with nuts
Breakfast: Whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, orange wedges
Lunch: Power bowl with quinoa, vegetables, edamame, and almonds
Dinner: Veggie burger with whole grain bun, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, condiments
Mid-morning snack: Hummus with vegetables
Mid-afternoon snack: Fruit slices with nuts
Breakfast: Protein-rich plant-based yogurt with banana and sliced almonds
Lunch: Vegetable chili with whole-grain crackers
Dinner: Vegan chickpea vegetable paella
Mid-morning snack: Fruit and nut smoothie
Mid-afternoon snack: Apple slices with tahini
Breakfast: Breakfast burrito with corn tortilla, black beans, and sautéed vegetables
Lunch: Greek pita with white beans and cucumber-tomato salad
Dinner: Thai tofu vegetable stir-fry with brown rice
Mid-morning snack: Peanut butter with banana
Mid-afternoon snack: Whole grain flatbread and pumpkin or sunflower seeds
Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with fruit, plant-based milk, and walnuts
Lunch: Black bean tacos with a side of roasted broccoli
Dinner: Polenta topped with roasted eggplant, mushroom, beans, and red pepper ragout
Mid-morning snack: Fruit and nut butter smoothie
Mid-afternoon snack: Trail mix
Vegan vs. vegetarian vs. plant-based diets
While they may seem similar, there are some key differences between the terms vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based:
Vegan: Plant-exclusive, devoid of any animal products (no dairy or eggs).
Vegetarian: Plant-based, includes dairy and eggs
Plant-based: Largely plant-based, but can include small amounts of animal food products. The Mediterranean diet is an example because it also contains some animal-based foods, mainly seafood, dairy, and eggs
The vegan diet is actually based from vegetarianism, which became popular amongst a large percentage of Hindus during India’s Vedic period (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE). Then in the 1940s, a modified version of the diet was created by a group of non-dairy vegetarians, and the term “vegan” was coined.
The main dietary difference between vegetarians and vegans is the latter eat no animal products, including dairy, eggs, honey, and gelatin. Many vegans also avoid animal products to take a stand against animal cruelty and exploitation.
Benefits of a vegan and plant-based diet
Rajaram says that many studies show that vegan and plant-based eating can improve health. Major health benefits include:
Weight control: The types of foods that vegans eat, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, are high in fiber and health-protective phytonutrients. Rajaram says eating plant foods that are nutrient-dense can help increase satiety or fullness and can even lead to weight loss. A 2013 study found that a group following a vegan diet for 18 weeks lost about 9.5 pounds whereas the control group lost less than a pound. Research also shows that plant-based diets help prevent and help manage type 2 diabetes.
Lower cholesterol and blood pressure: If your cholesterol or blood pressure is too high, you may be at risk for heart disease. Studies show that a vegan diet could help. A 2017 review analyzed 49 studies comparing plant-based diets with omnivorous diets to test their effects on blood cholesterol. While vegetarian diets lowered total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL levels compared to omnivorous diets, those who followed vegan diets saw the greatest reduction in lipid levels. In addition, a 2020 analysis of studies found that plant-based diets lower blood pressure.
Longevity: All of the health benefits of a vegan diet, including weight control and lower cholesterol and blood pressure, also lead to a lower risk of dying from heart disease, according to a 2019 study. Research has also shown that vegan diets may even lead to a reduction in the risk of getting cancer.
Vegan diet risks and disadvantages
“There are two ways that a vegan diet can be unhealthy,” says Rajaram. “One way is by eating processed foods, like potato chips and soda. They are plant-based but are not ‘whole foods,’ which make up a healthy vegan diet. The second way a vegan diet can be unhealthy is to not get the appropriate nutrients your body needs, even if you’re eating a whole-food-based vegan diet.”
The best way to tackle these challenges is to work with a registered dietitian, says Rajaram, especially if you’ve never eaten a primarily plant-based diet.
Here are some ways Palmer helps clients incorporate important nutrients like B12 and vitamin D into their meal plans:
B12 is necessary for healthy brain function and the formation of red blood cells. “All vegans should worry about this, because B12 comes from animal products, and too little B12 can lead to negative neurological effects,” says Palmer. While there are some foods fortified with B12, most vegans should take supplements, she says. Her recommended dose: 1,000 micrograms of B12 two times per week or 250 micrograms daily.
Vitamin D is important for bone health, as well as many other benefits, including possibly reducing depression. Vegans can get Vitamin D from moderate sun exposure, fortified plant-based milk, such as almond or soy milk, as well as from mushrooms exposed to light, says Palmer. “Almost everyone is short on this, no matter what type of diet they follow,” says Palmer. She recommends scheduling a blood test every year with your doctor to check vitamin D levels.
While people new to a vegan diet are often concerned about whether or not they’ll get enough protein, Palmer says (and research confirms) that a well-planned vegan diet provides adequate protein.
“If you have severe food allergies, such as to soy, tree nuts, or gluten, you may have difficulty following a vegan diet,” says Palmer. Similarly, she says, if you have digestive conditions that are triggered by high fiber consumption, you may have difficulty with a plant-based diet.
On a practical level, you may experience some difficulties making vegan food.
Yet finding vegan ingredients is easier than ever. “We’re so lucky that today you can find vegan food alternatives, like veggie burgers, vegan butter, and plant-based milks, at your local supermarket,” says Palmer. Many items require little or no cooking or additional preparation, she says.
For a family that doesn’t embrace vegan eating, “try modifying family favorite recipes, like lasagna, or start meatless Mondays and make a veggie pizza,” says Palmer. Not all of Palmer’s family members are vegan, and sometimes they grill their own piece of fish or chicken to accompany plant-based foods.
Choosing a vegan diet is a great way to maximize your chances of leading a long and healthy life. Today you can often find vegan foods and alternatives at your local supermarket.
A great way to start is to try eating a healthy, fulfilling vegan diet for one week. Try following a vegan meal plan that offers plenty of plant proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fortified plant-based milk.
“If you’re not ready to become a vegan, taking even small steps toward whole-food eating is beneficial,” says Rajaram. “Even just deciding not to eat red or processed meat will help you begin to see more health benefits.”
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