Starting a vegan diet is much easier than you might think. Once you've learned the ins and outs of what non-vegan foods to avoid, you can begin to reframe and build yourself a new diet, full of all the things vegans can eat!
People are making the big switch to vegetarian and vegan diets in record numbers these days, and we can see why: a plant-based diet offers a wide range of health benefits for our bodies and the environment as well.
After spending a lifetime eating one way, it can be a bit of a challenge to navigate a completely different and new vegan or vegetarian diet. But we promise it isn't that difficult to find vegan-friendly foods once you learn a few basics.
Generally, the rules of being vegan involve avoiding all animal products and opting instead for plant-based food.
We've laid out the definition of veganism, and a list of non-vegan food and vegan food you can incorporate into your plant-based diet to make your next trip to the grocery store a little easier.
What is a Vegan Diet?
What does vegan mean?
It’s counterproductive to stick with a strict definition of vegan diet rules. Becoming a vegan isn't just about eating a certain way – it's a philosophy. A vegan lifestyle is based on ethical values that seek to exclude the exploitation or harm of animals for consumption through diet, clothing, or other uses.
What is vegan food?
As far as diet is concerned, vegan restrictions include not consuming meat from any animal or foods produced in any way, shape, or form by animals. Look below for some of the typical foods that are not vegan that should be avoided.
Types of vegans
There are four types of vegans:
- Ethical vegans - these are vegans who are against animal cruelty
- Environmental vegans - these people want to live a greener lifestyle and minimize their impact on the planet
- Health vegans - looking to live a cleaner, healthier lifestyle
- Religious vegans - these people choose to follow a vegan diet due to their spiritual beliefs
To complicate this even further, there are eight types of vegan diets:
- Raw - food is not cooked above 104 fahrenheit
- Gluten-free - vegan food without gluten
- Fruitarian - mainly fruit
- Whole food - fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains
- Junk food - vegan burgers and ice cream, and mock meats
- Raw till 4 vegan - these vegans eat all raw food until 4pm, and then eat food at a higher temperature
- Paleo - similar to a whole food vegan diet, except they don’t eat legumes or grains
- Freegan diet - people who follow this diet, source all their vegan food without paying for it. It’s a movement against capitalist waste.
Foods Vegans Can't Eat
1. Meat and Animal By-Products
Meat includes any animal flesh like chicken, beef, pork, lamb, goat, duck, fish, and more. It doesn't matter whether the meat was farmed or hunted; vegan diet foods don’t allow for any animal products.
Animal by-products aren't suitable for vegan diets either. These include animal fat, lard, bone marrow, and other products derived from dead animals.
Best Meat Substitutes: Bean burgers, Beyond Meat burger, tempeh, seitan, tofu, soy chorizo, mock chicken.
Fish fall under the umbrella of living animals as well, so fish and seafood aren't a part of a vegan diet. This includes salmon, tuna, or any variety of fish and shellfish like crab, shrimp, and lobster.
Best Fish Substitutes: Fishless filets, vegan crab cakes, sweet potato shrimp.
Farm chickens produce eggs for human use, which adds to the exploitation of animals that vegans don't support. Eggs are off-limits, whether from a local farm or mass-producing factory chicken farm.
Vegans can't eat eggs themselves, nor egg-based products like mayo, Caesar dressing, marshmallows, and many candies.
Best Egg Substitutes: scrambled tofu, flaxseeds + water (for baking)
Dairy is a no-go for vegans and includes milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, and sour cream. Countless products contain hidden dairy, so this is a tough one to avoid. Read your labels closely to make sure the products you're buying are entirely plant-based.
Best Dairy Substitutes: vegan butter, coconut milk, yogurt, and ice cream, cashew cheese, nutritional yeast, oil.
Bees produce honey, so vegans avoid this sweet, golden product and opt for other plant-based vegan items to sweeten their beverages and foods.
Best Honey Substitutes: Coconut sugar, raw sugar, maple syrup, agave syrup, stevia.
Sourced from collagen, people use gelatin to thicken jello, puddings, jams, marshmallows, and more. More unusual products can sometimes contain gelatin, like gel capsules for vitamins, shampoo, face masks, and other cosmetics.
We derive collagen from bones, hides, and animals' skins, so it's inappropriate for a vegan diet.
Best Gelatin Substitutes: Agar-agar, carrageenan, vegan jel.
7. White Sugar
Not all vegans avoid white sugar, but some do, as it can be processed using animal by-products. Although sugar itself comes from plant-based sugar cane, manufacturers sometimes use bone char during sugar processing.
Best White Sugar Substitutes: Raw sugar, coconut sugar, agave syrup, stevia, brown rice syrup, monk fruit sweetener.
E120, E322, E422, E 471, E542, E631, E901 and E904 are all examples of additives made from animal products, but there are others.
9. Cochineal or carmine
This is made from the cochineal scale insect, which is ground up to form red dye for many food products.
This is a substance very much like gelatine, and is made from fish bladders. It’s used in the making of some beers and wines.
11. Natural flavorings
Some natural flavorings like castoreum are made from animal by-products. Castoreum is, itself, made from the secretion of beavers’ anal scent glands.
12. Omega 3 fatty acids
These are made from fish. You do get vegan omega 3 options.
This is used to make the wax coating you find on some sweets and fruits. It comes from the female lac insect.
14. Vitamin D3
Vitamin D3 comes from fish oil, and it can also be found in the lanolin from sheeps’ wool. It’s often used to fortify cereals.
This amino acid is found in some bread products. It is a softening agent and it it can come from poultry feathers.
16. Foods made with eggs
You wouldn’t know it but there are various types of foods that contain eggs, including:
- Batter for deep-fried foods like fries and onion rings
- Some beer and wine
- Some pasta
Foods Vegans Can Eat
After reading this long list of restrictions, you may be wondering, “What do vegans eat?”
Don't worry, there are plenty of fantastic food options you can enjoy on a plant-based diet so that you won't feel restricted!
1. Tofu, Soy, and Legumes
In modern culture, the typical meat-eating American consumes double the amount of daily protein they actually need, so concerns about them getting enough protein are virtually non-existent.
However, removing meat and animal products and opting for a vegan diet tends to remove much of the protein content built into your meals. Plenty of plant-based foods offer a bit of protein, so the vegan dieter just needs to make a few simple adjustments to consume ample protein daily.
Tofu and Soy
Tofu is the poster-child of the typical vegan diet, and we love it! This soybean curd is anything but new; we don't know exactly who invented tofu, but it has been used for cooking in Asian cultures for over two millennia and has become popular worldwide in the last few decades.
This popular vegan food is incredibly high in protein, antioxidants, and mineral content, and is used in all types of vegan cooking, from sweet, creamy desserts to crispy pan-fried chunks smothered in a savory sauce. A tofu scramble with black salt is a fantastic dish for those missing that traditional egg breakfast.
Vegans tend to eat a few other popular kinds of soy as well, as it's an excellent meat or dairy replacement. Edamame (whole soybeans) and tempeh (fermented beans) are both excellent sources of extra protein that you can toss into your meals.
Soymilk is widely available as a plant-based milk alternative that is great on its own or cooked or baked into recipes. It's usually fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and other crucial minerals to give your body a boost.
Beans and Legumes
These magical fruits get their gassy reputation for a good reason: they're sky-high in dietary fiber, which helps to promote gut health and to maintain a healthy weight.
Beans and legumes are also quite satiating and can keep you full for hours, which helps vegan dieters who may feel like the extra fruits and veggies they consume don't stick with them long enough.
These nutritional powerhouses are often used in vegan cooking because they can adapt to countless purposes, from homemade bean burgers to fresh salads and even baked into brownies. Use beans in place of meat in almost any recipe.
2. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are both beneficial for maintaining a healthy vegan diet. Both of these foods are full of protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. They're even more satiating than beans, as the brain-strengthening healthy fats will keep you full for hours.
Almonds especially are often consumed by vegan dieters, as they're the most nutritious nut. They also make excellent almond milk that tastes a little better than some other non-dairy milk alternatives.
Another nut that has some unique uses in vegan food is the cashew. These nuts are tasty all on their own, but after soaking and blending, they are used to make a rich-tasting, creamy vegan alfredo, cheese sauce, and more.
Most seeds are nutrition powerhouses, but flaxseed has a special place for vegans because it makes a great alternative to eggs in vegan baked goods. Mix a little flaxseed with water, stir, and let sit for a few minutes, and it will develop a gel-like texture that makes your cookies, muffins, and cakes moist while keeping them from becoming crumbly.
3. Fruit and Vegetables
Many people misunderstand that vegans eat only "rabbit food," or fresh fruits and veggies. While there are plenty of other elements to a vegan diet, fruits and vegetables are essential in every healthy diet.
Fruit is full of healthy fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants, plus a high water content that will help to keep your body hydrated.
Sometimes, it can be hard to get your hands on vegan desserts, but sweet fruits are the perfect note to end most meals without added sugar. Stock up and snack on fresh berries, oranges and citrus, apples, melon, and pineapple, or any of your other favorite fruits.
Vegetables are the most nutrient-dense foods, so the perfect vegan diet includes a ton of them. The rule of thumb with veggies is, the more intense the color, the more nutritious it is. Different colored vegetables contain other nutrients, so the best way to ensure the broadest range of nutrients in your diet is variety.
Pick out dark, leafy greens, bright orange peppers, blood-red tomatoes, and yellow zucchini. Another way to get creative with veggies is to invest in a local farmer's box – they're usually inexpensive and contain some new veggies to use in some experimental new recipes.
4. Grains and Pseudograins
Whole grains and pseudograins are great additions to any diet to keep your carbs on track while enjoying the benefits of high-fiber, highly-nutritious foods.
Keep the grains as whole as possible for the best nutritional bang for your buck. Pseudograins aren't technically grains, but they share many similarities. Buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, and other pseudograins will keep your tummy healthy and full.
Final Note: The Best Vegan Things to Eat
All right, let's recap a few basic tenets of a vegan diet.
Vegans typically don't eat the following:
- The flesh of animals, fish, seafood, or other living creatures; or animal bones, organs, hides, or other animal by-products
- Whole eggs and egg products like mayonnaise
- Dairy like milk, cream, cheese, or yogurt
- Honey or white sugar
- And gelatin
And vegans enjoy unlimited amounts of these foods:
- Tofu, soy, and legumes
- Nuts and seeds, like almonds and flaxseed
- Colorful fruits and veggies
- And whole grains and pseudograins
These are the essential guidelines for a vegan diet, but it is by no means a definitive rulebook.
If you choose to include animal foods in your diet, it doesn't take away from the positive benefits you'll reap from a mostly vegan diet. Do what feels right for you!