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A beginner’s guide to starting a vegan diet

vegan sandwich by vegan dietitian
13 min reading time

So you’re curious about making a shift towards a plant-based lifestyle but are not sure where to start? You’re in the right place!

Going vegan can seem daunting and even impossible for some! But rest assured – as a registered vegan dietitian, I can help you discover how going vegan is an amazing decision for your health and the environment, and that it’s a lot simpler than you might expect. Read on for my tips for the vegan beginner!

What is a vegan diet?

vegan tofu by vegan dietitian

Before we dive in, let’s first talk about what veganism is.

A vegan diet is a way of eating that excludes animal products, this means not eating anything that contains ingredients from animals. Instead, vegan diets are composed exclusively of plant products.

Although several variations of the vegan diet exist (you might have heard of Whole 30, whole-food plant-based, raw vegan, etc), most scientific research rarely differentiates between different types of vegan diets.

I also believe that the healthiest vegan diet is one that is balanced, simple, and works for you. For this reason, this article refers to simple vegan diets as a whole.

Many beginners feel that going vegan is “impossible”. I totally understand! Changing your lifestyle and way of life is not easy. Depending on your personality and your own goals, you might find it helpful to make gradual changes rather than go all in overnight.

Whatever methods you choose, any attempts at eliminating animal products from your diet will have a positive impact on your health, the planet, and the environment. If you aren’t ready to go 100% vegan, you will still find some helpful information in this article to help you get there at your own pace.

Plant-based vs. vegan

You might have read some controversial opinions on the differences between plant-based and vegan diets.

In my approach, total veganism excludes both foods and products of animal origin (leather, silk, wool, down, etc), whereas plant-based only excludes foods of animal origin (not products). Plant-based is therefore less restrictive and focused more on diet. For our purposes, however, we’re only discussing diet in this article.

But honestly, the bottom line is the same: make plant foods the central part of your meals and limit/avoid animal products. As a dietitian, my approach is non-judgemental and non-polarizing. For our purposes, we’ll use the terms “plant-based” and “vegan” synonymously. 

So, what can vegans eat?

A vegan diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, gelatin, and other foods of animal origin. Vegan diets include all foods of plant origin, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.

Note that a fully vegan lifestyle excludes all forms of animal exploitation. This would mean avoiding consumer products that come from animals, such as leather, wool, down, and silk and choosing cruelty-free personal care products.

For our purposes, we’ll stick to talking about the vegan diet in this beginner article, but keep this in mind if you are striving for elimination of all animal exploitation.

Why you should go vegan: my philosophy

vegan feta pasta by vegan dietitian
Vegan nutritionist Kelowna

Your decision to eliminate animal products from your diet will depend on your personal values. You’ll find that a lot of plant-based eaters have their own reasons for following this lifestyle.

However, regardless of where others stand, the important thing is that you take the time to decide for yourself why you’re interested in becoming vegan. You should decide what aspects feel right for you and your personal goals.

Here’s a look at some of the reasons why you should consider going vegan:

For your health

There’s strong scientific evidence that many chronic diseases (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and more) can be prevented and controlled with a healthy vegan diet. Often, people also have more energy, reduced inflammation, and they feel better overall after removing animal products from their diet.

A vegan diet can also help you lose weight. Plant foods are naturally less calorie-dense and higher in fibre. These can lead to feeling fullness without overeating. Check out this article for beginner tips on how to lose weight on a vegan diet.

For the environment

Animal agriculture is among the worst polluters of air, water, and soil and has been found to be the greatest contributor to deforestation and species extinction. Production of plant foods uses much less natural resources and produces a fraction of the amount of greenhouse gases compared to animal agriculture.

A shift towards a plant-based diet is one of the most powerful steps a person can take towards the preservation of our planet.

For the animals

Modern animal agriculture causes a great deal of suffering to animals. Becoming vegan is largely about becoming less self-centered and becoming more compassionate.

Shifting towards veganism is about making an ethical decision to become more aware of our connections to fellow living creatures and respecting their right to exist . It’s about placing ourselves amongst all living beings, rather than at the top.

When you go vegan, you are consciously reducing the number of animals that are unnecessarily being exploited.

My top beginner vegan tips

If you want to start making a positive impact on your health and the environment but feel worried about going fully vegan, remember that any small change is a good change! Go at your own pace.

As mentioned, going vegan for beginners is challenging, but choosing to limit your consumption of animal products by even a little is a step towards a more sustainable future. Here are some beginner vegan tips to keep in mind while you shift towards a plant-based lifestyle:

1. Add to your diet before you subtract

Don’t eat chickpeas too often? Or not a huge fan of tofu yet? Before going full vegan, start incorporating more whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, and non-dairy milks into your regular diet.

Experiment with your favourite ways to eat these vegan staples and collect recipes you love. Make simple switches like choosing non-dairy milk and cooking a meat-free meal three times per week. This will help you get used to your new lifestyle before diving in head first.

2. Plan your meals

Most often, I see people initially struggling to maintain their new vegan diet because they lack recipe ideas, don’t have the energy to cook, or don’t know what to buy at the grocery store.

One of my biggest suggestions is to take a few minutes each week and plan your meals for the week. I like to take 15 minutes on Sundays to flip through my recipe books or browse the internet. I pick out 3-4 recipes for the week. From here, I make my grocery list accordingly and I know exactly what I will be preparing. Eating leftovers for lunch and/or meal prepping is also a great way to reduce your time spent cooking.

3. See a Registered Dietitian

A registered dietitian can guide you and can help you adopt a well-planned, balanced, nutrient-dense vegan diet. Plus, meeting with a vegan registered dietitian periodically can help you meet all your nutrient needs.

4. Don’t beat yourself up

To most people, giving up all animal products is not easy. So go easy on yourself! If you do happen to fall off track and eat some non-vegan food, don’t beat yourself up. Many people who are vegan now have had some previous slip-ups. Learn from your slip-ups and move on.

5. Watch documentaries, read books, and learn more

An important aspect of moving towards your goals is learning more about them. Given all the resources available to us, it is now much easier to become vegan than before.

There are many sources of information to quickly learn everything you need to know to become vegan. Check out @alyssafontaineRD on Instagram and Tik Tok for some simple recipes and beginner vegan tips.

Beginner vegan shopping list

It’s a good idea to stock up on plenty of beginner vegan staples so that you always have a base available when you want to cook a simple vegan meal.

vegan seitan ribs
vegan smoothie bowl

Beginner vegan staples

Fruits: Apples, bananas, oranges, lemons, kiwis, blueberries, and more

Veggies: Kale, spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, potatoes, bell pepper, onion, and more

Bread/Grains: Whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, oats, oat flour, brown rice, quinoa, tortilla wraps

Pantry/Grocery: Tomato sauce, black beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanut butter, tofu, non-dairy milk (oat/soy/rice/almond), maple syrup, soy sauce, spices and herbs, nutritional yeast

Frozen section: Mixed berries and/or frozen fruits (for smoothies), frozen edamame, green beans, broccoli, peas, and more

Healthy snacks: Popcorn, dark chocolate, granola bars, nuts and seeds, hummus, and more

Vegan beginner meal ideas

There are countless delicious, simple, and beginner vegan meal ideas out there!

Some of my favourites are:

Check out my Tik Tok and Instagram pages for more healthy and easy vegan recipe ideas.

Do vegans need to take supplements?

Like with any dietary pattern, it’s important to eat a variety of foods to ensure you are meeting all your nutritional needs. A well-planned vegan diet that includes nutrient-rich whole foods and fortified foods can help provide adequate nutrient levels. Nonetheless, you might find it tricky to have enough of these nutrients.

It’s important to speak to your doctor and dietitian regarding what supplements you should take as some may interact with your medications. The supplements you take should also be personalized to your needs.

Vitamins and minerals to consider speaking to your healthcare team about are:

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is directly involved in the building of strong bones, the maintenance of muscle, and health of the nervous system. It also has many other important functions! The daily requirement of Vitamin D is 600IU.

If you live in Canada, I suggest you take a 1,000-2,000 IU vitamin D supplement during the winter months (October-April) for optimal health as sunlight exposure will not be enough to meet your vitamin D needs.

You can obtain vitamin D from fortified foods (like fortified breakfast cereal or non-dairy milks, for example), but if you eat minor amounts of these I still recommend that you take a supplement. Speak with your doctor and dietitian to discuss if a Vitamin D supplement is right for you and what specific dosage is best for you.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 converts macronutrients into usable energy. It also is important for DNA synthesis and our nervous system. A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia, nerve damage, and digestive disturbances. We want to avoid this! Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include fortified cereals, fortified plant milks, and nutritional yeast.

To obtain adequate Vitamin B12, I suggest you follow one or a combination of these approaches:

  1. Take a daily B12 supplement of 25mcg, or
  2. Take a 2,000 to 2,500mcg B12 supplement twice a week, or
  3. Every day, consume three servings of B12-fortified foods, with each serving providing at least 2mcg of B12.

Omega 3

Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid. It’s an essential component of all our cells. Omega 3 fatty acids also help lower our risk of heart disease, dementia, and arthritis. The best vegan sources of omega 3 are hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and flax seeds.

Make sure that your daily diet includes these or take a 250-500mg daily supplement. Vegan omega 3 supplements are made from microalgae instead of fish oil. As usual, speak with your doctor and dietitian to discuss if an omega 3 supplement is right for you

Iodine

Iodine is an essential trace element that helps regulate hormone and cell production.

My biggest tip to avoid deficiency of this small but mighty mineral is to use iodized salt. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good fancy sea salt – but iodized salt is a helpful way to get your iodine. One-quarter teaspoon of iodized salt gives between 50-80 micrograms of iodine, and we need 150 micrograms per day.

Unfortunately, though it is delicious, seaweed is not a reliable iodine source because of variability in manufacturing processes.

Iron

Our bodies need iron to transport oxygen in our blood. With iron deficiency, you might experience fatigue and a lack of energy. Good dietary sources of iron are beans, lentils, fortified cereals, dark chocolate, and molasses.

For some context, women aged 19-50 need 18mg of iron daily. One cup of chickpeas contains 12 grams of iron and one cup of boiled lentils contains 6 grams iron. To obtain enough iron from these legumes, you need to eat 1.5 cups of chickpeas or 3 cups of boiled lentils per day.

Iron needs vary depending on gender and age, but women typically require more iron than men due to menstrual losses. You should be taking an iron supplement if you have a diagnosed iron deficiency.

A few common misconceptions

While reading this you might have had some questions come up. Here are the top questions I get from beginners starting a vegan diet!

Do vegans get enough protein?

This is probably THE most common question I get from vegan beginners! Rest assured, it is definitely possible to get enough protein from plant-based foods.

Vegan protein sources include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. If you’re looking into building muscle on a vegan diet and increasing your protein intake, check out this comprehensive article for more.

Can I eat vegan at a restaurant or while travelling?

Absolutely! Veganism is becoming increasingly popular and restaurants are listening. Plus, the more demand there is for something, the more change there will be in the future.

Try planning ahead and reading restaurant menus online before you go. You can also call the restaurant in advance or get creative with sides to craft yourself a meal.

When travelling, use the Happy Cow website. The website is free to access and you simply type in your location and it will generate a list of vegan friendly restaurants for you.

Isn’t eating vegan super expensive?

Vegan specialty products such as fake meats, non-dairy milk, vegan ice creams, and vegan cheeses can certainly be more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. However, a whole foods vegan diet is actually composed of the cheapest staples out there! Lentils, legumes, oats, rice, and fruits like bananas are very affordable compared to processed goods.

You might notice your grocery bill increase a bit at first as you stock up on bulk staples, but you’ll find that you’ll likely end up saving money on a vegan diet over the long term.

Vegan for beginners: You can do it!

I hope this vegan for beginners 101 guide will help you in your journey. If you have additional questions check out my other articles and consider meeting with a registered dietitian who can guide you and can help you adopt a well-planned, balanced (insert link), nutrient-dense plant-based diet.

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