Going vegan seems simple enough: You say goodbye to meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, then voilà. And then you eat...fruits and veggies? (Is that it? There's got to be something else!)
Luckily for plant-lovers everywhere, the list of vegan-friendly foods is a long one. But hitting up the grocery store can still be a bit more of a project for vegans, explains nutritionist Shanthi Appelö, RD, health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
“The more processed a food is, the more time vegans need to spend label-reading to spot ingredients that could be animal-derived,” she says. “Even foods that seem like they would be vegan may not be.” Gummy bears, for example, usually contain gelatin, which is made from boiling animal bones and cartilage.
Where you grocery shop as a vegan can make a difference, too. While supporting small businesses is great, larger supermarkets are more likely to have the latest and greatest in trendy plant-based goods (think vegan cheese and plant-based meat alternatives) stocked, Appelö says. That said, filling your cart with all the vegan queso, Beyond Sausage, and oat milk, can quickly eat up your budget.
Strike a balance between whole foods, like legumes and veggies, and your favorite vegan cookies, though, and eating vegan is not only easy but—dare I say—FUN.
So, what exactly should you eat on a vegan diet? And is it legit good for you to nix meat for plant-based everything? (Asking for all aspirational vegans, everywhere.) Refresh yourself on the benefits of eating all plants, get clear on what is (and isn't) on the vegan food list, and use this vegan grocery list to get crackin'.
A vegan diet does come with benefits—for your health and the environment.
Plant-based eating gets the biggest buzz for its health benefits. “Plant foods are often anti-inflammatory and they can also help regulate digestion. Eating more plants may also reduce a person’s risk for chronic conditions, including heart disease and diabetes,” says nutritionist Stephanie McKercher, RDN. The nutrients in plants also promote healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, she says.
Plus, adopting a meat- and dairy-free way of eating is one of the best ways to reduce your impact on the environment, according to a review published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. How? "Eating more plant foods reduces your carbon footprint since livestock production is responsible for a good portion of global greenhouse gas emissions," nutritionist Alexis Joseph, RD, previously told Women's Health.
There are a bunch of foods you'll want to avoid as a vegan.
You probably already know that eating vegan means nixing meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. However, the lifestyle goes a bit deeper than that.
“Beyond this, some vegans avoid products that have been processed using animal-based methods,” explains Appelö. One example: cane sugar, which is processed using bone char to achieve that white color.
You may also choose to avoid products like honey. “The vegan society does not believe honey aligns with their definition of vegan because of how bees are generally treated,” Appelö adds.
Still, following a vegan diet isn't as complicated as you think.
While swearing off meat and dairy seems like a good idea, you might be wondering: “Will I get enough protein? Will I be stuck eating tofu every day for the rest of my life? What the heck CAN I eat?”
Take a deep breath. Switching to a vegan diet isn’t as overwhelming as it may seem.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about vegan eating is that it’s too strict, but you can still have all of your favorite foods in their plant-based forms," says McKercher. "Try oat milk instead of dairy milk, grill veggie burgers instead of beef patties, or use nutritional yeast instead of cheese.”
But opting for the plant-based life isn’t just about nixing animal products. You still need to meet all your nutrient needs by eating a variety of different foods—which could mean adding new foods to your diet.
To get all those nutrients, McKercher recommends a simple formula for every meal: Combine colorful produce with whole grains, healthy fats, and a plant-based source of protein. Think grain bowls; they’re easy to assemble and customize with a variety of ingredients so you’re not eating the same thing every day.
Not sold? Here are all the celebs who proudly follow a vegan diet:
Plus, you don’t have to go all-in if it doesn’t work for your lifestyle. “For some people, a flexitarian way of living—eating mostly plants but including some animal products once in a while—works best,” says McKercher. Part-time veganism, anyone?
A few basic guidelines will help you build the perfect vegan grocery list.
When planning your vegan meals (and grocery list), Appelö recommends loading up on a balance of a few different categories of foods.
- healthy fats and oils
- whole grains
- herbs and spices
If advised by your doctor or dietitian, you may also want to consider certain supplements, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc, she says.
Use this vegan food list to make things easier.
If you're not sure to start, use this vegan food list to inspire your next grocery-shopping adventure.
“Fruit contains a wide array of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants to help our bodies function properly,” says Appelö. “Be sure to include a variety of fruits with different colors to maximize nutrient intake. Enjoy them with cereal at breakfast, with peanut butter as a snack, or sliced to top a salad.”
Another perk of certain fruits? They contain vitamin C, which can help your body absorb the iron found in plants, she adds.
McKercher likes to seek out local, seasonal fruit whenever possible. “Eating seasonally is one of the best ways to get maximum flavor and nutrition for the lowest cost,” she says.
Either way, feel free to pile your cart full of any and all fresh fruit, such as:
- citrus (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes)
Like fruits, vegetables provide essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, while playing a protective role against a plethora of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and many cancers, Appelö says.
Veggies also play a role in satiety (thank you, fiber!). To get a variety of vegetables in while making meal prep easier, Appelö recommends roasting combos like carrots, sweet onions, potatoes, and parsnips and stashing them in the fridge. “Make vegetables the star of the show by making eggplant boats or portabella mushroom burgers,” she says.
Any and all fresh vegetables are on the table:
- dark, leafy greens (spinach, bok choy, kale)
- cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brusselss sprouts)
- summer squashes (zucchini)
- winter squashes (butternut squash, spaghetti squash, and acorn squash)
- root vegetables (sweet potatoes, white potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips)
Protein isn’t just necessary for those post-workout muscle gains. It’s also essential for the maintenance of virtually every cell in your body, aids in immune function, transports nutrients, and more, Appelö explains.
Humans need to consume nine specific essential amino acids (which are the building blocks of protein) to survive. “To help meet protein needs and to get the essential amino acid lysine, which is low in other plant-based proteins, vegans should include three servings of legumes daily,” she says.
A few favorites:
- beans (black beans, chickpeas, broad beans)
- soy (edamame, tempeh, tofu)
Whole grains make an awesome base for vegan meals, while also providing plenty of nutrition. They contain loads of fiber, plus nutrients that are particularly important for vegans, such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins, according to Appelö.
Of course, it's always important to check labels to ensure that "whole grain" or "whole wheat" is listed as the first ingredient. Otherwise, you'll miss out on many of the nutritional perks.
Appelö loves her whole grains in the form of veggie-loaded whole-grain sandwiches or pasta with veggie-rich tomato sauce.
Fill your basket with the following:
- whole-wheat bread
- whole-wheat pasta
- brown rice
Healthy Fats and Oils
Healthy fats not only add an awesome layer of ~flavor~ to any meal or snack, but they also help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, says Appelö. They also play a vital role in brain function, cell growth, and hormone production.
Get your healthy fat fix by snacking on nuts and seeds and get creative with different cooking oils.
A few of Appelö and McKercher's faves:
- nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts)
- nut butters
- seeds (chia, flax, hemp)
- healthy cooking oils (olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, coconut oil)
Herbs and Spices
Finally, herbs tie pretty much any meal (vegan or not) together. “Herbs and spices are great for elevating an otherwise boring meal and adding antioxidants or other benefits," says Appelö. "There’s nothing better than roasted vegetables topped with chopped fresh herbs like parsley or dill.”
She loves incorporating turmeric into curry dishes loaded with veggies and chickpeas. Other go-to's: gingery vinaigrettes and garlicky marinades.
Stock your spice cabinet with the following:
- garlic powder
- dried ginger
- onion salt
So, what about dairy alternatives?
There's no denying it: One of the most exciting parts about going vegan these days is experimenting with all sorts of dairy alternatives.
When it comes to "milks," you've got endless options, including rice, soy, almond, coconut, macadamia, hazelnut, pea, hemp, flax, and cashew. Each offers subtle flavor nuances that jazz up your morning coffee or breakfast cereal routine.
But not all of them are created equal. “Soy and oat milk are among the better choices to satisfy protein needs,” says Appelö.
Same goes for other products that replace dairy-containing faves. Coconut-based yogurts, for example, can be full of saturated fat and sugar, but low in protein, Appelö says.
If you choose to incorporate various dairy alternatives into your vegan diet, keep saturated fat and sugar as minimal as possible and be wary of flavored options.
There are also a few other vegan eats to be wary of.
Dairy alternatives aren't the only vegan-friendly products worth inspecting before adding to your basket.
Appelö also recommends being wary of vegan substitutes for animal-based food products, such as vegan ground "meat," “chicken” nuggets, and vegan pizzas. Often, their high processing translates to high sodium content and results in a final product lacking in the nutrients vegans need.
Many also contain added sugar, pectin fiber, or gums in order to maintain texture and flavor when eggs and butter are removed, she says.
Of course, sometimes you just need those chick'n nugs, but generally “try to seek out whole foods as much as possible," says McKercher. "It’s okay to work in processed vegan alternatives when you want them, but they aren’t necessarily any more nutritious than the conventional version of the foods they’re modeled after.”
See? Not so bad! Following a vegan diet is anything but limited. See ya, beef!
Christine Yu is an award-winning journalist and author of the book Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes. Her work focuses on the intersection of sports science and women athletes. She's a lifelong athlete who loves running, yoga, surfing, and skiing.
Marissa Miller has spent a decade editing and reporting on women’s health issues from an intersectional lens with a focus on peer-reviewed nutrition, fitness trends, mental health, skincare, reproductive rights and beyond, and currently holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell. She is an avid yoga practitioner, half-marathon runner, snowboarder, and former dance coach and choreographer. In addition to Women’s Health, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NBC News, GQ, Vogue, CNN Style, and more. Marissa lives in Montreal with her two cats. She is represented by Howland Literary and her debut novel PRETTY WEIRD will be published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2021.