Once considered the exclusive domain of animal advocates and radical health enthusiasts, the vegan diet has suddenly become trendy, with converts from Bill Clinton to Ellen DeGeneres. Indeed, one-third of the estimated 7 million American vegetarians are now vegans, according to The Vegetarian Resource Group. People are making the switch for good reasons.

  • Vegan is healthy: By skipping animal-based foods, you take in less saturated fat and total cholesterol and sidestep added hormones, antibiotics, and toxins (such as mercury from fish).
     
  • It’s compassionate to animals, a growing concern because of inhumane and unsafe conditions at factory farms.
     
  • It’s also eco-friendly: Cutting back on animal foods just one day a week has a greater environmental impact than buying all your food locally, according to a recent study in Environmental Science and Technology.
     
  • And, if done right, a vegan diet encourages weight loss.

Although swearing off animal products—milk, eggs, meats, cheese, honey—can be intimidating, there’s never been a better time to go vegan. Natural markets offer many new, delicious vegan products, and cookbooks like Ann Gentry’s Vegan Family Meals (Andrews McMeel, 2011) offer endless culinary inspiration. 

As with gluten-free and other special diets, eating vegan ideally is about more than what you’re not eating; it’s an opportunity to improve your diet by eating more nutrient-rich plant foods. And you don’t have to go cold turkey. Begin with one vegan meal a day; then gradually increase to two or three as you feel ready, recommends Brenda Davis, RD, nutritionist and coauthor of Becoming Raw (Book Publishing, 2010).

Contrary to the belief that cutting out meat and dairy will lead to nutritional deficiencies, “there’s nothing nutritionally that you need from an animal; the nutrients you need are plant-based,” says Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, author of The 30-Day Vegan Challenge (Ballantine, 2011). Many nutrients found in animal products (for example, omega-3s in fish) derive from plants (algae). Calcium? Cows get the mineral from grass, which pulls it from the soil. Here’s the scoop on the most common nourishment issues you’ll encounter by eating vegan.

Protein

Unlike most animal products, which are considered complete proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids, plant foods usually are low in one or more aminos—with the notable exceptions of soybeans and quinoa.

Still, it’s easy to get enough protein and diverse aminos by eating various plant-based sources throughout the day. Soy foods (edamame, tofu, tempeh), beans (black, kidney), legumes (garbanzos, lentils, peanuts), and nuts and seeds (almonds, pumpkin seeds) are the densest sources.

Get more: Add high-quality protein powders such as hemp or pea to smoothies, says Matt Frazier, blogger at nomeatathlete.com.

Vitamin B12

This nutrient is key for cell division and blood production; deficiency can lead to anemia and nerve damage. Animal foods are a B12 source: Bacteria produce the vitamin, and animals absorb it when they eat foods with the bacteria. Vegan sources include fortified cereal, soy milk, and meat analogues made from soy or wheat gluten and nutritional yeast flakes.

Get more: Consider taking a good B-complex supplement, such as Garden of Life’s Vitamin Code Raw B-Complex.

Calcium

Calcium-rich plant foods include tofu, sesame seeds, beans, collard greens, kale, molasses, and fortified orange juice and nondairy milks.

Get more: Try a targeted bone supplement with 1,000 mg calcium and 500 mg magnesium, plus vitamins D and K, split into two doses daily.

Omega-3s

Although most health research focuses on eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fatty fish, it’s important to get a full range of omega fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and their oils, and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in hemp seeds and oil, says nutrition expert Ashley Koff, RD, coauthor of Mom Energy (Hay House, 2011). Studies show that compared with meat eaters, vegans and vegetarians may be better able to convert short-chain fatty acids like ALA into long-chain omegas, especially EPA.

Get more: Take an algal DHA supplement. Look for Ovega-3, a new product made from a unique algae strain that produces both EPA and DHA.

Try these award-winning vegan supplements

Stumped about vegan cooking? We recommend these vegan cookbooks