13 tips to help you eat a healthy vegan diet
- Veganism is a restrictive
dietthat eliminates all animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy.
- The restrictive nature of veganism can lead to a lack of vitamin B12, D, and protein.
- Before you go
vegan, ask your doctor how to do so safely and what supplements you should take.
Veganism is a plant-based diet that consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. Unlike vegetarian diets, which allow some animal products, like dairy, vegan diets exclude all animal products, including meat, eggs, milk, and dairy products.
People choose vegan diets for several reasons, including religious, ethical, and environmental concerns. "I would recommend a vegan diet for someone concerned with animal ethics, or someone who simply does not enjoy meat," says Rebecca Tonnessen, RDN, at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
1. Is a vegan diet healthy?
"When following a well-planned vegan diet, benefits include increased fiber intake and decreased saturated fat intake, which is good for digestion, cardiovascular health, and much more," says Tonnessen.
Veganism can be a healthy diet to follow, however, it's important to make sure you're still making healthy choices and getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals from your food.
A 2019 review of 32 studies found that vegan diets can help improve markers of diabetes and reduce inflammation. According to a 2009 study, vegan diets can also help with weight loss due to increased fiber intake, in addition to blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
However, the latter study also found that a vegan diet can lead to deficiencies of nutrients like calcium, vitamins B12 (especially), vitamin D, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and zinc. "One drawback of a vegan diet is that it can be difficult to meet some nutritional needs," says Tonnessen.
2. Decide how strictly you want to follow the vegan lifestyle
Depending on your motivations for turning vegan and how strictly you want to follow the lifestyle, you can choose which foods and products you want to avoid. You can also decide whether you want to switch to a vegan lifestyle all at once, or slowly make the transition and see how it works for you.
People often choose to go vegan because it can help prevent the slaughter and suffering of other creatures; veganism is also a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, since meat production is wasteful and a major cause of pollution.
Other foods to avoid on a vegan diet:
According to the International Food Information Council, many vegans also avoid other animal products (apart from meat, eggs, and milk), like:
- Dairy products like butter, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, condensed milk, powdered milk, and ghee
- Honey, which is made by bees
- Gelatin, which is sometimes derived from animal bones and tissues
- Omega-3 acids derived from fish
- Protein powders like whey protein (milk-based), casein protein (milk-based), and albumen protein (egg-based)
- Materials like fur, silk, leather, and wool, which are obtained from animals
3. Look out for B12 deficiency
There are very few plant-based sources of vitamin B12. "Plant-based sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast or fortified products; however, supplementation may still be required for this vitamin," says Tonnessen.
This nutrient is of special concern with veganism, as 60% of people who are vegan may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is critical to the production of red blood cells, the functioning of the brain and nervous system, and the health of your hair, nails, and skin. It also plays a role in preventing depression. Symptoms of a deficiency include weakness, fatigue, and constipation.
4. Make sure you're getting enough calcium
Since vegan diets eliminate dairy products, which are rich sources of calcium, you may be at risk for a calcium deficiency once you go vegan.
"Eating a variety of dark, leafy greens and nuts can help increase your calcium intake. Fortified products such as orange juice, nut milks, and soy products have calcium added; oftentimes vitamin D will be added as well," says Tonnessen. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, so it's an equally important nutrient for healthy bones. Without vitamin D, your body is only able to absorb 10% to 15% of the calcium from your diet.
Quick tip: "If calcium is a concern, I would recommend tracking your intake for three days on an app such as MyFitnessPal and increasing intake based on that," says Tonnessen.
The recommended calcium intake is 1,000 milligrams per day for most adults. You might consider taking a calcium supplement if you're falling short of your requirement. But be aware of the fact that most calcium supplements contain vitamin D as well.
5. Explore different plant proteins
It is possible to meet your protein requirements without traditional sources of protein like meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs. You can try out different protein-rich plant-based foods and get creative.
Plant-based proteins are often good sources of fiber, according to Tonnessen, and they are also lower in saturated fat than animal proteins like beef, pork, skinned poultry, and cheese. Diets rich in saturated fat are associated with weight gain and heart disease.
6. Pair plant-based iron with vitamin C
To avoid an iron deficiency, Tonnessen says to make sure you're eating plenty of iron-rich foods, like:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Fortified cereals
The iron in plants is referred to as non-heme iron, which is harder for your body to absorb than animal-based iron, which is referred to as heme iron. Your body is able to absorb anywhere between 15% to 35% of the heme iron you eat, but only 2% to 20% of the non-heme iron you consume.
However, you can increase absorption of non-heme iron with a simple trick, according to Tonnessen: Eating plant-based iron with foods rich in Vitamin C, like bell peppers or oranges. Vitamin C will help you absorb iron. For example, you can make a warm quinoa salad with roasted bell peppers, or a leafy green salad garnished with orange slices.
7. Consult a nutritionist
Other nutrients of concern on a vegan diet may be omega-3 fatty acids and zinc. Omega-3 can be found in some plant-based foods like walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds. Chia seeds also contain zinc; this mineral is also added to fortified breakfast cereals.
Talking to a nutritionist before you go vegan can help you assess your nutritional requirements, structure your daily diet to make sure you're meeting all your needs, and determine which supplements you need.
8. Expect some initial discomfort
Changing your regular diet — whether it's for better or worse — may come with some gastrointestinal discomfort as your digestive tract gets used to the new menu.
In particular, vegans generally eat more fiber, which can be more taxing on digestion since our bodies don't have the enzymes to break down an excess of fiber. This may cause temporary discomfort in the form of gas, bloating, and cramping. Increasing your fiber intake gradually can help your body adjust to the changes along with drinking more fluids.
In the long run, increased fiber intake is in fact associated with healthier gut bacteria, so you can expect a healthier gut microbiome over time, as you commit to a vegan diet with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
9. Know that whether you lose weight will depend on your choices
Going vegan can help you lose weight; a small 2015 study assigned 62 participants to different diets, including vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous diets for a period of six months. The group following the vegan diet lost more weight (around 7.5% of their body weight) than any of the other groups, and also consumed the least saturated fat.
However, whether you actually lose weight or not can depend on your choices; you can gain weight on a vegan diet too, if your portion sizes are too large or if your diet involves a lot of processed or high-calorie foods, like desserts, fried foods, sweetened drinks, processed vegan meats and cheeses, and unhealthy snacks. Eating lots of chips, crackers, and cookies can lead to weight gain no matter which diet you follow.
If you're going to be visiting friends or family who are not vegan, it may be a good idea to:
- Inform them of your dietary preferences before you go.
- Discuss the menu and see whether they are able to offer a vegan option for some dishes, like making some beans for you as a substitute for meat in tacos, for example.
- Carry some vegan food you can eat, in case they're unable to accommodate your preferences — this could also be an opportunity to introduce them to vegan food.
10. Get used to scanning food labels
Many processed foods contain egg, milk, or milk products like whey, according to a 2016 study, so you may have to scan grocery labels to determine whether a food is vegan.
A plus is that many companies make it a point to label vegan foods appropriately, like vegan cheese for example, so that can make shopping easier for you. Many foods are also marked with the "Certified Vegan" logo, which can make it easier for you to identify them.
If a food is not labeled, you can check the ingredient list to determine whether it's vegan or not. These are some animal-based ingredients to watch out for:
|Ingredient||What it is|
|ShellacAlso known as: Resinous glaze, E904||A substance excreted by the lac insect|
|Carmine Also known as: E120||A red pigment obtained by killing cochineal beetles|
|LanolinAlso known as: E913||A substance secreted by sheep, obtained from sheep wool|
|Rennet||The stomach of a calf|
|Lactose/Dextrose||Sugars found in animal milk|
11. Understand that vegan food isn't automatically healthy
Even if your goal isn't necessarily weight loss, it's important to note that vegan food doesn't automatically mean healthy food.
"Sometimes people think anything labeled vegan, including processed foods, is healthy. Vegan cookies are still cookies with high sugar and fat content, so it's important to monitor this intake. If you're thinking of going vegan, focus on increasing your intake of whole foods instead of processed vegan snacks," says Tonnessen.
Some vegan snacks that are healthy include:
- Assorted nuts, seeds, and dried fruits
- Hummus with carrots, or other veggies
- Nut butter with fruits or veggies
- Guacamole with baked whole-grain vegan bread
12. Get creative when you eat out
Being vegan doesn't have to mean you can't eat out. Here are some simple tips that Tonnessen recommends when eating out:
- Look for vegan options on the menu or better yet look for restaurants that advertise they serve vegan-friendly meals
- Make sure the dish you're ordering was not cooked in butter or chicken stock.
- Order a few sides, if you're at a restaurant with limited options, as side dishes can often be prepared vegan.
Indian, Chinese, and Thai cuisines typically feature a lot of vegan options, according to Harvard Medical School, so you can opt for those restaurants when you eat out.
Vegan and plant-based diets are gaining popularity so see if there are any vegan designated restaurants in your area for a new dining experience.
13. Enjoy vegan versions of your favorite foods
In fact, many traditional favorites like burgers, pizza, lasagna, tacos, burritos, sandwiches, pancakes, and desserts can also be made with vegan ingredients. So, even though going vegan does involve changes to your lifestyle, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of your favorite foods.
Many people opt for the vegan lifestyle for ethical and environmental reasons, to avoid harming animals and help prevent climate change. Others decide to go vegan for health reasons, or because they simply don't enjoy meat.
A vegan diet is associated with health benefits like lower cholesterol and blood pressure, better heart health, and a reduced risk of cancer and diabetes.
However, it can be harder to obtain certain nutrients on a vegan diet, so you need to plan accordingly, to make sure you incorporate them into your diet. "With proper planning and education, a well-balanced vegan diet can work for anyone" says Tonnessen.
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