Have you ever thought about going vegan? A vegan diet appeals to many people for different reasons, such as weight loss, religious beliefs, ethical concerns, or just improving the content of their diet in general. There’s no denying that a vegan diet which focuses on whole foods (rather than convenience foods) is a healthy one, but what do you need to know before you eliminate several food groups from your diet?
Fortunately for you, I have much experience on this subject because I became a vegan as a teen and learned so much about veganism and about nutrition in general. In fact, I would consider my experience as a vegan as one of the factors that led me to go back to school to study nutrition.
First off, what is a vegan? A vegan is someone who does not consume any animal products whatsoever (so, that means no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and some also consider honey to be an animal product, although some vegans will consume honey).
What does a vegan eat?
A healthy vegan diet will consist of whole grains, legumes (beans), nuts, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and the occasional vegan treat. Whole grains can come in form of eating the actual whole grain (brown rice, barley, quinoa and so on) or consuming products made from 100% whole grains (whole grain pasta, whole or sprouted grain bread, etc.). Legumes (or beans) include garbanzo beans (also referred to as chickpeas), black beans, pinto beans, etc., and also soy. Soy can be made into many different products, including tofu, tempeh (fermented soy, which kind of tastes like mushrooms, in my opinion), soymilk, veggie burgers, soy cheese, soy yogurt, and the list goes on. Some concerns about soy include its phytoestrogen content, which some scientists postulate could mimic the role of estrogen in humans, although the verdict is still out. I’d recommend eating soy in moderation, due to the mixed research findings behind it. Vegetables and fruit are a staple in the vegan diet and can be consumed in any way imaginable. A vegan diet typically contains high amounts of vitamin C, fiber, and phytochemicals because of this. Healthy fats in the vegan diet come from using plant oils, like olive and coconut oil. Nuts provide healthy fats along with some protein and fiber. Walnuts, in particular, contain the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential and not consumed nearly enough in a typical American diet. Due to the lack of animal products, the vegan diet can lead to deficiencies in some nutrients, which leads me to discuss the next issue…
Protein Needs and B-12 Supplementation
Meat, eggs, and dairy contain the highest amount of bioavailable protein (protein that is most easily absorbed and used by the human body). Without animal products, protein consumption is usually less, but there are ways to achieve an adequate protein intake on a vegan diet. Protein needs vary by sex, age, weight, and activity level. A rough estimate for an average person, is 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, (to calculate your weight in kg, divide pounds by 2.2). Protein needs will be higher in athletes, people recovering from illness, and those who are trying to build muscle mass. Sources of vegan protein include beans, plant protein powders (soy protein, pea protein, hemp protein, and a few others), and nuts. One issue with vegan protein is that beans and nuts lack certain essential amino acids (Amino acids are the building blocks of protein). One way to achieve a complete vegan protein is to combine beans/nuts with whole grains. This combination provides all the necessary amino acids. This is actually a common practice in many societies around the world (Latin American cuisine typically combines rice and beans in many dishes, for example).
Another issue with the vegan diet is the lack of B-12, which is only found in animal products. Vegans must supplement their diets with vitamin B-12 or else they will run into health problems, such as lack of energy, pernicious anemia, and nerve damage if the deficiency is long-term and extreme. In my own experience, I went a few months without B-12 supplementation and experienced a constant tingling sensation in my left arm and chest which was scary and forced me to become better educated about my diet as a vegan. Once I began supplementation, my health returned to normal but I can’t stress how important it is to supplement if you are a vegan!
In addition to making sure that you get adequate protein and vitamin B-12, Calcium can also be an issue in the vegan diet. Most Americans get their calcium through consuming dairy products. In the vegan diet, calcium can be found in fortified soymilk, almond milk, rice milk, or other imitation milks. Tofu, spinach, kale, and fortified orange juice are also good sources of Calcium. Most women, both vegan and not, don’t meet the RDA For calcium (around 1200 mg is needed), so if that is a concern for you, you can also take calcium supplements.
Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Hopefully the things to consider before becoming a vegan haven’t scared you off yet. Despite needing to plan a little more on the vegan diet, it still has many benefits such as
- Vegans typically have lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and weigh less than meat-eaters
- A diet based on whole grains, fruits, and veggies provides ample fiber and is rich in certain vitamins and minerals.
- Higher consumption of vegetables and fruits is strongly associated with lower risk of cancer
- Low-fat vegan/vegetarian diets are useful for people with heart disease and diabetes.
- Lower consumption of saturated fats and little trans-fat intake is correlated with better heart health (saturated fats are highest in animal foods)
- Increased fiber consumption leads to better digestive health (the less time your digested food is just sitting in your lower large intestine, the better).
Other benefits of a vegan diet can be found in the book "Becoming Vegan" by Brenda David and Vesanto Melina shown above.
My own take on the Vegan Diet and what you can learn from my experience
I became a vegan at the age of 15 and my reasons for doing so ranged from my love of animals to vanity. Looking back, I wish I was better educated about what makes up a healthy vegan diet instead of trying to do it on my own, especially at a young age where the desire to be thin can overtake any intention of good health. If you’re considering a vegan diet, do so because you genuinely want to live a healthier, more compassionate life, not because you want to lose weight and think veganism is the way to go. Truthfully, you may lose weight, but you shouldn’t make that your focus because it’s not sustainable and the goal of any diet should be overall health improvement. More health issues are created when we shift our focus towards immediate physical results rather than long-term health. That being said, I do believe the vegan diet is a very healthy one when it is properly planned and supplemented with the necessary vitamins and minerals. Veganism can be fun and exciting because you constantly find new ways to reinvent favorite recipes. More restaurants are offering vegan options and stores are selling more meat-alternative products.
To be a vegan means that you have compassion for all living creatures and that you value your health, and that is something to proud of.
Lastly, for anyone who is seriously considering a vegan diet, this is a sample of what an adequately planned day could look like. This plan provides 2,200 calories (which is ideal for an active adult female looking to maintain their weight). The macronutrient breakdown is 49% carbs, 33% fat, and 18% protein. Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron all exceed recommended values which just goes to show how easy it is to have a nutrient-dense vegan diet.
Green Smoothie (1 cup spinach, 1 cup unsweetened fortified almond milk, ½ banana, 1 cup berries of your choice), ice (alternatively, you could use frozen berries and omit the ice).
1 slice of sprouted grain bread with 1 tbsp. peanut butter topped with the remaining banana
B-Vitamin Complex or B-12 Supplement (take with food)
Veggie burger with spinach and salsa in a whole wheat wrap, kale salad consisting of chopped kale, cherry tomatoes, and baby carrots, 2 tbsp. cilantro dressing (or dressing of your choice).
Apple and Protein Bar (Clif Builder bar provides the most vegan protein out of all the vegan protein bars I’ve looked at).
Falafel (chickpeas, onions, and spices ground, molded, and sautéed in olive oil) over ¾ cup bulgar (a type of whole grain) or quinoa with veggies of your choice, 2 tbsp. tahini sauce, ½ a whole wheat pita with 2 tbsp. hummus
Post Workout Snack:
1 cup soymilk with a scoop of vegan protein powder
For more information on veganism, I encourage you to read the book, “Becoming Vegan” by Brenda Davis, R.D., and Vesanto Melina, R.D. If you need ideas of recipes, the picture below shows some of my favorite cookbooks and recipe sources.