This day and age, we can’t open our phones without being bombarded by different messages and diet advice, promising us a thin body, increased energy and happiness. A new diet pops up every day, promising a quick fix to all of your problems. Know this: There is no magic pill.
However, that doesn’t mean that all diets are created equal. Some have more evidence behind them than others.
One diet that’s getting more and more attention for its health benefits (and for the ethical and environmental side of it) is the vegan diet.
What is a vegan diet? It’s a diet that avoids all animal products, including eggs, dairy, honey, fish, meat, poultry, gelatine and any other animal-based products. A well balanced vegan diet offers a lot of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants as well as several health benefits. Many people are adopting a vegan diet for different reasons, including its health benefits, ethics, budget, environment or more.
Are you considering a vegan or vegetarian diet?
Before jumping into a plant-based way of eating, there are a few things you should know.
Note that I’m not vegan myself, but I do eat a vegetarian diet, which includes vegan meals 95% of the time. I’m all for incorporating more plant-based meals when done right and that’s the important thing – doing it right.
To adopt a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet, there are some things to keep in mind and that’s what I’m sharing today.
1. Eating a vegan or vegetarian diet doesn’t automatically make you healthy
Yes, a plant-based diet, when done right, can have many health benefits (more on that later). However, it doesn’t automatically translate to a healthy diet.
To be clear, there is such a thing as vegan or vegetarian “junk food”. Chips, candy, fries, white bread… It all fits into a vegan diet. Does that mean it’s healthy? No.
Also, whole wheat toast with peanut butter may be healthy, but it doesn’t mean it’s healthy to eat it at every meal.
Variety is important in a plant-based diet, just like it is important in an omnivore diet. You need fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts or seeds to thrive on a plant-based diet. Treats (vegan or not) should be eaten in moderation.
Another thing to note is that prepared vegan foods, such as packaged veggie burgers, sausages and other soy-based fake meats, aren’t all healthy. They can be high in sodium and other additives. Yes, they can be a good alternative to meat on occasion, but try to go for healthier options, such as tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils and other sources of protein for your meals. Whether you include these packaged vegan products to your diet or not will be a personal choice.
2. You will need to pay more attention to a few key nutrients
While a plant-based diet can be beneficial to your health, you do need to pay careful attention to a few key nutrients:
Iron: There are two types of iron – Heme iron (found in animal products) and non-heme iron (found in plants). You can certainly get enough iron when eating a balanced vegan or vegetarian diet, but you do need to eat more iron to meet your needs. That being said, non-heme iron (from plants) isn’t as easily absorbed as heme iron. That means a vegetarian or vegan needs almost twice as much iron, just because of the difference in absorption. Good sources are beans, soy products, peas, lentils, blackstrap molasses and some vegetables. In Canada, grain products are also fortified with iron.
- Vitamin C: Our bodies better absorb non-heme iron when eaten with a source of vitamin C. For that reason, you may want to add citrus fruit, strawberries, broccoli, peppers or other sources of vitamin C to your meals when eating a source of iron.
Vitamin B12: Vegetarians may not have any issues getting enough vitamin B12, but it may be a little harder for vegans. Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal products. If vegetarian, you can get it from dairy and eggs. If vegan, try to drink fortified non-dairy beverages or have some nutritional yeast.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is important for strong bones and teeth. We can get some vitamin D from the sun, but the truth is, most Canadians aren’t exposed to the sun enough to meet their needs. Some plant-based sources include: fortified non-dairy beverages or non-hydrogenated margarine.
Calcium: Calcium is important for healthy bones and muscles. The best source of calcium is dairy, which works for vegetarians, but if vegan, you do have to find other options. Vegan sources of calcium include: tofu prepared with calcium sulfate, navy beans, white beans, fortified dairy-free beverages, almonds, tahini, blackstrap molasses, some fruits and vegetables.
Zinc: Zinc is needed for the immune system, growth and development. Some good sources: Soy products, pumpkin seeds, tahini, nuts, whole grains, fortified cereals and beans.
Omega-3: This healthy fat is important for eyes, nerves and brain development and helps prevent heart disease. The best sources are fish, but some plant-based sources are ground flaxseeds, soybeans, tofu, walnuts and oils (flax, walnut, canola). Like iron, plant-based sources of omega-3 aren’t as well absorbed as animal based sources.
A supplement may be necessary if you aren’t getting enough of any of these nutrients from your diet. Your doctor may have you do blood work regularly to make sure you’re getting what you need (for example, checking your ferritin or B12 levels). You can also get some personalized advice from a registered dietitian.
3. Yes, you can get enough protein
Protein is important for growth, healthy muscles and red blood cells. It is true that meat, eggs and dairy are good sources of protein, but you can meet your needs with a well-balanced vegan or vegetarian diet. Let me explain:
Protein is made from amino acids. Some amino acids are made in our body (non-essential) and others need to be taken from food (essential). The protein in meat is a complete protein. That means it contains all the amino acids you need in that one food.
When it comes to plant protein, you need combinations. Most plant proteins are not complete proteins, which means, it’s missing one or more amino acids, with the exception of soy, hemp, quinoa and buckwheat. That’s why you can’t always rely on one source of plant protein, you need a variety. With a varied diet, you should be able to get all the amino acids you need.
Try to include some grains, legumes and nuts and seeds to your diet every day to get all the essential amino acids. Note that you don’t need to eat these foods together to get what you need. Just make it a point to eat them every day, whether it’s in the same meal or not.
4. You won’t necessarily lose weight
It is possible to overeat on a vegan diet, just like it is possible to eat unhealthily or to be inactive. As I said earlier, the fact that something is vegan doesn’t automatically make it healthy. Eating an abundance of potato chips, candy, dairy-free chocolate or other treats can lead to weight gain and guess what? They’re vegan.
Also, it is possible to gain weight if eating large quantities of nuts, avocado, whole wheat bread and fruits. They’re all healthy, but it doesn’t mean you should overeat.
If you listen to your hunger cues, stay active and eat a balanced plant-based diet, then yes, you can certainly lose weight! Veganism or vegetarianism isn’t the answer to weight loss, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t help. Vegans and vegetarians do tend to have lower BMIs. However, it doesn’t mean it’s a quick fix.
5. It can be restrictive
One of the most common concerns with a vegan diet is that it can be restrictive. Yes, it does eliminate a few major food groups, which can be overwhelming and challenging at times.
Whether the restrictions are too much for you to handle or not is entirely up to you. If you’re interested in a vegan diet, but are worried about the restrictions, maybe transitioning to a vegetarian diet first would be a good choice. Or you could simply incorporate a few vegan meals per week to your diet. Just think about your food preferences, habits and health and make a decision that best fits you.
6. A vegan and vegetarian diet can offer several health benefits
It’s true, a plant-based diet can offer several health benefits. Eating a balanced plant-based diet can help protect you against hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It can also lower the risks of certain types of cancers.
Why? A plant-based diet tends to be higher in fiber, fruits and vegetables. It’s also lower in saturated fat. You can certainly benefit from eating more plant-based meals every week
7. A plant-based diet can save you money
That one may come as a shock to some of you, but yes, a plant-based diet is cheaper. That depends on what you buy of course. If you’re buying organic sprouted bread, goji berries and vegan cheese every week, then no, you probably won’t save money. But those fancy ingredients aren’t necessary on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Beans, tofu, oats, rice… Those are all healthy and cheap vegan ingredients. Let’s face it, meats and cheeses are expensive. Also, before you say that vegetables are expensive, you should be eating them, whether you’re on a vegan diet or not.
8. It does require some planning
To ensure that you are getting all of the required nutrients, you will need to plan your meals a little. You’ll need to read labels and plan out your meals, making sure you’re getting some protein, iron, vitamin B12, etc. Also, when going to the restaurant, you may want to check menus to see if they have vegan options.
While it does take some getting used to, a vegan diet does become easier with time. You’ll learn how to cook with different ingredients, which food groups you need to include daily, you’ll find some new favorite recipes and you’ll know where to find vegan options when eating out.
9. You don’t need to do it all at once
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You don’t have to go from an omnivore diet to a vegan diet.
If you’re new to a plant-based way of eating, start with a few vegetarian or vegan meals per week. Gradually increase to a few vegetarian days per week. You can then adapt a vegetarian diet and then a vegan diet when you’re ready.
A vegan diet can be a big change, so it’s good to experiment with it at first. However, if you know that jumping from an omnivore diet to a vegan diet is right for you, then do it! It’s really all up to you and what you’re ready to do.
To paraphrase The First Mess, millions of people eating one plant-based meal per day is much more impactful than 100 completely perfect vegans. This being said, make sure you’re shifting to a plant-based diet in a way that’s sustainable and healthy for you.