The health benefits of a vegan diet are impressive. Studies have shown that replacing meat and/or dairy with fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and other nutrient-dense plant-based foods is linked to living longer and may lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. But you have to have a plan—without a thoughtful approach, it’s just as easy to be an unhealthy vegan as an unhealthy omnivore. So whether you want to go full-on vegan or just want to cut back on your red meat consumption, be sure to do it right.
3 Big Vegan Missteps
Misstep #1: Choosing convenience over nutrition. No matter what diet you follow, the best foods are whole foods—unadulterated or minimally processed. Just as we saw with many foods labeled “gluten-free” and “fat-free,” processed foods that proclaim to be “vegan friendly” could be loaded with added sugar, saturated fats from palm and coconut oils, fillers and other additives. The more you rely on them, the less likely you’ll be to reap the documented benefits of being vegan.
Misstep #2: Swapping one form of saturated fat for another. Plant-based meats may be useful, especially if you still crave the taste and texture of meat. When swapping a plant-based meat for an animal-based meat, consider all the ingredients, and assess the nutrition facts label. Why? Because plant-based meat still may have high amounts of saturated fats. They also may be higher in sodium.
Natural plant-based sources of protein, often found in beans and legumes, provide not only protein but a wallop of fiber as well. To consume adequate protein, consider these natural sources in addition to minimally processed plant-based substitutes.
Misstep #3: Making the switch on your own. It can be difficult to figure out how to replace the essential nutrients you used to get from animal-based foods without the guidance of a dietitian. Even if you’ve already gone vegan, he/she can evaluate your food choices, help you get tested for various macro- and micronutrient levels, refine your diet based on these test results…and suggest the right supplements (such as B-12) in the right doses.
The Healthy Way to Go Vegan
The secret to success is crafting a diet that checks off all the important nutrient boxes. What are the most important deficits you face? Here’s what you need to know to reach your daily intake goals…
Protein. Focus on legumes, the plant foods with the most protein…all types of beans, lentils, dried peas, quinoa, peanuts and soy, such as tofu and edamame. Nuts and seeds also are good sources. Just how many grams of protein you need each day depends on many factors, including your age, gender and activity level. A registered dietitian can help you determine your specific protein needs.
Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 is needed to produce red blood cells as well as protect your brain and central nervous system. It is one of the most likely vitamin deficiencies for vegans because it primarily comes from animal-based sources of protein. To meet the recommended goals of 2.4 micrograms (mcg) per day, a supplement often is necessary. If your doctor determines that you need to supplement, you may want to consider a sublingual (under-the-tongue) form because the digestive process can start well before it hits the stomach.
Vitamin D. Not absorbing enough D is a common concern for the majority of individuals, especially during the winter months or in areas where the sun is either not strong enough or not out enough for your skin to get enough UV rays to synthesize this essential vitamin. Best: Ask your health-care provider to test your circulating vitamin D level to determine what supplement dose you need. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adults up to age 70 is 600 international units (IU) or 15 micrograms (mcg). After age 70, the RDA is 800 IU/20 mcg.
Calcium. Vegans may fall short when it comes to getting the needed 1,000 mg/day of calcium. Because the body absorbs natural calcium sources better than supplements, your first step to boost your intake is through food. Among calcium-rich foods, the body absorbs the most from collard greens and other greens such as kale, Chinese cabbage, broccoli and bok choy. You also can consume calcium through tofu, beans, almonds, tahini (hulled sesame seeds that are toasted and ground), figs and sea vegetables. If you’re still not getting enough, go for minimally processed foods with added calcium, such as plant milks. Finally, if you do consider a supplement, discuss options with your doctor about which types make the most sense for you and your health goals.
Iron. According to the RDA, men and postmenopausal women need 8 mg/day of iron…perimenopausal women, 18 mg/day. If you’re eating a diet with plenty of whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and green leafy vegetables, you’re likely getting enough iron. Also, having a food rich in vitamin C at the same time boosts iron absorption—great sources of vitamin C include red bell peppers, broccoli and strawberries.
Zinc. Many of the same foods that satisfy iron needs will meet the ones for zinc—the recommended amount of zinc is 11 mg/day for men and 8 mg/day
Iodine. Iodine is essential for proper thyroid function. You could be at risk for an iodine deficiency if you don’t eat much shellfish and you don’t use iodized table salt (iodine is not added to gourmet salts). One way to get the needed 150 mcg/day is through seaweed-based foods such as nori, kelp and wakame.
Omega-3s. Vegan diets eliminate marine-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, many plant-based sources, such as walnuts, algae, chia seeds, flaxseed and hemp seed, have been found beneficial in providing plenty of omega-3s. These plant-based options provide omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). There’s no set recommended daily intake from the National Academy of Medicine, but the “adequate intake” of ALA is 1.6 g/day for men and 1.1 g/day for women. If you need to supplement, algal oil capsules are a good alternative to fish oil.
For gut health. Choosing fiber-rich foods will support diversity in your gut microbiome, which plays a big role in tamping down inflammation and keeping you healthy. Vegan diets can provide great sources of both prebiotics (nondigestible fibers) and probiotics (live microorganisms). Prebiotics can be found in whole grains, bananas, leeks, sea moss gel and Jerusalem artichokes. To get probiotics from fermented foods when you’re skipping yogurt and kefir, consider tempeh and unpasteurized kombucha and sauerkraut.
For weight and blood sugar control. Because it is even possible to overindulge in healthy foods like nuts and seeds, it’s always a good idea to eat mindfully and listen to your hunger cues. If you’re trying to lose weight or have insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, moderate your carbohydrate consumption and make key choices such as quinoa instead of brown rice…almond flour instead of whole-wheat flour…and berries instead of bananas. Low- and moderate-carb dietary patterns have been found to be beneficial for weight loss and disease prevention.