Veganism may seem like the pinnacle of clean eating. The ultimate health-food diet. The top of the top, nutrition-wise.
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But hold up.
“Just because it’s vegan does not mean it’s healthy.” That’s right. You can eat vegan and STILL be eating junk food.
Whether your favorite influencer has piqued your interest or you’re looking to boost your health, dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD explains the ins and outs of adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet means you don’t consume anything that comes from animals, including:
- Meat, poultry and fish/shellfish.
- Dairy – including cream sauces, dressings, or condiments.
- Meat-based broths, gravies or sauces.
“Some eat vegan food to protect the rights of animals, which is why some people may not consume honey and similar products that come from living things,” notes Zumpano. “And while a vegan diet is often associated with a healthier lifestyle, that’s only true when it’s based on whole, plant-based foods.”
Is it healthier to be vegan?
A vegan diet that’s low in processed foods and high in whole, plant-based foods has many health benefits, says Zumpano. “A plant-based diet involves more than not eating meat or animal products. It focuses on eating mainly fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and oils.”
A plant-based diet is rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Getting enough fiber promotes gut health and better blood sugar, weight and cholesterol control.
Other health benefits of plant-based diets include:
- Prevent heart disease.
- Help maintain a healthy weight and lose excess weight.
- May help control blood sugar and prevent Type 2 diabetes.
- Reduce levels of bad cholesterol.
- May lower cancer risk.
- May help decrease arthritis symptoms, including pain and joint swelling.
- May reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk.
“Just eating more plant-based foods overall is a huge leap in the right direction. So if being a vegan feels overwhelming, consider starting with a goal of eating more plant-based foods.”
The potential risks involved with eating a vegan diet
If you’re going to go vegan, keep one main thing in mind. There is actually a right — and wrong — way to do it.
“Eating vegan can lead to nutrient deficiencies because you’re eliminating a lot of food groups, such as protein and calcium sources,” Zumpano warns. “And if you follow a vegan junk food diet, you’re even more likely to experience deficiencies because you’re not getting enough vitamins, such as B12, zinc and vitamin D.”
A vegan junk food diet still respects animals — but it often replaces them with processed vegan foods. “Most fast food or restaurant vegan burgers can have the same number of calories and fat as a traditional hamburger. Potato chips and vegan baked goods exist, but that doesn’t make them healthy,” explains Zumpano. “The health benefits come when you don’t eat anything that walks — or comes in a box, bag or can.”
But before you run away from your computer screaming, that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge. “Everything is OK on occasion. On Thanksgiving, you don’t want to have to sit there twiddling your thumbs,” says Zumpano. “Enjoy that piece of vegan cheesecake. It’s the same as having a regular piece of cheesecake. Just keep within your overall health and diet goals.”
How to become a vegan
To go vegan, Zumpano recommends starting slowly with this path to veganism (shoot for one to two weeks for each step):
- Eliminate red meat.
- Drop chicken and keep eating fish.
- Start to incorporate meatless meals into your diet and see how you do with them.
- Experiment with new recipes.
- Drop dairy and replace it with dairy alternatives.
- Stop eating fish.
“I like to do it in a step-by-step process because it’s an easier transition. You always have something to fall back on instead of getting rid of too much, too soon,” she adds. “A vegan diet is tough on convenience. But once you have your essential pantry items and a good routine, it’s less of a challenge.”
Zumpano also emphasizes that everyone is different. “Some people may prefer doing it cold turkey. Or you could start by including a couple of meatless meals into your week to replace red meat. The key is building a foundation of good meatless recipes and meals to make the transition easier.”
Your ultimate vegan food list: How to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need
To make sure you’re getting your nutritional needs met, Zumpano says it’s important to proactively add plant sources of those nutrients to your diet.
To do this, Zumpano recommends eating:
Vegan protein sources
Protein is critical for growth and cellular repair. Good plant-based sources include:
- Soybeans and soy milk.
Vegan calcium sources
Calcium supports bone health. Zumpano says most milk alternatives are calcium fortified, so they are a good place to start. Vegan-friendly milk alternatives include:
- Almond milk.
- Cashew milk.
- Coconut milk.
- Rice milk.
- Soy milk.
- Hemp milk.
- Flax milk.
- Oat milk.
Be sure to check nutrition facts and ingredients for calcium, vitamin D and protein for these can vary greatly based on type and brand.
Other calcium-rich choices include:
- Dark, leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, broccoli and collard greens.
- Calcium-fortified cereals.
- Calcium-fortified orange juices.
Vegan sources of B vitamins
- Helps make red blood cells.
- Prevents anemia.
- Protects nerve cells.
Since you can’t get vitamin B12 from plant sources, try:
- Fortified breakfast cereals.
- Fortified soy foods, including tofu and soy milk.
- Nutritional yeast (a flaky dietary supplement that has a cheesy flavor).
Vegan sources of iron
There are two kinds of iron:
- Heme iron comes from animals.
- Non-heme iron comes from plants.
Your body doesn’t absorb plant sources of iron as well as iron from animals, Zumpano says. She recommends pairing plant sources of iron with vitamin C foods, such as citrus fruits, strawberries and tomatoes, to increase absorption.
Great plant sources of iron include:
- Blackstrap molasses.
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach.
- Dried fruits such as prunes, figs and raisins.
- Iron-fortified cereals.
- Whole grains.
Vegan sources of omega-3s
Omega-3 fats are important for heart health and eye and brain development. Eat these vegan alternatives to get your daily dose:
- Chia seeds.
- Ground flaxseeds.
- Hemp seeds.
- Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds.
Ready for the ultimate vegan treat? Give chia seed pudding a try. “You add blended dates or figs for some extra sweetness and an iron boost,” says Zumpano. “Eating a plant-based diet requires planning, but you have a lot of choices to meet all your nutrient needs. You may just have to take a step out of the norm to get them.”