Thinking about making the switch to being a vegan? If you’ve been eating meat all your life but think you want to go vegan, whether for personal or nutritional reasons, there are a number of things you should know before you begin.
It’s important to acknowledge the slight differences between being a vegan and a vegetarian. Vegetarians are those who avoid animal-based food products, but some may still include dairy, eggs, or fish. On the other hand, vegans are the strictest form of vegetarians and exclude all animal-based foods as well as any animal derived ingredients. This means they would also ban items such as honey and whey from their diet. They will also refrain from using any animal-based skin care products or wearing clothing made from animal fur or hide.
When used improperly, a vegan or strict vegetarian diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies and major health problems down the road. Research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition (2012) noted that restrictive diets, such as vegetarianism, may result in nutritional deficiencies with harmful effects on health. However, a plant-centred diet that also includes some fish, dairy products, and even small amounts of red meat have demonstrated significant improvements in health status. Further, research published in the journal Nutrition Reviews (2013) noted that vegetarians often demonstrated vitamin B12 deficiencies, often between 25 - 86% in children and 11 - 90% in the elderly. Those who were vegan experienced even higher deficiency rates.
While you may not necessarily be open to adding a small amount of animal-based foods to your diet, if you are careful to ensure your nutritional needs are being met, you can avoid unwanted deficiencies. In fact, when done properly, a vegan diet is a great way to improve your energy levels and can decrease your risk for a number of different diseases.
Research published in the journal Nutrients (2014) noted that overall, vegetarians tend to experience protection against cardiovascular disease, cardiometabolic risk factors, some cancers, as well as total mortality. In addition to that, vegans experience additional protection against obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality. These findings demonstrate that a plant-based diet can have its advantages for your health.
This guide covers the basics of going vegan, covering some important facts you’ll need to know in order to make the transition healthy and successful.
Things To Know Before You Go Vegan
As much as you may want to dive right in, resist the urge and do some homework first. There are a few things you need to understand so that you can make the most of your new nutrition plan.
1. Veganism isn’t just about avoiding animal-based foods.
Some vegans make the mistake of thinking that as long as they avoid animal-based foods they’re being successful. This isn’t the case. There still needs to be a focus on your overall health and selecting a variety of foods which are nutrient dense options. You could live on rice cakes, potato chips, and French fries and still be vegan, but you would be the furthest thing from healthy.
The same smart nutrition rules that apply to carnivores still apply to vegans. Specifically, you need to take in all your macro and micro nutrients, without any animal-based foods, which may require some research and planning.
2. Balance is still key.
Going along with this thought process, it’s still vital that you strive for balance in your diet plan. Some vegans have the problem of taking in an abundance of carbohydrates, while skimping on dietary fat and protein. You still require these nutrients in your diet, so you’ll need to find vegan-friendly foods to fill these voids.
If the majority of your intake is carbs, it won’t take long before you’re deficient in the other nutrients. Soon, you’ll feel lethargic and weak, and your immune system will be become depressed, making you susceptible to illness.
3. It’s smart to track your energy intake, at least for the first while.
When you first make the jump to veganism, you should track your macro intake, at least for the first month or two. Some vegans make the mistake of relying too much on salads, which often leads to a decrease in their overall calorie intake. When they wonder why they’re low in energy, they often chalk it up to the simple fact that they’re no longer eating meat, when it’s likely due to the lower caloric intake.
You still need to maintain your target caloric intake in order to keep your energy and strength levels up. Tracking your nutrients is a great way to ensure that you do.
While you keep these three points in mind, let’s cover some food tips to help you as you eliminate animal-based foods.
Smart Food Swaps
When you first make the decision to go vegan, it can be hard to figure out how you’ll manage to get your protein in. Without eating animal-based foods, it might seem impossible to hit your daily intake value.
The good news is that there are more protein-dense foods, beyond meat, than you may think. Here are some of the best protein options a vegan can consume:
- Green peas
- Nuts and nut butter
- Beans and chickpeas
- Leafy greens
- Chia seeds
- Sesame, sunflower, and poppy seeds
- Ezekiel bread
You might also want to think about a vegan-friendly protein supplement such as hemp, pea, or brown rice. These options are great to help ensure your protein needs are being met, and for a quick and convenient protein boost if you’re pressed for time. As you can see, there are a wide variety of options.
Beyond protein, there are other nutrients many vegans fall short in, which are important to identify and ensure you aren’t at risk of. These nutrients include calcium, vitamin B12, zinc, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin D. Research found that up to 86.5% of all vegetarians may be deficient in vitamin B12 (Babatunde et al., 2014), with vegans experiencing even greater deficiency rates. This illustrates just how serious of an issue this can be.
For calcium, turn to foods like almonds, soy yogurt, and calcium fortified foods (orange juice is commonly fortified). Be careful about consuming spinach and other greens as your main source of calcium. While these do contain calcium, they also contain oxalate, which can reduce the absorption of calcium in the body. This doesn’t mean you should avoid greens, but they shouldn’t be your main source of calcium.
For vegans, good sources of zinc include soybeans and cashews. While it’s difficult to find non-animal sources of iron, sunflower seeds can help you meet your recommended intake. Unfortunately, it is quite hard to sustain optimal amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin A, and iron from vegan-friendly foods. Some foods do contain these nutrients, but again contain oxalates, so they aren’t absorbed as they should be. For those nutrients, supplementation will be key to maintaining optimal health.
Supplements To Keep You Healthy And Strong
Smart supplementation will be important for your overall health. To get the most from your vegan diet, there are a few supplements you’ll want to include to ensure that your nutritional needs are being met.
This includes a quality vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, and vitamin B12 supplement. In addition to that, you may also want to consider taking a vegan-friendly omega-3. Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia (2013) noted that intakes of EPA and DHA are low in vegetarians and virtually absent in vegans. As you won’t be consuming any fatty fish in your diet, this can help ensure you are meeting your needs for this essential nutrient. You can also find omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and seeds. If you are eating plenty of those, you may be fine without supplementation.
To support your efforts in the gym, you’ll want to supplement with a good quality protein as well as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine. KAGED MUSCLE offers vegan-friendly amino acids that are fermented using vegetable sources as raw materials. The fermented BCAAs will help spur protein synthesis, protect against muscle catabolism and stock your muscles with more energy. Your muscle glutamine levels plummet during hard training. Taking glutamine before a workout has been shown to reduce inflammation and protect against damage to muscle cells.
Reading Product Labels
Last but not least, as you venture into veganism, it’s important that you learn how to read product labels and nutrition facts tables. This will allow you to decipher whether it is vegan-friendly and whether it is a nutritious food for you to eat.
The first thing you’ll want to check is the ingredient list. Read through the ingredients for any animal byproducts. If it passes this test, check to see how many of the ingredients are recognizable. The more unknown ingredients on the list, the more processed the food is, resulting in a less-healthy option. For the healthiest option, focus on eating as many ‘single ingredient’, whole foods as these are not processed at all.
After taking a look at the ingredient list, you’ll want to look at the nutrition facts table and serving size. First, ensure the serving size listed matches how much you plan on eating, otherwise you’ll need to prorate the calorie and macro counts accordingly.
Once you’ve calculated the correct serving size, look at the balance of carbs, proteins, and fats. You’ll want to ensure that these values work with your own unique diet and what you need this food to fulfill. This is how you can be certain that it’s providing you with the right nutrients for your goals.
You will also want to check the sugar and fiber content as well as the type of fat found in the food. It’s advised to keep the total sugar content to fewer than 3-4 grams per 100 calorie serving (unless it’s fruit, in which case a higher sugar content is okay). Fiber will vary based on the type of food, but any carbohydrate-rich food should provide at least 2-3 grams of fiber per 100 calories. In terms of fat, you want to avoid trans fats as much as possible.
If all of these are checked off your list, then you can feel confident you’ve found a healthy food to add to your vegan diet plan.
Going vegan can be a very healthy way of eating, but it must be done right. Take the time to plan out your diet properly to ensure you maintain your health. You shouldn’t just go vegan on a whim – you need to learn some intricacies of nutrition and so that you can see optimal results from the dietary change.
Pawlak, R., Lester, S. E., & Babatunde, T. (2014). The prevalence of cobalamin deficiency among vegetarians assessed by serum vitamin B12: a review of literature. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 68(5), 541-548.