So you’ve decided to try a vegan diet? Well, if you want to do it in the healthiest way possible, this is probably the most complete, one-stop guide you need to learn how.
There are plenty of good reasons to follow a vegan diet: you might be concerned about the wellbeing of farm animals or you might want to reduce your carbon footprint to help the environment. You might also want to improve your health and plant-based diets can definitely help with that… if done well. As a nutritionist, that’s why I wanted to write this article: to make sure that if you do follow a vegan diet, that you do it the best way possible and avoid many of the pitfalls some vegans succumb to when they start this way of eating.
Let me also say that I don’t think “Veganuary” is a good idea. It’s just a marketing ploy by the vegan or health food industries that takes advantage of the fact that most people are feeling crappy about the weight they’ve gained over the holidays (or 2020 in general…you know what I’m talking about) and feel they need to do something drastic to remedy it: so they go vegan. It’s just part of a bigger problem of people believing that the more extreme a diet is, the better it must be… it’s total BS but I’m not going to get into that here. If you’ve made your decision, I’m going to make sure you do it the right way.
My thoughts on plant-based diets
While I’m not a vegan myself, I think plant-based diets can be incredibly healthy, if done the right way. I’m going to point out many flaws that vegan diets can have but only so I can teach you how to fix the issues in your own diet.
For your convenience, I've added scientific references [in square brackets] at the bottom of the text, in case you want to read any further.
You might have noticed that earlier I said “plant-based” instead of “vegan” diets when I was talking about health benefits and there is a very good reason for that: VEGAN DIETS AREN’T NECESSARILY HEALTHY! To be vegan, something just needs to not contain products of animal origin or made with animal exploitation. That means that meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey (made by exploited) bees are out. The problem is someone could cut all those foods out and still have a diet based on low nutrient, high calorie, processed vegan foods which wouldn’t be very healthy overall (think of a diet based around refined cookies, breads and cakes with very few whole foods).
The other issue is that some people who decide to go vegan don’t understand that some animal foods are very nutrient-dense  which means if they cut out those foods, without replacing the missing nutrients through a well-thought-out diet, they WILL eventually become deficient. Just in case you don’t believe me on that, there is plenty of evidence to show that IN GENERAL, vegans are more deficient in nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, selenium and vitamin B12 [2-7] and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) [8, 9] compared to meat and dairy eaters. That means that vegans following a poorly planned diet may be at greater risk of a number of problems such as anemia , bone fractures [10, 11] and potentially depression  (although the risk of depression seems to increase with the amounts of food groups excluded from a diet, not just vegan diets per se ).
The Good News
You’ll be happy to know that those deficiencies can be avoided with a little education and a well-planned vegan diet. So, read on and learn how to go vegan, the right way.
Don’t just eliminate. Replace!
The big mistake most people make when starting a vegan diet is to just eliminate animal foods without replacing them with foods that provide similar nutrients. As I already mentioned, animal-based foods (meat, eggs, dairy, fish etc) can contribute a significant amount of nutrients to the diet  so just cutting them out could put you at a nutritional disadvantage.
So, if you eliminate a food that contributes a lot of nutrients to your diet, it’s worth knowing what you’re going to be missing out on so you can replace it.
For example, if you decide to cut out meat you’ll need to replace it with good sources of:
Iron (extra green leafy vegetables, pulses like beans and lentils, fortified cereal products like breads)
Zinc (nuts and seeds, pulses like beans and lentils, fortified cereal products like breads)
Vitamin B12 (fortified cereal products and other fortified foods like marmite or nutritional yeast)
If you cut out dairy, you’re going to need to include good sources of:
Calcium (dark green vegetables especially kale and broccoli, tofu (calcium is used in the manufacturing process), fortified cereal products and fortified plant milks)
Iodine (iodized salt, seaweed (probably not going to be a major source of iodine for anyone outside of east Asia), fortified plant milks)
I'm just going to point out now that not all plant-based milk alternatives are equal and many aren't fortified so always read the label to make sure you get something that provides at least the calcium you'd normally get from dairy.
So you, see, you can’t just eliminate one food without suitably replacing the nutrients you might be missing.
The next section will cover the specific nutrients that vegans should be extra careful with… and how to get them easily.
Don’t be afraid to supplement
One thing that I find incredibly illogical is some people’s refusal to use supplements. It’s almost like people consider them to be morally wrong but let me tell you a secret: If you’re following a “normal” diet already, you’re already using supplements and if you’re a vegan you NEED SUPPLEMENTS to survive. Let me explain.
Most cereal products are already “fortified” with vitamins and minerals to prevent deficiencies in the general population. Fortification is the process of adding “supplementary” vitamins and minerals to foods. So if you eat food made with flour, for example, you’re probably supplementing already. As for vegans needing supplements: Vitamin B12 is essential for life and is quite a common deficiency in the general population but more so in vegans. Vitamin B12 is not present in any plant foods…naturally. However, many vegan foods contain B12 because they are fortified with it. So vegans need to supplement to live (a supplement is a supplement whether it comes pre-prepared in a food or as a pill) AND THAT’S OK!
What nutrients do I need to be careful with?
Iron is essential for the formation of hemoglobin, the red pigment in our blood that transports oxygen around our body. A deficiency can lead to iron deficiency anemia problems like poor cognition, fatigue and poor immune function. It’s really important to bear in mind that iron from plant sources isn’t as easily absorbed as iron from animal sources (heme-iron), and plants often have substances known as anti-nutrients like phytates which can make it a little harder to absorb iron (and other minerals) [14, 15]. That means aiming to get higher doses is a good idea.
Men should aim for at least 9mg and women at least 15mg per day.
Zinc is important for immune function, metabolism, growth and repair. A deficiency can lead to growth problems, hair loss and even delayed wound healing and susceptibility to infection. Zinc is hard to get exclusively from plant foods  so supplementing may be a good idea.
Men should aim for at least 9mg and women at least 15mg per day.
Selenium is needed for the formation of antioxidant enzymes that can protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals and oxidative stress which are lined to a number of chronic health conditions. Selenium deficiency can be pretty widespread depending on where in the world someone lives as the content in foods depends on the selenium content of the soil it’s grown or raised on. While you might consider supplementing this mineral, it’s also pretty easy to get your daily dose of selenium with a couple of brazil nuts .
Men should aim for 75µg and women 60 µg a day.
Needed for the formation of thyroid hormones and thus for proper metabolism. Like selenium, iodine can be deficient in foods produced in areas with low soil iodine and that’s why iodine fortification and iodised salt is so common.
Try to get 140µg a day
Essential for a host of processes in the body including protein metabolism and the formation of hemoglobin in red blood cells (that’s why a deficiency can lead to anemia). This vitamin is simply not present in any plant-based foods so if a food does contain it, it’s because it has been added in the manufacturing process.
Aim for 10µg per day
Make things easy for yourself
It's worth pointing out at this point that you can get all of the vitamins and minerals I've mentioned, in the appropriate dosages, from a good vegan multi-vitamin and mineral. DO yourself a favour by investing in your health and getting a good one.
For the rest of the nutrients I'm going to mention, you might want to get them as separate supplements in order to get sufficient doses.
Essential for bone formation and muscle function. A deficiency can lead to a greater risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis or brittle bones as we age. Dairy is not only a concentrated source of calcium but also a very easily absorbable form (due to a number of other nutrients present in dairy)  which is why vegans often have trouble getting enough.
Aim for at least 700mg per day.
Long-chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Long chain omega-3s (which we usually get from oily fish) play a role in many different aspects of health from brain development and function and mood stability to muscular and heart health . Many people will claim that you can get enough omega-3s from your diet but the problem is vegans can only get short chain omega-3s from diet alone. This short chain omega-3 is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and needs to be converted by our bodies into the longer EPA and DHA which are much more biologically active . The problem is our bodies aren’t very efficient at this and we only convert around 5-8% of ALA to EPA and far less to DHA . So what can you do? Luckily there are long-chain omega-3 fatty acid supplements derived from algae (Algal omega-3s) which are an excellent (if expensive) substitute for fish oils.
If you’re young and otherwise healthy a dose of 300-500mg of long chain omega-3 is a good place to start. Older folks with heart conditions may need more.
Get some good D
This is another piece of advice that applies to everyone regardless of their diet. Vitamin D deficiency is very common , particularly in northern latitudes because people simply don’t get enough sun exposure, which we need to make it as there no commonly eaten foods that are good sources of vitamin D . We spend most of our time indoors and when we are outside, we’re often covered in clothes which means our skin can’t make enough vitamin D to keep us healthy .
If you’re concerned about your levels, you can get them tested easily but a good place to start with supplements is 2000-5000 IU per day.
Muscle Up with Creatine
You may not have expected this on the list but creatine is something vegans could really benefit from. Creatine is a non-protein amino acid found in meat which can is used in high intensity energy production. This makes it a really beneficial substance for anyone who wants to improve their sports performance, strength or muscle mass . It’s also really beneficial for brain health and cognitive performance so it may be really useful for older people too [25, 26]. Meat eaters tend to have higher levels of muscle creatine than vegans because creatine isn’t found in a vegan diet  so if you’re vegan and want to get the benefits of this incredibly effective substance, supplementing is the best way.
Aim for 3-5g per day
The Protein Dilemma
Many vegans like to make jokes about how easy it actually is to get “enough” protein in their diet without knowing how much is enough. Unfortunately, vegans are often found to have the much lower protein intakes compared to omnivores  and this is associated with much lower muscle mass . Low muscle mass can lead to sarcopenia, another name for a loss of muscle size and function which is becoming an epidemic in older populations and can lead to other health problems like heart disease, diabetes and frailty . Believe me when I say, muscle loss is a major issue that we need to address at the population level (it is the main focus of my PhD, afterall).
The problem is that many vegans assume the RDA for protein is only 0.8g/kg of body weight per day . The thing is, this is the amount of protein needed to prevent deficiency, not for optimal health. More recent research indicates that older adults may need 1.2–1.5 g/kg/day of protein to maintain optimal health and physical function [31, 32]. So if you weigh 70kg, that’s 84 -105g of protein a day. For older adults who want to put on muscle and strength (which from a health perspective is a very good idea), more may be even more beneficial.
Another issue is that plant-based sources of protein are often lower in quality. Basically they can be low in some of the amino acids (building blocks of protein) needed by the human body: these proteins are often called "incomplete" (meaning they are low in certain essential amino acids) . For example, many vegan meat-alternatives are made with wheat protein which is a low-quality protein, low in certain amino acids. Meat, dairy and eggs on the other hand are what are called complete proteins (as they have all the essential amino acids in the necessary quantities for human growth) and may be more beneficial for muscle health. However it is absolutely possible to get enough protein on a vegan diet, you just need to be smart about how you do it. Legumes like bean, peas and lentils are commonly mentioned as vegan protein sources but they are still incomplete sources so they should be combined with cereal proteins found in grains like wheat or rice. And while some people will say you don’t need to combine proteins in the same meal, if you want to benefit your muscles as much as possible, you definitely should combine them .
However, you can also find some great complete vegan proteins like soy (e.g. tofu and textured vegetable protein (TVP)) and my new favourite, Mycoprotein. Mycprotein is a protein made from a type of fungus/mushroom that is rich in essential amino acids and has recently been shown to stimulate muscle growth as well as animal sources [34, 35]. Mycoprotein is available under the brand name “Quorn”. Just remember, not all Quorn products are vegan (some use a little egg white). I consider Mycoprotein to be amongst the best vegan protein/ meat substitutes available and definitely worth trying if you want to add more protein to your diet.
I’m also going to point this out because it doesn’t seem to get mentioned enough in vegan circles: just because a food CONTAINS protein, doesn’t means it’s a GOOD SOURCE of protein. The prime examples are: broccoli, which does contain protein but you would need to eat a stupid volume of it to get enough to be beneficial for muscle health; and nuts, which you can eat enough of to get enough protein but they also come with a silly amount of calories. There are far better sources of protein that keep the volume and calories lower (like mycoprotein, tofu or textured vegetable protein (TVP)).
Finally, don’t be afraid to supplement your diet with vegan protein powders which are not only convenient but can also be a lot lower in calories than many vegan whole protein foods like beans. This makes them a sensible option if you find it hard to eat a lot of food or don’t want to eat too many calories.
For a more in-depth look at the vegan protein options available on the market these days, check out this article.
A few more useful tips
Don’t buy products just because they have a “Vegan” label
As I mentioned, “Vegan” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy and the perfect example of this is a pack of Oreos which is 100% vegan but is made of refined sugar, flour and palm oil. There’s nothing wrong with an Oreo every now and then but it shouldn’t make up the majority of your diet.
You see, vegan products tend to have a “Health Halo”, an image that they’re healthy because of their name. That often leads to people eating a lot more of them than they probably should, and overeating isn’t a good idea.
So, by all means, buy “vegan” products but understand that that doesn’t automatically make them healthy.
Learn some new recipes
I say this to everyone who is trying to improve their diet quality (vegan or otherwise) because people who cook more tend to have better quality diets (higher in fruit, vegetables and whole grains and lower in fast-food and calories) [36, 37].
The more you are in charge of the food you eat, the more say you have when it comes to what goes into it and you can make sure you’re focusing on ingredients that help you get the right nutrients you need on a vegan diet.
On top of that, cooking more at home means you’re relying less on processed foods or eating outside the house. There’s nothing wrong with that, sometimes, but the more you eat out, they more you are likely to overeat .
Track your macro and micro-nutrients.
Free nutrition apps like Cronometer allow you to input the food you eat so you can see not only how many calories, protein, fat and carbs you’re eating, but also the vitamins and minerals too. You don’t need to do this all the time but it can give you a really good idea of what you need to improve in your diet, which is simply invaluable.
Focus on Whole Foods
It can be very easy to focus on convenience foods when you make a big diet switch and that might mean you end up eating fewer whole foods like fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes. Remember that many of the benefits of plant-based diets come from these whole foods so try and make them the focus of your eating plan. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat more processed foods, at all. I've written a guide that can help you choose better vegan options, HERE. Just try and keep your diet predominantly whole foods based
Consider working with a professional.
This article turned out a lot longer than I expected and that’s just because there are a lot of things to consider when planning a healthy vegan diet. If it all seems a bit too much for you, consider working with a nutritionist or dietitian with experience working with vegans (like me) who can help you make the changes to your diet. That takes out all the guess work.
I really hope you’ve found this guide useful. If you thought so or if there’s anything I’ve left out, please let me know by dropping me a message (it’s usually easiest to find me on Instagram).
If you decide to go vegan, for whatever reason, best of luck with it and make sure you do plan it well.
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