Late last night I posted an article on protein for my Ultimate Guide to Nutrients series. I know many of my followers are vegan or vegetarian. I also have members of my extended family who are vegetarian. I decided that today’s Wellness Wednesday post was the perfect time to discuss healthy tips for vegans and vegetarians. Many people assume that, simply getting rid of meat, somehow magically makes their diets healthier. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. It takes work! Here are some tips to help you maintain a healthy diet.
- Don’t replace meat with empty carbs – It’s easy to add in empty calories any time you take out an entire food group. However, when you take out a complete food group, it’s more important than ever to watch your diet very carefully. Don’t take out the meat, then add in a bunch of processed food. A whole foods diet, containing a wide variety of foods is your best bet.
- Vegetables should be the highlight of your meals – There is a whole world of fascinating and delicious veggies out there. Take this opportunity to explore and add in those delicious foods. Veggies are jam packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. You get a lot of bang for your buck with these little gems. 👍
- Eat whole grains – Remember tip number 1 above? You don’t want to eat empty calories. Pasta and other white foods fall into that category. You can still have your pasta, just buy whole grain pasta, and breads. You can do even better by eating whole food sources such as brown rice, quinoa and the wealth of mighty grains out there. Grains are a wonderful source of iron and B-vitamins.
- Make sure you’re getting enough protein – United States RDA for protein are: 46 grams/day for women over 19 and 56 grams/day for men over 19. While plants aren’t normally considered a great source of protein, there are a few that are wonderful and considered a complete protein:
- Quinoa – 8.14 grams per cup
- Amaranth – 9.35 grams per cup
- Soybeans – 22 grams per cup
- Buckwheat – 23 grams per cup
- Hempseed – 31.56 grams per 100 g
- Chia seeds – 16.54 grams per 100 g
- Blue-green algae – 4 grams per tablespoon
- Spirulina – 4 grams per tablespoon
- Combine incomplete proteins to improve protein intake: Certain plant foods “compliment” other plant foods. Beans and rice is a common example of this practice. Beans and other legumes lack proper amounts of methionine, but have lots of lysine. On the other hand, rice lacks lysine, but has lots of methionine. Together, they combine to make a complete protein. These foods do not need to be eaten at the same time. Eating a wide variety of plant foods high in protein is key.
- Just because a product is marked vegan, doesn’t make it healthy – Whether a processed food is organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free or vegan, it’s still processed. These foods are still processed, still unhealthy and still high in chemicals, additives, preservatives, colorings, salt, and bad fats. They are something to be avoided.
- Make sure you’re getting enough healthy fats – I prefer whole food sources over supplements. Foods such as nuts, seeds, flaxseeds, avocado and coconut are wonderful, whole food sources of healthy fat.
- Vitamin D is something to think about – Spending time outside, in the sun without sunscreen for short periods at a time is the best advice I can give on this one. However, most people get vitamin D from canned fish or fortified dairy. Some specialty milks, such as almond milk are now being fortified with vitamin D. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU. You may also want to consider taking a supplement. While vitamin D3 is the natural form of the vitamin, it often comes from animals, and is therefore, not vegan. Vitamin D2 is synthetic, and while I don’t like to recommend synthetic vitamins, some studies indicate that vitamin D2 absorbs as well as its natural counterpart.
- Iron is important too – Animal sources are the leading source of iron for humans. There are plant sources of iron, such as leafy greens or legumes. However, they are not as well absorbed as animal sources. Eating iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods will help boost the absorption. For example, a salad dressing with lemon juice and olive oil will not only boost the iron absorption, but the vitamin A absorption as well.
- Last but not least – VITAMIN B12 – You absolutely MUST take a vitamin B12 supplement. The only absorbable foods with vitamin B12 are animal sources. While there are a few plants, such as spirulina, that contain vitamin B12, the human body does not have the capability to break down and absorb this form of the vitamin. So, supplementation is essential. The recommended intake for vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms/day
Starting a vegan or vegetarian diet can be a wonderful way to live your life. But, doing it properly takes a lot of work and due diligence. At the end of the day, if you eat a whole food diet, filled with vegetables from all colors of the rainbow, throw in some whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, while supplementing with vitamins when necessary, you should be fine.