By Brierley Horton, MS, RD
People choose to “go vegan” for a variety of reasons—perhaps they aspire to be Tom Brady (or at his level of fitness), or land on veganism for ethical concerns around eating animal products, or the environmental impact that animals raised for food have on our planet, or they simply don’t like meat, eggs, dairy, etc.
Even those who “go vegan” may dabble in their frequency and commitment to the diet. Some use it as a way to hit reset or “detox” for a few days or weeks; then there’s a group that eats vegan during the day, but not at dinner (aka VB6), or one day of every week (aka meatless Monday).
Wherever you are—or are considering—on the spectrum, there are benefits, and challenges, to skipping all animal products.
The benefits to going vegan are legit—and, in fact, the list is quite robust. Research shows that people who follow a plant-based diet have lower BMIs than their omnivore counterparts, and vegans are typically the leanest. You can also use a vegetarian or vegan diet to help you lose weight. Vegan diets help people improve their heart disease risk (thanks to all that fiber and low total and saturated fat), lower their blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk of type 2 diabetes, and protect against cancer. In fact, following a vegan diet offered the most protection against cancer compared to any other diet in one study. See—so. many. benefits.
Now for the challenges: Because you’re essentially cutting out a major food group that delivers key and essential nutrients, there are some hugely important nutrients that can be harder to get in adequate amounts. So, beware. Here they are…
Omega-3 fats: The best sources of the best omega-3 fats are oily, fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, trout, etc. But those fish (and their omega-3-richness) are absent in vegan diets so it’s important that vegans add as many plant sources of omega-3s to their diet as possible. Those foods would be chia, flax, and hemp seeds, and walnuts and their oils, as well as canola oil. If that’s not your jam, or you want to be extra cautious, look for microalgae-based DHA supplements.
Iron: There are two types of iron—heme and non-heme iron—and, unfortunately, the kind found in plant foods is harder for your body to absorb. (Heme iron comes from animal products and your body can absorb that pretty easily.) However, you can help your body make the most of that non-heme iron in plants like spinach, beans and lentils, even raisins, by eating it with a food that’s high in vitamin C (such as citrus, or berries). So, for example, dress a spinach salad in a lemon or lime juice-based dressing, or top your raisin bran cereal with your favorite berries.
Vitamin B12: This vitamin is simply not in plant foods. Fermented foods, such as tempeh, unfortified nutritional yeast, and algae do deliver B12, but you likely can’t get enough B12 through these foods so it’s recommended that vegans rely on B12-fortified foods or supplements to meet their needs of this important vitamin.
Other nutrients including iodine, calcium, and vitamin D are worth paying attention to, too, but those are also nutrients that even omnivores can easily fall short on. Lean on fortified foods to get more of these nutrients (table salt with iodine, and calcium- and vitamin D-fortified plant milks, juices, or cereals) or talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about supplements.
Protein, however, isn’t a nutrient that is usually problematic. Most vegetarians and vegans meet or exceed their protein requirements, according to the scientific literature, especially if they’re eating a variety of plant-based proteins. The average man should aim to get 56 grams of protein per day and the average woman should target 46 grams each day (that translates to about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight). But for those who are fairly active, or looking to build some muscle mass, “aim for 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day,” says Chris Mohr, PhD, RD, of MohrResults.com. (Remember that 1 kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.) “To build and maintain muscle, protein quality matters, too. Variety is always key to ensure you get all of the amino acids, but is even more important when it comes to vegan protein options because these are often low in the amino acid leucine—and leucine is needed for protein synthesis, which ultimately builds muscle. It is possible to gain muscle following a vegan diet, but it requires more dietary diligence and so this may be a good opportunity to add a vegan based protein supplement to your diet as an insurance policy.”
If you’re concerned about how to get enough protein, here are the top 10 sources of plant-based protein—per 100 grams of whole foods. Keep in mind that spirulina seaweed might look like an uber source of protein, but you’re much more likely to get 100 grams of tempeh in a day than you are an equal amount of spirulina. (Have at it, though, if spirulina is your go-to. No judgement.)
- Soybeans (dry roasted)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Peanuts (and, of course, peanut butter follows shortly thereafter)
- Almonds (and, again, almond butter is practically next in line)
- Sunflower seeds
- Soybeans (cooked/boiled)
Going beyond the top 10, flours, grains, pastas, and tofu will begin to make an appearance, all of which are still good sources of plant-based protein, though not the richest.
Now, what about those protein powders and foods spiked with protein powders? Gone are the days of everything being made with simply soy protein isolate. Now there’s a robust list of protein powders—from casein or whey, which are dairy-based, to pea and brown rice and other plant-based options—that food manufacturers add to products to give them a little more heft and staying power. Yes, they’ll help you up your protein intake—and some are better than others for building lean muscle (hello, whey protein)—but they don’t necessarily have to be a regular part of your diet. Find more info on protein powders here.
Bottom line: there are some great benefits of going vegan, but to reap them, you don’t need to go full-on vegan. Simply adding more plants to your diet (hello fiber, vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting phytochemicals), and dialing back on the fattier proteins (red meat, processed meats, cured meats), will help nudge your health in the right direction.