If you’re considering a diet change and going vegan, then it is important to learn all you can before jumping in with both feet. Many of the nutrients our bodies need traditionally come from animal sources, but they can be gained through a plant-based diet. Here are some of the things you should know about vegan nutrition.
Making Healthy Choices
To maintain your health, or to be healthier, it is important to make good choices when eating a plant-based diet. Even though the label on a box or a can of food may say vegan, it doesn’t mean it is healthy. Vegans struggle with watching their sodium, sugar, and fat intake just like those who are eating a traditional animal-based diet.
Some nutrients are more difficult to get on a plant-based diet, including:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Fortunately, as you learn about veganism, you will learn how to replace traditional food sources with fresh vegetables, beans, legumes, and fortified plant-based milk to get these nutrients in your diet.
Vegan Substitutes for Nutrients
To make sure your body gets the nutrients it needs to properly function, you should know how to substitute plant-based foods for animal products that normally provide those nutrients.
Vitamin D, which is also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” helps the body absorb the calcium it receives from dairy products. Instead of consuming dairy from cows, substitute soy, almond, or rice milk for cow’s milk. Also, try plant-based cheeses and ice cream. Since the sun can also supply some of the vitamin D your body needs, go outside for about 10 to 15 minutes, three or four times a week, sans sunblock. Depending on where you live, that should be all the vitamin D your body needs.
This vitamin helps to build red blood cells and prevents anemia, but it is mainly found in shellfish, fish, meat, and dairy products. However, there are many vegan foods fortified with vitamin B12. You can also speak to your doctor about taking B12 supplements or getting injections. Since older people do not absorb as much vitamin B12 as they need, getting the shots may be necessary if you’re an older vegan.
As everyone learns as a child, calcium is necessary for growing strong bones and teeth. Although most people get calcium by drinking cow’s milk, many plant-based milks have more calcium in them. Substitute cow’s milk for almond, soy, or rice milk to get the calcium your body needs. You can also drink fortified orange juice or get calcium from foods like:
- Dried Figs
- Collard Greens
- Beans like Great Northern, Navy, or Black Turtle Beans.
- Butternut Squash
Iron also helps produce healthy red blood cells, which carries oxygen throughout your body. Traditionally, iron is gained by eating meat, but vegans can get iron from iron-fortified foods or eating:
- Whole Grain Foods
- Dark Chocolate
If you want a healthy immune system, then you need to make sure your foods include zinc. Adult men need 11mg/day and adult women between 8 to 12mg/day, depending if they are pregnant or breastfeeding a baby. Vegan zinc sources include:
- Wheat Germ
- Nutritional Yeast
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids can be difficult to obtain from a plant-based diet as only one of the three types of omega 3s is available from plants, alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. Since the other two types, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, are not available from plants, ALA must convert into EPA and DHA. However, ALA doesn’t convert well, and only about 5% of it will convert to EPA, and only about .05% of ALA converts to DHA. To help ensure your body gets the Omega 3s it needs, you should make sure to eat plenty of these foods:
- Brussel Sprouts
- Chia Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Flax Seeds
- Camelina Oil
Your entire body needs protein to thrive. It is the building block of skin, hair, nails, muscles, tissues, and bones. While most people get protein from animal meat, vegan foods like beans, nuts, nut butter, and whole grains contain more than enough protein for a healthy body. However, if you are concerned about getting enough protein in your diet, drink plant-based protein shakes to ensure you’re getting the proper amount. As you learn more about vegan nutrition, you will learn which foods to eat in the right quantities to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs to function properly.
Learn to Read Labels
It is important to read labels to make sure you’re avoiding animal products when you decide to go vegan. There are animal products in many foods that you may not know about because they use other terms. Here are some terms you should know.
- Casein – which is often found in protein powders, is derived from milk and coagulated cheese.
- Whey – whey is the watery milk left after forming curds.
- Carmine – is a natural red dye to color foods made from ground cochineal scale insects.
- Gelatin – this thickening agent in foods comes from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of pigs and cows.
- Isinglass – it is a gelatin-like substance made from fish bladders and used in the production of many beers and wines.
- Shellac – it is used as a coating for candy or the wax coating on produce and is derived from the female lac bug.
There are many other ingredients made from animal products, but these are the most common ones you will find on food labels.
Vegan Diet Benefits
Consuming a plant-based diet provides many benefits for your health, the environment, and animals.
Improves Gut Health
A healthy gut makes it easier to digest food, and it can prevent feeling tired, bloated, or gassy. By eating a plant-based diet, such as a raw vegan diet that involves eating fresh produce and whole foods instead of processed ones, vegans get enough prebiotics and probiotics to ensure their gut is healthy. Research shows that the gut environments of vegans produce protective health effects, such as reduced inflammation. Inflammation can cause or influence many medical conditions, like type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
A Sustainable Diet
Veganism is a more sustainable diet than the traditional meat-based diet, especially if you make sure to eat organic foods. Fresh vegetables and produce can be easily grown almost anywhere using environmentally friendly techniques. By growing them organically, the soil, groundwater, and air are not subjected to toxic chemicals. People eating organic foods are not exposed to harmful pesticides or herbicides either.
Protects Eyes from Disease
Many people face eye problems as they get older because macular degeneration and cataracts are considered age-related diseases. However, by eating a plant-based diet, people can prevent them. A study showed that vegans were 40% less likely to develop cataracts than those who ate a diet consisting of meat. The high amounts of antioxidants in vegan diets are believed to be the reason these eye diseases are not as prevalent among vegans.
Produces More Energy
Among the vegan health benefits is having more energy because many the foods vegans eat are not laden with sugar, fat, and other fatigue-causing ingredients. Since a plant-based diet can help people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, they are not as tired as those eating processed foods. However, it is important for vegans to avoid processed foods too because they have hidden fats and salt that can be harmful to their health.
Many foods produce allergic reactions, with dairy products being among the most common allergens, especially for children. By eliminating meat, dairy products, and eggs from diets, many allergens are eliminated as well.
Reduces Animal Deaths
By switching to veganism, fewer animals are killed to feed people. Over 56 billion farm animals, including cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep, among others, are killed for food every year. This figure doesn’t account for the fish and seafood gathered from oceans around the world. By switching to a plant-based diet, each vegan can save as many as 95 animals each year.
Avoid Harmful Drugs
There are many drugs given to animals to prevent disease or which helps them grow larger, so farmers and ranchers make more per animal. The side effects of antibiotics, growth hormones, and other animal drugs are not well-known, but by being a vegan, you can avoid having them in your diet and your body.
Many of the foods vegans eat can help make their skin healthier and reduce the number of blemishes they get. Produce has vitamins A and E, plus the nutrients found in nuts can help produce healthy, glowing skin. Some people who switch to veganism will usually notice a significant reduction of blemishes on their skin.
By learning about vegan nutrition, you can start living a healthier lifestyle, lose weight, and prevent many diseases that people suffer from who eat traditional diets. Eating a vegan diet is also better for the environment than eating a meat-based diet, making it a healthy choice for both your body and the Earth.