Are vegan diets healthy for you?
Are vegan diets healthy, no matter what you eat, or could they also include unhealthy foods? This is part of a discussion I had with a friend the other day:
Her: “I could never be vegan, I can’t eat healthy all the time.”
Me: “Eating vegan doesn’t mean eating healthy. Vegans can eat junk, processed food as well, they simply don’t eat anything sourced from animals.”
Her: “…” (looking at me very confused)
There is so much debate online about whether or not eating vegan is healthy, and it can get very confusing for a new vegan or someone interested in finding out more about the lifestyle. Here are five common mistakes new vegans make that can be hurtful to their health. Fortunately, there are easy ways to avoid them and lead a healthy, fulfilling vegan life!
Are vegan diets healthy? Not if you eat only processed foods!
Making everything from scratch can be time-consuming. It’s also reassuring for someone who is new to veganism to find the mention “vegan” on a package, it makes food purchases a lot easier. But processed foods are, well, processed. They might be fried (love those Gardein fishless filets, but I don’t eat them every week!), have too much sugar, too much salt and overall, as a base for your diet, not be healthy choices. Processed foods have their place in a diet, in moderation, but they should be complementary to healthy meals prepared at home. Vegan processed foods are also very expensive, they are likely to burn a whole in your wallet!
An easy solution: I go for the 80-20 rule: 80% of my meals are unprocessed dishes and foods I have prepared myself. But I allow myself a 20% of processed foods, be it snacks or ready-to-eat meals that I can simply pop in the oven on a night I don’t have much time to cook (or do not feel like cooking).
Are vegan diets healthy? Not with unbalanced meals!
This is a very real difficulty, especially for those who eat out a lot and come across some poor choices of vegan meals in mainstream restaurants. I learned the basic principle of a balanced meal with the help of a dietician who helped me with my vegan transition more than a year ago. The way she explained made so much sense, and is so easy to implement, you have to wonder why a lot of people think nutrition is so complicated.
Basically, beyond the obvious recommendation of eating three meals per day and not going without eating for more than three hours (hence the snacks between meals), one simply needs to remember that, in every meal, you need a combination of fruits and vegetables (but mostly veggies, seriously, eat your veggies!), grain (whole grain preferably) and protein. People who change to a vegan diet often claim to be hungry all the time. They are either not eating enough or, mostly likely, not eating a balanced meal. The grain-protein combination is especially important, as grain slows down the rate at which the body consumes the protein, allowing you to feel full a lot longer. Once I understood this basic principle, I never went hungry on my vegan diet, even with a moderately active lifestyle (I walk the dog twice a day and workout at the gym on a regular basis).
An easy solution: whenever you prepare a meal, check your veggie-grain-protein combination. It’s really easy to adjust once you realize you’re missing one of these elements. No grain? Keep some crackers around at all times and have a few with your meal (make sure to pick whole grain, low-fat crackers such as the Ryvita crispbreads). No protein? Add a can of cooked lentils or other legume for not only a great source of low-fat protein, but also lots of fiber!
Are vegan diets healthy? Not if you ignore potential deficiencies
Taking meat, fish, dairy and eggs out of your diet means you have to replace these foods with plant-based alternatives that will provide you with all the essential nutrients your body needs. And once you tell your family and friends that you have switched to a vegan diet, then all of a sudden, everyone is a nutrition expert. People will try to scare you about deficiencies you will develop as a vegan, and, although I do not believe in scare tactics, I think all vegans should educate themselves to understand what nutrients they are more likely to get in lower quantities (or not get at all), in order to then integrate the foods containing these nutrients into their diets, or to supplement in some cases.
An easy solution: become nutrition-smart, and not simply by following vegan forums on Facebook. Nutrition is a science and while everyone seems to have an opinion about healthy eating, I tend to trust more formal sources such as:
- The Becoming Vegan: The Complete Reference to Plant-Base Nutrition, written by a registered dietician, it is by far the most complete reference on vegan nutrition, a book I regularly turn to when I have questions about a nutrient.
- The Vegan RD web site, full of great articles about vegan nutrition from a registered dietician (who is also the author of another book I recommend reading, Vegan for Her: The Womans Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet).
- The Nutrition Facts web site, which is not exclusively about vegan nutrition, but contains hundreds of short videos answering various nutrition questions such as “do vegans get enough protein” and “is milk good for bones”. I find these videos helpful to debunk common nutrition myths. The videos are compiled by Dr. Greger and the information is based on his review of hundreds of scientific articles published every year. The entire initiative is not-for-profit, so it has the advantage of being neutral (not sponsored by the food industry).
Are vegan diets healthy? Not if you eschew variety!
This pretty much goes for any diet, but someone who changes to a vegan diet might initially only stick to foods they know how to prepare and have tasted before, which could be pretty limiting. I turned my vegan journey into one of exploration and discovery, trying new foods at least a few times before I would decide whether I like them or not. Did you know that it takes at least SEVEN times trying a new food (and preferably trying it prepared differently) before you can decide for sure that you do not like it? Our taste buds need some time to adjust to new flavors and textures, give them a chance to adapt! Personally, I still struggle with tempeh, but every now and then I will try a new recipe with it to see if I can make it taste better…
An easy solution: try new recipes! There are so many great vegan cookbooks for beginners to choose from, get one or two of the following titles to guide you on your journey of discovery:
- Vegan with a Vengeance (here’s an in-depth review of the book) or any other cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
- Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen (here’s an in-depth review of the book)
- But I Could Never Go Vegan! (fun vegan alternatives for common, everyday dishes)
And don’t forget to balance your meals!
Are vegan diets healthy? Not if the switch is too drastic!
Raw, gluten-free vegan anyone? Every diet presents its own set of restrictions and some combinations can become extremely difficult to maintain, from a motivational perspective but also as a healthy intake of essential nutrients. I’m not saying these diets are impossible, or unhealthy for those who have a really good understanding of foods in general, but for most of us, a vegan diet is already a challenge (it gets easier with time, I promise), let’s not complicate things by undertaking several drastic dietary changes at once!
An easy solution: one thing at the time. Read my tips on how to become vegan easily and try maintaining this diet for a little while (a year or so) before integrating another restriction. If you like the idea of eating raw foods to maximise the nutrient intake, I would recommend the 80-20 rule again. Once you are familiar and comfortable with eating healthy as a vegan, then you can switch to raw vegan, if that’s what you wish to do.