Going Vegan Diet has become a big mainstream trend. Health concerns over heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, as well as a growing social consciousness, make many of us rethink the toll of our meat-focused diet has taken on our health and on our planet. It would be easy to classify a vegan diet as simply an extension of a vegetarian diet excluding eggs and animal-based dairy.
However, strict vegans point out that real veganism means both a diet AND lifestyle completely free from any ‘animal-based’ foods and materials. This includes the furs and skins in your closet. We’re not asking you to give your favorite leather boots just yet, though.
Regardless of your own sensibilities, a vegan diet is worth considering because it can have many great benefits on your health, weight loss, and over-all well-being. So today, let’s explore what switching to a vegan diet looks like in real life, and how you too could build a healthy vegan diet.
VEGAN DIET BASICS
Let’s start with what a vegan diet is not. French fries are technically vegan: potatoes and vegetable oil. You can find a multitude of fat-soaked and sugar-laden “vegan” baked goods and junk food. But you can’t seriously wolf those down at every meal with a tiny side salad and consider yourself “vegan.” Some call that the “Junk-food vegan diet,” but let’s get real here.
Health concerns and clean eating are an integral part of a vegan diet. So, we’re going to assume you are at least moderately health-conscious and focus on helping you build a healthy vegan diet.
A strict vegan diet is 100% plant-based and excludes all animal-based foods, as well as all food products derived from animals. Meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and any dairy products derived from animal milk are excluded from a strict vegan diet.
Essentially, the healthy vegan diet includes these mainstays:
- Fruits and vegetables: you want to eat foods that are grown, not manufactured;
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, pecans, etc. hempseeds, flaxseeds, etc.;
- Whole grains and cereals: bread, pasta, oats, quinoa, etc.;
- Non-dairy milk, cheeses, and yogurts;
- Protein substitutes such as tofu;
- Vegetable oils: olive, sunflower, cornflower, coconut;
TYPES OF VEGAN DIETS
There are many different offshoots of the basic vegan diet such as:
Whole-food vegan diet:
This is the basic healthy vegan diet described above, based mostly on natural, whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Raw-food vegan diet:
As the name indicates, the majority of whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are consumed raw or lightly cooked at temperatures below 48°C.
This one takes the raw-food vegan diet an extra step by further limiting high-fat plants like avocados and nuts. Raw fruits and vegetables that can be eaten mostly raw make up 80% of this vegan diet plan.
The starch solution:
Starchy vegetables like potatoes, rice, corn, and whole cereals make up the majority of the starch solution vegan diet.
We’re going to focus mostly on the whole-food vegan diet.
A WORD TO THE WISE ABOUT NUTRIENTS
We are emphasizing a “healthy vegan diet” based on nutrient-rich whole fruits and vegetables because vegans run a big risk of developing deficiencies in certain essential nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, omega-3s, calcium, zinc, and iodine. These are found mostly in animal proteins. For example, a lack of Vitamin B12 can cause fatigue, anemia, and memory problems; Deficiency in calcium can lead to loss of bone density and osteoporosis. The risk is especially high with a “junk-food vegan diet”.
The foods and recipes we propose are, for the most part, made of protein and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that can help you get all the great vitamins and minerals you need to thrive. Watch out for, and limit highly processed “vegetarian” products such as veggie burgers, which typically contain a lot of fat, calories, and artificial ingredients with little to no protein, fiber, and other essentials nutrients.
Choose fortified foods (cereals, pasta, flours, and salt) enriched with calcium, vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and iodine to get more vitamins and minerals.
Here are the basic recommended daily nutrient requirement guidelines:
Aim for around 0.46 to 0.41 grams of protein per day/pound you weigh, or typically 10-12% of your daily calories. If you’re a woman who weighs 165 lbs. with an RDA of 2000 calories per day, for example, your daily protein requirements are 0.36g x 165 lbs = 59.4 g of protein or 237-270 calories (4 calories/g), which represents 11% of your total calorie intake.
Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin form):
- Aim for 2.4 mcg per day for adults, increase to 6 mcg per day if you’re pregnant, and 2.8 mcg per day while breastfeeding. You can get some of your Vitamin B12 from fortified products, but you should consider a vitamin B12 supplement.
- Aim for 1,000 mg per day for most adults (1,200 if over 50 years old). Vegans can get their calcium from leafy greens like kale, spinach, and bok choy and calcium-fortified juices and plant-based milk products like fortified soy milk.
VEGAN FOOD GROUPS, BUILDING BLOCKS OF A HEALTHY VEGAN DIET
TOOTY-FRUITY – ALL FRUITS
Fruits have gotten a bad rap lately because of their sugar content. That is a grave misconception. Though you want to limit highly processed canned fruits, juices, and pseudo-healthy snacks filled to the gills with excess sugar, fresh fruits are an essential part of the vegan diet.
Fresh fruits do contain a certain amount of natural sugar (up to 30g at the higher end of the spectrum – 10-15g on average). But it’s important to note that fruits are high in fiber, which decreases the spike in sugar, plus, they are chock-full of vitamins and minerals.
Aim for 2-3 fruits per day. Start off your day with a fruit, add them to your cereals or your salads, or have one as an afternoon snack to satisfy your sweet tooth. Good choices include apples, bananas, strawberries, grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, cantaloupe, plums, and papaya, to name a few.
“V” IS FOR VEGETABLES
The sheer number of vegetable varieties makes it easier than ever to eat vegan or vegetarian.
- Leafy greens and salad vegetables: Arugula, Bok Choi, cabbage, chicory, collard greens, kale, and spinach. These are typically high in calcium and iron. Spinach, kale, and Bok Choi are also particularly high in protein with an average of 5g/cup cooked. Use these in salads and juices, or steamed, stir-fried or lightly sautéed.
- Gourds and squashes: Avocado, chayote, cucumber, eggplants, squash, pumpkin, zucchini. These are great in casseroles, purées, soups, or simply grilled, steamed, or lightly sautéed with your favorite recipe. With a spiralizer, you can turn squash and zucchini into low-carb pasta.
- Edible flowers: Artichoke, broccoli, and cauliflower. These are very versatile vegetables you can add to just about any recipe: salads, stir-fries, pasta dishes. These also have an average of 5g of protein per serving and are rich in vitamin C, chromium, and folate, among others.
- Root and Tuberous vegetables: Bamboo shoots, carrots, daikon, jicama, parsnip, potatoes, sweet potato, rutabaga. These starchy carbs will fill you up without weighing you down. Root vegetables are typically high in fiber, vitamin A, C, and D and antioxidants.
GATHER YOUR MAGIC BEANS
Beans are vegetables, of course, but they are so crucial that they deserve a category all their own. Beans are a major source of protein in a vegan diet. Beans and lentils have an average of 15g of protein per cup. Soybeans have a whopping 31g of protein per cup. They are also rich in fiber, iron, folate, magnesium, manganese, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc.
The most common are black-eyed peas, chickpea, garbanzo beans, fava beans, lentils, green beans, and soybeans (edamame). Add some beans to your soups, salads, vegetable medleys, quesadillas, rice dishes, vegan chili, and more. You could even make your own bean-based hummus or burgers. Edamame is also a great on-the-go snack to keep handy.
GO NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts are delicious and ridiculously good for you. They have a good balance of protein and carbs (5g and 6g respectively), they are filled with fiber and other nutrients like Vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and selenium. They are also extremely versatile and convenient as hunger-crushing snack.
In fact, many vegan recipes are highly reliant on nuts: nut butters, nut milks like almond milk to replace animal dairy, in creamy yummy sauces, as crispy substitute breading, or in vegan desserts and protein bars. You could basically have nuts for breakfast lunch and dinner and never get bored. Pick your nuts: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, etc.
Seeds like hemp, chia, and flaxseeds, once only known by “health nuts”, have now invaded supermarket shelves. Seeds contain a lot of protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids; some may contain iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and selenium.
Sprinkle them in your salad, mix them in your smoothie, and add a zippy flavour to your dishes. Hemp seeds give breaded dishes some extra crunch. When soaked in water, Chia seeds turn into a kind of gelatine which is great for smoothies, pudding and other baked goods. Spread tahini (a sesame paste) or sunflower butter on your toasts or wraps.
WHOLE GRAIN CARB-VANA
Whole grains and cereals are important for energy. They also contain protein, fiber, iron, B-vitamins and other healthy minerals. Rye, oats, rolled oats, brown rice, millet, couscous, and cornmeal are all good bets. You could also try “pseudo-cereals” like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth. These cook easy (it’s mostly boiling water) and pair well with just about any recipe.
Did you know? Most dried pasta is vegan. That’s right! Avoid egg noodles and protein fortified pasta (it’s made with whey) and check your ingredients, but yes! You can have pasta!
Bread is a little trickier since commercial bread often includes milk, eggs, whey, buttermilk, butter, margarine, or honey. So check the ingredient list very carefully. There are many varieties of vegan bread, though. Try Ezekiel bread made from organic, sprouted whole grains and legumes. Nature’s Own, Rudi’s Organic, Simply Nature, Thomas Bagel, Trader Joes, Whole Foods 365 are generally vegan-friendly brands, but again, check the labels.
MEAT SUBS – AS IN SUBSTITUTES
Tofu is no longer the only alt-meat game in town. There are now many other protein-rich meat and poultry substitutes, like tempeh and seitan.
Seitan (AKA wheat meat or wheat protein) is made from wheat gluten and closely mimics the look and texture of meat when cooked. That’s why it’s a great substitute for meat suitable for just about any burger, meatball, stir-fry, and salad or pasta recipe. You can pan-fry it, sautée or grill it, even BBQ it. There are about 25 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces of seitan. It also contains selenium, iron, calcium, and phosphorus. Find it at most health food stores.
There is a wide variety of vegan burgers and sausages made of tofu, seitan, beans, and nuts, which grill and pan-fry just like the real deal. However, since we are focusing on a healthy vegan diet, check the labels carefully for excess calories from fat, sugar, and additives, or eat in moderation. For recipes calling for eggs, tofu scrambles just like eggs and makes great omelets, frittatas, and quiches.
Cheese lovers rejoice! Our milk supply doesn’t come only from cows anymore. The proliferation of soy milk, coconut milk, nut milk (think almond), and even hemp milk means that milk, yogurt, and cheeses are no longer off-limits to vegans.
In fact, plant-based milk provides an essential source of calcium. Choose fortified products with added calcium, vitamin B12, and D when you can for added benefits. For non-dairy butter substitutes, look for vegan butter sticks, dairy-free buttery spread, or all-vegetable shortening.
Companies like Follow Your Heart and Tofutti have a full line of sliced and shredded cheeses like American, cheddar, and mozzarella, cream cheese, ricotta, and even substitute soft cheeses. They also carry yogurt and creamy salad dressings. You can order online or find them in your local supermarket. Pizza anyone?
LET’S BUILD YOUR BALANCED VEGAN DIET
Let’s see how our vegan diet building blocks fit into a meal plan. Going vegan will require quite a bit of research into recipes, substitutes, etc. Here, we can only give you a few (quite a few) meal ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snacks and desserts to get you excited about the sheer volume of delicious possibilities. These are broad types of dishes to jumpstart your recipe search.
|VEGAN SNACKS & DESERTS
|Smoothies||Veggie wraps||Vegan burgers||Whole fruits|
|Chia pudding||Vegan sandwiches||Roasted veggie tacos||Non-dairy yogurt|
|Oatmeal||Chickpea sandwiches||Roasted veggie medley||Tortilla chips and spreads|
|Granola and non-dairy yogurt parfait||Tempeh Sandwiches||Hearty vegetable soups||Humus and veggies|
|Vegan omelet||Black beans salad||Ratatouille||Fruit and nut bars|
|Vegan scrambles||Tabbouleh||Vegetable Biryani||Bean dips and pita chips|
|Vegan quiche||Quinoa salad||Vegetable lo-Mein||Mix nuts|
|Vegan breakfast Burrito||Vegan pasta salad||Tofu noodle bowls||Energy balls|
|Vegan breakfast sandwiches||Veggie fritters||Vegan pasta||Vegan cookies|
|Vegan pancakes||Summer rolls||Vegetable stews||Vegan ice cream|
|Vegan French toast,||Zoodle salad||Vegan Pizza||Vegan cupcakes|
A VEGAN DIET FOR WEIGHT-LOSS
A two-year study found that people on a vegan diet will lose significantly more weight than those on a regular low-fat diet. So the good news is that switching to a vegan diet could whittle down your waistline over time.
The biological rules of weight loss don’t suddenly change because you go vegan: to lose weight, you must burn off more calories than you ingest. If weight loss is your primary goal, here are a few things to consider:
- Eat mostly fresh, whole foods: fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds and whole-grain cereal, bread, and pasta;
- Limit highly processed vegan alternatives with a high content of fats, sugars, starches, sodium and food additives;
- You must create a 20%-35% calorie deficit That means that you should reduce your required calorie intake by 20% to 35%. A man typically needs 2,500 calories per day to maintain his weight; women usually need 2000 calories to maintain. So to lose weight, men should aim for 1800-2000 calories per day, while women should aim for 1400-1600 calories per day. You may want to use a calorie-counting app to track your intake.
Increase your level of physical activity with a daily walk, work-out, or exercise class.
At first glance, vegan and keto would seem like polar opposites, even natural enemies. Animal protein is a cornerstone of a keto diet, and a vegan diet is based on carb-rich grains and vegetables. Going into ketosis requires limiting carbs (even so-called “good carbs”) to 20-50 grams per day. Unless you’re prepared to eat salads three times a day, a 100% vegan and the keto diet is simply not viable long term.
That said, there are many, many ways to incorporate a low-carb approach to your vegetarian diet to lose more weight faster.
- Eat more low-carb vegetables: leafy greens and salad vegetables like spinach, cabbage, lettuce, water-cress, collard greens, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, eggplant, bell peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
- Increase your protein intake with nuts, legumes, non-dairy yogurts, protein-rich meat substitutes like tofu, tempeh, and seitan.
- Snack on nuts, seeds, fatty or low-sugar fruits: these are high in protein and fat, but relatively low-carb. Try some almonds, peanuts, edamame, chia seeds, or pumpkin seeds.
- Limit carb-rich grains, cereals, bread, pasta, and starchy vegetables.
If you choose the low-carb option, try to keep your carb intake to 50-100 grams per day. Another alternative is to go “Keto-tarian” instead of vegan. Dr. Will Cole, a top functional medicine expert and Co-host of Keto Talk, having tried both vegetarian and keto diets, proposes a rather revolutionary hybrid: a mostly plant-based, low-carb keto plan. The Ketotarian plan recommends:
- Healthy fats (20 to 60 g per meal): coconut oil, Olive oil, avocado oil, sesame seed oil;
- Nuts and seeds;
- Pasture-raised eggs;
- Plant-protein: hempeh, tempeh, nutritional yeast, spirulina;
- Low-carb vegetables: leafy greens and water-dense vegetables;
- Low-fructose fruits: berries, strawberries, cantaloupe grapefruit, papaya, pineapple;
- Limited portions of wild-caught, fatty fish and seafood for their omega-3s.
BODY-BUILDING ON A VEGAN DIET
The traditional wisdom for body-building and weight training is usually a diet high in protein (0.7–1.0 grams per pound of weight) and calories (10%-20% surplus). A large amount of those typically come from animal sources. While it is possible to build and maintain a body-building vegan diet, the challenge is to plan your meals carefully to include enough protein, calories, and nutrients.
General guidelines are as follows:
Favor plant foods with high protein content:
beans, peas, and other legumes, meat substitutes like seitan, tempeh and tofu, and protein-rich grains like quinoa, spelled, teff, amaranth; vitamin B12-fortified nutritional yeast; and vegetable protein powders.
Make sure to get enough fat:
That will help you meet your calorie requirements. Aim for a daily intake of 0.5 grams per pound of body weight.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: drinking plenty of liquids will minimize potential digestive pitfalls associated with a high-fiber diet.
Going vegan could have a tremendous impact on your health and overall well-being. Studies have shown that a vegan diet may ward-off inflammation; reduce blood sugar levels, heart-disease factors, and symptoms of arthritis; improve kidney function, and may even protect against certain cancers.
However, going vegan requires great commitment and conviction. It is definitely not for the fickle and the faint of heart. It requires thoughtful planning, preparation, and creativity. If you have the drive, though, it is easier than ever to implement a vegan diet thanks to an abundance of informational resources, recipes, support groups, and vegan products now available in your local supermarket.
So dive in and get creative! Even if you can’t quite give up the steaks and cheeses, eating more plant-based foods can only do you good. Maybe you’ll arrive at a healthier, mostly vegan lifestyle that works for you.