By now you probably know at least one person who has made the commitment to avoid all animal products and go vegan. A vegan diet has become popular among millennials, partially due to increased education surrounding healthy eating and also more awareness about animal cruelty. You may even know some vegans who just think it’s the latest diet fad and wanted to join in because it's trendy. Whatever the reason, you should be putting in some serious thought before taking the plunge. If done carelessly, a vegan diet can have serious long-term health consequences. When done healthfully and thoughtfully though, veganism can be an entirely rewarding experience.
If veganism is something you are considering, educate yourself and keep these six important things in mind. Your body and your brain will thank you!
1. You may need to take supplements
Vegans may be lacking essential nutrients like B12 and iodine if their diet is not varied enough. Ginger Hultin, the incoming chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group says that not all vegans will require supplements, but every body reacts differently to dramatic change in diet. She recommends everyone consult a Registered Dietitian or doctor before going vegan.
B12 is the most common nutrient that vegans lack in their diet, but you will also need to consider if you are getting enough calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc and essential fatty acids. Many of these nutrients can be found in soy products, green vegetables, fruit, beans and nuts. Josephine, a student at Pace University and six year vegetarian-turned-vegan, says she maintains a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, grains and carbs, only taking a daily B12 supplement.
A vegan diet lacking balance can easily go awry. Kate Axelsson, a student at St. Edwards University and former vegan says she struggled with maintaining the proper nutrients in her diet. “I felt drained of energy most of the time,” she says. “And no matter how much I slept, by body was still deprived of rest.”
2. You'll need new sources of protein
Protein can be one of the trickiest aspects of a meat-free diet, but luckily there are plenty of options. Soy products, beans, nuts, seeds and many types of vegetables are good options and you should try to include protein at each meal. Make sure you consult a doctor or dietitian to find out exactly how much protein you need, but you may need to up your levels of protein once you go vegan. “There is some conflicting research here but a basic rule of thumb is that vegans likely have very slightly increased needs; likely about 10% more than the general population recommended daily intake (RDA) which is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.”
“If anyone ever tells me that they're feeling hungry or missing meat when transitioning to vegan then we can discuss the importance of getting enough calories, protein and fiber,” Hultin says. She recommends finding satisfying meat replacements so that you don’t miss the “savory” flavor of your favorite meaty dishes. She suggests tofu, tempeh, beans and grains. Keep a variety of these on hand at all times so that you’ll never get bored.
3. Your friends and family will ask a lot of questions
Hultin says that most people will “encounter a lot of questions from friends or family members wanting to learn more about their choices so having some resources to share are helpful.” She recommends the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, Meatless Monday and the Vegetarian Resource Group for information. These sites provide articles on current research, recipes, book reviews, etc. The more you can educate yourself and your family, the easier the transition will be.
However, you should be prepared to answer a lot of questions about your diet, what you are allowed to eat and why you’re doing it. If you are a private person or feel uncomfortable answering these sort of questions, make sure you are prepared with some more general responses. You could direct the inquirer to a helpful vegan resource or explain general health benefits or animal advocacy objectives.
“Whenever somebody asks about my vegan diet I inform them why I chose this lifestyle,” says Josephine. “I chose a vegan lifestyle because not only am I helping stop the exploitation of animals, but I feel a lot healthier and I am more aware of what I am putting into my body. It does not bother me if others do not support my choice.”
4. You'll need to include as much variety as possible in your diet
“A varied vegan diet that includes fruits, veggies, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans/legumes can be an extremely healthful way to eat, packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants,” Says Hultin. If you don’t enjoy eating one or more of these types of food—say you’re not very fond of whole fruits for instance—think of other ways to incorporate these nutrients into your diet. You could up your intake of dried fruits and 100 percent fruit juice or try sweetening your breakfasts and desserts with fruit instead of sugar.
Being vegan also gives you an opportunity to be creative with your diet. “It's an amazing thing because you will discover so many veggies and plant-based goods that you would have never eaten had you not had to give up parts of your diet,” says Lindy Olive, a student at Auburn University.
Kate says that finding variety in her diet was also one of the hardest parts of being vegan. Before going vegan, educate yourself on all the different possible substitutions for your favorite non-vegan foods so that you don’t feel deprived. "I subtracted food groups without really adding anything back in to make up for those lost nutrients and vitamins, and I suffered because of that," says Kate. Not only can this make for a really boring, frustrating diet, but your body will lack the diversity it craves.
Consulting vegan cookbooks or blogs like Oh She Glows, Minimalist Baker or Dolly and Oatmeal is also a great way to gather ideas for your vegan meals. With a little inspiration, you're more likely to maintain a varied and appealing diet.
5. You'll feel different—in a good way
When done properly, a vegan diet can have a big impact on the way you feel. “After going vegan I noticed a plethora of positive changes,” says Josephine. “I overall felt better about myself and what I was putting into my body. My energy increased drastically and my skin is extremely clear and I don’t get acne as often as I did before. I mentally felt better about myself because I knew I wasn’t supporting industries that contribute to the exploitation of animals.”
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition affirms that a plant-based diet tends to be higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin E, iron and phytochemicals. This means vegetarians and vegans are at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and even cancer.
Going vegan can do great things for more than just your body. “There are also many environmental, ethical and ecological reasons to consider going vegan as well,” says Hultin. For instance, eating less meat can help reduce water and energy consumption.
6. You don't have to go vegan all at once
If you think a totally vegan diet may be a difficult change, Hultin notes that “you can start by eating less meat than you currently are or cutting back on dairy or eggs." She also suggests starting to eat vegetarian or vegan once a week and then gradually decreasing the amount of animal products in each meal. If you are struggling, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. A vegan diet is difficult, and definitely not for everyone. Kate learned an important lesson from her vegan experience, and that is to always do what is best for you. “Don’t adhere to a lifestyle that doesn’t benefit you, or that you are only sticking to for bragging rights,” she says.
Including a little more flexibility in your vegan lifestyle is totally okay too. “Do not make yourself feel guilty if you can't go completely vegan,” Lindy says. “Sometimes time constraints or just your location make it extremely difficult to be vegan. For example, when I go home I know butter, meat, and dairy are my mother's main food groups. I accept eating meat and butter as a part of my culture, so eating them when I go home or at special occasions is more than okay with me.”
7. You'll have to be honest with yourself
Consider all the possible consequences and obstacles and talk it out with family, friends or a doctor. “It requires dedication,” says Kate, “so [you] must be willing to put the time into planning and knowing what’s best for the body.” Josephine recommends consulting resources like vegan YouTubers Hot For Food, Mr. and Mrs. Vegan and Fablunch for information on how other vegans maintain a healthy lifestyle.
You should also be honest with yourself about why you are going vegan. If it’s really just because your friends are doing it or it seems to be the popular things, you may want to rethink your plan. “I maintained my vegan diet largely because I liked being able to tell people I was vegan,” Kate says. “It made me feel special, but I sacrificed my health in exchange for feeling different.”
You should also understand that going vegan isn’t a guaranteed way to lose weight. If you just replace animal products with junk foods and empty calories, you may not only gain weight, but deprive your body of important nutrition. If weight loss is your goal, talk to a doctor about how to incorporate more plant-based foods into your meals and how to achieve the right balance of nutrients.
Nearly anyone can adopt a vegan diet with the proper balance of nutrition and the right attitude. If veganism is something you’ve considered, make sure you’re educated and know both the advantages and risks of living animal product free. Going vegan can be a rewarding experience with great health benefits, but it’s critical to first understand what it will take to keep your body nourished and strong!