Vegan diets are gaining in popularity, but even with the number of supporters the lifestyle has, there are equally as many naysayers. One of the most common arguments is that you can’t possibly get enough nutrients in your diet without relying on animal products like meat, dairy and eggs. While I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, that isn’t true in most cases.
If you’re new to the vegan lifestyle or worried about getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet, here are some simple tricks to help you get the nutrients you need to be healthy.
The Vegan Food Pyramid
The traditional food pyramid has four food groups — meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables and grains. When you choose to eat a vegan diet, two of those dietary staples disappear immediately: Meat and dairy are both animal products, so they’re a no-go for vegans.
With just two groups left, how do you break down a vegan diet? You’ve got five categories in the vegan food pyramid:
Fruits and vegetables are such an integral part of the vegan diet that each one gets its own category. Let’s take a closer look at each of these categories.
Fruits have gotten a bad rap over the years for being nothing but natural sugar, but they’re so much more than that. Whole fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber that are necessary parts of a healthy diet. There are even studies to suggest eating up to 20 servings of fruit a day isn’t bad for you, though eating that much would pile on the calories.
Sugar, especially natural sugar, is a major component in brain health. Your brain doesn’t get its energy from carbohydrates like the rest of your body — it gets its energy from sugar, specifically glucose. While you can get some glucose from whole grains, most of it comes from the fruits and vegetables you eat.
Change up your fruit intake to stave off boredom and ensure you're getting a variety of different vitamins and minerals. Citrus fruits are a good source of vitamin C, while bananas are a good source of potassium. Melons are ideal on a hot day because they are mostly water.
Vegetables are a fantastic, nutrient-dense option and should absolutely be part of your diet to make sure you’re getting the right vitamins and minerals. They’re also extremely versatile, so you won’t ever have to worry about getting bored with your food options just because you’re eating vegan.
In addition to all the vitamins and minerals they contain, vegetables are also high in fiber, which helps keep you full longer. While you don’t want your diet to consist entirely of fruits and vegetables, root veggies like potatoes are so nutritionally complete you can subsist almost entirely on potatoes alone — but that’d get pretty boring after a while.
If you’re new to the vegan diet, you may overlook nuts and seeds, but don’t make that mistake. These tasty little snacks are chock full of protein, healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids. The latter can be harder to get in a vegan diet because its primary source is fatty fish like salmon.
You don’t have to settle for eating roasted nuts, though. Many delicious vegan recipes use nuts as the base. You can make and enjoy nut milks — such as almond or cashew milk — that you can drink on their own, or use to make cool desserts like vegan ice cream and smoothies. Nut butters go well with just about everything, if you need a sweet treat. You can even chop them up and use them in place of cheese, as with this to-die-for cashew cheese, or whip up a batch of raw nut “cheesecakes” — no cheese required!
Whole grains are a healthy option for vegan diets, but purchasing pre-made breads or other baked goods can be tricky, because many of them include animal products like butter, milk and eggs. If you’re handy in the kitchen, making baked goods with vegan substitutes — flax eggs in place of chicken eggs, for example — is an excellent way to get some whole grains in your diet.
Other options include whole wheat, brown rice, barley and buckwheat. Even lesser-known grains like quinoa and amaranth can supplement your diet. Whole grains are an excellent source of B vitamins, which can otherwise be difficult to get in a vegan diet.
Legumes are the king of vegan versatility — you can do nearly anything with them. Sure, you can blend chickpeas into hummus or cook up some refried beans for taco night, but that’s thinking small. These are the protein powerhouses of the vegan diet, and you can make just about anything with them. Eat them as-is, throw them into a soup or stew, turn them into a meat-substitute patty or even use them as the primary ingredient in some luscious black bean brownies.
If you’re worried about getting enough protein and fiber in your vegan diet, you don’t need supplements or powders — you just need to eat more legumes!
With a properly balanced vegan diet, you shouldn’t need supplements, but you should make sure you’re getting enough of each nutrient to be healthy. If you’re feeling sluggish or tired, keep a food diary, and talk to your doctor or a nutritionist. They will be able to help you determine if you’re missing a vitamin, and whether it’s something you need to take a supplement for, or something you can fix by changing up your diet a little bit.
Whether you’re eating a vegan diet for health reasons, because you protest the cruelty of farm-raised animals or some other reason, it’s essential to make sure you’re getting enough vitamins and nutrients to stay healthy. Stick to your vegan food pyramid — fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes — and you should be good to go, but don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if something seems off.
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