By Anna Herby, MS, RDN
People choose to follow a vegan diet for many reasons. Three primary motivations for going vegan include a desire for better health, a concern for the environment, and compassion for animals. In terms of health, a plant-based diet is one of the best ways to prevent and reverse a multitude of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, etc.
A vegan diet is one that excludes all foods that are derived from animals. This includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and sometimes honey. This way of eating can also be called a plant-based diet. Those on a plant-based or vegan diet eat foods such as legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
As far as diet relates to sustainability, a recently released documentary called Cowspiracy brought to light the impact that animal agriculture is having on our environment. Switching from a standard American diet to a plant-based diet can decrease a person’s carbon footprint by as much as 50 percent.
In the end, whether going vegan for health, for the environment, or for ethical reasons, there is no arguing that following a plant-based diet is one of the most powerful ways to show compassion to the animals with whom we share the earth. This is enough to motivate many young children to stop eating meat at an early age.
The idea of young children following a vegan diet has recently been challenged by a proposed Italian law that would make it illegal for parents to confine their children to such a diet. This brings to light a common misconception about the diet: that it is missing key nutrients. While it is possible to become deficient in certain nutrients following a vegan diet, this is also true for the omnivorous diet. Provided that the diet is well planned and does not rely on unhealthy foods such as chips and soy-milkshakes, a plant-based diet is appropriate and healthy for those of all ages.
The position statement of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports vegetarian and vegan diets, stating that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” A well-planned vegan diet refers to one that focuses on whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Whatever the motivation for changing to a plant-based diet, the benefits will far outweigh the risks. Below you will find some answers to the most common questions regarding vegan diets, as well as some excellent resources to help you learn even more.
How do you get enough protein on a vegan diet? A common misconception when it comes to food is that protein is something that is hard to find when, in fact, there is a certain amount of protein in all foods. An adult only needs about 40-60 grams of protein per day (depending on their activity level, size and other factors), which is not hard to find on a plant-based diet. Concentrated sources of plant protein include foods such as soybeans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and certain grains such as quinoa and teff.
Don’t I need milk for strong bones? While it’s true that milk provides a source of calcium, studies have shown that drinking milk does not lead to stronger bones. Foods that have been shown to prevent bone loss include leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts such as almonds and dried fruit such as prunes. Some other factors that affect bone strength include getting enough vitamin D (from sunshine), vitamin K (from leafy greens) and weight-bearing exercise.
Will I still have enough energy if I stop eating meat? Yes! In fact, the most common report from those who stop eating meat is that their energy levels actually increase. Meat is a very concentrated source of protein and is much harder on the body to process. Plant foods are much easier on the body and allow more energy to be used for healing, muscle recovery and general life activities.
Do I need to take any supplements if I follow a plant-based diet? It is generally recommended that those following a plant-based diet take a B12 supplement. B12 is a vitamin that is made by bacteria. Before the age of sanitation, humans actually got B12 through drinking unfiltered water and having particles of dirt on their vegetables. Now, most people rely on eating animals (who eat dirt and unfiltered water for their B12) as a dietary source of the vitamin. The safest way to get B12, however, is through a dietary supplement. Some other sources of B12 include fortified foods such as non-dairy milk, breakfast cereals and energy bars.
What can I expect if I switch to a vegan diet? You can expect to feel more energy, lose weight, enjoy improved digestion, a decrease in anxiety or depression, balanced blood sugar levels, decreased cholesterol levels and prevention of a lifetime of chronic disease. Many people notice positive changes right away after making the change, while others go through an adjustment period. You may experience cravings or digestive troubles for the first few weeks. Keep in mind it takes 3 weeks for your taste buds to regenerate and for your digestive tract to adjust. If you stick with it, the rewards will be well worth the transition!
Are there any risks involved in following a plant-based diet? There are very few risks involved in a well-planned plant-based diet. For most people, it’s just a matter of making the adjustment and finding what foods are available. For athletes or those with high calorie needs, it may become slightly harder to get enough calories. Those individuals may find they need to put more attention on eating more frequently or with bigger portions than before in order to not lose weight. However, there are many athletes who thrive on a plant-based diet and find it gives them a competitive advantage.
What are some good resources to get started? A great place to start is by watching the documentary Forks over Knives. Check out their website as well for some great recipe ideas. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is an excellent health resource when it comes to nutrition. Sign up for their free 21-day vegan kickstart! For a personalized meal plan and shopping list, sign up for a free account at Lighter. This website is a great way to get started and will provide you with some exceptional recipes. For the more science-minded, check out Dr. Michael Greger’s website NutritionFacts.org where you can find videos summarizing the latest nutrition research. Lastly, if you’re still at a loss you can try some vegan meal delivery options including from PlantPure Nation and Purple Carrot.
Anna Herby is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She completed a successful thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail on a vegan diet. Her book about that journey, A Walk With Mud was released this year. She has been a vegetarian since age 12 and was drawn to study nutrition from this early interest in an alternate way of eating. She’s received a Master of Science in Nutrition through Bastyr University and completed a Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. Anna has also worked with John McDougall’s 10-day program and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She plans to tackle the Continental Divide Trail within the next few years. Click here to schedule an online nutrition consultation with Anna, or click here to read her nutrition and hiking blog.