Veganism was once considered to be on the “fringe”, with vegans often being viewed as eccentric, or just plain “weird”. However, this is changing quickly, with the mainstream becoming more and more aware of the health benefits of a vegan diet. Vegan diets are usually higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals, and at the same time, they tend to be lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. Those following a vegan diet also have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers (read the article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition here). Many people also say that they sleep better, have clearer skin, and more energy when following a vegan diet. Anjali Sareen, an attorney and vegan/animal rights writer for the Huffington Post, wrote about the unexpected health changes she experienced when she changed to a vegan diet.
The Protein Question
One of the most popular questions non-vegans ask is “where do you get your protein”? But let’s start with how much protein we really need. The recommended daily allowance set by the USDA, is 0.8 grams for each kilogram of body weight (or about 0.36 grams per pound). You can see how much protein that is by using this calculator. That would mean that a person weighing 200 lbs would need about 72 grams of protein a day. However, more recent data is showing that we actually don’t even need that much. Adults in the U.S. are now encouraged to get 10% to 35% of their day’s calories from protein foods. That’s about 46 grams of protein for women, and 56 grams of protein for men (per WebMD). With the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), the average person eats far more than 100 grams a day (which contributes to an increased risk of kidney disease and kidney stones, cancer, and osteoporosis)!
Now that you have an idea of how much protein you need, the next question is where to get it with a vegan diet – and the choices are almost endless, and easily accessible. Meat substitutes (like Tofurkey, Beyond Meat, and Gardein) are now being sold in mainstream supermarkets, as well as Walmart and Target. Beans, nuts, and seeds are also great sources (One Green Planet has a great list of where you can get protein), but there are some unlikely places to get protein too; 6 oz of soy yogurt has 6 grams of protein, one cup of cooked spinach has 13 grams of protein. For some other great ideas, check out this Vegetarian Resource Group page and Thrive Cuisine’s Ultimate Guide to Vegan Protein Sources.
In February, 2016, the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association published a study that looked at the possible negative effects of a vegan diet which is based primarily on processed foods (you can read the study for yourself here), and voiced concerns about adequate intake of vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. However, the key words here are “processed foods”. Granted, it’s getting easier and easier to be a “junk food vegan” (did you know that Oreos are vegan?), but a well-planned vegan diet can provide proper nutrition.
What Is A Well-Planned Vegan Diet?
Transitioning to a vegan diet doesn’t have to be difficult, but there are a few things you will need to know. With a well-planned vegan diet, your body will get all of the nutrients it needs. Generally speaking, the bigger the variety of foods you consume, the better. Eat the “rainbow” – choose fruits and vegetables of all colors and textures. Be sure to include nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. For a great breakdown of what this would look like, take a look at this from the Vegan Society.
Many vegan cookbooks have sections on vegan nutrition basics (and there so many fantastic ones to choose from!) , but one great book which goes into the nitty-gritty of a vegan diet is “Becoming Vegan” by registered dieticians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina (both the express and comprehensive editions are available on Amazon). Forks Over Knives books and videos are also a wonderful place to start. Snippets are available on YouTube, or you can watch the whole documentary on Netflix.