More and more people are transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. Whether for personal beliefs, allergies or other health reasons, veganism is on the rise. But people who switch over to a vegan diet may not be aware of the possible health risks associated with this lifestyle.
Because vegans do not use or ingest any animal products, including meat, dairy or eggs, the types of foods they eat may change dramatically from what their bodies are used to. Many of the nutrients we need are commonly found in non-vegan foods like meat and eggs.
It is not impossible to get all the necessary nutrients while eating vegan—in fact, it is pretty easy! However, if you are uninformed, you may find yourself with nutritional deficiencies that can tank your mood and health very quickly.
Here’s how to switch to a vegan diet successfully while staying happy and healthy.
Pay attention to key nutrients
While it’s easy to get more than enough of a particular vitamin commonly found in fruits and vegetables, such as vitamin C, other nutrients must be carefully planned into a vegan diet to ensure you are getting the proper amount. Many of these nutrients are most commonly found in animal products, so by removing these from your diet, you risk becoming deficient if you do not find an adequate substitute.
- Calcium: Since a young age, we’ve been told to drink cow’s milk to get calcium and grow healthy bones. Calcium is critical in preventing osteoporosis and other bone problems. Rather than getting calcium from milk, vegans can find calcium in numerous vegetables including soybeans and leafy greens like kale and spinach.
- Protein: Protein contains a variety of “building blocks” called amino acids, which, together, help our bodies function. We need protein to build muscle, keep our skin and bones healthy and maintain proper organ function. Everyone knows that meat is a great source of protein, but it’s not the only source. Vegans can find protein in nuts, seeds and lentils, as well as in tofu. However, eating one source of non-animal protein is not enough; it’s important to eat a variety of protein sources to get all the amino acids your body needs.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is also critical for bone health, as well as mood and stress reduction. Aside from food, one of the best sources of vitamin D is actually the sun! When exposed to sunlight, our bodies produce vitamin D naturally. Spend at least 10 minutes outside in the sun each day to get your daily dose of vitamin D or consider taking a vitamin D supplement.
- Iron: Iron is necessary for the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. Although iron is commonly found in meat, it can also be found in plant sources such as beans, broccoli, soy and tofu. However, iron found in plant sources is harder for our bodies to digest than other forms of iron. Thus, people eating a vegan diet should also increase vitamin C intake to assist in the absorption of plant-based iron.
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is also important for red blood cell production. It is one of the most common sources of vitamin deficiency in vegans because it is largely found in animal products like meat and shellfish. Because of its scarcity in non-animal products, vitamin B12 might need to be taken via a supplement rather than through food to ensure you’re getting an adequate dose each day.
Balance is key
One of the most important things to remember when switching to a vegan diet is that balance is of the utmost importance. Because so many vitamins and minerals need to be found in non-traditional sources, it’s extremely important that you vary the foods you eat and have a well-balanced plate every day. Each nutrient is essential, so focus on eating quality, nutrient-rich foods while cutting out highly processed, sugary foods.
One trick to maintaining this balance is to “eat the rainbow,” or make sure each meal has foods of many different colors. You want a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as sources of starch, nuts and seeds and calcium-rich foods.
If you know that you don’t like or are unable to eat foods that contain high amounts of a particular nutrient, you may need to take a supplement for that nutrient to ensure you’re getting enough of it each day. Speak with your doctor about what kinds of supplements may be right for your health.
With enough research, preparation and attention to what you’re putting in your body every day, you can live a full, happy and healthy life while enjoying the many health benefits a vegan lifestyle has to offer.