Q: As a vegan, how do I make sure my diet is not missing important nutrients?
A: You must have heard the term “junk food vegan.” It exists because cutting meat and dairy out of your diet does not come with a nutrition guarantee (nothing really does, unfortunately!). But living as a healthy vegan is also one hundred percent possible, if you do it right.
Whether you’re going veg because of animal welfare concerns, environmental reasons, or you just feel like your body runs better on plants, the key is making sure you’re eating a varied, whole foods diet.
In a nutshell (filled with nuts you should be eating, naturally), that means your main food groups should be vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and quality protein sources like legumes and seeds. Not Diet Coke and pretzels (or pasta and french fries!).
Here are the main things you should pay attention to in order to make sure you’re still getting all the nutrients your body needs, sans grassfed beef.
Healthy Vegan Protein
Most Americans eat more protein than they need, but eating vegan can flip the equation in the other direction.
There are plenty of great sources of plant-based protein available, you just have to make a concerted effort to be eating them regularly, at every meal (especially since they generally still contain less protein gram for gram than a meatier counterpart).
Vitamins and Other Micronutrients
It is absolutely possible to meet your nutrient needs, but deficiencies can, and do, occur.
Iron deficiencies are most common, so you should make sure you’re eating lots of dark leafy greens like spinach. Other great sources of iron include raisins, lentils, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin B12 can also be a concern, since it doesn’t occur naturally in plants. There are a couple of fortified sources like some almond milks and nutritional yeast, but in this case, taking a supplement is likely your best bet.
A few others to pay attention to include zinc (found in whole grains, legumes, and nuts), omega-3 fatty acids (flax, chia, and hemp seeds), vitamin D (sunshine is veg friendly!), and calcium (leafy greens).
How to Be a Healthy Vegan: The Bottom Line
Think about the same nutritional principles that apply to all diets—protein, carbs, and healthy fat—and work on meeting them via lots of varied, nutrient-dense whole foods. Then, consider supplementing in areas that you may be struggling with, like vitamin B12 and D.
One last piece of advice: as a vegan, you have to eat more to fill yourself up. (Hey, a diet that encourages you to eat more…not bad!) If you’re heading to a social event, make sure you eat enough ahead of time or have snacks like nuts and seeds on hand. That way, if you find yourself in a situation where there are few plant-based food options aside from fries and pasta, you won’t be starving and driven to overeat.