Excellent nutrition really isn't that hard to come by if you're eating a plant-based, meatless or vegan diet. I've been eating a vegetarian diet for most of my life and a vegan diet for about half a year and have felt great most of the time. The only time I've felt icky on a plant-based diet is when I do the following...
- I'm not being active enough.
- I'm eating the same boring stuff over and over.
- I'm not cooking enough and end up eating more processed foods.
It's possible to be feel and be unhealthy or healthy on a vegan diet, depending on what you eat. Obviously, other issues come into play with regards to your health, such as exercise, sleep and stress, but in this article, we'll only be looking at the basic nutritional side of a healthy vegan lifestyle.
Keep in mind that the basic rules for good nutrition are the same across the board, no matter if you eat vegan or vegetarian.
*HEALTH NOTE: When starting any diet plan for yourself or your child, you should always discuss food choices and nutritional needs with your personal doctor. The guidelines below are very general and not personalized for special situations or your own personal health needs.
Below are the most basic nutrition issues and how they apply to a plant-based diet.
The type of diet plan you follow doesn't change the basic rules of calorie intake. If your body needs 2,000 calories in your daily diet before you go vegetarian or vegan, then you'll still need that many calories on a plant based diet. Too few calories is unlikely to be an issue on a plant-based diet. Most Americans, including meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans manage to eat far too many useless calories.
- Learn how body weight and calories work.
- Learn more about personal calories needs.
- Do you count calories?
- Empty calories.
Eating All the Food Groups
There are all sorts of debates surrounding food groups. Some think you need more of one, less of another or none of even another. If you're new to the food groups, consider sticking to the basic requirements as recommended by the CDC and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, be aware that the some of the guidelines are a little sketchy.
It used to be that most people followed the food pyramid, which offered a fairly strict definition of food groups - for example, everyone eat 2-3 servings of calcium per day and 2-4 servings of fruit. Now health organizations are realizing that everyone's food group requirements vary as do the sizes of portions per food group. For example, based on your age, weight and activity levels, you may need 7 ounces of grains per day while someone else may need 10 ounces. You might need 3 cups of veggies per day, but a larger-than-you guy may need 3.5 cups. It's variable.
Note too, that food groups aren't the best tool for planning a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet. The food groups help, and obviously you should aim for healthy food group choices, but vitamin content of foods matters a bit more in my opinion, because some are easy to miss on a plant-based diet.
Still, it's helpful to know what the basic food groups are so these groups include:
Vegetables: Most Americans need to increase their vegetable intake - even vegans. It's extremely hard to eat too many veggies and most diet plans require somewhere around 3 to 3.5 cups of veggies per day. Younger kids need less, depending on their age. Aim to eat a wide variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas.
Fruits: Most adults need about 2-2.5 cups of fruit per day and many don't eat enough. Kids tend to need 1.5 to 2 cups per day. Aim for a rainbow of fruit colors for variety, such as red berries, purple grape, green apples and so on.
Grains: At least half of all the grains you eat should be whole grains (for example, whole wheat bread vs. white bread) - but all whole grains would be optimal. Typically adults need 7-10 ounces of grains per day while kids need 5 to 8 ounces a day. When people start thinking about grains, they often go right to bread, but be aware that not all bread is vegan. Quinoa, brown rice, couscous and oatmeal are other whole grain foods to consider.
Dairy: Most Americans eat a lot of dairy, but not the right kind. Most eat high-fat cheese, ice cream and other fatty dairy products. As a vegan, you won't be eating high-fat dairy, so that's great news. Most health organizations recommend you decrease high-fat dairy and increase your intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese or fortified soy products like milk or yogurt. Obviously, vegans don't eat dairy, but be aware that there are still many calcium minded vegan foods you can eat such as soy yogurt, soymilk, almond milk, broccoli, kale, blackstrap molasses, bok choi or fortified vegan foods.
Protein Foods: Americans usually get a lot of protein as most are heavy meat eaters. However, it's not hard to get enough protein if you're vegan. You can eat beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds if you're vegan.
Everyone does need fat in their diet. Sadly, most people get way too much bad fat and not enough good fat. Trans fats and saturated fats are the most popular fats and are also far less healthy than polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommend that Americans keep their total fat intake within certain limits by age, as shown below...
- Children ages 2 to 3 - fat should be 30% to 35% of total calories
- Children and adolescents ages 4 to 18 - fat should be 25% to 35% of total calories
- Adults, ages 19 and older - fat should be just 20% to 35% of total calories
Carbohydrates can be confusing. Lately, they've been rumored to cause excess weight. However, you need them. Your body uses carbohydrates to make glucose which is the basic fuel that gives you energy and helps keep everything in your body working correctly. Vegans eating a varied diet shouldn't have trouble getting enough carbs, because they're found in many foods, like...
- Breads, cereals and other grains
- Alternative dairy products
- Foods containing added sugars (e.g., cakes, cookies, and sugar-sweetened beverages).
Some people talk about carbs in terms of "good" carbs and "bad" carbs. Good carbs are considered foods that have more fiber and complex carbohydrates (carbohydrates that take longer to break down into glucose.) Refined carbohydrates (bread, cakes, cookies and so on made with white flour and added sugars) are considered the "bad" carbs.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans does not distinguish carbs as good or bad, but simply recommends you chose fiber-rich carbohydrate choices from the vegetable, fruit, and grain groups and avoid added sugars which works for any type of diet including vegan diets.
Fiber is a complex carb you need. 14 grams of dietary fiber is recommended for every 1,000 calories that you eat each day. So, if you're on a 2,000 calorie diet, you should eat 28 grams of dietary fiber daily.
If you're a vegan and you're not getting enough fiber, I'd assume you're eating a fairly poor diet. Most plant-based diets are packed with fiber. Although fiber content varies of course, the foods below are good general sources of fiber...
- Whole fruits
- Beans or peas (and other legumes)
- Whole grain foods
Vitamins & Minerals
Because vitamins and minerals are important, and because they're sometimes stressful for vegans, we'll cover vitamins in their own article.
- Read: Getting all your vitamins & minerals with a plant-based diet (coming soon).