Ever thought of going plant-based, but you’re not sure what to eat on a vegan diet? Do you worry that you may lose strength or energy by giving up meat? Maybe it is that people in the gym tell you that going vegan is a bad idea, and that meat, milk and eggs are essential protein sources to build muscle and stay strong. Really?
Well, there is indeed a possible way to become a vegan, make serious gains in the gym and keep up your active lifestyle, as long as you follow a nutritionally balanced diet!
You see, many people that go vegan can often hit a stumbling block, because they may not have the knowledge or information that is needed to follow a balanced plant-based diet. It is true that a vegan diet not well planned can lead to nutrient deficiencies and illnesses. That is why it is vital that a plant-based diet is nutrient dense, with fortified and whole foods as a mainstay to reap the rewards. A lack of vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron and calcium are the common deficiencies that are known to occur, but below are some pointers to ensure you’re consuming a wealth of vitamins and minerals in abundance.
Vegan diet explained
A vegan diet is the lifestyle choice to exclude all forms animal products from your diet. This includes meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
Many people have their reasons for following a vegan diet – some may adopt it purely for health reasons, it may be a stance against animal cruelty, it could be for preserving the environment, or a combination on all three reasons.
Whatever your reasons, this article will focus on the health benefits, touching on a generally balanced approach to becoming plant-based, and what to eat on a vegan diet to stay healthy and strong. Follow up articles will delve in further and really look at different diets that work for different lifestyles and needs.
Foods to eat on a vegan diet
Eating a vegan diet offers an opportunity to live a healthier life, but with the popularity of veganism and the abundance of plant-based products in supermarkets and restaurants, it is very easy to eat vegan junk food, which will offer you very little health advantages over an omnivore-based diet.
Fruit and vegetables:
Starting with the mainstay to any diet, fruitand vegetables are a great accessible way to enhance your intake of vitamins and minerals. Aspiring for fruits rich in vitamins such as blueberries and banana, and vegetables rich in calcium and iron such as kale, broccoli and spinach have positive benefits.
Legumes: Wondering where your richest protein source will come from on a vegan diet? Well meet legumes and pulses. This staple of food is what you will be relying on as your primary protein source in meals. But that’s not all they’re good for. Legumes generally tend to be rich in iron, have plenty of fibre and have other qualities such as complex carbohydrates (which digest slowly and are good for you), manganese, zinc and antioxidants. Examples of legumes are chick peas, kidney beans, black beans, lentils and peas.
Nuts, nut spreads (butters) and seeds: Another protein powerhouse are nuts and seeds. This can range from almonds, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, brazil nuts, pistachios and walnuts. They can be consumed as snacks, added to breakfast meals, or used in creative ways with main meals. Offering a huge bang for your buck nutritionally, nuts and seeds not only offer a high source of protein, but they are rich in healthy fats, and can offer fantastic sources of vitamin E, zinc, iron, magnesium and fibre.
In addition, nut spreads such as peanut butter, almond butter and cashew butter are fantastic ways of adding nutritionally dense spreads onto your breads, and can make a great addition to porridge, and some meals.
Omega-rich seeds: The big three seeds are hemp, chia seeds and flax seeds (sometimes known as linseeds). These have been given particular attention because their unique nutritional profile. Offering another great source of protein, hemp seeds offer an abundance of omega-6 and omega-3, which you would typically get from fish, and can help with inflammation and joint health. Chia and flax seeds are rich in omega-3, and offer many practical uses such as egg replacement in cake or simply used in food. All 3 seeds are recommended in milled form for easy application and consumption.
Plant milks and yogurts: Whilst the usual cow-based milk and yogurt cannot be consumed as a vegan, there are plant-based alternatives that can fill that void. Hemp milk and soya milk tend to be rich in protein. There are alternatives such as oat, hazelnut, almond and coconut, which offer lower protein content but offer more expansive taste options. Most plant milks and yogurts are typically fortified in vitamin D, which aids the digestion of calcium.
Grains: There is an abundance of grains that can used as an effective carbohydrate as a vegan. Quinoa is increasingly popular because it is a slow digesting carbohydrate, offers a complete protein profile and is high in fibre, magnesium, potassium, calcium, vitamin E, B vitamins and much more.
Other healthy grains offering a healthy nutritional profile are barley, brown rice, millet, oatmeal, wholewheat, bulgur and buckwheat.
Tofu and tempeh: Tofu and tempeh are possibly the closest thing to meat replacement on offer on a vegan diet. Made from soybeans, they are generously rich in protein, and possess iron and calcium. Tofu offers the most flexibility, often being cooked in a variety of ways that can emulate scrambled eggs, halloumi cheese and many other dairy or egg-based items (just in texture, not taste). Tempeh is the end result of fermenting soy, often used to emulate fish.
Soy can offer some nutritional benefits, but is also one of the most overused food sources for more specific meat replacements such as “vegan chicken” or “vegan burgers”. These can contain plenty of preservatives and low quality ingredients that could go against the potential health gains a plant-based diet has to offer.
Health benefits of going vegan
So why go vegan? We’ve touched on the reason a person may take to become a vegan, but what are the actual health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle? There are an abundance of health benefits when choosing a plant-based diet. Below will touch on a few:
Weight loss: On a balanced nutrient dense diet, going vegan can encourage weight loss without having to significantly reduce calories. The omission of meat and dairy will reduce the fat intake your body consumes. It is also said that vegans are less likely to have hunger pangs, reducing the urge for eating outside of meal times
Physical fitness gains: This is probably the gain that is least expected, since culturally gym and consuming protein (via meat and fish), go hand in hand. Whilst protein is there to help develop and repair muscles, the increased nutritional variety a vegan diet has to offer can aid a quicker recovery. Also, going plant-based enhances joint and bone health, reducing the likeliness of injury.
Reduction in cholesterol: Lower cholesterol levels can help prevent heart disease and blocked arteries. Meat, eggs, milk and other similar products are high in cholesterol. A plant-based diet is mostly free from cholesterol, ultimately promoting a healthier, low cholesterol lifestyle.
Promotes a healthier lifestyle: Heart disease, type II diabetes and high blood pressure are some common health challenges that occur from high cholesterol and a high sugar food intake. The reduction in cholesterol, sweets, chocolates and sugary snacks, and an increase in fruit, vegetable and fibre can ultimately reduce the likeliness of suffering with heart and blood-related health problems.
Supplements to consider – Vitamin B12
You can get most of your nutrients on a vegan diet without using supplements, but one thing that is highly recommended is a vitamin B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 is the one crucial vitamin that is difficult to find outside of animals. A lack of vitamin B12 in our systems over a period of time can lead to poor heart health, damage to the nervous system, fertility issues and bone disease.
Whilst there some foods such as fortified nutritional yeast, soy products and plant milks, but with an uncertainty about the effectiveness of vitamin B12 absorption in these foods, taking a reputable plant-based supplement or multivitamin is a good way to ensure vitamin B12 intake.
The above should give you an introduction to the kinds of foods you can consume on a vegan diet. As you can see, there are some pretty nutritionally dense options there, that should see to it you don’t feel anymore hungry than when on a meat-based diet. If you’re considering becoming plant-based, there’s nothing wrong with phasing your approach and taking your time. Set yourself realistic goals that you know you can stick to, and over a period of time, you will know with confidence, exactly what to eat on a vegan diet that forms part of a staple, and how you can experiment with new things along your journey.
Good luck and enjoy.