When I first went vegan a few years ago, being vegan meant eating lots of vegetables and whole foods, but that's because the packaged products hadn't quite caught up yet. The dairy-free cheeses and ice creams available were still mediocre at best, and it was nothing short of a miracle to find the Impossible Burger on a restaurant menu. Fast-forward to today, where I can order something at nearly every fast food drive-thru (a far cry from the days I was left choking down a plain salad on road trips) and new vegan products call my name every time I go grocery shopping.
"While a well-planned vegan diet can absolutely be highly nutritious, just because someone is vegan doesn't mean they're eating nourishing food," says Lauren McNeill, RD, MPH, the vegan nutrition expert behind Tasting to Thrive. "With so many vegan options on the market these days, it's certainly possible to be vegan while mostly eating highly-processed foods like chips, cookies, cakes, desserts, and convenience foods. Even some of the seemingly-healthy vegan products on the market aren't always all they're cut out to be."
According to Nicole Stevens, RD, the owner of Lettuce Veg Out, the huge explosion of vegan food products on the market means it's now more important than ever to take the time to read nutrition labels. While one vegan yogurt, for instance, might be loaded with protein, calcium, and probiotics, another is essentially just sugar in disguise.
"Vegan alternatives can be a part of an overall balanced diet, but they aren’t magically healthier than the non-vegan option," Stevens says. "Depending on the brand, these vegan alternatives may contain high amounts of saturated fats, sodium, sugar, and overall calories. Other brands may fair better in terms of nutrition."
To make sure you learn how to be a healthy vegan, keep these simple expert-backed tips in mind. That way, you can get your veggies in and enjoy the cheezy mac and cheese that's calling your name.
1. Focus on whole, plant-based foods where possible
One of the easiest ways to ensure your vegan diet is healthy is basing the majority of your meals around whole, plant-based foods. "Choosing foods like legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and fortified plant-based milks most often will help to ensure you're getting an abundance of nutrients on a plant-based diet," McNeill says. Basically, aim to be more like your plant-based friends—just with a vegan title.
2. Learn how to build a healthy plate
When meat isn't on your plate, it can be hard to figure out what to put there instead. Learning how to properly build your meals will leave you nourished, happy, and healthy.
"Most people are concerned with the amount of protein they're getting on a plant-based diet, but in actuality, having a balance of protein, whole grains, and healthy fats at each meal is going to help us stay fuller for longer and energized throughout the day," McNeill says. "I typically recommend clients trying to get 1/2 plate of vegetables or fruit, 1/4 plate of plant-based proteins, 1/4 plate of whole grains, and a serving of healthy fats at each meal."
3. Stock your pantry and fridge
If everything you need to build a healthy meal is already in your kitchen, it's going to be much easier for you to come up with nutritious options to eat. That's why Sharon Palmer, RDN, of The Plant-Powered Dietitian, says keeping a stocked pantry and fridge as a vegan is a must.
"Stock your pantry with healthy, whole plant foods, like whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, olive oil, and spices," she says. "Then stock your fridge weekly with seasonal, local plant foods (like vegetables and fruits), proteins (like tofu, tempeh, and seitan), and plant-based milk and yogurts. When you have it around, you’ll create healthy meals."
4. Make room for the fun stuff
While eating whole foods is important in getting all the nutrients you need, also leave room for the fun stuff (desserts, snacks, "comfort" foods, alt-meat burgers, etc.) when you feel like it, says McNeill. If you don't find balance and enjoy your food—no matter the eating plan you're doing, vegan or not!—you're never going to feel completely fulfilled.
"Find an eating pattern that meets nutrient needs, but one you can truly enjoy and envision yourself being happy with for the long-term," Stevens says. "This is a journey. There are no right or wrong answers, and balance looks completely different for everyone."
5. Try new recipes every week
It's easy to get into a routine where you eat the same thing week after week. That's why you should be making it your mission to try new options as often as possible, which not only keeps things interesting, but also introduces your taste buds to healthy new foods. "A vegan diet shouldn't be boring or bland—especially considering all herbs and spices are vegan, not to mention the thousands of other edible plant foods at our fingertips," Stevens says.
There are plenty of different recipes available on food blogs and YouTube for free (as well as here at Well+Good!). And don't forget about the endless amount of cookbooks you can check out at your local library, as well as other community resources. "There's restaurants, shops with lots of ingredients, farmers' markets, and meet-ups," Palmer says. "All of these options can make eating vegan more fun and engaging."
6. Consider supplementation
If your diet consists of an abundance of fruit, veggies, whole grains, and plant-based protein, you're probably hitting many of your nutritional bases. With that being said, some supplementation is still needed for most vegans. "Meeting nutrient needs is key, and for vegans this includes nutritional supplements—at the very least for vitamin B12," Stevens says, as it's only found in abundance in animal-based foods.
Other than that, McNeill recommends paying attention to what you're eating to ensure you're getting the rest of what your body needs, too. "Paying attention to the amount of calcium-rich foods like fortified plant-based milk, calcium-set tofu, almonds, almond butter, and tahini, as well as iron-rich foods like dark leafy greens, lentils, and beans is important," she says. Be sure to talk to your doctor or an RD if you need help getting what you need, and they can help you come up with the right plan for supplementing.
7. Make sure you're eating enough
When you're eating a diet that's mostly made up of plants, be sure you're loading up on enough food throughout the day. "Plant-based foods are naturally lower in calories than animal-based foods, meaning we need to eat more in order to feel full, satisfied, and energized," McNeill says. "When following a plant-based diet, you'll likely need to increase portion sizes, or add in an extra snack or two throughout the day." More fruit, veggies, and hummus? I'm down.
If you need some healthy meal inspo, try this vegan Italian meatball soup:
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