What you need to know about going vegan

The myths and facts about embracing a plant-based diet.
by Samantha Cassetty, RD /  / Updated 
Farro and white bean burgers
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Leave it to Beyoncé to make eating plant-based foods trendy. After confirming that she’ll be headlining the Coachella music festival later this spring, she asked Instagram followers to join her on her44-day return to a vegan diet. Though Queen Bey’s relationship with vegan eating is on-again-off again, many other famous folks like Ellen DeGeneres and Woody Harrelson have taken a more long-term approach for health, environmental and ethical reasons. If you're thinking of joining Beyoncé for a few a weeks or making the switch for good, here's what you need to know about going vegan — starting with the myths and facts.

MYTH: Vegans don’t get enough protein

While we all tend to focus on getting enough protein, the truth is, most Americans aren’t under-consuming this nutrient. A proper vegan diet that includes plant proteins from sources like nuts, beans, soy foods, quinoa, and seeds, like pumpkin seeds, can definitely satisfy protein requirements. Even athletes, who have particular protein needs, can meet their quota by choosing a variety of plant protein sources, according to a recent study.

One more thing: It’s not necessary, as you may have heard, to combine different plant proteins during mealtimes (say, by having beans and rice or peanut butter on whole wheat toast). Though most plant proteins are considered “incomplete” proteins, meaning they don’t have all nine essential amino acids that animal proteins do, as long as you eat a variety of protein sources on a given day, you’ll be covering your bases.

FACT: Vegans never eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs

Strict vegans only eat food from plants. While you may find vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, people adhering to a vegan diet don’t eat any animal by-products, including honey. Whether it’s animal welfare concerns, environmental reasons, health reasons or weight loss or wellness beliefs, strict vegans only put foods and products made from plants on their plates.

MYTH: Going vegan always leads to weight loss

While you may lose weight on a vegan plan, it’s not a guarantee. Though a review of different diet patterns found that vegan diets can prompt weight loss, you still need to eat well. After all, Oreos and French fries are both animal-free, but they aren’t going to help you slim down.

That said, if your diet consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, you’ll be getting a lot of fiber, and a year-long study found that this one dietary change helped people shed about 5 pounds.

FACT: You need to supplement a vegan diet

The biggest concern for vegetarians is vitamin B12, which is critical in cell division and the maintenance of nerve cells. This nutrient is only found in animal products, not plant foods, so if you aren’t eating animal foods, like salmon, tuna, chicken and beef, you could come up short. If you don’t want to pop a vitamin B12 pill (or a multi, which would do the trick), the workaround is a fortified cereal. However, don’t assume that all cereals are fortified. Cheerios, for instance, doesn’t contain vitamin B12, so you’ll need to read labels to make sure you’re covered.

Vegans are at risk for falling short on other nutrients, like calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids so it’s a good idea to meet with a registered dietitian who can either suggest how to meet your needs with foods or recommend a quality vegan supplement.

Focus on animal-free whole food staples, like beans, nuts, whole grains, and fruits and veggies and you’ll be setting yourself up for a nutritious vegan diet.

MYTH: Meat alternatives are healthier than meat

Not so fast here. Many meat impersonators have a lot of sodium, which can increase blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to ideally no more than 1500 mg per day. Some veggie burgers in your grocer's freezer aisle have 600 mg of sodium per burger.

No matter what food camp you’re in, choosing whole foods over hyper-processed ones is nutrition advice that applies. Focus on animal-free whole food staples, like beans, nuts, whole grains and fruits and veggies and you’ll be setting yourself up for a nutritious vegan diet.

One final word on these packaged meat imposters: Don’t think that all meat impersonators are vegan. Morningstar Farms Bacon Strips list egg whites as the first ingredient, so if you’re a hard-core vegan, you’re going to need to read the fine print.

Meet the meatless butcher

Jan. 5, 201802:12

The Vegan Advantage

Beyond the obvious environmental and animal welfare benefits, you can expect some big health perks by sticking with a totally meatless menu. Evidence points to a lower risk of cancer, which goes along with the fact that a vegan diet includes plenty of antioxidant- and fiber-rich foods, like fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes. Study after study links these plant compounds with a reduced risk of cancer. Food has healing qualities and the very foods emphasized on a well-designed vegan menu are linked to improvements in blood pressure, reductions in heart disease, and a lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

If you’re not ready to jump in with both feet, you can certainly benefit from a more flexible approach. Eating less meat and boosting your consumption of plant-based foods improves your overall diet quality and result in many health improvements.

5 Vegan Recipes to Get You Started

Still ambivalent about reducing meat consumption? Check out these completely animal-free recipes. Whether you’re dipping your toe in a vegan lifestyle or going all in, you’ll find these meal ideas are both flavorful and satisfying.

Crispy Tofu Nuggets

Crispy Tofu Nuggets

For anyone new to tofu, this is a good starting-off point. Tofu takes on the flavors of the seasonings and ingredients it’s cooked with, and these tofu nuggets are tossed in plenty of herbs and spices. Every vegan pantry has nutritional yeast, used here, which is a deactivated form of yeast. The flakes are savory and nutty and are often used in place of parmesan cheese over pasta and as a recipe ingredient. Nutritional yeast is also really good sprinkled on top of popcorn!

Quinoa Tabbouleh

Nourish Quinoa Tabbouleh

Beyond bright colors and fresh flavors, the beauty of this recipe is in its simplicity. Tabbouleh is commonly served on the side, or as part of a mezze — a selection of small plates. The addition of chickpeas in this version means it’s especially filling, making it a great main course, too.

Red lentil pasta with vegan basil-pistachio pesto

Red Lentil Pasta with Vegan Basil-Pistachio Pesto

This hearty dish surpasses your ordinary bowl of pasta on many levels! The base — red lentil pasta — is a gluten-free, protein-rich pick. The pesto skips the traditional parmesan cheese and has flavor boosters, like smoked paprika, along with pistachios, which bring more fiber and protein to your plate.

Farro and white bean burgers

Farro and White Bean Veggie Burgers

Sure, you could head to the grocery store and buy a patty, but you may wind up with a less nutritious pick. This burger has plant-based goodness from farro, walnuts and canned beans. If you don’t have farro on hand, you can sub brown rice.

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