How To Stay Healthy On A Vegan Diet (And Avoid Nutrient Deficiencies)
While our clinical work at The Whole Journey tends to take more of a Paleo-ish food philosophy, we have much respect for vegans and aim to support vegans and vegetarians within our programs. Whether you are a vegan for the love of the environment, out of reverence and respect for the animals, or for health reasons, this episode is for you.
And even if you eat meat I bet there’s something you can learn, because who can’t benefit from adding more plants into their diet?
The vegan diet has greatly increased in popularity in the last ten years, as it often includes higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals when compared to other diets. Research shows that a plant-based diet can be beneficial in supporting healthy blood pressure, cholesterol markers, body weight as well as overall inflammation. However, a long-term plant-based diet can lead to some health concerns if not approached comprehensively.
An elimination of all animal products can (but doesn’t have to) lead to certain nutritional deficiencies, especially with regard to protein, several micronutrients, fat-soluble vitamins A and D, iron, and vitamin B12.
What’s On A Healthy Vegan’s Plate?
50% Non-Starchy Vegetables: When making dietary recommendations to vegans and vegetarians, we always have to watch the quality of our carbs. A healthy vegan plate is 50% non-starchy vegetables. Think of leafy greens including collard greens, spinach, kale, and mixed greens, as well as zucchini and yellow squash, spaghetti squash, bell peppers, cucumbers, and cauliflower. A variety of these vegetables are important—they are rich in fiber, folate, micronutrients, and are extremely beneficial in supporting a healthy microbiome and balanced body chemistry.
25% High-Quality Starches: We will always be big fans of all kinds of winter squash, including butternut squash, as well as root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, yams, parsnips, cassava (yucca), carrots, and turnips. Root vegetables are extremely grounding and supportive of the endocrine system, especially the adrenal glands.
Sprouted or soaked gluten-free grains also make the cut for high-quality starches. Soaked or sprouted grains are easier to digest than regular grains. These complex carbs can be supportive in lowering our stress response, as well as supporting healthy production of serotonin.
25% Protein: 1/4 of your plate can be protein-rich plant foods such as hemp protein, tempeh (a much better choice than tofu), soaked nuts and seeds (soaking allows you to activate the bioavailability of the protein and digest the fat better), and legumes such as black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, and black-eyed peas—these are our top choices. Vegans can tend to fall short on protein and over-rely on carbohydrates to keep them full if they are not vigilant to include this macronutrient mix.
Animal protein is a complete protein, which means it has essential amino acids that feed the brain and help to balance hormones. The majority of vegan based proteins do not include all essential amino acids. However, including a balanced diet throughout your day, as we share here, can ensure you receive all the essential amino acids you need to thrive.
Fats and Oils are essential for brain health, protecting from chronic inflammation and supporting healthy cholesterol. One serving with each meal is an important target to shoot for, sometimes two or three are also easy to work in. Some examples include avocados, olives, and olive oil. A high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is full of vitamin E and K, nutrients which are often low in a plant-based diet.
Long-chain fatty acids are essential, and a typical vegan diet is full of nuts and seeds which are naturally high in omega-6s (linoleic acid). It is important to make sure there are enough omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid) in the diet to balance these two out. A ratio of 4 to 1 (omega-6:omega-3) is ideal. When we have an uneven ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, inflammation can occur, as can brittle nails, dry skin and hair loss. A high-quality flax-oil can be a beneficial and a great way to relish your omegas. Aim for either flax oil or whole flax seeds that you grind yourself, as pre-ground flaxseed is often found to be rancid. Chia seeds and hemp seeds are also both excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
We highly suggest using flaxseed oil or ground flaxseeds and chia seeds daily at one to two tablespoons to help provide the omega-3 fatty acids necessary for healthy prostaglandin function. Walnuts are also loaded with omega-3 fats.
Other nuts and seeds are rich in healthy fats, as well as vitamin E and magnesium. Avocados are rich in fiber, as well as oleic acid – a monounsaturated fat.
Dairy-Free Options For Vegans
While what you eat on a day-to-day basis can vary greatly, avoiding sugary, processed and refined foods is the best way to prevent systemic inflammation. For those times you want a non-dairy creamer or a cheese or yogurt substitute, I highly recommend spending some time exploring the store aisles.
There are many great dairy-free options available at natural grocery stores these days. Look for alternatives made from almond and coconut without added preservatives, gums, or sugar.
A Sample Perfect Vegan Eating Day
- 1 scoop hemp protein powder
- 1/2 avocado and/or 1/2 banana
- 1 cup organic frozen berries
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut or almond milk
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- 1 tablespoon flaxseed oil
- pinch of salt
- Optional superfood boost: add one tablespoon of Camu Camu, Maca, Mushrooms, or raw cacao powder
Mixed green salad bowl filled with non-starchy veggies mentioned above and ½ cup of chopped, roasted root vegetables. Add grilled, baked, or sauteed tempeh (non-GMO, organic fermented soy meat alternative that contains 22 grams of protein per serving).
Top with olive oil, lemon juice, pink salt and dried herbs of your choice.
Some vegetable sticks and sprouted grain crackers with vegan cheese. Miyoko’s Kitchen and Kite Hill make incredible whole food, plant-based cheese; they are a great addition to any snack or salad.
(Special Offer from Miyoko’s Kitchen: use code “PhenomenallyVegan” for 15% off sitewide.)
An organic green apple with almond butter, pink salt and cinnamon is also a great choice.
Butternut squash soup topped with pumpkin or sunflower seeds served with 2 cups of non-starchy steamed veggies topped with flaxseed oil and lemon or lime with ½ cup cumin-seasoned black beans.
Sprinkle with B vitamin dense nutritional yeast, which tastes like parmesan cheese (we also love making sauces out of it and adding it to popcorn). Nutritional yeast is a strain of beneficial yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae and is naturally rich in B vitamins such as thiamine, B12, niacin, and riboflavin to support your mood, relaxation response, and brain function.
Supplements To Enhance A Vegan Lifestyle
While we strive to get our nutrition solely from our food, sometimes this is not fully possible with a vegan lifestyle. In private practice, I worked with many vegan clients. When running lab work on these clients, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, iron, and zinc were the most common deficiencies in this population. If we are low in these nutrients, we have low energy and moods, mental fog, a low sex drive, and can get sick more often.
These nutrients are typically abundant in a paleo-type diet but often fall short in a vegan-type one. A high-quality multimineral supplement can be a great way to ensure you’re receiving essential minerals, such as zinc, iodine, calcium, and potassium. A vegan brand we like can be found here. In fact, if you take only one supplement as a vegan, this is the one I suggest because another problem of an undernourished vegan is high copper as a result of other mineral deficiencies. Copper, when not kept in control by magnesium and zinc, can run high and wild and cause all kinds of issues from “hot-headedness” meaning quick irritability and anger to chronic bladder and urinary tract issues.
Plant-based Iron is an essential supplement if your iron or ferritin is low. Low ferritin is the first state of iron deficiency. It is important to note that plant-based forms of iron are inhibited by drinks such as coffee, tea, and supplements such as calcium and fiber. Our favorite plant-based iron supplement is Gaia Herbs Liquid Iron.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia and nerve damage as well as fatigue and memory loss. B12 is necessary for healthy cell division, ATP (energy) production, and blood production. When following a vegan lifestyle, it is essential to supplement with B12, as vegans are more vulnerable to deficiency of this life-giving vitamin. Our favorite vegan B12 can be found here.
Digestion And A Vegan Diet
Plant-based digestive enzymes are sometimes necessary when eating a plant-based diet. We have gone into details about our thoughts regarding lectins on our Are Lectins the New Gluten? blog.
Plant-based diets emphasize vegetables and fruits which are great. However, we often see they include high amounts of grains (refined and unrefined) and legumes, and unless appropriately cooked, these are low in bioavailable nutrients and higher in anti-nutrients called lectins.
Navigating a healthy, plant-based diet takes some extra planning and detective work, but the rewards of these efforts pay excellent dividends on all aspects of your health.
Now we want to hear from you. Are you vegan? What does a typical day look like for you? Are there any favorite healthy foods in alignment with our vegan philosophy that you love (and we missed) that you want to share?