Are you looking to get more plants in your diet but thinking, wait, vegans are unhealthy! Let’s set the record straight on that myth once and for all: you can be just as unhealthy as you can be healthy on any diet. Maintaining a proper balance of vitamins and nutrients (and yes, protein!) on a plant-based diet comes down to education and balance. We’re here to help you start or continue your plant-based journey and get all the nutrients your body needs..
Are you trying a plant-based diet for the planet, for the animals, or for your own health? Whatever the reason—go, you! Changing your diet is a process and it looks different for everyone. But you probably have a few burning questions—like, will I starve on a plant-based diet? Isn’t cow’s milk the best source of calcium? Don’t I need animal products in my diet to get all of the nutrients I need? And, again, is it true that vegans are unhealthy?
In short, the answer to all of the above is, no. You can get what you need on a plant-based diet, maintain optimal health, and even enjoy yourself! Here’s why being vegan doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy.
Protein is an essential macronutrient needed to help keep the body functioning. It’s found in virtually every part of the body, from muscle and bone to skin and hair. Protein is made up of 20 building blocks known as amino acids.
All amino acids are needed for good health, but only nine are classified as essential, and these must be obtained from food. When we eat protein, our body breaks it down into amino acids, which then perform a variety of jobs for the body, such as building and repairing muscle, providing energy, and helping to fight infection.
Meat, dairy, eggs, and fish are typically what most people think of when they hear the word “protein.” But, protein is abundant in the plant kingdom, too. In fact, many plants contain protein, and often in higher quantities than you realize.
And when you add super protein sources such as soy, lentils, beans and seeds to your diet, your body will thrive. Another great source of protein is certain types of plant milk. Check out the best sources of plant-milk protein here. And for further inspiration, try some easy recipes using protein-rich plants.
Your body needs calcium to build strong bones and it helps your heart, muscles, and nerves function properly. Not getting enough calcium in your diet could result in low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
Your body doesn’t produce calcium, so it has to come from food, and the amount needed depends on your age and sex. Cow’s milk is the first thing many of us think of when we hear the word “calcium.”
“Dark, leafy green vegetables can be good sources of calcium,” Sammi Haber Brondo, MS, RD, author of The Essential Vegetable Cookbook, tells LIVEKINDLY.
“Also, many foods, like almond milk, are fortified with calcium. One cup of almond milk has almost half of the daily recommended value for calcium.” Many plant milks have protein, in fact. And in case you were wondering how they stack up, we tested and ranked them all.
And in order to absorb calcium, you need to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D—more on that below.
Iron is a mineral that your body uses to make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of the body. It’s also needed to make myoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to muscles. While meat is a good source of iron, it’s not needed to get enough. You can get iron from plant-based sources such as chickpeas, lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, and even potatoes.
As stated above, your body needs vitamin D in order to absorb calcium. And like with calcium, cow’s milk is usually the first thing we think of when we think about foods that have it. (Hence our tendency to think that vegans are unhealthy because they’re missing out on calcium and vitamin D from milk.) But, dairy products aren’t the only way to get vitamin D.
“Vitamin D is only naturally occurring in a few foods – one of them is mushrooms,” says Brondo.
Vitamin D is also known as “the sunshine vitamin” because we can get it from sunshine. More specifically, it’s produced in the skin after exposure to sunlight. The sun is also the reason why sun-exposed mushrooms contain vitamin D.
Omega-3 is a fatty acid that provides a number of health benefits. The body can’t produce omega-3 on its own, so it has to be obtained from food and the health benefits depend on the type (there are three!). Although it’s typically associated with fatty fish like salmon, plenty of plant foods offer omega-3, making it easy to get enough on a plant-based diet.
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, plays an important role in red blood cell formation, nerve function, the production of DNA, and more. It is produced by bacteria, but is primarily obtained through animal-based foods. However, animal products aren’t the only source.
“Because B12 is mostly in animal products, a lot of food products are fortified with it. You can get B12 from many cereals and even from nutritional yeast,” says Brondo.
Taking vitamin B12 supplements is another option, regardless of diet.. In fact, a Tufts University study found that most Americans may have low vitamin B12 levels.
Some people might find that including more fruits and vegetables in their diet isn’t making them feel full after a meal. There are many reasons why this might happen, but the lack of animal products is not to blame. Instead, it may have to do with your choice of food.
“Plant-based or not, make sure to include plenty of protein and fiber with meals to feel full,” says Brondo.
Dietary fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, is the part of plant foods that your body can’t break down and absorb. It passes through your digestive relatively intact, which helps keep your body’s plumbing in working order among other health benefits. And, it makes you feel sated.
Having trouble feeling full? Ensuring that you’re combining fiber-rich and protein-rich plant foods should help, Brondo explains: “Foods like quinoa, lentils, and beans are all sources of plant-based protein that have both protein and fiber.”
So we’ve finally dispelled the rumor that vegans are unhealthy. Take confidence in your new understanding that you can give your body all of the nutrients it needs on a plant-based diet. As always, consult a nutritionist before making any major changes. And then have fun! There are so many ways to experiment with a plant-based diet that don’t compromise taste, texture, or nutrition. Here are some recipes to get you started.