Are you considering going vegan? Or have you recently made the switch? Maybe you want to do your part to protect animals from the horrors of the meat industry. Maybe you are looking to shed a few pounds. In either case, listen up: don’t make the same mistakes that I did.
There are many reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle, but one of the most common reasons is a concern for the welfare of animals. This was my sole reason for changing my diet, so I didn’t look too closely at online advice or nutrition labels. However, I quickly learned that a vegan diet and a healthy diet are not mutually exclusive. In fact, shortly after cutting meat out of my diet, I gained weight faster than I have in my entire life.
I was befuddled. While I wasn’t looking to lose weight, I certainly didn’t expect to put on 30 pounds in one year. After doing some research online, I found out I was what the online community called a “junk food vegan.” Are you in the same boat? As The Minimalist Vegan puts it: “Have you been looking after animals and not yourself?”
Here are five tips from a former junk food vegan and advice on how to adopt a healthier lifestyle:
1. Cook Your Own Food
Yeah, it may not seem like the easiest thing to do on a busy schedule, but preparing your own food is the most cost-effective and healthy way to stick to a vegan diet. Best of all, it’s pretty simple, once you get familiar with some vegan staples. These include:
- Quinoa: Whether you are looking to make a salad, a casserole, or want to find a simple side dish, quinoa fits the bill. It’s nutty taste and starchy texture makes it an irresistible addition to nearly any meal.
- Lentils: Another extremely versatile ingredient, lentils can be used in a wide range of dishes, from soups to a surprisingly convincing meat loaf (or try this oil-free* lentil loaf). Because they are low in calories and fat, they are great for people on a diet.
- Tofu: While it takes some practice to prepare great tofu, it can be used in an endless number of tasty, healthy dishes. I regularly make spicy tofu “scrambled eggs” (or go for an oil-free tofu scramble) for breakfast — excellent stuff!
- Tempeh: While I was initially unsure if I would enjoy tempeh, this Indonesian soy product has become one of the most common staples in my fridge. It can be used to replace meat in most dishes.
- Beans: Most beans are protein powerhouses and are essential for any good vegan chili. They contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which can be difficult to find otherwise for people on plant-based diets.
- Nutritional yeast: Nutritional yeast, also known as “hippie dust,” is a potent powerhouse of protein, fiber, and all nine amino acids. This stuff has a nutty, cheesy flavor and can be sprinkled on nearly anything, from popcorn to pizza.
- Other fresh fruits and vegetables: Take your time and browse your local market! Add some variety by trying new fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.
Furthermore, if you are looking for a dairy substitute, nuts are a great choice. You can even make your own milk alternatives at home by soaking nuts like cashews, almonds, and walnuts overnight, then blending them and letting them refrigerate for a few days. You can even make a variety of vegan cheeses with nuts. Nacho dip, anyone?
(*Note: Most recipes can be made without oil by making a few simple adjustments.)
— The Vegan Junction (@veganjunction) July 27, 2017
2. Ditch Sugary, Salty “Accidentally Vegan” Snacks
Many products fall into the category of “accidentally vegan.” PETA even put together a list of them, which you can find here. Take a look through the “Snacks” section and you’ll find enough chocolates, chips, and sugary confections to satisfy even the most demanding couch potatoes and sweet tooths.
A strange thing happened when I became a vegan. While I previously didn’t eat that much junk food, the fact that these items are allowed under a restricted diet made them much more tempting. As a result, I ate more junk food. While this experience may not be common to most beginning vegans, it certainly impacted my health. But, of course, just because these snacks are permissible under a vegan diet doesn’t mean you should actually eat them.
Avoiding excessive sugar can be challenging, but you can spot high-sugar foods if you have a keen eye. Check the nutrition label for any “codewords” that indicate ingredients with hidden sugars in a product, including:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Castor sugar
- Honey (This isn’t vegan, anyway!)
Avoid snacks with these ingredients. Accidentally vegan snacks are very rarely “accidentally healthy.” Once you have a greater idea of the wealth of other options out there, it will be easy to avoid these sugary, salty snacks. Your body will thank you; cutting excess salt and sugar will improve your autoimmune system and improve your general health.
3. Avoid Overly Processed Vegan Substitutes
As a student, I ate a lot of sandwiches. Like, practically every day. Shortly after I adopted veganism, I was ecstatic when I learned about vegan alternatives to deli meats and cheeses. While I paid a premium for the pleasure ($5 for three servings is a lot for an undergrad!), I was able to enjoy a new diet without really changing my diet.
After many months on this diet, I saw my doctor for my annual physical. I was shocked when I was told that my blood pressure had increased dramatically; in fact, I was bordering on needing to take medication for hypertension. This signalled an alarm for me: While products like deli substitutes can certainly seem appetizing to those considering veganism, they typically aren’t very healthy.
The biggest problem with deli meat and cheese substitutes is that they have a ton of sodium. For context, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Well, five thin slices of vegan deli meat typically have about 300 mg of sodium. You can add another 150-200 mg for a slice of vegan cheese, and around 250 mg for two slices of bread. Without any condiments, you’ve already consumed 750 mg of the stuff — half of your daily sodium budget in one sandwich!
That excess sodium can lead to serious consequences, including kidney stones, edema, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and even cancer. An estimated 1.6 million people in the US die every year due to eating too much salt. While deli substitutes may be tempting, overly processed food is simply not compatible with a healthy life. The Vegan Junction recommends “The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook” as a great resource for salt-free vegan recipes.
4. If Needed, Explore Supplements
While it is possible to get nearly all the vitamins and minerals you need to remain healthy through a plant-based diet, it can be a challenge. In particular, vegans may struggle getting an adequate amount of calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. If you are wary of taking supplements** or want to stick to a completely natural diet, carefully plan out your meals to meet all of your nutritional needs.
For me, however, some supplements are a must. I personally struggled to get enough iron in diet, which I didn’t even realize until I experienced iron deficiency anemia. I was severely tired and had a poor appetite. This wasn’t resolved until I researched the matter and bought some iron supplements, which I now take every other day. I also occasionally take vitamin B12 supplements as well, but I definitely didn’t need them during college; I probably drank more energy drinks than water at the time, which isn’t exactly advisable.
Failing to meet your nutritional needs can lead to some serious health problems. This is especially true for women, since there are many health issues that disproportionately (or exclusively) affect them. Middle-aged and older women should be sure to get enough vitamin D and calcium to prevent osteoporosis. Pregnant women on a vegan diet should consult a doctor to ensure that they are getting everything they need to ensure they will have a healthy child. Supplements may be an essential piece of the puzzle, depending on your needs.
5. Connect With the Vegan Community
Going at it alone can be a serious challenge. On social media, anti-vegan jokes and memes are as plentiful as grains of sand on a beach. Even well-meaning friends will probably chide you for your lifestyle decision. Every time you go out with them to a restaurant, you’ll hear endless jokes at your expense: “How can you tell if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” Hardy har har.
Fortunately, we all have access to supportive online communities that can help us. Whether you have questions about nutritional supplements, need ideas for recipes, or simply want to talk about your experiences, there is an active community of like-minded individuals who can help you work through your problems. If you find yourself in need, check out the following resources:
- Vegan blogs like The Vegan Junction
- The Vegan subreddit or other forums like HappyCow
- Key animal rights social media accounts, such as PETA, Compassion Over Killing, and The Humane Society
These are a few of the lessons I learned in my first couple years of being a vegan. While I initially struggled with keeping a healthy diet, these lessons helped me get out of some seriously negative habits. By adopting veganism, you can help make a positive change for animals across the globe. By adopting these habits, you can keep yourself healthy and happy — you only need to be mindful about your habits.
**Note: If you’re considering adding supplements to your diet, such as to correct a deficiency, be sure to do so under medical supervision. Supplementation can also lead to an imbalance as a result of excess of a given nutrient, followed by the resulting negative health effects.
Long term, to obtain all the nutrition you need, maintain a diet of whole plant foods, making sure to consume a wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. Aside from taking a reliable B12 supplement, focusing on simple plant-based foods is the healthiest way to go. Your health is important, so be sure to educate yourself.
This is a guest post by Bob Hand, a blogger from Boise, Idaho. He studied at the University of South Carolina and keeps a pulse on current issues in animal rights and education. His hobbies include reading and collecting vinyl records. You can follow him on Twitter @bob_hand567.
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