How to Start a Vegan Diet
Going meatless can be a breeze if you take the advice of our experts, avoid common pitfalls, and focus on the right foods and supplements
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What do Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Clinton, and Betty White have in common? They’re all vegetarians.
Betty’s been at it the longest-she hasn’t eaten meat, fish, or poultry for about 30 years. But while the others have adopted animal-free diets more recently, they go a step further by being vegans. That means foregoing all foods that come from animals or insects, including dairy, eggs, and honey. Many vegans also avoid all other types of animal products, including leather, wool, silk, and even furniture polish made with beeswax.
Celebrities aside, about 4 percent of American adults are vegetarians, and about one-quarter of those are vegans, according to the latest poll by The Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg.org), which asked more than 2,000 people about their eating habits. However, it’s estimated that nearly half of us eat meatless meals at least some of the time.
Concern for animals, the state of the planet, and one’s own health are the main reasons for adopting an animal-free diet. Aside from Betty White’s testament of high energy and good health, scientific research involving more than 140,000 North American and British adults has shown that vegetarians may live up to seven years longer than meat-eaters, with up to one-third less heart disease and diabetes, as well as fewer cancers.
Despite these findings, there are some pitfalls to going meatless. But with the right foods and supplements, you can take full advantage of the health benefits of an animal-free diet.
Top 4 Superfoods
“The biggest pitfall is not planning what you’re going to eat,” says Melissa Costello, certified nutritionist and author of The Karma Chow Ultimate Cookbook. “People want convenience, so they turn to processed foods.” Relying on pasta or vegan pizza is a common mistake.
In addition to fresh vegetables and beans-as well as coconut, rice, almond, and oat milks-these are Costello’s four favorite vegan alternatives:
A high-protein meat substitute made of fermented soybeans, tempeh is less processed, more nutritious, and easier to digest than tofu, says Costello. She recommends:
- Using an 8-oz. block of tempeh, cut one-half for a man or one-quarter for
- Steam for 7 minutes to “open up the pores,” so it will absorb more flavor.
- Pour your favorite marinade over the tempeh and let it soak at room temperature, 20-30 minutes.
- Bake 15-20 minutes in a 350°F oven, or fry in a pan or on the grill.
This seed is a good source of plant protein. Cook a batch per package directions, and keep it handy in the fridge for up to 4-5 days. Eat it for breakfast, hot or cold, with fruit and a few nuts. Or mix it with a salad for lunch or dinner. A typical serving is ¼-½ cup.
3. Vegan Butters
Try coconut oil for cooking. Many people also like it on toast. Avocado and nut and seed butters also make great spreads, and they all contain healthy fats.
4. Vegan Parmesan
Nutritional yeast (in flakes) has a cheesy flavor. Costello recommends sprinkling it on popcorn, pasta, and salads in place of Parmesan cheese.
Top Nutritional Mistakes
According to Virginia Messina, RD, MPH, author of Vegan for Life, a healthy vegan diet will provide adequate iron. Beans are a great source: ½ cup contains almost as much iron as 3 ounces of meat.
For calcium, eat plenty of leafy greens, as well as almond butter, tahini, and fortified juices. Tofu with calcium sulfate is another source.
Packaged veggie “meats” help with the transition to a plant-based diet, but, Messina says, they’re still processed foods. A diet based on natural, whole foods should be your ultimate goal.
A healthy vegan plate, says Messina, should be half filled with non-starchy vegetables (one-third of which can be fruit), about one-quarter each of whole grains and legumes, and a few nuts (½ cup), seeds (2 Tbs.), or avocado (¼ cup). “It’s really not too difficult to meet nutrient needs as a vegan,” Messina says. “It’s just different.”
Supplements: A Multitude of Choices
Vegans are particularly susceptible to vitamin B12 shortfalls, says Messina, so it’s best to
take a daily supplement. Since B12 may not be well absorbed through the stomach, look for chewable or sublingual products. And, if you don’t eat ¼ tsp. of iodized salt daily, take 90 mcg of an iodine supplement (found in many vegan multivitamins), two or three times per week, or eat ¼ tsp. of kelp daily. Also look for vegan versions of these important nutrients:
Daily Essentials for Vegans
A high-quality multivitamin/multimineral
Try: MegaFoodVegan Daily
An omega-3 product with EPA and DHA derived from algae
Try: Ovega-3Omega-3s DHA + EPA
Try: Nature’s PlusSource of Life Garden Vitamin D3
Try: Pure VeganB-12 Spray
Digestive enzymes and Probiotics (dairy-free)
Try: Enzymedica DigestGold + Probiotics
Greens such as spirulina, chlorella, and barley grass
Try: Garden of LifePerfect Food RAW
Of course, you can get some of these nutrients from food as well.
Concentrated vegan sources include:
• Nutritional yeast flakes with B12
• Protein powders, including brown rice, pea, hemp, or soy
• Seeds, such as chia, flax, and hemp, that contain protein, fiber, and healthy fats
Rice Protein Matches Whey
In the first study to compare rice protein with whey, which is derived from cow’s milk, the two provided the same benefits during an eight-week weight-training program among 22 athletic young men. The study compared 48 grams of either an organic sprouted whole-grain brown rice powder or whey, and found that there was no difference in benefits. Both enhanced recovery from exercise; reduced soreness; promoted muscle growth and fat loss; and increased strength.
Coconut Whipped Cream
Makes about 2 cups
Contrary to popular opinion, going vegan doesn’t mean that you have to completely forgo treats. Coconut milk makes a decadent and delicious dairy-free whipped cream, with a texture that’s just like the real thing. Add a dollop or two to vegan cheesecake, ice cream, pie, or a bowl of fresh berries. For variety, add cinnamon, cardamom, or other spices in step 3.
1 15-oz. can full-fat coconut milk, refrigerated at least 3 hours
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbs. agave nectar (more if you like it sweeter)
- Open coconut milk, and spoon top layer of thickened coconut cream into mixing bowl. (Reserve remaining milk for use in other recipes, or to drink.)
- Whip with electric beaters, starting on low and moving to high until creamy. While beating, move beaters up and down to infuse cream with air.
- Add vanilla and agave nectar, and stir to combine.
- Serve immediately, or store for later use. In a container with a tight-fitting lid, it will keep for up to three days in the fridge.
PER SERVING (2 Tbs.): 60 cal; 1g pro; 6g total fat (5g sat fat); 2g carb; 0mg chol; 0mg sod; 0g fiber
Makes 7 burgers
You can make a double batch, wrap each burger individually, and keep them in your freezer.
½ red bell pepper, deseeded and cut into chunks
½ medium red or yellow onion, cut into chunks
2 cups baby spinach leaves
½ bunch cilantro
¾ cup cooked brown rice
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp. chili powder
2 Tbs. tomato paste½ tsp. sea salt
1½-2 cups gluten-free bread crumbs
Extra virgin olive oil (used for browning)
- Purée pepper, onion, spinach, and cilantro in food processor until liquid. Scrape into medium-sized bowl.
- Purée brown rice and chickpeas into paste in food processor, then add to veggie mixture.
- Add chili powder, tomato paste, and salt. Stir together (best done with your hands) until ingredients are well-combined.
- Add bread crumbs, and combine until mixture sticks together. If mixture feels too wet, add more bread crumbs.
- Form mixture into patties, and cook in skillet with olive oil over medium heat, until browned on both sides. Serve on sprouted-grain rolls with chipotle mayo (recipe below), pickles, organic ketchup, avocado, or other favorite condiments.
PER SERVING: 150 cal; 6g pro; 5g total fat (1g sat fat); 20g carb; 0mg chol; 520mg sod; 4g fiber
Makes ¼ cup
Popular animal-free condiment Vegenaise is a staple in many vegan kitchens.
¼ cup Follow Your Heart Grapeseed Vegenaise
¼ tsp. chipotle chili powder
½ tsp. agave nectar
Stir ingredients together in a small bowl.
PER SERVING: 90 cal; 0g pro; 9g total fat (1.5g sat fat); 2g carb; 0mg chol; 85mg sod; 0g fiber
Recipes reprinted with permission from The Karma Chow Ultimate Cookbook: 125+ Delectable Plant-Based Vegan Recipes for a Fit, Happy, Healthy You by Melissa Costello.
Two Simple Steps to Better Digestion
Beans are a staple of a plant-based diet. But they can be difficult to digest and cause gas if your body isn’t used to plenty of fiber. Here are a couple tips to avoid problems:
- Cook with seaweed: Julie Morris, vegan chef, recipe developer, and author of Superfood Kitchen: Cooking with Nature’s Most Amazing Foods, recommends adding seaweed to the water when cooking dried beans. For one pot, add a couple of strips of dried kombu or wakame, and remove them after the beans are cooked. These seaweeds are tough and won’t break or dissolve, but they will add flavor, iodine, minerals, and enzymes that help you digest the beans.
- Try digestive enzymes: Ashley Koff, RD, a dietician who works with many celebrities and leading integrative physicians, calls digestive enzymes “your personal assistant for the digestive tract.” Take enzyme supplements (derived from plant sources) with your first few bites of a meal. For tummy upset or bloating after eating, take enzymes again, up to an hour or two after a meal. Koff recommends Enzymedica Digest Gold + Probiotics.