Are you considering a vegan lifestyle? Not so long ago, "going vegan" was a difficult path, filled with challenges and, to a certain extent, isolation. Today, being vegan is "cool," thanks to celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, who wrote a bestselling book on the vegan diet called The Kind Diet, and Oprah Winfrey, who took a one-week vegan challenge on her TV show this year.
An estimated 1.4 percent of Americans count themselves vegans, defined as eating a diet that excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy products and eggs. By many accounts, it's a growing trend.
It doesn't hurt that health experts are coming forward with scientific evidence promoting the benefits of diets that are based on plants, rather than animals. At the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in November 2010, in Boston, Karmeen Kulkarni, director of scientific affairs at Abbott Diabetes Care, presented the latest research on plant-based diets.
"Results of an evidence-based review showed that plant-based diets reduced the risk of ischemia, hypertension and type 2 diabetes; lowered LDL and blood pressure; reduced body mass; and reduced overall cancer rate. Risk of chronic disease reduced due to decreased intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, and increased intake of vegetables with more fiber and phytochemicals, nuts and soy proteins," Kulkarni said.
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Vegetarian diets even got a plug in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines (U.S. Department of Agriculture), which stated that vegetarian eating patterns, including vegan diets, may contribute to positive health outcomes such as lower levels of obesity, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and lower total mortality.
If you've decided to go vegan, whether for health or philosophical reasons, it's important to put a little thought into your new strategy. Although it's getting easier to find vegan products in supermarkets, it's important to ensure that you get a balanced diet that meets all of your nutritional needs.
Check out the following rules to make the most of your diet:
Vegan diet rules
1. Protein perspective
It's a common misperception that it is impossible to get adequate protein on a vegan diet. Yet nearly all foods contain some protein, except for alcohol, sugar and fat. If you eat a balanced diet with many plant foods and grains, you are already getting good sources of protein. To ensure that you're meeting your protein needs, shoot for two servings of nuts and seeds like walnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds, and three servings of legumes and soy, such as beans, lentils, peas and tofu, every day.
2. Vitamin B12 boost
This important vitamin is found in animal products, so you need to either consume vitamin B12-fortified foods or take a supplement to meet your needs.
3. Vitamin D challenge
It's a challenge for vegans to get adequate levels of this important nutrient. That's why you should try to get 10 minutes of sunlight a day, consume vitamin D-fortified foods, such as soy or rice milk, breakfast cereal or orange juice, or take a vitamin D supplement.
4. Calcium counts
Even if you forfeit meat and dairy, your body still needs calcium. Focus on calcium-fortified products like juices and soy milk, and calcium-rich foods like dark green vegetables, almonds and broccoli and consider taking a calcium supplement.
5. Pump iron
You don't need animal products to get iron. Make sure you include plant iron sources like spinach, kidney beans, lentils and whole-wheat bread in your diet, and add a vitamin C source to increase your absorption of iron.
6. Omega-3 bonus
If you're skipping out on fish, you may not be reaping the nutritional rewards of omega-3 fatty acids. So, get your omega-3s by eating about two servings a day of foods rich in plant omega-3s, such as walnuts, canola oil, soy products and hemp.
7. Find zinc
You can easily meet your zinc needs, as long as you include whole grains, legumes, green vegetables and nuts in your diet.
8. Make your calories count
When you're eating vegan, you need to make sure your food choices really count so you meet all of your protein, vitamin and mineral needs. Instead of falling for vegan "junk food," available in grocery stores that supply mostly refined grains and sugars, keep your diet primarily whole foods. Seek a variety of natural plant foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seeds. And don't forget to change it up; by varying the types of plant foods you eat every day you'll ensure a diverse supply of important nutrients.
9. The Vegetarian Food Pyramid
Make planning easier by downloading the Vegetarian Food Pyramid at www.vegetariannutrition.org. It will make meal planning a cinch.