Samuel L. Jackson declared recently that he’s going vegan “to live forever.” Or at least to “finish out my Marvel deal,” he quipped; a deal for which the 65-year-old actor still has a few movies to shoot as S. H. I. E. L. D. Agent, Nick Fury (1). Having healthy public figures “come out” as a vegan is helping to dispel old stereotypes of the skinny, pale, sallow-eyed vegan of yesteryear. Done right, a vegan diet can help you lose weight, improve your blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol levels, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and may even improve your energy and stamina (2).
If you’re thinking of following Samuel L.’s example and joining the vegan lifestyle, follow these simple guidelines to become a healthy, happy vegan:
Avoid Processed Foods – There are lots of vegan-friendly foods out there that are not so healthy for you. Highly processed “meat analogs” like faux sausage, chicken-less nuggets, and veggie “bacon” top the list. They’re high in sodium, preservatives, and refined proteins/starches, all of which promote free radical damage and inflammation in your body. Read the ingredient label: if it contains ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food (like methylcellulose or soy protein isolate) skip it. Instead, try marinated tempeh, tofu, or seitan, which are less processed and have a long-standing tradition of promoting good health in traditional Asian cuisine.
Variety is Key – Eating a wide range of foods will not only keep you from getting bored with your new dietary patterns, but it will also ensure you get all of the essential nutrients and beneficial antioxidants you need.
- When choosing fruits and veggies, think in a rainbow of color! Try to eat at least five different-colored items from the produce section every day.
- For starches, think whole: whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, or bulgur wheat), whole potatoes (skins on!), 100% whole grain bread, crackers, tortillas, or pasta – make sure it says 100% whole grain on the label. Whole grains are also a good source of protein.
- For other proteins, mix it up with a variety of legumes, nuts, and seeds to be sure you’re getting all the amino acids you need.
Think Complete – Protein, that is. Protein from animal sources (meat, dairy, eggs) is complete, meaning it contains all of the amino acids you need. But you don’t have to eat animal products to get complete protein. If you’re getting your protein solely from plant sources, you just need to strategize a bit. In order to obtain all of your essential amino acids, you need to eat a little protein from each main group of plant-protein sources: whole grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds, over the course of your day. Examples of these complementary protein foods include whole grain pita with hummus, rice and beans, peanut butter and whole grain crackers, or an oatmeal cookie with walnuts – dunk that cookie in soy milk, and you’ve got a dessert that covers all three protein groups!
Supplements – Vegans tend to run low on some nutrients found mostly in animal products, like Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and the essential fatty acids, EPA & DHA (3). To ensure yourself against deficiency and achieve optimum health, dietary supplements are your best bet. Look for high quality, pharmaceutical grade supplements that guarantee purity and quality. It should say “Vegan” on the label; if it does not, ask the manufacturer where they source that nutrient. Vitamin B12 is generally vegan-friendly and in the form of a tablet which you either swallow or place under your tongue. Vegan Vitamin D comes from lichen and is usually in a vegetable capsule made of cellulose, or in the form of a liquid, you take with a dropper. EPA and DHA often come from fish, so read labels carefully when looking for a vegan source; vegan EPA and DHA come from algal oil and are usually encapsulated in a veggie soft gel. Individual needs vary, but general recommendations per day are as follows: 1 mg Vitamin B12 (4) and 1,000-2,000 IU Vitamin D3 (5); for the essential fatty acids men should shoot for around 1600 mg, women should aim for 1100 mg, per day of combined Omega-3 fatty acids containing both EPA and DHA (6). Round those out with a high-quality vegan multivitamin, and you’ll be on your way to optimum health! Always consult your health care provider before trying new supplements, especially if you are currently taking any prescription medication or being treated for a medical condition.
Going vegan isn’t difficult, it just takes a little planning. Chances are if you’re health conscious enough to want to try the vegan lifestyle, you’re already paying attention to what and how you eat, so following the tips above won’t be much of a stretch. Think whole foods, be creative, get complete protein, and take your supplements. Easy!