What is the best way to eat a vegan diet but still get all the nutrients I need?

Millions of Americans follow a vegetarian diet. There are many levels to a vegetarian diet: Lacto-ovo vegetarians omit red meat, poultry, and fish but do eat eggs, milk and milk products (cheese, yogurt) in addition to plant-based foods. Lacto-vegetarians omit eggs, red meat, poultry, and fish but will allow milk and milk products. Vegans eliminate all foods coming from animals including meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt etc. They consume only plant-based foods. Fruitarians eliminate all animal products and processed foods. Following a strict vegan diet can be challenging, and one needs to really educate oneself and allow time for planning, grocery shopping, and meal preparation in order to fully adhere to the guidelines of the diet. Remember, no one food supplies all of the necessary nutrients that are important to one’s health. It is important to take in a variety of “acceptable” vegan foods in order to get all of these necessary nutrients.

Because the vegan diet eliminates all animal products, a person will have to find other ways to consume important nutrients vital to ones health. Protein is one of those nutrients. It is essential in building new cells and for the growth and repair of damaged tissues. There are many non-meat sources of protein including: legumes, lentils, meat substitutes (textured vegetable protein, soy crumbles), other soy products (soy nuts, soy milk etc), seeds, nuts, and whole grains. Zinc is another important nutrient needed in any healthy diet, as it aids in the wound healing process and is vital for many enzyme reactions. Good non animal sources of zinc are nuts, wheat germ, soy products, and green leafy vegetables. Those following a vegan diet will need to consume adequate amounts of calcium because it is essential for building and maintaining strong teeth and bones. Sources of calcium that fit in the vegan diet include: dark green vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, and spinach), enriched tofu, soymilk, and enriched fruit juices. Vegans also need to make sure they are consuming enough vitamin B12 and iron because these are two nutrients commonly found in animal products. Other sources include: dried beans, peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole grain products, fortified soy products and green leafy vegetables.

In order to successfully follow a vegan diet, I would first spend some time evaluating your current food and beverage intake. It could help to complete a food journal. Record everything you are eating and drinking each day to determine how many animal products you are consuming. Now make some realistic goals. If you are consuming meat and animal products each day, work to reduce this consumption by finding substitutions for these common foods. Start by replacing ground beef with veggie crumbles. I have used them in my tacos, chili, and spaghetti sauce! Tofu can take the place of meat in a number of dishes. I cube tofu and use it in stir fries and recently took thinly sliced tofu dredged it in breadcrumbs and baked it to replace “fried” chicken. Check out a vegan cookbook from the library and begin experimenting with different entrees. Quinoa makes a great “salad” when paired with a variety of vegetables, soy cheese, and vinaigrette. Beans (red, Lima, black, garbanzo, Kidney) are a great staple item when used in chili, soups, burritos, and pasta dishes. Begin replacing cow’s milk with soy/almond milk and get into the habit of checking food labels if you are unsure if a food is safe on a vegan diet. Beware of hidden animal based ingredients such as: casein, gelatin, beeswax, honey and lactose. Finally, there are popular foods that one may think are fine to eat on a vegan diet but may contain animal products. Some “veggie” burgers may contain eggs or milk, jelly and some sweets/marshmallows may be made with gelatin, and some breakfast cereals may be made with honey.

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