It’s easy to have a healthy vegan diet when you build habits around seven simple guidelines.
1. Eat legumes.
They’re packed with protein, with the bonus of a big dose of fiber. (No protein-rich animal food can claim that!). Choose three servings of these foods—which include cooked beans, peas, lentils, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, veggie meats, peanuts and peanut butter—every day. Keep it simple if you don’t have time to soak and cook beans (or if you don’t like beans that much). Meals that include a serving of legumes include a PB&J sandwich; baked potato topped with homemade tofu sour cream; hummus wrap; instant cup of lentil soup; veggie burger; or cereal with soymilk.
2. Pile your plate with fruits and veggies, and vary your choices.
Vegans are ahead of the game here, since they tend to eat more of these foods than omnivores. Variety is important, though, because different fruits and vegetables have different benefits. Those that are high in vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) will give iron absorption a big boost, so try to include one of these foods at every meal. Some leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard are among the world’s best sources of potassium, which is good for your bones and blood pressure. Other green leafies—collards and kale—are packed with calcium. And, of course, all of those deep orange vegetables like squash and carrots are important for vitamin A.
3. Get enough calcium.
It’s not the end-all and be-all of bone health, but calcium does matter and it’s an area where some vegans fall short. Best sources for vegans are fortified juices and plant milks, calcium-set tofu, kale and collards. But you can get smaller amounts of calcium from figs, oranges, broccoli, and cabbage, too.
4. Choose whole grains.
Every single bite of grain you eat doesn’t have to be unprocessed. If you enjoy crusty French bread with soups and salads, or regular pasta in your lasagna, that’s fine. Vegans get plenty of fiber after all. But whole grains have other benefits and nutrients besides fiber, so aim for the unrefined choices most of the time.
5. Be smart about fats.
Limiting fatty foods is good, but avoiding them completely isn’t. Some high fat foods like nuts and seeds contribute important nutrients to vegan diets. Nuts are also linked to lower heart disease risk and are helpful in the control of diabetes. Added fats are okay, too, when used in small amounts to enhance texture and flavor of foods. Meals that are swimming in fat aren’t such a good idea, but a drizzle of olive or organic canola oil on salads and roasted vegetables is absolutely fine in the context of a healthy vegan diet. Be sure to include small amounts of ground flaxseed, chia seeds, or walnuts to meet needs for the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid.
6. Don’t shun supplements.
All vegans need vitamin B12 supplements (or fortified foods.) And many vegans opt for supplements of the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA (although the jury is out on whether they are beneficial). Other supplements depend on your diet and lifestyle. If you use iodized salt, you’re covered for iodine. If not, it’s a good idea to take a supplement. (Iodine content of plants depends on where they are grown and many people, including meat eaters, fall short on this nutrient.) And vegans get vitamin D from the same places as omnivores—from sunshine or fortified foods. If you don’t get much time in the sun, especially during the winter, opt for a vitamin D supplement.
7. Be flexible and have fun with your vegan diet.
Vegans are automatically off to a good start with food choices. Diets built around plant foods are free of cholesterol, low in saturated fat and high in fiber. There are still plenty of junk-food choices for vegans, though. Needless to say, your diet won’t be healthy if it’s packed with potato chips and Oreo cookies. But it’s not an all-or-nothing kind of thing. Processed foods like veggie meats and cheeses can make it easier to stick to your healthy vegan diet, and so can the occasional treat.
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