Yes, it is possible to get everything you need with a purely plant-based diet.
As you can probably tell from the number of plant-based recipes popping up on your social media feed, and that new vegan restaurant that just opened down the block, veganism is on the rise. According to one poll, about 2.5% of Americans identify as vegan, meaning they adhere to a diet that omits all animal-derived foods and ingredients. But experts still can’t seem to agree whether veganism is an optimal diet.
The latest group to take a stand is the German Nutrition Society. The organization has published a paper that states, "[w]ith a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients."
In my opinion and experience, it is certainly not "impossible." Vegans and omnivores alike can get all the nutrients their bodies need, in the right balance. It's just that vegan diets need to be "appropriately planned," as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has pointed out.
The German report named 10 nutrients of critical concern: vitamin B12, protein, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron, iodine, zinc, and selenium. If you’re vegan—or thinking of going vegan—here are four important steps you can take to ensure you consume an adequate amount of each.
Meet with a dietitian
A vegan diet should be personalized, so I recommend consulting with a dietitian who specializes in plant-based diets. When I meet with clients who are vegan or want to make this transition, I dive deep into exactly what they do and don’t eat, along with their usual eating pattern.
For example, I’ve had some vegan clients who are also picky eaters; others had food sensitivities that prevented them from eating certain nutrient-rich foods. Taking a complete “food inventory” allows me to determine whether dietary supplements are needed, and if so, the right types and amounts.
All of this can be difficult to sort through by yourself. I’ve had some clients who bought supplements without any guidance, and mistakenly took too little or too much. Too much can also be risky. Excess zinc for example may actually suppress immunity, lower “good” HDL cholesterol, or even trigger nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and headaches. Too much calcium is tied to constipation, kidney stones, and may damage the kidneys and heart over time.
If you can't meet with a dietitian, at least consult an expert reference. I highly recommend the book Becoming Vegan, written by two RDs.
Plan ahead and carry “back-up” food
It may be easier to find vegan options these days, but I've had vegan clients tell me they skipped meals because they couldn’t find something suitable when they were on the go, or in a non-vegan-friendly social situation. While I definitely advocate for “real food” first, sometimes a vegan protein bar can mean the difference between falling seriously short on several nutrients, or more closely hitting the mark.
My favorite “clean” vegan bars include Amrita’s chocolate maca (with 15 grams of plant-based protein); Rise’s plant-based bars, specifically the lemon cashew and sunflower cinnamon (with 15 grams of protein each); and Square’s organic bars (which have 11-13 grams of protein).
I suggest carrying a few bars with you wherever you go, just in case. And download a GPS app like Food Tripping, to scope out nearby eateries with vegan options.
Invest in vegan cookbooks
One of the keys to meeting your nutrient needs on a vegan diet is to eat a wide variety of foods. People often get stuck in a rut, eating the same meals over and over. Even if the meal is healthy, you may be missing out on nutrients by not rotating in other plant-based foods.
For example, salads loaded with greens and veggies are great; but without the addition of a regular variety of pulses (beans, lentils and peas), nuts, seeds, and whole grains, the spectrum of nutrients in your bowl may be far too narrow.
One of my favorite cookbooks, offering a wide range of recipes, is Sharon Palmer’s Plant-Powered for Life.
And again, keep in mind that you may need to take supplements for certain nutrients.
Consider being vegan-ish
I know that for those who avoid animal-based foods and ingredients for animal rights and ethical reasons, being vegan-ish is not an option. But I do have clients who’ve gone vegan with the goal of improving their health. Some find it easier to meet their nutrient needs when they’re “mostly vegan,” by adding in some low-mercury seafood or organic eggs, for example.
I’ve even had some clients tell me that they found veganism too challenging, and rebounded back to their previous animal-heavy diet that lacked healthy plant foods like produce, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. Obviously that's not a healthier path. So I like to remind those clients that veganism doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you’re health-focused rather than animal-rights focused, being mostly vegan may be the best way to strike a balance, and stick with a healthy eating pattern long-term.
Do you have a question about nutrition? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.