Picture this: one of your friends has just told you she is becoming a vegan. Your head is spinning. You know you’re supposed to be happy for her, but you have questions. What is she actually going to eat? Will she be able to stay healthy? And most importantly -is this going to affect your coffee dates? Well, have no fear! I’m here to calm your worries and give you all the reasons the vegans are doing just fine.
It’s everyone’s first question, so we might as well talk about it now. Assuming your friend hasn’t decided to live solely on kale chips and brown rice, she’s probably going to get enough protein. The government only recommends 56/46g per day of protein for the average man/woman, which is pretty easy to get considering one serving of tempeh is about 30g.1,2 The real key to vegan protein success is making sure to get different types so you get a wide variety of nutrients and amino acids.
Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein, and we all know how important protein is. There are different types of amino acids: the first our body can make on its own and then a group of nine, called essential amino acids, which we have to eat. Most people worry that vegans won’t get enough of the essential aminos because they don’t eat meat, which usually contains all nine.3 That’s nothing to be concerned about though since most soy products contain them in similar concentrations to meats.4
What will your vegan friend do for calcium without all the dairy products to sustain her? Is she doomed to become a hunch-backed old lady because she refused to eat a cheese stick every now and then? Not necessarily. There is plenty of calcium in things like dark leafy greens for her to enjoy, and if she is feeling sick of salads, fortified grains and plant-based milks can fill the gaps.5 And if that still isn’t enough options, or you’re extra concerned about her brittle bones, calcium supplements can come to the rescue.
Wait a minute! Isn’t using supplements cheating?
Absolutely not! Eating a healthy diet is a balancing act no matter what you eat. In fact, anyone who doesn’t plan their meals carefully is susceptible to nutrient deficiencies. For example -everyone needs vitamin C, but if you hate citrus fruit, you’re going to have a rough time getting enough. Supplements are a great way to fill in any gaps left by what is eaten, and for vegans this often means calcium or B12, while for omnivores it usually means fiber and vitamin C.6
Now, B12 is a tricky one. People usually think people who don’t eat meat are the only ones at risk for this deficiency, but a study found that a majority of adults are deficient despite consumption of B12 rich foods.7 So while your vegan friend might not be eating as much of it as you are, chances are you should both be on a B12 supplement.
Is she going to lose a lot of weight?
Well, maybe. There is a lot of research that shows people eating vegan diets have much lower risk of cardiovascular disease since what they eat is “higher in fruits, vegetables, and fiber, which are protective against the development of metabolic syndrome.”8 So by default of her diet she will be safer from obesity and any related diseases like diabetes.
So should you be worried about your friend’s health? Definitely not. The ADA didn’t think so either when they said that “appropriately planned […] vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.9 Now this isn’t to say vegans are perfect at nutrition, only that they can eat just as healthy as their omnivorous friends with proper planning.
The chances are that because of the switch, your newly vegan friend is more highly aware of what nutrients she is taking in and will adjust her foods and supplements accordingly. Most vegans love food just as much as the next person and will get plenty of nutrients from a wide variety of plant-based items. So don’t fret, and order her a soy latte next time you meet for coffee, ok?
- Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-7/. Published June 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016.
- Smith C, Kahnle M. Measuring your macros: what 30 grams of protein looks like. Body Building. http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/measuring-your-macros-what-30-grams-protein-looks-like.html. Published September 24, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2016.
- Bruso J. List of Foods That Contain the Most Amino Acids. LIVESTRONG.COM. http://www.livestrong.com/article/237785-list-of-foods-that-contain-the-most-amino-acids/. Published 2015. Accessed September 15, 2016.
- Norris J. Protein. Vegan Health. http://veganhealth.org/articles/protein#comp. Published January 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016.
- Norris J. Calcium and Vitamin D. Vegan Health. http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/bones#protein. Published October 2013. Accessed September 15, 2016.
- Craig WJ. Health effects of vegan diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009;89. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N.
- llen L. How common is vitamin B-12 deficiency? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009;89(2):693S-696S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.26947A.
- Turner-McGrievy G, Harris M. Key elements of plant-based diets associated with reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.Current Diabetes Reports. 2014;14:524. doi:10.1007/s11892-014-0524-y.
- Craig WJ, Mangels AR. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets.Journal of the American Dietetic Association. July 2009:1266-1282.