I haven’t eaten meat in more than a decade. I’m currently a vegetarian. I’d gone vegetarian several times during my childhood, but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that going meat-free stuck. At the time, actually, I skipped the segue and jumped straight into a vegan diet. I don’t think I ever felt better than I did when I was a vegan — the outcome was well worth the effort.
Lately, I’ve been feeling the need to go back to being vegan, largely due to some lingering health concerns. And, as such, I knew I needed a refresher in how to most adequately meet my nutritional needs.
So I reached out to some friends, as well as leaned on the insight from a few experts in their respective fields, and here’s what I came away with.
1. Take a B12 supplement
I’m a naughty vegetarian who doesn’t take a B12 supplement, even though I know I probably should. However, I justify it because so many foods I do still eat are fortified with B12 — my favorite meat substitutes (hello, vegetarian bacon strips!), my favorite breakfast cereals, etc.
But, seriously, this is one supplement I shouldn’t skip out on. Here’s the thing: B12 is found mostly in animal products, but not because they produce it. It is actually produced by bacteria in the gut. Unfortunately, a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to a whole host of unwanted issues, ranging from anemia and weakness to dementia and even irreversible nerve damage.
So it looks like I’ll be buying some B12, since in order to meet the recommended amount I need to take at least 2.4 mcg per day. Better safe than sorry, right?
2. Pick up some iodine
Omnivores (and omnivores who are basically carnivores, even, like my husband) meet their body’s need for iodine by consuming dairy products. Interestingly, the iodine found in those comes from solutions farmers rely on to clean cattle and the equipment used in handling them. In order for vegans to get this iodine, they need an iodine supplement or iodized salt.
3. Stock up on calcium-rich foods
Much like iodine, dairy products help many non-vegans hit their calcium quota. Now, that’s not to say that vegans can’t get all the calcium they need from their diet — it just means they need to be particularly mindful of picking up plenty of foods with high calcium content.
When I was a vegan, I ate green beans and snacked on nuts like almonds like it was going out of style to this end. A few solid options are dark, leafy greens such as kale, broccoli and collards; certain fruits like oranges and figs; most seeds; all dried herbs; quinoa and calcium-fortified foods.
My friend Cali O’Hare, another longtime vegetarian/vegan, is a big fan of this calcium-rich snack — “Extra-firm tofu, coated in vegan egg white substitute, dipped in breadcrumbs, fried in vegetable oil and then swirled in hot sauce is full of protein and makes a great ‘Buffalo wing.'”
4. Don’t overlook DHA
When you’re pregnant, doctors can’t stress enough how much DHA your body needs for that sweet little being growing inside of you. Why? It is essential for brain development and function, as well as for the nervous system.
Naturally, we don’t just need this brain-booster during pregnancy. It’s also important to make sure our brains function properly as adults. To ensure we are getting enough on a daily basis to promote optimum brain function, we need to get it through our diet. This is especially tricky for vegans and vegetarians, as a main dietary source of DHA is fish. Luckily, there are vegan DHA supplements available that make this a non-issue.
Sally-Lee Davis, a longtime vegan friend and vegan-registered-dietitian-in-training, swears by Vegan Essentials for purchasing all of the vegan supplements she uses to meet her nutritional needs.
5. Eat a well-balanced diet
Some essential nutrients, like choline and iron, can be met through a vegan diet — but that diet must be well-rounded in order for such to be the case.
When her father-in-law was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer several years ago, my friend Kristi Stephens and her husband Ranny made the switch to a vegan lifestyle to support her father-in-law’s choice to adopt the diet to bolster his health. To ensure they didn’t falter nutritionally, Kristi hit up Pinterest for vegan recipes that would fill them up and meet their nutritional needs. That meant a lot of dishes with, well, veggies obviously but also “beans, legumes, whole grains and quinoa.”
6. Make a multivitamin a habit
Aside from noshing on veggie-heavy meals like homemade vegan chili packed with beans, peas, carrots and corn, my friend Cali takes a daily multivitamin with extra iron designed specifically for female vegetarians and vegans.
She also incorporates a vegan protein powder into her diet to amp up her nutritional intake. During my first stretch as a vegan, my go-to meal replacement was a vegan chai protein powder blended with ice and cashew milk — yum!
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