Avoid the Pitfalls of Vegan Diets

There's a right way and a wrong way to forgo animal foods. Here are some common mistakes and how to avoid them.

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What do Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Clinton, and Betty White all have in common? They’re all vegetarians.

Betty is a little different from the others, in that she hasn’t eaten meat, fish, or poultry for about 30 years. The others have adopted animal-free diets more recently, but they go a step further by being vegans. That means foregoing all foods that come from animals or insects, including dairy, eggs, honey, and anything that contains even a trace of these. Many vegans also avoid all other types of animal products, such as leather shoes, clothing or furnishings made with wool, silk, or animal skins, and household products such as furniture polish with beeswax.

Celebrities aside, about 4 percent of American adults are vegetarians, and about one-quarter of those are vegans, according to the latest poll by The Vegetarian Resource Group, which asked more than 2,000 people about their eating habits. However, it’s estimated that nearly half of us eat meatless meals some of the time, and vegan diets are growing in popularity.

Concern for animals, the state of the planet, and one’s own health are the main reasons for adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet. Aside from Betty White’s testament of high energy and good health, research involving more than 140,000 North American and British adults has shown that vegetarians may live up to seven years longer; have up to one-third less heart disease and diabetes; and suffer fewer cancers. Although more research is needed, these benefits may be more pronounced among vegans. But there’s a right and wrong way to forgo animal foods.

Healthy Vegan Alternatives

“The biggest pitfall is not planning what you’re going to eat,” says Melissa Costello, certified nutritionist, author of The Karma Chow Ultimate Cookbook, and personal chef to vegan fitness guru Tony Horton, creator of the popular P90X workout DVDs.

“People want convenience and turn to processed foods,” she says, “because they are looking for a familiar taste.” Relying on pasta or vegan pizza are common mistakes. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” she says.

In addition to plenty of fresh vegetables, beans, and coconut, rice, almond, or oat milks, these are Costello’s four favorite vegan alternatives:

1. Tempeh

A high-protein meat substitute made of soybeans fermented with grains, such as rice or millet, tempeh is less processed, more nutritious, and easier to digest than tofu, says Costello. It takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in and is very easy to prepare. She recommends:

  1. Using an 8-ounce block of tempeh, cut one-half for a man or one-quarter for a woman.
  2. Steam it for 7 minutes to “open up the pores,” so that it will absorb more flavor.
  3. Pour marinade (any that you would use with beef) over the tempeh and let it soak at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Bake for 15-20 minutes in a 350-degree oven, or grill or pan fry.

2. Quinoa

Although it looks like a grain, quinoa is really a seed and a good source of plant protein. Cook a batch, per package directions, and keep it handy in the fridge for up to 4 or 5 days. Eat it for breakfast, hot or cold, with fruit and/or a few nuts, or for lunch or dinner, with salad or vegetables. A typical serving is ¼–½ cup.

3. Vegan Butters

Instead of actual butter, use coconut oil for cooking. Many people also like it on toast. Avocado and nut and seed butters make great buttery spreads and all these contain healthy fats.

4. Vegan Parmesan

Nutritional yeast (in flakes) has a cheesy flavor. Costello recommends sprinkling it on popcorn, pasta, and salads in place of Parmesan. Or, to make a more crumbly “cheese,” grind a half-cup of walnuts in a food processor or blender with nutritional yeast and sea salt, or add curry or cayenne for more kick.

Top Nutritional Mistakes

“It’s important not to be overly restrictive, not to eliminate whole categories of foods,” says Virginia Messina, RD, MPH, a leading nutrition consultant specializing in vegan and vegetarian diets, a long-time vegan, and author of Vegan for Life and other books. Eliminating nuts, seeds, and avocados in a misguided attempt to cut back on fat, she says, is a common mistake. Other ones are eating too much starchy food, such as pasta or white rice, or too much cheese (among vegetarians, not vegans) in place of meat.

A healthy vegan diet should provide enough iron, she says. Beans are a great source: ½ cup, depending on the type of bean, contains almost as much iron as 3 ounces of meat (Note: beans have a different form of iron than meat called non-heme iron.) Compared to vegans, vegetarians who eat dairy products are more likely to lack iron, says Messina, because dairy blocks absorption of iron from plant foods.

For calcium, eat plenty of leafy greens, especially collards and kale, and almond butter, tahini, and fortified juices. Tofu with calcium sulfate is another source.

Packaged veggie “meats” are processed foods, Messina points out, but are a convenient way to transition to a plant-based diet. Whole, unprocessed foods should be the goal for the long haul.

However, says Messina, vitamin B12 is quite likely to fall short in a vegan diet, and it’s best to take a supplement daily in a chewable or sublingual form, as B12 may not be well absorbed through the stomach. And, if you don’t eat ¼ tsp. of iodized salt daily, take 90 mcg of an iodine supplement (found in many vegan multis), two or three times per week.

A healthy vegan plate, says Messina, should look like this: Half filled with a variety of non-starchy vegetables (one-third of this can be fruit), just less than one-quarter each of whole grains and legumes, and some nuts (½ cup), seeds (2 Tbs.), or avocado (¼ cup).

“It’s not too difficult to meet nutrient needs as a vegan,” she says. “It’s just different.”

Better Bean Digestion

When switching from animal to plant foods, beans should be a staple. But they can be difficult to digest and cause gas, if your body isn’t used to plenty of fiber. Here are a couple of tips to avoid problems:

Cook with seaweed: Julie Morris, vegan chef, recipe developer, and author of Superfood Kitchen: Cooking with Nature’s Most Amazing Foods, recommends adding seaweed to the water when cooking dried beans. For one pot, add a couple of strips of dried kombu or wakame, and remove them when the beans are cooked. These seaweeds are tough and won’t break or dissolve but will add flavor, iodine, minerals, and enzymes that help you digest the beans.

Take digestive enzymes: Ashley Koff, RD, who works with many celebrities and leading integrative physicians, calls digestive enzymes “Your personal assistant for the digestive tract.” Take enzyme supplements (from plant sources) with your first few bites of a meal. For tummy upset or bloating after eating, take them again while your system is still digesting food, up to an hour or two after the meal.

Vegan Supplements

  • Look for vegan versions of these:
  • Vitamin B12 in a chewable or sublingual form
  • Multivitamin and mineral
  • Omega-3 with EPA and DHA from algae
  • Vitamin D3
  • Probiotics (dairy-free)
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Greens such as spirulina, chlorella, and barley grass

Concentrated vegan food sources include these:

  • Nutritional yeast flakes with B12
  • Protein powders, including brown rice, pea, hemp, or soy
  • Seeds with protein, fiber, and healthy fats, including chia, flax, and hemp

Rice Protein Matches Whey

In the first study to compare rice and whey protein, the two provided the same benefits during an eight-week weight-training program among 22 athletic young men. The study compared 48 grams of either an organic sprouted whole-grain brown rice powder or whey, and found no difference in benefits: enhanced recovery, reduced soreness, muscle growth, fat loss, and increased power and strength.

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