A typical day of eating for the average American mostly likely includes a wide range of animal products. Going vegan and cutting out all animal products — including meat, eggs, dairy and cheese — is a big deviation from this status quo.
Following a vegan diet doesn't necessarily mean you're an animal rights activist or a bohemian, and in fact could mean you're making a very smart decision for your health.
Former president Bill Clinton adopted a (mostly) vegan diet to deal with his heart disease. Longtime vegetarian Carrie Underwood made the switch to a vegan diet a few years ago. Believe it or not, even Mike Tyson went vegan to detox his system from the unhealthy lifestyle he'd been living.
There are two main motivations for going vegan: for health reasons, or for ethical reasons.
Becoming a vegan for health reasons has become more and more common in the last few years. Some people say they simply feel better once they cut out meat and dairy, but others do it for the more well-known scientific reasons. A healthy vegan diet includes less saturated fat and cholesterol, and more vitamins, nutrients and dietary fiber than a typical diet. Some studies have also suggested that vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of heart disease, and vegetarians and vegans have a lower incidence of cancer. Even the risk of Type 2 diabetes can be reduced by eating a plant-based diet.
Vegans who give up animal products for ethical reasons often do so in protest of inhumane treatment of animals. Food system issues like small, dark pens, poor feed, brutal slaughtering processes are some of the biggest ethical problems. Some vegans even object so strongly to the treatment of animals that they won't wear leather, fur, wool or silk.
Regardless of your reasons for going vegan, it's not as simple as just cutting out animal products. Here are 7 tips you'll need to know to go vegan in a healthy way.
1. Protein, protein, protein.
Since you won't be getting any protein from meat, eggs, cheese or dairy, you will need to pay special attention to your protein intake. The CDC recommends that adults get between 46 and 56 grams of protein per day, so keep an eye on nutrition labels.
2. You'll need a vitamin B12 supplement, as this nutrient only occurs naturally in animal-based foods.
Our bodies need vitamin B12 to produce healthy nerve and blood cells and create DNA. A deficiency of this nutrient can cause certain types of anemia, weakness, fatigue, constipation, nerve diseases and memory problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Because no plants contain B12, vegans need to get this vital nutrient from unusual sources. Adding a B12 supplement to your diet is a good choice. Some nutritional yeast contains B12, which makes it a nutritious as well as tasty vegan cheese substitute.
3. Keep tabs on your iron intake.
Like B12, iron occurs naturally in meat and seafood. However, vegans can get plenty of iron from nuts, beans, vegetables and some grains. Dark chocolate is also a surprisingly rich source of iron — although it shouldn't be a substitute for spinach.
Though vegans should be able to get plenty of iron from their diet, if you're concerned about your intake, you can always get extra from an iron supplement.
4. Don't overdo it on the soy.
To a new vegan, soy products can seem like a dream come true. With soy milk, soy cheese, and a million kinds of tofu to choose from, you think you're all set on your new diet.
Recently, however, some experts have warned against eating too much soy. Some studies have noted that soy can act like estrogen in the body, which could worsen breast cancer or cause the onset of bladder and endometrial cancers. You can still have your tofu, though — just be sure to enjoy soy products in moderation.
5. You'll save money in the long run.
Meat, cheese, eggs and fish are some of the most expensive items in the grocery store. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that you'll be saving money when you cross these items off your grocery list. Use your savings to up your spending on fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy whole grains or some of the best vegan staples that we've collected.
6. A vegan diet helps the environment.
Animal products like meat, eggs, milk and cheese by far use the most energy to produce. According to a study published in The Lancet in 2009, livestock account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture industry.
By going vegan, you reduce the amount of energy needed to grow the foods you eat, therefore reducing the amount of energy the agriculture industry must consume. A geophysicist at the University of Chicago calculated that if all Americans reduced their consumption of meat by 20 percent, the difference in energy expenditure would be the same as if we all traded in our standard size cars for a Prius.
7. Don't swap out meat for vegan junk foods.
Finally, the most important tip: Avoid becoming an unhealthy vegan by limiting vegan junk foods. New vegans often fall victim to this rookie mistake.
The golden rule with veganism, and with any diet, is just because something is vegan doesn't mean it is healthy. Eating all the vegan cookies you want is not much better for you than gorging on buttery, dairy-filled chocolate chip cookies.
Photo credit: Jennifer via Flickr