If you’re on a path towards increasing your health, you’ve probably been brushed up against the idea that eating more veggies is going to help. Maybe you even know some vegetarians or vegans that seem pretty healthy. Perhaps this has peeked your interest. Perhaps you want to eat a more plant-based diet but you just don’t know what to do.
Well, let’s start by saying, it’s not really as complicated as you think. Plus, you don’t need to drastically switch from full-on carnivore to vegan. You can adopt a Meatless Monday tradition or start increasing your vegan meals so that 80% of your diet is plant-based. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing decision, at least not at first.
Why are you looking to follow a vegan diet?
As with any lifestyle change, the first steps are education and self-reflexion. Why are you looking to change your habits and diet? As with many new goals, it’s S.M.A.R.T. to really dig into how viable the goal is for you. Why the acronym? Because, when you’re planning new goals you want to make sure they are:
When following this type of approach, you can better see what will be involved in your new lifestyle and how realistic it is for you to do that specific goal right now.
Here’s an example:
Goal – Become vegan
Specific – You want your goal to be very clear. Becoming vegan is a HUGE undertaking that has many moving parts. You may need to break it down into smaller S.M.A.R.T. goals or find a way of being very clear on what you’re trying to achieve.
“My goal is to increase my vegan meal intake by adding two full vegan days per week until I am 100% vegan”
Measurable – This is where you can really dig deeper into your why and how you will achieve your goal.
“I will know I have achieved my goal when I am consistently eating 100% vegan. I will only move to the next week when I have consistently eaten 2 or more full vegan days depending on the week.”
Action Oriented – What actions do you need to add or take away to succeed in this goal?
“Every Saturday I will plan my next week’s full vegan days, along with printing my shopping list and going shopping. On Sunday, I will start my food prep for the week. I will find 4 hours on the weekend to do this by limiting my screen time. On my non-vegan days, I will start minimizing my meat intake to make my transition easier. ”
Realistic – How realistic is it for you to adopt these actions and this goal at this time.
“If I plan ahead, I will be able to succeed in this goal. I understand that the first few weeks will require more time and dedication as I learn to cook vegan meals. I can easily add 4 hours on the weekend to do this.”
Time Sensitive – When will you accomplish your goal? Will it be in one month? Two? This will hold you accountable and will keep you on track with your goal planning.
“If I add two full vegan days, weekly and consistently, I will be 100% vegan in one month.”
No matter what your reasoning is, this approach will help. Perhaps you want to become vegan because you know that adding more vegetable to your diet will increase your health. Or, perhaps you’ve recently witnessed a disturbing documentary discussing animal welfare. No matter what is behind your desire to change, you need to approach this change in a way that is clear and sustainable.
Next, you need more knowledge around the pros and cons of a vegan lifestyle. That’s where I come in. Educating yourself will not only validate your emotional reasons for making change but will also ensure that you are still balancing your macro- and micro-nutrients so that you won’t be having any deficiencies long term. Yes, it’s possible to have disbalance when following a vegan plan. Let’s explore!
Deciding on your sources of protein
One of the first things people ask when thinking of becoming vegan is “Where will I get my protein?” Well, there is some good news. There are many sources of plant-based protein. And, depending on your health goals, you may not need to eat as much protein as you thought you did. In fact, there are many athletes that perform quite well with under 15% of calories coming from protein.
Where can you find these plant-based proteins? Let’s have a deeper look at protein and protein sources.
Let’s start by saying that most foods contain two out of the three macronutrients (fat, carbs and protein). Some even contain all three. What this means is that you can even get some protein from eating that daily serving of broccoli. Yes, broccoli has protein too! When we talk about “protein sources” we’re often focusing on foods that are predominantly higher in protein than their other macronutrients. Or, foods that are a suitable alternative to animal products depending on your goals. For example, many people think almonds are a good source of protein. Well, almonds HAVE protein and for vegans they are a good way to increase daily protein intake. However, almonds are actually considered a fatty food as this is their highest macronutrient.
Where can you find plant-based protein?
Veggies: Yep, your green veggies are a great place to boost your protein intake. In fact, one cup of cooked spinach has about 7 grams of protein! Spinach also contains 30 percent of your daily calcium needs, along with vitamin C, fiber, and B vitamins. The same serving of French beans has about 13 grams. Two cups of cooked kale? 5 grams. Filled with 4 grams per cup (about 4-6 stalks, chopped), asparagus is also a great source of B vitamins and folate. Green beans pack 4 grams of protein in just 1/2 cup, along with vitamin B6, and they’re low in carbs but high in fiber. Artichokes contain 4 grams of protein in just 1/2 cup and are a great way to boost fiber, making them filling but low in calories.
Non-Dairy Milk: A small serving of 1 cup of soy or almond milk can pack about 7-9 grams of protein. Love soy or hate soy? Soy milk, if bought organic and eaten once daily, can be a part of a healthy diet. There is conflicting research regarding its effects on cancer, but many studies show it can help actually prevent cancer rather than cause it (unlike red meat). The key is to buy non-GMO and organic soy. Soy milk also offers 4 grams of heart-healthy fats, and is rich in phytosterols. Hemp milk is becoming more and more popular just like other plant-based milks. You can make your own at home or try buying it at the store. Hemp milk packs 5 grams in one cup. To make your own, blend a 1/4 cup hemp seeds with 2 cups of water, straining, and using just like you would almond milk. You don’t have to soak hemp seeds prior to making milk and you can adjust the ratio of seeds to water depending on how rich and creamy you’d like your milk.
Nuts and Nut Butter: Eat up your peanut butter, almond butter and cashew butter. A couple of tablespoons of any one of these will get you about 8 grams of protein. And what’s not to love about this healthy nut?
Grains: Quinoa is a versatile and delicious pseudo-grain that delivers about 9 grams of protein per cup. This gluten-free, seed-like grain is a fantastic source of protein, magnesium, antioxidants, and fibre. You can cook it, bake it, and even stir it into stir-fry dishes. Amaranth and teff are similar to quinoa in their nutritional content, though much tinier in size. These ancient pseudo-grains add about 7 grams of protein to your meals in just one cup. They are also great sources of iron, B vitamins, and magnesium. Oatmeal has three times the protein of brown rice with less starch and more fibre. It’s also a great source of magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. Make yourself a vegan, sprouted-grain bread sandwich and you’ll get about 10 grams of protein in the bread alone.
Tofu and Tempeh. Although they originate from a bean, they get their own section. Four ounces of organic and non-GMO tofu will provide you with about 9 grams of clean protein. The beauty of tofu is that it can be flavored however you want and adds a rich, creamy texture or chewy texture to your food depending on if you buy firm or soft tofu. You can eat it cubed in soups, baked, and even scrambled. Tempeh is another variation of soy. Other than being high in protein, it is considered a fermented food which helps to improve your gut health. One cup of tempeh packs about 30 grams of protein! That’s more than 5 eggs or a regular hamburger patty. Tempeh is easy to digest and rich in probiotics.
Legumes and Beans. Lentils offer a ton of variety when it comes to creating recipes. Veggie burgers, soups, loaves, casseroles and more. One cup of cooked lentils delivers a whopping 18 grams of protein, along with nearly 30g of fiber! Lentils are a protein favorite of many vegetarians and vegans looking to pump up their protein fast.
With one cup of pinto, kidney or black beans, you’ll get about 13-15 grams of protein, along with a full belly of heart-healthy fiber. Black beans are one of the richest sources of antioxidants and one of the healthiest beans of all beans and legumes. Their dark color indicates their strong antioxidant content and they also have less starch than some other beans. Edamame is another great choice. Filled with antioxidants and fiber, not to mention protein, edamame is the younger, green version of the soybean. It has a nutty sweetness and packs in 17 grams of protein in just one cup. Add to salads, soups, burgers, soba noodles, and more. You can even snack on it raw and roast it like chickpeas for a crunchy snack. Black eyed peas might seem boring, but they pack 16 grams of protein in just a cup. Like most other beans, they’re also a great source of iron, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins (which help support your stress levels). Their mild and nutty flavor makes a great addition to any dinner! Chickpeas are not just for hummus! A one cup serving of chickpeas will also give you about 16 grams of protein. Green peas are packed with protein and fiber. They contain 8 grams of protein per cup, so it’s easy to add more protein by adding a little of these sweet treats throughout the day. Peas are also rich in leucine, an amino acid crucial to metabolism and weight loss that’s hard to find in most plant-based foods.
Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are one of the most overlooked sources of iron and protein, containing 8 gram of protein per 1/4 cup. They’re also an excellent source of magnesium and zinc, essential for health. Chia, chia, chia … what can’t this super seed do? Chia has 5 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons and is also a complete protein source. We love it in chia pudding but you can also add this seed to your daily water, yogurts, oatmeal and even salad dressings. Hempseed is another great way to get your protein. Toss three tablespoons of hemp seeds in your smoothie and you’ll get about 13 grams of protein – just like that. Hemp seeds are a complete protein that are hard NOT to love. They don’t change the flavor of your meals and can easily be sprinkled on your food throughout the day to boost your protein intake. Tahini (ground sesame seed) is a great allergy free alternative to traditional nut butters, with 8 grams of protein in two tablespoons. This seed butter also contributes great amounts of iron and B vitamins, along with magnesium and potassium.
Other: Spirulina is taking up more space in the vegan protein world. This blue green algae may look a bit scary if you’ve never tried it but it’s easy to use; especially if you add it to a smoothie. Spirulina adds 80 percent of your daily iron needs and 4 grams of protein in one tablespoon; it’s also a complete amino acid source making it an essential addition to a vegan lifestyle. Another unique way to boost protein and vitamin B12 (which can be a challenge for vegans) is nutritional yeast. This slightly cheesy and nutty flavored ingredient contains 8 grams of protein in just 2 tablespoons!
What about fats and carbohydrates?
There are many great sources of fat that you can rely on to keep your body healthy. In fact, many of the plant-based fats are unsaturated fats, keeping your heart healthy. Good sources of healthy fats can be found in olives, nuts and seeds, coconut and coconut derivatives along with a variety of vegetable oils. The fat most of us need to focus on, not just vegans, is the essential fatty acid Omega-3. However, if you are eating plenty of chia, hemp seed, walnuts and ground flax, you’re getting a good start on your Omega-3 intake. It can be beneficial to supplement your diet with a high quality vegan Omega-3 supplement to ensure that your immune system, gut health, mental health and cardiovascular health stay in their best shape.
When you’re focusing on a diet filled with vegetables, grains, fruit and legumes, you’re going to be increasing your intake of daily carbohydrates. Depending on your health goals, you can still feel positive about weight loss as these sources of carbohydrates are filled with nutrients and a good amount of fibre. Fibre is one of the key secrets to successful weight loss. It keeps you feeling full, slows down your carbohydrate metabolism providing sustainable energy and it keeps your bowels happy.
What about vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is definitely a hot topic in the world of vegans. Why? Because most, if not all, B12 is found in animal products. The only plant sources have usually been fortified, including some soy milk, breakfast cereals and tofu. A deficiency in this vitamin can cause anemia and can also potentially damage the nervous system. A remedy is to ensure you are eating a minimum of three servings of a vitamin B12 fortified food or to take a daily B12 supplement containing 10 micrograms per serving.
What would a vegan plan look like?
As always, variety is key. If you’re filling your plate with a wide range of vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and legumes, you’ll be close to guaranteed to be filling your body with a ton of necessary vitamins, minerals, plant-based protein and healthy fats. However, you may want to be more intentional about how to plan and track your meals, especially if you are on a certain health journey.
A traditional vegan diet is generally higher in carbohydrates. As we mentioned, this does not mean your weight loss efforts will be sabotaged as most of these carbohydrates are coming from whole food sources. In fact, you can very realistically keep your macronutrient balance as follows:
What’s vital is that you are eating your carbohydrates from whole foods. Resist the temptation to eat empty calories like bagels, chips and sugary treats.
Once you know your macro balance and caloric intake, it’s easier for you to make a plan. Still confused?
Here’s a sample one day vegan meal plan:
1 cup Steel Cut Oats
1 cup of blackberries
1 tbsp almond butter
½ cup of unsweetened almond milk
½ cup of edamame beans with lime juice and red pepper flakes
Vegan Greek Salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, red and green peppers, kale, black olives and semi-firm tofu cubes.
1 slice of whole-grain sprouted bread with half of a smashed avocado, nutritional yeast and lemon juice.
Vegan Power Bowl – Rice noodles, sweet potatoes, roasted broccoli and cauliflower, shredded carrots, shredded cabbage, tahini dressing and hemp seeds.
As with anything, planning ahead is a sure way to stay healthy and reduce stress. By knowing in advance what, where and when you’re going to eat, you’ll also be able to track if you are eating enough protein, a good amount of healthy fat and, of course, a reasonable amount of carbohydrates.
A day like this will provide you (depending on your portion size) 1500 calories, 35% fat, 45% carb, 20% protein along with a whopping 53g of fiber! You’ll also be off the charts for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.
I have many great resources for you to learn more ways to boost your vegetables and your health. Not sure where your starting point is? My health assessment is a valuable tool to show you where and how you can start augmenting your health today.