A new year is upon us, and that means it’s time to put the old ways behind us and embrace something new. For a lot of us, that means finding new ways to be healthier. A vegan diet has a wide range of health benefits. `Staples like fresh veggies, fruit, and whole-grains are full of nutrients that both strengthen the body and protect it against disease. Let’s break it down a bit more.
Going vegan increases your energy
A diet full of saturated fat and refined sugar results in low energy. These simple carbs race through the body, providing a burst of energy that quickly dies out, like switching a light on and off. Complex carbs, however, release more slowly, so your energy level works more like a light switch dimmer and lasts longer. Vegan staples like whole grains and vegetables are packed with complex carbs, so you are much less fatigued and can enjoy more energy throughout your day.
Going vegan protects your heart
Heart disease is a real serial killer, and millions are at risk for becoming its next victim. A vegan diet allows you to eliminate saturated fat found in foods like cheese and red meat, so you can keep your intake really low. The fiber in fresh vegetables, beans, and fruit also helps keep the heart healthy; it allows the body to get rid of bad cholesterol faster.
Going vegan strengthens your brain
More plants in your diet equals a strong mind. Studies show that diets rich in fresh produce result in a better mood and higher levels of happiness. In terms of specific foods, blueberries and cacao are excellent brain foods and can enhance your memory. Pumpkin seeds, whole-grains, legumes, and nuts are rich in zinc, which is essential for cognitive sharpness.
Going vegan fights the aging process
Fresh produce is the source for antioxidants, and these little guys can slow down the aging process by improving blood circulation. That means fewer wrinkles, healthier hair, and healthier fingernails. Vitamins E and C are two of the best weapons against the signs of aging, and a vegan diet is full of foods high in those vitamins.
That’s all great, but is a vegan diet missing anything?
Eating vegan is a way to care for your body and mind, but it isn’t perfect. There are certain gaps that have to be filled in order for you to access all the benefits of veganism. Here are the specific vitamins and nutrients you need to be especially focused on getting:
Omega-3 fatty acids
A vegan diet is naturally low in these acids, and that’s bad. These are essential for eye and brain health. To fit these into a vegan diet, you need to eat soy products, walnuts, flaxseed, and vegan food that’s been fortified with DHA. You can also take supplements.
Dairy is a major source of calcium, which is responsible for building strong bones. Without that option, you need to eat up dark leafy greens like kale, as well as soy drinks and tofu.
Vitamin D works in tandem with calcium and helps the body actually absorb calcium. To get enough vitamin D, you should be sure to drink rice milk and fortified soy drinks, and get outside in the sun on a regular basis, while protected by sunscreen, of course.
Your body needs iron to form red blood cells. Vegan sources of iron (dark leafy greens and dry fruit) are not absorbed as well as meat iron sources, so you have to be especially mindful of getting enough from those plant sources.
The highest sources of vitamin B12 are found in non-vegan foods like fish and dairy, so to supplement, foods like soy beverages, seaweed, nutritional yeast, and foods specially fortified with B12 are a must. You should also ask your doctor about taking supplements as an option.
How to shop at the grocery store
One of the most intimidating venture as a new vegan is grocery shopping. How do you know what foods are vegan-friendly? What are staples that should be in your pantry and fridge? Here are some tips on what to buy and how to shop:
Tip #1: Buy produce in a variety of forms
That means in addition to your fresh veggies and fruit, buy frozen and dried. You won’t have to eat these as quickly before they go bad, so you won’t have to always be heading to the store. Dried fruit makes for a great snack, and can be used in different baking projects like granola, trail mix, and as a topping.
Tip #2: Always keep 100% whole-grain breads on hand
With healthy bread in your pantry, sandwiches and wraps will always be an option for lunches. You can even freeze bread, so stock up when it’s on sale, and don’t worry about molding.
Tip #3: Healthy fats are essential
Since you aren’t getting fat from dairy or meat, shop for avocados, seeds, nuts, olives, and dark chocolate. Olive oil is also a good source, though many vegans avoid oil. It depends on what your stance is.
Tip #4: Get non-dairy milks
Non-dairy milks like soy, cashew, coconut, and so on are very important when it comes to filling in some nutritional gaps. These milks are also important substitutes for regular milk in many recipes.
Tip #5: Find good vegan brands
There are vegan brands that make packaged foods and “vegan-ized” cheeses, yogurt, butter, and so on. Find the brands that fit your budget and health goals, and you open up a world of meal options.
Tip #6: Be adventurous with spices, herbs, and sweeteners
Vegan food has a reputation for being bland, but that’s only when you don’t take advantage of the spice aisle. Be adventurous and experiment with a variety of spices and herbs to give your food complex and satisfying flavors. Spices (that come from reputable companies) also have a lot of health benefits. In terms of sweeteners, there are many vegan options like agave syrup, vegan honey, brown rice syrup, molasses, and so on.
Sample grocery list
What should your very first vegan shopping list include? Here’s a sample list, assuming you don’t already have these in your pantry or fridge. With these staples, you are ready to take on what could be a drastic change in your diet.
What about eating out at restaurants?
Besides grocery shopping, going out to eat is very hard as a vegan. You don’t have control over what goes into the meals, and you don’t want to be “that person” who annoys the staff and their friends. Don’t worry – you can be a vegan and still have fun out at great restaurants.
Call the place ahead of time
The best way to avoid a potentially awkward and frustrating order at a restaurant is to call ahead and ask about vegan options. Don’t feel bad about making the call – chefs always appreciate getting a head’s up, and you want to be sure that there’s something for you before you’re sitting at a table with your friends.
Look for menu codes
Since more people are becoming vegetarians and vegans, a lot of places are labeling specific entries with “VEG” for vegetarian or “V” for vegan. This makes ordering much easier, so be on the lookout.
Substituting is a common practice at home, and it is possible at restaurants, too. Subbing non-vegan sides for alternatives like fresh veggies and rice is the obvious choice. In terms of ingredients, you can sub out sour cream, mayo, and other dairy with guacamole, or just have the chef leave off that particular item.
Get an app
A cool and “hip” way to eat out well as a vegan is to get an app that lists and rates vegan places. HappyCow and Vegman are all good options. Vegan Xpress lists vegan options at popular restaurants, so even if you can’t find a place that caters specifically to vegans, you can still find food.
Now that you know a bit about vegan eating, it’s time to try out some recipes. These three recipes cover breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and give you a good idea of how you can adapt classic dishes (like quiche and enchilada) into vegan-friendly meals. Happy cooking!
Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes (15 minutes prep time, 50 minutes cook time)
Instead of eggs, tofu provides the fluffy base for the quiche. Instead of meat, the filling is packed with fresh veggies like zucchini, onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes. You can use any veggies you would like, though always using onion provides great flavor.
2 cups spinach
1 medium-sized, sliced zucchini
1 medium-sized, sliced onion
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 diced bell pepper
14-ounces drained soft tofu
¼ cup almond milk
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- Preheat your oven to 350-degrees.
- Grease a pie plate with olive oil.
- Cut one tortilla in half before covering bottom of pie pan with the halved tortilla and full tortilla, so the tortillas cover the sides, as well.
- Bake for 15 minutes until tortillas become golden.
- In the meantime, cook all the veggies (except spinach) in a bit of olive oil.
- Add spinach until wilted.
- In a food processor, blend tofu, milk, garlic, salt, and pepper until smooth.
- Stir cooked veggies into tofu mixture.
- Pour into crust.
- Bake for another 50 minutes until the top starts to crack.
- Cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Nutritional info (⅙ recipe):
Total calories: 65
Mashed Avocado + Chickpea Sandwich
Time: About 5 minutes
With the texture of egg salad, this mashed avocado-chickpea sandwich is the perfect lunch. It’s packed with healthy fat, fiber, and protein, so you’ll have a ton of energy for the rest of your day, no matter what you have going on.
6 slices of whole-grain bread
3 leaves of a dark leafy green
15-ounce can of drained and rinsed chickpeas
1 diced carrot
Juice of 1 lemon
Dash of garlic powder
Salt and pepper
- Mash chickpeas in a bowl and add avocado, mashing them together.
- Add diced carrots and season with lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper.
- Mix well before making your sandwich.
Total calories: 532
Black Bean, Mushroom, and Spinach Enchiladas
Time: 35 minutes (15 minutes prep time, 20 minutes cook time)
Vegan enchiladas swap out cheese and meat for black beans, mushrooms, and spinach. Tons of spices like jalapeno peppers, cumin, and garlic ensure that the classic Mexican flavor comes through strong.
15-ounces black beans
1 ½ cups defrosted frozen corn
6 garlic cloves
5-7 ounces baby spinach
3-4 jalapeno peppers
10-ounces red enchilada sauce
10-ounces green enchilada sauce
12 cremini mushrooms
1 yellow onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon chipotle pepper powder
Salt to taste
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
- Cook the onion in oil until the onion begins to turn clear.
- Add jalapenos, garlic, and mushrooms.
- After a few minutes, add the spinach and stir until the leaves begin to wilt.
- Add black beans and corn.
- Mix and add seasonings.
- When everything is heated through, taste, and if it’s good, remove from the heat.
- Pour just enough red sauce into a baking dish to coat the bottom.
- Roll tortillas with the filling, and lay in the dish, seam-side down.
- Pour the rest of the sauces (both red and green) over the enchiladas.
- Cook for 10-15 minutes until the filling is heated through.
- Serve hot!
Nutritional info (⅙ recipe):
Total calories: 291