Would you give up meat and cheese for good if it meant you’d have a better chance of getting healthy, feeling great and maybe even losing weight? Well, veganism — a diet that excludes all animal products (yes, all) — has earned a lot of praise in recent years for its health and weight loss benefits. One study found that vegan diets generally contain less cholesterol and more dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid and antioxidants than non-vegan eating plans. Vegans were also more likely to have low blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease. Sounds pretty tempting (aside from the whole no pizza thing), right?
“A well-planned [vegan] diet… can be nutritionally adequate and provide many positive health benefits,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Going meatless even one day per week may reduce your risk for developing conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.”
But while these benefits are appealing, quitting burgers and omelets completely is no easy task — and not a decision you should take lightly, either. Thinking of making the switch? Here are three questions to ask before going the whole (faux) hog. Plus, we’ve got recommendations for less intense plans to try.
3 Things to Think About Before Going Vegan
1. Do you take vitamins? Yes, meatless meals are often rich in vitamins. But vegans may be at risk for some deficiencies, too. In particular, vegans may need to take a B12 supplement since this nutrient is mainly found in animal products, says Sheth. Vegans should also take special care to monitor their intake of vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc, and supplement as needed.
Don’t like swallowing pills? You might be better suited to vegetarianism, which boasts some of the health benefits of veganism but ups B12 consumption by allowing foods like eggs and dairy. You can also aim for pesco-vegetarianism, a vegetarian or vegan diet that includes fish. Because fish are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc, iron and other vitamins and minerals, they’re a great option for flexible folks looking to up their nutrient intake.
2. Do you plan meals? Organization is a vegan’s best friend. “With careful planning, a vegan diet can meet all your nutrient needs,” says Sheth. The emphasis, of course, is on planning.
Sheth points out that, “Just because you’re eating a plant-based diet does not automatically make it a healthy one.” It’s possible to eat a vegan diet that is full of processed, high-sodium, and high-sugar foods — like chips, sweets or frozen meals. “Vegans need to make a conscious effort to eat the right quantity and combinations of food to get the nutrients they need to stay healthy,” says Sheth. This means planning meals in advance and being aware of the nutrients you are (and aren’t) consuming on any given day.
Vegans will also need to put some extra thought into eating out at restaurants. Sheth recommends discussing your needs ahead of time with the restaurant and requesting substitutions while ordering.
Not a planner? There’s no shame in declaring yourself a part-time vegan, and sticking to the animal-free lifestyle just a few days a week. Who knows, you might even enjoy it enough to commit for good.
3. Do you work out? Protein fiends might be scared to go vegan, for fear it will interfere with their performance at the gym. After all, protein is what helps your body build muscle and recover. But it’s entirely possible to be vegan and compete in anything from 10Ks to triathlons to CrossFit. (Just ask this impressive vegan athlete.)
First things first, vegans can get plenty of protein from options like beans, peas, lentils, tofu, nuts, and quinoa as healthy, plant-based proteins, Sheth says. Still, she recommends that serious athletes speak with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to help them create customized meal plans. Still worried about your gains — or crushing that next PR? You might want to try the pegan diet, a cross between the protein-packed paleo lifestyle and veganism.
Ready to Declare Yourself a Vegan?
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day — and your new lifestyle as a vegan doesn’t have to be, either. Sheth recommends starting with an assessment of your typical meals and noting any tweaks that could make these meals vegan. (For example, swapping in almond milk for regular milk can make oatmeal a vegan breakfast.) Then, start with one vegan day per week (Meatless Mondays are a great option), and gradually increase the number of days that you’re eating vegan. Soon enough, eating a healthy, plant-based diet might just feel like second nature.