I was recently interviewed about vegan diets. I wanted to share my full response here.
*Can a vegan diet can truly lend itself to a fit, active, and healthy lifestyle? What are the most important to things to keep in mind / be aware of to make that happen?
There are many ways in which someone can build a dietary pattern that will support health and performance. A vegan diet is one way.
Keep in mind that healthful dietary patterns have more in common than most people realize. Most healthful dietary patterns a) get people thinking about daily food choices; b) emphasize the consumption of more minimally processed foods; and c) ensure a greater nutrient intake. Together, this often leads to a healthier body size, more energy, improved sleep, a better mood, and so forth. A vegan dietary pattern can accomplish these same basic tenants.
I guess the real question then becomes: If various dietary patterns can lead to improved personal health and performance, why bother with a more plant-based diet? A plant-based diet stands apart in two big ways. 1) How it supports environmental sustainability and 2) How it minimizes the high demand for animal products, which can allow more humane animal welfare practices to take precedence.
A final note here, many people I come across aren't ready, willing, or able to eat a vegan diet for various reasons. And because of this, they feel like the only alternative is dietary status quo -- which usually includes animal products at most every meal. This is binary thinking and prevents us from exploring the middle ground (a more plant-based diet, rather than 100% vegan diet). So I would challenge people reading this to think about how you use dietary labels, and observe how these labels influence your decision making process around food.
*What are the biggest nutrients people tend to fall short on when switching over to vegan?
Vegan diets can differ quite radically. Some vegan eaters emphasize minimally processed legumes, vegetables, and seeds. Some vegan eaters emphasize sugary cereals, non-dairy ice cream, and macaroons. And of course, some vegan eaters fall somewhere in-between.
Generally speaking, the nutrients that vegan eaters will want to keep an eye on include:
Vitamin B12 - It's important that highly plant-based eaters use a vitamin B12 supplement regularly. Any form will do, including cyanocobalamin, methylcobalamin, or hydroxocobalamin. Not getting enough can result in neurological problems, inadequate red blood cell/white blood cell production, fatigue, lightheadedness, elevated heart rate, pale skin, depression, and mouth inflammation.
Vitamin D - While this vitamin can be obtained when the skin is exposed to adequate sunlight, it's probably not happening unless you live near the equator and spend most of your time outside with minimal clothing on. Thus, supplementation could be helpful, especially in the winter months (check levels with your doctor first). In terms of supplements, D3 seems to be a bit more effective than D2.
Zinc - Zinc recommendations for the general population are based on diets lower in phytic acid. Highly plant-based diets are higher in phytic acid. Thus, highly plant-based eaters have zinc requirements that are just about doubled. Not getting enough can result in lowered immunity, hair loss, loss of appetite, dry eyes, and a lowered white blood cell count. Foods rich in zinc include quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, black beans, cashews, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, spinach, cocoa powder, and dried apricots (among others). If getting enough zinc from food is problematic (best to assess this with a doctor or dietitian), find a supplement, any form will do, but zinc picolinate might be optimal.
Iron - Absorption of iron varies tremendously based on body status and dietary source. Similar to zinc, plant-based eaters have iron requirements that are about 1.8 times higher (due to lower overall iron absorption). Folks who are physically active will require even more. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C along with iron rich foods can increase iron absorption. So before increasing iron rich foods, simply try increasing vitamin C rich foods along with iron. If you're a man or woman who eats a highly plant-based diet and donates blood, or if you're a pre-menopausal woman eating a plant-based diet, then an iron supplement can be very helpful. Not getting enough iron can result in spoon shaped nails, lowered immunity, fatigue, rapid heart rate, palpitations, rapid breathing on exertion, increased lactic acid production, irritation to corners of lips and tongue, gastritis, pica, and abnormal temperature regulation. Foods rich in iron include spinach, swiss chard, lentils, tempeh, chickpeas, pinto beans, green peas, tahini, almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, dried figs, and molasses (among others).
Protein - Deep breath. :) First, I would encourage people not to classify plant foods as “complete” or “incomplete” proteins. This is antiquated categorization and really only useful when someone is relying on one or two foods to meet protein needs for an extended period of time. Here are three general principles for getting enough protein: 1) Eat enough food to support a healthy body size. 2) Eat a variety of food. 3) Eat at least 1 cup of cooked legumes per day. If someone likes numbers, plant-based eaters who are physically active should aim for around 1.4 grams or protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
Omega-3 fats - While it's possible to get enough of these from plant sources, it really depends on the persons individual make up. Including an algae supplement with DHA/EPA might be helpful to ensure the minimum intake is being met.
Finally, I have a theory (translation: not rooted in much science) that taurine and choline might also be an issue for certain plant-based eaters. I’m not sure if it’s a genetic thing or not, but it’s worth keeping these two on your radar as a plant-based eater.
*What are some mistakes you think athletes tend to make when going vegan?
Mistake: Eating a vegan diet as a way to lose weight fast, 'detox', or dramatically improve performance
Why it's a mistake: It likely won't lead to any real long-term behavior changes, and the next new dietary fad will derail your plan
What to do about it: Yes, a balanced vegan diet can support a healthy weight and athletic performance. But weight and performance are fleeting. Try getting clarity around your deeper values. And consider your "bigger-than-self" goals, such as how your food choices influence environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and farmworker welfare
Mistake: Eating a bunch of ultra processed plant foods (e.g., vegan cookies) in place of minimally processed animal foods (e.g., hard boiled eggs)
Why it's a mistake: It likely doesn't support health, and will lead to feeling crummy and abandoning a plant-based diet
What to do about it: Emphasize minimally processed plant foods, including legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. And figure out your minimal effective dose of animal products.
Mistake: Getting too hung up on purity/perfection when it comes to dietary labels/identity/tribalism
Why it's a mistake: Trying to live a perfect vegan lifestyle (or paleo, or intermittent fasting, and so forth) can be exhausting. And really, it sets people up for burnout and/or frustration (and/or feelings of isolation from family/friends).
What to do about it: Don't be afraid to abandon dietary labeling/identity/tribalism, and instead find a way of eating that's based around your values/lifestyle. While it might not fit nicely under a clear label/identity/tribe, it will likely better support your long term well being
Mistake: Eating a plant-based diet that's really low in fats or 100% raw
Why it's a mistake: It can lead to a diet that doesn't provide enough overall food/nutrients
What to do about it: Don't be scared by minimally processed foods that are higher in fats (e.g., avocados, nuts, seeds, etc.). And don't be scared by cooked foods.