I don’t like labels. At all. But I don’t eat any animal products, including dairy, in my diet, so that means that technically I could fit the label of “vegan.” There are many strong research studies that show eating a vegan diet can be a good choice for your body, for animals, and for the planet.
In one study, conducted at the University of Kuopio, Finland, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, middle-aged Finnish vegans had significantly higher blood concentrations of antioxidants, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E, as well as greater overall antioxidant activity than the meat-eaters.
Research aside, I only started eating vegan because, through experimentation, I discovered a vegan diet made my body feel its best and increased my athletic performance. It also aligned with my personal beliefs about not killing animals. Just because our culture was somehow OK with the unsustainable factory harvesting of animals, I was not. However, that is a very personal reason to me.
If you decide to go vegan, you will have your personal reasons for doing it. I celebrate them all. But whatever your reasons, you’ll need to do some research. I’ve met people who “go vegan” without any planning or research. They usually end up gaining weight or feeling worse and they’re confused about why they don’t feel great.
That’s because just giving up meat and dairy doesn’t make you healthy. Oreos, potato chips, pasta, soda and so many unhealthy processed foods are, in fact, vegan.
To be a healthy vegan, you will need to shop differently. Prepare food more intentionally. And pay attention to how your body feels. But I want to stress that it is not hard. It’s just a matter of creating good habits when you start and being intentional about eating more diverse, fresh, and whole food choices.
Below I’ll tackle five of the most common major mistakes I see when people go vegan. If you aren’t planning on eating a vegan diet, keep reading. These simple tips below will help you eat more plants and enjoy a healthier diet.
5 Common Pitfalls of Going Vegan
1. Going Vegan Overnight
One of the quickest downfalls I’ve seen is to “go vegan” literally overnight. One day you’re chowing down on two cheeseburgers, and the next, you’re swearing off all animal products forever. A small subset of people, often motivated by serious medical diagnoses or some other emotional reason, can do it. They have a strong, unbreakable “why.” But for most people, it absolutely doesn’t work that way — and it is a shock to your body. Start eliminating one food category at a time. Poultry, dairy, fish, pork, beef, eggs, etc., and give your body time to adjust.
I highly recommend using the Ultimate Reset as a tool to ease yourself into a meat-free diet. It is designed to strategically remove animal products in stages at a pace that gives your body time to adjust.
2. Not Eating Enough Iron
You need iron. It’s a mineral required for vital biological functions including transporting oxygen throughout your body. In fact, every living cell in your body needs iron to function, so it is a big deal to make sure you are getting enough! Iron comes in two forms, heme and non-heme. About 40 percent of the iron in animal products is heme, which your body easily absorbs. Non-heme from plants isn’t absorbed as easily, so you need to eat more of it. Vegan sources of iron include:
- Legumes (beans and peas)
- Macadamia nuts
- Oats (traditional steel-cut)
- Sesame seeds
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Swiss chard
Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods (think: red peppers, citrus, kale, and broccoli) to help your body absorb more iron. Sometimes supplementation is needed to meet your body’s iron requirements.
You’ll hear me say it over and over again: pay attention to how your body is feeling! Ask yourself, “Does this work for my body?” If you’re feeling tired and worn down, consider having your iron levels checked.
3. Not Monitoring Your Vitamin B12 Levels
Vitamin B12 is critical for building blood and maintaining your nervous system. It also supports energy production. Animal foods—meat, dairy, eggs, whey—are the usual source for vitamin B12. But, if you’re trying to eat a mostly plant-based diet, you will need to eat fermented foods and nutritional yeast to get B12, or take vitamin supplements containing methyl B12, which the body breaks down easier than other forms of the vitamin.
Once you start eating vegan, closely monitor how you feel. If you feel lethargic or run down several months after starting to eat this way, I highly recommend having your B12 levels tested and talking about it with your doctor to make sure your body has enough.
4. Not Eating Enough Protein
Our society obsesses about protein. In my book, SuperLife, I break down how high levels of protein are actually unhealthy in “The Protein Myth.” Most of us are getting unhealthily high levels of protein due to our love of meat, fish, and eggs. But some of us—especially vegans and vegetarians, who do not always make good food choices—are in danger of getting too little. That’s why we provide high quality protein in Shakeology’s vegan formulations.
For very active people, I recommend a vegan protein powder. Vegan proteins come from peas, oats, spirulina, chlorella, and other plants. They contain the most important amino acids, such as glutamine, leucine, isoleucine, arginine, and valine, but in a form our bodies can easily absorb.
5. Avoiding Fat
We live in a fat-phobic society, but our bodies can’t absorb certain vitamins unless fat is present. It’s also a source of energy. If we don’t eat fats, we don’t live. It doesn’t do you any good to drink a huge fat-free smoothie or skip a healthy dressing on a salad because there are vitamins that your body can’t absorb without the presence of some fat.
There are bad fats—ones that harm our health and provide no benefits. Those are trans fats and other hydrogenated fats that are highly processed, completely man-made, and unnatural. Skip those.
However, you want to make sure you’re getting enough Essential fatty acids (EFAs). Among other benefits, they help your body absorb the nutrients in your food and help maintain healthy cell walls. You need both (that’s why they’re called essential), but your body can’t make them, so you must eat them. They come in two forms: omega-3 and omega-6 and should be eaten in a 2:1 ratio of two parts omega-6 to one part omega-3.
I try to eat some good fats at every meal. It seems easiest to eat enough omega-6 EFAs, found in grains and vegetable oils. But, for vegans, it’s harder to eat enough omega-3s, which are found in fish, walnuts, algae, flaxseed, chia seeds, and green plants.
Keep in mind fish contain omega-3, but they got it from plants (algae, etc.), so I took out the middle man, the fish, to get my omega needs. I have had all my nutritional levels checked, I don’t eat fish or fish oil, and I have never suffered an omega-3 deficiency in 10 years.
These are my top five ways to start eating vegan (or more plants) in a healthy way. I highly advocate you to also do research, and thoughtfully tackle any dietary changes. Also, be aware of your body in a greater way and perhaps keep a journal so you can note how you are feeling and what foods make you feel your best. We are all unique. At the end of the day, there is no downside, just a massive healthy upside waiting for you when you thoughtfully include more delicious plants in your diet.