Image courtesy of Virginia Messina, MPH, RD: www.theveganrd.com
A 2011 Harris survey, conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, indicated that about 5 percent of the US population–nearly 16 million people–identified as vegetarian (about half of them identified as vegan). A third of the respondents said that they make an effort to eat vegetarian meals a significant amount of the time, which suggests that over 30% of Americans eat meatless meals regularly–on top of the folks who already identify as vegetarian or vegan.
My guess is that, in the time since this study was published, a lot more people have chosen to explore plant-based diets. Rising concerns about the environmental cost of meat, coupled with widespread interest in the health benefits of meatless diets and more awareness about the cruelties of animal farming, have made this possible, and it’s a really exciting trend. As the number of flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan eaters rises, so too does the need for solid information about plant-based diets and how to healthfully transition toward them.
One Client’s Story
I recently began working with a new client who has been vegan for nearly a decade. She’s young, strong, and in good health, but recently she started to experience some strange numbness and tingling in her big toes, as well as occasional loss of sensation in her right hand. She also started to feel lightheaded when she stood up quickly, which at first she attributed to her naturally low blood pressure. As other symptoms emerged, though, it started to concern her.
My client wasn’t sure of the cause of these symptoms, but she wanted to rule out any potential dietary issues, so she talked to her doctor. Her doctor suggested more protein, but my client’s intuition was that low protein wasn’t the source of her strange numbness and tingling. She requested a blood panel with that included some key vitamins, minerals, and hormones.
We began speaking before her blood work came back, but I immediately asked about B12 and Vitamin D supplementation–had she been taking both regularly? (I ask all of my vegan clients this question as we get started.) As it turns out, my client had been taking neither. When I asked why, she said she simply didn’t know that they were necessary. She admitted that her eating habits had been a little erratic and imbalanced lately, as she recovered from a death in her family and an otherwise stressful year. But until the numbness started, she had thought that her diet supplied everything she needed. It came as a shock to her to hear that B12 supplementation is an important part of the vegan lifestyle.
As it turns out, my client’s B12 levels were normal when the blood work came back. Her vitamin D, though, was critically low: her doctor said it was the lowest she’d seen in 35 years of clinical practice. Everything else was normal. My client is now supplementing with Vitamin D under her physician’s care, and she’s working with me to create a more balanced and well-planned diet. Because she’s busy and under a lot of stress, we’re focusing on easy meal planning, batch cooking, and simple strategies for balancing macronutrients within each meal.
A few things became clear as my client and I chatted about her story. The first is how earnestly she cares about her health and about being vegan. She hadn’t skipped the B12 supplement out of negligence or carelessness; she really didn’t have it on her radar as a point of concern. It was also clear that the experience had left her feeling shaken, bewildered, and more than a little ashamed. “I’ve read vegan cookbooks, taken cooking classes and workshops, and worked in vegan restaurants, constantly chatting with customers and employees,” she told me. “How did this slip through the cracks?”
Why Vegan Nutrition Guidance Can Be Hard to Find
I can understand my client’s shock; any brush with a health scare can leave us feeling deeply vulnerable and shaken. But I’m doing my best to help her dispel the guilt and the shame she’s feeling, because her experience isn’t uncommon, and it’s not her fault. A lot of people transition to veganism without having a clear sense of what supplements and nutrients should be on their radar.
The sheer number of people I’ve spoken to who express confusion about vegan nutrition suggests to me that this isn’t an issue of personal responsibility or failure. Rather, it reflects the scarcity of credible nutrition information in the media, particularly with regard to plant-based diets. Many blogs, books, and online resources have inspiring things to say about going vegan, but they don’t necessarily mention key nutrients and considerations. Meanwhile, myths and misconceptions surrounding the safety of vegan diets persist, so prospective vegans are often trapped in between alarmist naysaying on the one hand, and a lack of guidance on the other.
Because there’s an overwhelming perception that vegan diets are difficult and unsustainable, vegan advocates spend a lot of time assuring people that the diet is easy to adopt and maintain. I don’t know about you, but I hate hearing comments like “I could never be vegan–it’s just too hard.” I want to point out how easy it is to make a pot of rice and beans, or extol the virtues of today’s most awesome store-bought vegan products, from yogurt to milk to plant meat. I want to emphasize that, after a little learning curve, the diet can feel abundant, satisfying, and–believe it or not–simple.
Most of all, I want to make clear that veganism doesn’t have to be weird or fringe or costly. It can feature simple, easily accessible ingredients and familiar flavor profiles. In the intro to Food52 Vegan, I wrote that “at its heart, vegan food is just food,” and I meant it.
But is it just food? Is going vegan as easy as eating plants, or is there a little more consideration involved?
Truthfully, I think it’s the latter. Veganism certainly doesn’t have to be difficult, and going vegan doesn’t have to be a big deal. But it’s not an insignificant choice, either. Any major dietary change demands some consideration and planning, and veganism is no exception. When you take all animal products out of your diet, it’s important to think carefully about how you’ll source some of the nutrients–like B12, iron, and calcium–that you might be losing along with them. If you eliminate a bunch of foods without expanding your diet to include new ones, you may find yourself with a diminished version the same diet you were eating before. I think this is often what’s going on with so-called “carbitarians”: meat, poultry, and fish have been eliminated, but their place hasn’t yet been filled with new ingredients, like beans, whole grains, and soy foods. Instead, the space gets filled with what’s familiar, like pasta and bread.
The enthusiastic first-person accounts of plant-based that are filtered through social media don’t always address these issues or realities. Instead, they focus on the glowing skin, the abundant energy, and the improved digestion. And you know what? I don’t blame them. A lot of people feel so darn great in the first few months or even years of eating vegan that it’s difficult to imagine how the diet could be anything other than a panacea. When I first went vegan, my energy skyrocketed and my digestion improved considerably. I didn’t exactly conclude that the diet was a cure-all, but I wasn’t far off. It wasn’t until I spent considerable time reading cookbooks and websites that key nutrients (like B12) popped up on my radar. This didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for being vegan, but it did make me think harder about how I’d source my nutrients and sustain the lifestyle long-term.
Another problem is that many vegan resources emphasize what’s being eliminated, rather than focusing on what needs to be included. They stress the negative health consequences of meat and dairy, and they point out the superiority of plant foods. Be that as it may, meat and dairy–no matter how undesirable or cruelly produced–contain key nutrients, like calcium, protein, iron, and zinc. When we remove them from our diets, we need to find new ways of sourcing those nutrients. Plant foods can certainly offer us what we need–along with a wealth of healthful phytonutrients and the assurance that our food choices haven’t directly contributed to animal death or suffering. Still, we may need a little guidance as we figure out how to mix and match plant ingredients in service of a well-rounded, nutritionally complete diet.
Finally, it’s important to remember that a lot of what’s written about plant-based eating isn’t actually written by vegans, let alone vegan health professionals, and it isn’t always written for prospective vegans so much as people who are trying to reduce meat consumption or eat more plants. Flexitarians and part time vegans don’t necessarily need to give this kind of careful consideration to how their diets are changing, because reduction is a less significant shift than elimination. Folks who intend to abstain from animal products for life, though, may need some specialized guidance.
Making Vegan Nutrition Resources More Accessible
Ironically, my client’s recent experience wasn’t necessarily related to her veganism. Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly commonplace in the general US population, vegans and omnivores included. Even people who eat animal products typically get most of their vitamin D through fortified foods, and sunlight exposure is also a critical factor.
Had she not found out about the vitamin D deficiency, though, my client might have gone another several years before learning the importance of B12, or being asked to consider whether she was carefully sourcing nutrients like iron or calcium. For her, this experience was a wake up call, an opportunity to think harder about the vegan lifestyle she had taken for granted because she felt so good and enjoyed the food so much. Her story illustrates that even committed, well-informed vegans can miss out on important health information as they make the transition.
This shouldn’t be the case. Vegans need to work together to make sure that credible nutrition resources make it to the front and center of our outreach and messaging. Of course we should continue to destigmatize and normalize the lifestyle, making clear that veganism is a sustainable, accessible, healthful, and delicious choice. But we should also be honest about the fact that it’s a significant dietary change, and it demands a little research and planning. Most of us grew up eating omnivorous diets, which means that we’re familiar with that nutritional framework. Veganism is a different framework–a wonderful and healthful framework, if you ask me, but as with any paradigm shift, there’s some adjustment involved.
Fortunately, we already have a ton of wonderful vegan nutrition information at our fingertips. Here’s a list of my favorite sources of evidence-based, reliable vegan health information:
My Favorite Vegan Nutrition Resources
The Vegan RD
Jack Norris, RD
Vegetarian Resource Group (VGR, an incredible site)
Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group
Vegan Society Nutrition and Health
Becoming Vegan: Express Edition
The Plant Powered Diet
Vegan for Life
Vegan for Her
If you, a friend, or a family member is shifting to a plant-based diet, I can’t recommend these websites and books highly enough. They’ll give you a clear, honest picture of what you need to be aware of–and many of them also include links to recipes or other lifestyle resources.
My friend Ginny Messina also features some great resources on her website, including vegan nutrition primers, a food guide for vegans (pictured at the top of this post), and an extremely useful powerpoint entitled the 7 Habits of Happy, Healthy Vegans.
If you’re curious about particular nutrients to be mindful of during your vegan transition, I recommend reading up on the following:
●DHA (a type of essential fatty acid)
All of the resources I’ve mentioned can help to guide you. And of course, if you’re considering any major dietary shift, it’s helpful to chat with your primary care physician. If you don’t feel that your physician is supportive or knowledgeable enough to address your questions, try reaching out to a vegan dietitian or healthcare practitioner who can offer you additional support.
Going vegan doesn’t have to be hard. But it can feel very hard indeed–not to mention isolating–if you happen to find yourself with unanswered questions. I hope this post and the resources I’m highlighting can help you to feel more confident and empowered as you explore and deepen your plant-based diet. Most of all, I hope that they’ll help you to nourish yourself mindfully, so that you can spend your time enjoying the healthfulness and compassionate perspective that veganism has to offer.
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