Going vegan these days really is a cakewalk with the enormous amount of vegan junk food offered in stores and at restaurants. Being a healthy vegan is where the real challenge is at. If you are interested in understanding the life of vegan for beginners, and starting a whole foods plant-based lifestyle low in sugar and saturated fats, then this guide is for you.
If you are already vegan, and you want to clean up your diet and get rid of the vegan junk food, then this blog post is for you too! Why does it have to take 6 months, you may ask? It doesn’t, however if you want to make lasting changes that are sustainable for a lifetime (and a long life you will have if you’re plant-based), then it’s worth it to invest time and energy into transforming your diet.
Crowd out the junk with the good
Instead of quitting anything cold turkey, baby steps is much easier to do and will help the changes stick for good. When I tried to give up cheese on the spot, I threw every bit of cheese in the trash and a couple of days later bought some more. When I stopped worrying about being a perfect vegan day 1, I ate a little less cheese day by day and eventually realised I was no longer buying it or craving it.
Start by making your meals heavy on vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Make meat, cheese, and vegan junk foods (frozen meals high in sodium, meat substitutes, soy cheeses, etc.) smaller portions each day. Eventually your body will start to crave more of the good stuff and you will crowd out the junk with the good.
Know your supplements
I don’t believe a vegan diet is a deficient one. However, any vegan for beginners guide should carry details on supplements. I believe every vegan ought to take B12 because we can’t get B12 from food sources. Your nutritional yeast may be fortified with B vitamins, however it is still best to be safe and take a daily supplement.
I also take a marine algae omega-3 DHA/EPA. I recently found out I have a vitamin D deficiency, so I have started taking vitamin D and K2 (for better absorption). The top source for vitamin D is fish, and unless you’re in the sun for 30+ minutes daily without sunscreen, you won’t get your optimal vitamin D needs.
Before reaching for more vitamins, think first of where you can get those vitamins from food sources instead. You can get omega-3 ALA from ground flaxseeds and hemp seeds. Most other vitamins are found in whole food plant sources, particularly dark, leafy greens and berries full of antioxidants and polyphenols. If you are eating a well-rounded vegan diet full of colour and variety, then you will have no trouble meeting your daily needs.
Because many supplements are fat soluble, make sure you eat healthy fats when taking them. I take my vitamins and supplements at breakfast, so my breakfasts are always full of healthy fats like a superfood smoothie, almond butter on rice crackers, or avocado toast.
If you are starting to be a vegan for beginners, and your friends or family are eating at any restaurant, chances are they have fries. As tempting as it may be, and even when it seems like your only option, avoid going for the fries. This is not a meal, and often times the fries are cooked in the same oil as fried chicken and other foods you don’t want to cross contaminate with.
Most restaurants have salads, and I sometimes pack hemp seeds, a bag of nuts, or nutritional yeast to toss on top. If the idea of always eat salad makes you hangry, then ask the staff if there is anything that can be done vegan? The majority of the time, you’re not the first person who has asked, and the chef is happy to make a delicious vegetable medley that everyone will be jealous of.
Otherwise, there are usually vegetable sides, a vegan appetiser, or a dish that you can ask to have the meat and cheese taken off of.
Vegan for beginners: becoming a healthy vegan
When we talk about healthy vegan for beginners, what do I mean by healthy vegan? It’s someone who wakes up with bursting energy after having a restful and restorative sleep. A person who eats well-rounded meals with plenty of fruit and vegetables full of protein, fibre, and nutrients. A vegan who builds muscles and maintains a healthy weight.
A healthy vegan never feels fatigue or suffers from hormonal imbalance. And a vegan who lives with minimal stress and a passion and purpose for his or her life. While my tips above will give you a great start to your vegan journey, if you are considering being a vegan, read on.
You will never feel like you lack knowledge on nutrition, how to navigate restaurants and grocery stores, or how to cook. You will feel confident in your knowledge on how your food choices prevent and reverse heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
How eating plant based boosts brain health & longevity
Did you know that Alzheimer’s disease affects millions across the globe and it is expected to triple in frequency in coming decades (The Plant-Based Solution)?
Common factors that lead to Alzheimer’s include family history, head trauma, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol. The possibility that diet plays a role in preventing Alzheimer’s has definitely been considered.
What studies have been done?
More than twenty years ago, one of the earlier phases of the Adventist Health Study examined the tie between animal-based diets with dementia. The study looked at 272 subjects.
Those who ate meat (including poultry and fish) were more than twice as likely to become demented as their vegetarian counterparts. Dementia was less common in the group who did not eat meat. For those in the plant-based group with an onset of dementia, the development was delayed (The Plant-Based Solution).
What does the science say?
There is a process in the body called methylation. This process regulates homocysteine, an amino acid that can cause arteries feeding the brain to malfunction. Bad arteries can lead to poor brain health, and vascular dementia is a major cause of dementia.
A genetic defect in methylation is found in as many as 50% of people and is severe in about 10%. This genetic defect can lead to cells not functioning normally and to the accumulation of homocysteine. To keep your brain healthy you want to eat plenty of greens, which contain folate, a B vitamin. You also want to have plenty of B12 and B6, which are also involved in methylation.
Keep your diet low in saturated fats to avoid raising cholesterol and injuring arteries. This will protect the brain and the heart (The Plant-Based Solution).
Dr. Neal Barnard partnered with the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine to develop guidelines to prevent Alzheimer’s disease using diet and lifestyle—all based on scientific results. Here are the guidelines they created:
- Minimise your intake of saturated fats and trans fats by avoiding dairy products, meats, and certain oils (coconut and palm oils)
- Eat vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), fruits, and whole grains as primary staples of your diet
- Get vitamin E from seeds, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains; vitamin E is the preferred antioxidant for brain health
- Consume a source of B12 daily; blood levels of B12 should be checked regularly
- Avoid iron and copper in over-the-counter supplements if a multivitamin is being used
- Consider minimising exposure to aluminium by choosing cookware, antacids, baking powder, and other products that are free of aluminium
- Engage in aerobic exercise at least 40 minutes, 3 times a week; brisk walking can suffice
In addition to Dr. Barnard’s list, I have a few additions I’d like to add! Here are some of my tips for prevention:
- Have a healthy social group (if your friends are obese there is a 150% chance you will be too)
- Live in a clean environment
- Get 8 hours of sleep
- Get your daily omega-3s
- Drink green tea instead of coffee
- Practice gratitude—write 3 things every day
- Manage your stress with meditation
The blue zones
Dan Buettner studied the places around the world—The Blue Zones—with the highest number of centenarians (people who live to 100+). Here are some of the common denominators he found between all groups, and these are additional guidelines to follow for longevity.
They move naturally
They all have gardens
They stay healthy and active
They practice daily sacred rituals that release chronic inflammation
They take naps (35% less chance of heart attack)
They have happy hour (about 2-4 glasses a day)
They know their sense of purpose (if you have a sense of purpose your life expectancy is 8 years longer than if you don’t know what you’re doing in life)
They are plant-based (beans are the cornerstone of the longevity diet and nuts are a universal snack; people who eat nuts live 2-5 years longer than those who don’t)
They eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper
They pre-plate their food to reduce calories by 20-30%
They invest in their spouses and children
They belong to a spiritual group
Here are a few foods to eat on a regular basis to boost your brain health.
- Cocoa (for the flavonols)
- Antioxidants (especially avocados)
- Walnuts (they even look like brains—there’s something to that!)
- Green tea
If we know the science, we can avoid unnecessary medication and procedures. “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated by any other means” (Maimonides 1135-1204).
How to get enough iron on a vegan diet
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve casually said “I’m tired,” and had someone immediately snap back, “well you’re probably anemic.” I have had countless people tell me I’m anemic to the point where I scheduled a lab test just to make sure.
Not once in my life (with many lab tests) have I ever had an iron deficiency or been anemic. Keep in mind I’ve been vegetarian since I was born, and I have been a vegan for two years. Yes, you can be vegan and get plenty of iron!
Anemia occurs when the body is unable to make oxygen bearing red blood cells and leaves you feeling tired and weak. There is no higher percentage of anemics in vegans than in non-vegans.
Vegan Food Sources of Iron
There are numerous plant sources of iron that I’m going to share with you, as well as share my favourite ways to enjoy each one of them, for vegan for beginners! To absorb iron properly, combine it with vitamin C. This should be fairly easy since so many vegetables and fruits contain vitamin C. You also want to avoid coffee and tea while trying to absorb iron. The tannins from coffee and tea interfere with iron absorption.
Just one ounce of cashews meets 10% of your daily iron needs. Cashews are also an excellent source of magnesium, and they contain a good amount of phosphorous, protein, vitamin K, and zinc. Cashews boost brain power and overall energy, and they support bone and blood health. I primarily use cashews for nut cheeses and creamy sauces.
Chia seeds have 7.7mg of iron per 100g of chia seeds. They are an excellent source of fiber, magnesium, and phosphorous. They also contain decent amounts of calcium, niacin, and thiamin. Chia seeds are beneficial for helping with digestion, increasing energy, supporting blood sugar regulation, and weight loss, and for improving brain function. I always add chia seeds to my smoothies, and I sometimes make chia pudding!
Just one cup of chickpeas meets 69% of your daily value for iron. In addition to being an excellent source of iron, they also contain plenty of fiber and folate, as well as magnesium, phosphorous, and protein. Chickpeas are great for supporting satiety, weight loss, and blood sugar regulation. They help aid digestion and lower cholesterol. I roast chickpeas in the oven or blend them into hummus.
Dulse has 2mg of iron per each serving, which comes out to about 25% of a man’s daily recommendation, and 11% for women. Dulse is also an excellent source of iodine, which is incredibly beneficial to the thyroid. Dulse also contains potassium and helps alkalize the body. I buy dulse flakes and sprinkle them on food as an occasional salt substitute.
A 1/4 cup of goji berries contains 15% of the daily value for iron. What’s even better is that goji berries have vitamin C too, which makes absorbing the iron much easier. Goji berries boost immunity, protect eye health, and aid in digestion. I top smoothies, smoothie bowls, cereal, and oatmeal with goji berries. You can even toss them into your salads!
There are about 8mg of iron per 100g of hemp seeds. Hemp seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, omega-3s, phosphorous, protein, and thiamin. They support brain health, aid in weight loss and digestion, and help improve cholesterol. I add hemp seeds to my smoothies or sprinkle them into my salads. Sometimes I’ll add them to my avocado toast too.
One cup of lentils has 36% of your recommended daily value. I love lentil soup and adding lentils to curries. Lentils are an easy legume to cook with.
Two teaspoons of maca powder equate to 1.5mg of iron. And two teaspoons of maca powder cotnains about 52mcg of iodine (and we need about 150mcg of iodine a day). Maca also contains good amounts of copper, vitamin C, manganese, potassium, and vitamin B6. Maca boosts energy, helps with digestion and maintaining healthy blood pressure, as well as improves skin health. A few times a week I’ll add maca powder into my smoothie.
One cup of pumpkin seeds meets 11% of your daily needs. Pumpkin seeds are full of magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous, and they also contain protein and zinc. These healthy seeds help reduce inflammation, improve focus, boost immunity, and support weight loss. I add pumpkin seeds to salads, and use them to top soups. They’re great to snack on by themselves too!
Just one tablespoon of sesame seeds meets 7% of your daily iron needs. Sesame seeds are also a good source of calcium and magnesium. I add sesame seeds on top of coconut curry noodles, stir-fry, salads, and just about any dish.
A cup of snap peas has 2mg of iron, which equates to 25% of the daily needs for men and 11% for women. Snap peas are also an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K. Snap peas reduce inflammation, aid digestion, and support blood sugar regulation. I love adding snap peas to stir-fry, coconut curry noodles, and a variety of eastern dishes.
There are about 3mg of iron per 100g of spinach. Spinach is great for vegan for beginners and is also an excellent source of vitamins A and K, and spinach also contains good amounts of folate and vitamin C. Spinach is known to improve skin and hair health, aid in digestion, maintain bone health, and reduce inflammation.