Updated: Sep 16, 2020
You can be successful and live vibrantly on a VEGAN diet. It offers many health promoting benefits that you simply won't experience on a meat and dairy based diet.
A whole food, plant based diet is packed with excellence, from antioxidants to probiotics. It has the power to literally reverse disease. Amazing.
Did you just hear that?
The other shoe dropping?
There is a legitimate concern about protein.
Perhaps you have heard the often cited 'fact' that as long as a VEGAN gets a wide variety of vegetables and grains, they are not at risk for protein deficiency. It is not enough to assume that a VEGAN is getting enough protein by eating this way. This is a mindset that leads people into a false sense of security.
I have decided to live out the most popular diets in order to test out the claims. And this is a claim that I thought would be solidly supported. Sure, a study of one. But it is more than most dietitians, health coaches and nutritionists do. It is far more meaningful to get this kind of information - a direct study that is unbiased. I am not looking to sell a nutrition plan, but to test out the claims so that my clients can benefit from my analysis.
I selected April 2020 as VEGAN month.
I tracked every ounce and morsel of food that I ate in the Cronometer dashboard. This is the most comprehensive nutrition tracker that I have ever seen. It looks at macros (Protein/Carbs/Fat), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and essential amino acids (protein building blocks).
This is what happened:
Week 1: Plant foods
I bid my dairy and eggs goodbye and got to chopping. Large greens salads are essential for a vegan meal plan, as are avocados, nuts and cruciferous vegetables. After 7-days, I did a diet analysis which showed some nutritional gaps: vitamins, minerals, omegas and yes - protein. I took the first step of filling in nutrient gaps, and tried to keep working on getting enough variety in my diet to meet my protein deficit.
Week 2: Plants + Supplements: Calcium, Omega 3s, Zinc, Vit B12 and Vit D
I attempted to create more variety with soy products, legumes and lots of nutritious vegetables that were supposed to give me the umbrella of protein protection - but it wasn't enough. For those first 2 weeks, I only consumed 2/3 of the amount of protein that I needed. My nutrition analysis revealed that the only remaining needs were a little more calcium and much more protein. I studied plant protein sources. My efforts were not enough.
Week 3: Plants + Supplements + Whole Grains and Beans
I added more calcium supplements and dug into the protein problem. Where can I get more protein? My answer: More legumes, beans, and whole grains. My new plan was to replace any white flour products, such as bread or pasta, with whole grain bread and more beans.
Week 4: Plants + Supplements + Whole Grains, Beans + No Oil
Now I understand the Colin Campbell diet. WFPBNO. (That stands for Whole Foods Plant Based No Oil). This is the only realistic way to eat a VEGAN diet and achieve the nutritional intake that is required for daily living.
There is no room for any kind of oil/soy margarine or even pasta because they are empty calories that need to be filled with protein...and by protein, I mean beans. Unfortunately, eating beans/legumes every day can create a fair amount of gas. This is a social disaster, and I doubt that eager VEGAN teens will comply with the need for beans.
If you are to be a purist, without the essential amino acid sources of meat, dairy and eggs, then you will have to learn some new tricks. I took out the "cheater" foods like white bread, soy margarine and chips. I replaced them with greens, beans, nut butters and whole grains. Reducing the oils can free up a significant amount of calories to be replaced with protein rich and nutrient dense foods.
To be a champion on the VEGAN diet, you have to take your nutrition seriously. Any other diet can easily obtain protein from meat, eggs or dairy products. But VEGANs will and do run into protein deficits. It is not enough to assume that a VEGAN is getting enough protein by ensuring variety.
It is my advice for a VEGAN to do the following if they want to succeed
1) Have a nutritional analysis done
2) Work with a health coach to develop staple foods that will meet your protein requirements. This is likely going to be critical if you want to thrive on this diet.
3) Supplements need to cover Calcium, Vitamin D, B-12, Zinc, Iodine, Omega 3 fatty acids and a targeted essential amino acid supplement for protein gaps. Not too many people can stick to the WFPBNO gold standard.
4) Work with your doctor to obtain regular blood work to ensure your blood count is stable and your metabolic panel is within a normal range. It's harder to dig yourself out of a hole than to avoid it.
It is far better to be proactive with these steps to ensure nutrient and protein intake. Plant-powered diets have a wealth of health benefits that are undeniable, but ONLY if you are vigilant and appreciate that this dietary choice comes with special requirements.