Going vegan doesn't mean downing greens and little else. In fact, drawing inspiration from this eating style is a great way to diversify your diet and sneak in lots of extra vitamins and nutrients--two things that translate to big health gains. According to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a vegan diet can lower your risk of early death from all causes, but especially diabetes, cardiovascular, and renal diseases. Want to get vegan healthy without relinquishing all meat and dairy? Here's how to do it.
Rather than cutting animal products from your diet, think about adding a wider selection of non-meat and non-dairy items. Women who eat a variety of fruits, veggies, and whole grains tend to live longer than women whose diets include mainly red meats, simple carbs, and foods high in saturated fat, according to a study in International Journal of Epidemiology.
Think vegan: Try everything you can that's vegan-safe, even if the thought of eating seaweed or pickled mustard greens freaks you out. You'll only discover which healthy foods you like by tasting them, says New York Times food journalist and author Mark Bittman, who wrote VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good. And there are so many to choose from--many of which you may have never even heard of. In terms of non-dairy milk substitutes alone, there are almond, soy, hemp, rice, coconut, sunflower, and chia.
It can be tough to scrounge up vegan-friendly food on the go, so it's important to plan ahead (lest you wind up picking up French fries from the closest drive-thru). Vegan or not, anticipating when you'll need food enables you to make smarter choices.
Think vegan: Keep snacks like pumpkin seeds, peanuts, roasted chickpeas, fresh fruit, and veggies close at hand, says Bittman. "You'll be less tempted to reach for junk if you have whole foods within reach."
The USDA encourages traditional eaters to consume a plate that's roughly half produce, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter whole grains. In the absence of meat, vegans must devote more space to protein- and fat-rich foods such as tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds. Because these foods are typically lower in unhealthy saturated fat than many types of meat, you'll get a protein boost without harming your heart.
Think vegan: "Thinking about cutting your typical meat portion in half and doubling up on veggie servings is the best and easiest place to start," says Jackie London, RD, senior dietitian at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. In addition, add small portions of legumes and whole grains for variety.
Plant-based diets are naturally higher in dietary fiber--a heart-healthy macronutrient that most Americans are seriously lacking. According to Columbia University Medical Center Institute of Human Nutrition, the average adult consumes only 10 to 15 g of fiber per day. That's barely half of what the Institute of Medicine recommends.
Think vegan: Increase your intake of fiber-rich foods such as black and white beans, edamame, brown rice, berries, and peas. Besides lowering your cholesterol and warding off heart disease, you may also shed some pounds. "Diets rich in fiber are satiating, keeping you fuller longer and staving off the cravings and unnecessary grazing that can lead to weight gain," London says.
Vegan diets are loaded with antioxidants, substances that protect cells from the type of free radical damage that can harm skin and weaken the immune system, says London. That's because they tend to contain more fruits and vegetables, which are some of the best sources of antioxidants.
Think vegan: Although almost any type of fruit or veggie will do, fill your plate with bright, vivid produce--such as broccoli, beets, red onions, and blueberries--they tend to contain the most health-boosting antioxidants.
Plant-based protein sources typically contain fewer grams of protein per serving, so many people wrongly assume that vegans struggle to consume enough of the nutrient. But most traditional eaters are getting too much anyway. The average American male consumes 102 grams of protein per day, while the average female eats about 70 grams, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. That's almost twice as much as both groups need. Meet your recommended dietary allowance of protein (46 g a day for women, 56 for men) while cutting back on unhealthy fats by swapping some meat for vegan protein sources.
Think vegan: Fill your plate with beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds. They're all great, non-animal sources of protein that pack additional benefits like vitamins and omega-3s without the high cholesterol and saturated fat found in red meats. Here's a tofu stir-fry recipe to get you started. It packs 13 grams of protein--the same amount you'd find in a hamburger--but nearly half the fat.
A typical restaurant meal contains most of the calories, fat, and salt that a person requires in an entire day, according to two studies published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine. If you're presented with a menu featuring mostly fried meats or cheese-smothered fare, then think about what a vegan might have to do to enjoy dinner without any animal products.
Think vegan: "Order unconventionally," suggests Bittman. "If there are no good entrée options but plenty of sides, order a salad, a soup, and a side instead of a main course."
Adopting a vegan mentality means choosing what foods you can live without, making your overall intake healthier but not super-restrictive.
Think vegan: "When going for the animal products, the best way to adapt a vegan diet is to try to stick to predominantly leaner proteins," London says. That's poultry without the skin, fish, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. You may also want to weigh the pros and cons of the foods you most frequently eat. Maybe you come to find out the cheese on your hamburger or omelet is adding calories and fat, but little flavor. If so, that's what you should nix.