10 Nutrition Mistakes Vegans Make (and How to Fix Them)
Mistake: Overestimating Your Protein Intake
While almonds are rich in protein with 6 grams per ounce, many plant-based eaters are shocked to learn that almond milk isn't. In fact, it only contains 1 gram of protein for every cup. Solution: Add a tablespoon of almond butter to your smoothie or try adding soaked whole almonds like in this apple celery almond smoothie. You can also try using some plant-based protein powder to make sure you're getting the muscle-building, hunger-zapping macros you need.
Quinoa is another misunderstood food for vegans, as it might be impressive compared to other plant-based foods—after all, it contains all of the essential amino acids, but the total amount of protein isn't much to write home about. Half a cup of quinoa has about 4 grams of protein. Quinoa still serves up plenty of slow-digesting carbs for long-lasting energy and plenty of filling fiber, but be sure to add some beans, nuts, or seeds to up the total protein.
Mistake: Not Getting Enough Iron
Vegans need to basically double the amount of iron they're getting compared to their meat-eating friends because animal-based sources of iron are generally absorbed better than plant-based sources. Plus, severely low iron levels can lead to anemia, which will make you feel weak and tired.
To make sure you're getting enough, vegans should include plenty of iron-rich foods, such as spinach, tofu, beans, lentils, and sunflower butter into meals and snacks. Have a nut allergy? Not to worry, sunflower seed butter is free of the top eight food allergens including peanuts and tree nuts, and it packs 7 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber per serving.
Mistake: Eating Fake, Processed "Meats"
When transitioning to a vegan diet, you may try to ease your way in with vegan versions of hot dogs, hamburgers, and meatballs. Don't be fooled into thinking that these highly processed veggie meat alternatives are necessarily healthy choices. Sure, they can help you stick to a vegan diet if and when you're craving the familiar flavor of meat, but these fake varieties are often loaded with sodium and are surprisingly low in protein. "Most processed foods don't offer the same health benefits as whole, non-processed foods," says dietitian Kristen Smith matter-of-factly.
P.S. These jackfruit recipes are a great way to convince your tastebuds you're eating meat. Plus, the genius ingredient is so versatile.
Mistake: Snacking On Refined Carbs
Pretzels, licorice, corn or rice cereal, certain granola bars—they're all snacks, and they're all vegan, but that doesn't make them healthy vegan snacks. Some vegans eat French fries, crackers, cookies, and candy, thinking that the carbs will provide them with a quick energy boost. Refined carbohydrates give you energy quickly, sure, but they leave you to crash and burn—and craving more white carbs and sugar.
Switch out those refined carbs for whole-grain and fiber-rich options that contain some protein, such as fresh fruit with nut butter, whole-grain crackers with seed butter, or a bowl of protein-rich, low-sugar granola. Try KIND Healthy Grains Dark Chocolate Whole Grain Clusters—they have 25 grams of whole grains, 10 grams of protein, and only 5 grams of sugar per serving. Serve with some unsweetened almond milk and berries for a healthy snack that will ward off any cravings for candy or carbs.
Mistake: Not Getting Enough Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in foods that come from animals, so you should be on the lookout for ways to keep it in your diets. A lack of vitamin B12 in the short term makes you feel tired and weak. Miss out on it long-term and it gets scary; you could do some damage to your nerves, and your brain health and memory function can take a dive.
Search the web for vegan sources of vitamin B12 and you'll see claims that spirulina, seaweed, and fermented soy contain it, but your body isn't able to process and absorb the kind of B12 found in these foods. You may be able to find B12 in certain brands of nutritional yeast—be sure to check the labels. (What is nutritional yeast, anyway?)
Research shows that vegans who don't supplement with vitamin B12 often end up being deficient, so taking a supplement may be the best choice. You can also find vegan foods and beverages that are fortified with B12.
Mistake: Thinking Vegan Automatically Means "Healthy"
Don't be fooled by the "health halo" of many vegan snacks. (Wait, are granola and acai bowls deceiving you too?) Vegan cookies are still cookies. What's more, it can be tough enough to get all the nutrients you need as a vegan, so you need to make sure all of your meals and snacks are high in whole foods that are rich in nutrients—desserts usually don't fit that criteria. At every meal, include whole grains such as steel-cut oats, brown rice, millet, and amaranth, or starchy vegetables packed with beta-carotene and fiber such as pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, or corn. Include vegan protein sources such as legumes (beans and lentils), nuts or seeds, and plenty of vegetables in different colors, and you're getting a nutrient-packed vegan diet. (Read up on the highest sources of vegan protein.)
Mistake: Not Getting Enough Calcium
Look up the amounts of calcium in leafy greens and they all seem high, but the calcium in certain greens are absorbed better than others. Spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and rhubarb are all high in calcium but are also high in oxalates, compounds that prevent your body from absorbing the calcium. (Tricky!) The calcium in kale, collard greens, and mustard greens is absorbed more easily, so choose these when possible.
Mistake: Missing Out On Vitamin D
If you're lucky enough to live somewhere with year-round sunny weather, you're probably getting enough vitamin D from the sun. If you live up north or don't spend a lot of time outside, you could be lacking vitamin D (which can actually cause some alarming health problems), which leaves you with two options: Get it from food or supplements.
Oily fish and egg yolks are two of the main sources of vitamin D, so that leaves vegans without many options to get this bone-building nutrient. To get some vitamin D into your vegan diet, use fortified almond milk or soy milk and vegan margarine in recipes, or consult your doctor about possibly adding a supplement.
Mistake: Lacking Some Omega-3s
Many people go for oily fish as their source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are awesome for your brain and heart health. The omega-3s found in fish are referred to as EPA and DHA, and are long-chain fatty acids that have more research behind their health benefits. Plant-based omega-3s tend to be from ALA, short-chain fatty acids. (Here's what you should know about vegetarian foods that offer up omega-3s.)
The best vegan sources of omega-3 fats are ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts, so include these in your meals each day. Try using flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and canola oil in your salad dressings to get more omega-3s in your diet.
Mistake: Not Meeting with a Registered Dietitian
If you're new to a vegan diet or not sure if you're getting enough of all the essential nutrients for excellent health, meet with a registered dietitian who can help you make sure you're checking all the boxes. He or she can make sure you're meeting all your health goals. If you're becoming more active or planning to start a family, these new demands on your body increase your needs for certain nutrients as well.