Vegan, plant-based diets are steadily becoming more mainstream: Many people are forgoing animal products and animal byproducts to reduce their carbon footprints. Others are becoming vegan out of concern for animal welfare, and others want to reduce their saturated fat intake. Some people say they have more energy and feel better while on a plant-based diet, but there’s no one-size-fits-all diet for everyone, says Shaelyn Gurzick, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Henry Ford Health.
“Every person’s nutritional needs vary based upon a variety of factors such as age, gender, size, activity level and medical condition,” says Gurzick. “We should all aim to consume a diverse group of fruits and vegetables in our daily diets because of their nutritional benefits, but before going completely plant-based, there are some things you should know.”
What To Consider Before Going Vegan
- Don’t go cold turkey. “You’re more likely to be successful and keep up with diet modifications if you make gradual changes instead of trying to completely overhaul your diet overnight,” Gurzick says. “Start with one change first, such as cutting out red meat, and when that becomes easier, cut out poultry, then fish, and so on.” At the same time, you should ensure you’re consuming foods that replace the nutrients you might lose by eliminating meat. This includes beans, soy protein, nuts, seeds and leafy greens.
- Vegan doesn’t always mean healthier. “Food packaging can be misleading. The food industry is a business that constantly adapts to what consumers want so we’ll buy their product,” Gurzick says. In other words, just because an item is labeled as vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Vegan products sold in frozen food aisles, such as plant-based burgers, still contain high amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and other unhealthy ingredients.
- Pay attention to potential nutritional deficiencies. With any diet, you want to be sure you’re consuming adequate amounts of nutrients. When going vegan, you need to be especially mindful to ensure you’re getting enough protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium and iron. “It’s true that you can get iron from dark leafy greens like spinach, but iron from plant sources aren’t as easily digestible as they are from meat sources,” Gurzick says. “Look for items at the grocery store that are fortified with these nutrients, such as cereals, juices and nut milks.”
- If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), veganism may not be the best option. If you’re on a low FODMAP diet to manage IBS, there are several fruits, vegetables and grains that will be off-limits to you when going vegan. “It’s not impossible, but if you’re already on a restrictive low FODMAP diet for IBS management, following a vegan diet can add another layer of difficulty to ensure you’re getting enough calories, vitamins and minerals,” Gurzick says.
- If you have a history of kidney stones, you may need to limit certain fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. To prevent calcium oxalate kidney stones, following a low oxalate diet and eating or drinking calcium-rich foods when consuming any high oxalate food is recommended. High oxalate levels are found in many fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains like spinach, beets, sweet potatoes, peanuts and almonds. If your urologist or nephrologist recommends a specific diet monitoring these types of foods, a vegan diet would need to be tailored to your needs to ensure you’re receiving proper nutrients, Gurzick says.
- If you’re pregnant, make sure you’re getting enough nutrients and calories. “As your pregnancy progresses, your calorie and protein needs increase to provide for a growing child,” Gurzick says. “Due to the extreme importance of making sure you’re receiving adequate nutrition for yourself and a developing child, it would be especially important to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure mom and baby are getting the nutrients they need.”
If you do decide to go vegan, working with a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you ensure your meal plan provides the nutrients you need while taking into account personal preference, health, and your unique body type.
To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/services/nutrition or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Shaelyn Gurzick is a registered dietitian nutritionist with Henry Ford Health.