What I’ve learned about vegan nutrition

        As someone who has been through a veritable rollercoaster of health and fitness in the past few years, I’ve come to believe in one rule above all others: listen to your body. Through every manner of diet imaginable, from 60 lbs heavier than I am to 15 lbs lighter, from running sprints to lifting weights, my body has always tried to tell me what it needs. And I always struggled to listen, until now. From paying that attention to how I feel, eat, and physically perform (as well as to the suggestions of doctors, professors, and some wonderful virtual nutrition sources), I finally feel the healthiest that I ever have at 5 months vegan.

        Part of listening to your body is knowing that there is no single nutritional cure-all. There’s no magic pill, tea, or protein shake that will automatically turn you into Wonder Woman, but there are some guidelines that we all can follow and benefit from, especially if we’re eating plant-based.

Here are some things I have learned by finally paying attention to the right things.

Carbs are Friends

        I can already hear all of the keto and paleo folks out there picking up their pitchforks, but hear me out. I thought carbs were evil. During my initial push towards weight loss (as an omnivore), I eliminated almost all “excess” carbs from my diet. No rice, no rolls, not even a potato if I could help it. I spent so much time hearing and thinking that bread and pasta make you fat that avoiding carbs became one of my nutrition commandments (thou shalt eat that veggie burger on a lettuce bun). During the early phases it worked. Carbs can make you retain water, so it looked like I was dropping weight at an incredible rate as I stuck to mainly fats and proteins, and even though I didn’t feel amazing, I was decently pleased with the results. Logically (I thought) I tried to continue this strategy when I went fully vegan. This was a mistake.

        Sticking to veggies and straight up protein sources did not work for me. I was consuming tons of protein supplements (bars, powders, and shakes) and still felt weak, hungry, and generally unwell. After a while of this I decided to cautiously reenter the world of carbohydrates (a world a was somewhat afraid of at this point. After all, BREAD MAKES YOU FAT). Enter the ultimate vegan staples, rice and beans. I almost immediately started to notice a difference in my hunger levels. I felt far more satisfied after a meal and experienced far fewer snack cravings throughout the day. This realization led me to my second and most important discovery—I wasn’t eating enough.

Eat. More.

        One of the most jarring elements of switching to a completely plant based diet was the amount that I should be eating. I’m not talking about vegan junk food (not that I could ever have anything against Screamer’s Pizza and Van Leewan’s Ice Cream), but when it comes to everyday food like fruit, vegetables, and hummus, I was shocked by the sheer volume that I should be eating. In comparison to my omnivorous diet, where the brunt of my meal and calories were coming from a chicken breast or something similar, a large plate heaped with salad and vegetables and potatoes seemed excessive. By attempting to eat a similar food volume as I had before going vegan, I was incredibly hungry and tired a large portion of the time (a frequent complaint of people attempting to go plant based). One day, after becoming reacquainted with my old pals pasta, bread, and rice, I went onto My Fitness Pal and actually tracked my daily calories for the first time in forever. I could not believe how low I was clocking in, barely hitting 1200 per day. This was nowhere NEAR what I ought to be consuming as someone who walks all day, is 5’8, and strength trains. By introducing a larger volume of food and really focusing on what makes that food up, the way I felt improved exponentially.

Eat Consciously

        Focusing on the specifics of what made up my food, specifically the protein content, was another extremely important step in my road to health and physical comfort with my plant-based diet. In an omnivorous lifestyle, as long as you eat a relatively well-rounded and varied diet you’re likely to hit most of your dietary requirements without too much thought. This isn’t necessarily the case for all vegans. It is absolutely possible to hit your protein goals through plants alone, but I believe that it is misleading to claim that it’s as easy to hit your goals as it is for someone who eats meat. You simply have to be mindful of what you’re consuming, especially if you aren’t eating large amounts of proteins supplements. Most plants have naturally less protein than animal products, and many lack the essential complete amino acid profiles that humans require. By consciously checking the protein content and ensuring that I eat complementary proteins (which add up to a complete amino acid profile, so anything like rice and beans, peanut butter and wheat bread, etc) I noticed a lot of progress not only in how I felt, but in my muscle size and definition as well.

Supplements

My last realization is the somewhat controversial subject of supplements, since it is frequently cited as a reason not to go vegan to begin with. Anyone who has switched to a plant-based diet has heard the argument that veganism isn’t natural for humans if they need to take supplements in order to be healthy. Many vegans respond by claiming supplements aren’t necessary, but I feel that this does veganism a disservice. It is very very difficult to get all of the micronutrients that we as humans need solely off of a vegan diet. This is simply a fact, especially when discussing B-12.

I attempted to go vegan once before, about two years ago, and unfortunately became anemic due to extremely low B-12 levels. I believed that this meant that veganism “wasn’t for me” and returned to an omnivorous diet, since I felt that I must be unusual for struggling to get enough of the nutrient without supplementation. Looking back on that decision I am deeply saddened to think of all the time I wasted not doing something I was passionate about due to my misinformation. Supplements are not bad. They can help up hit our goals and become healthier, and are no more unnatural than the orange juice with added calcium you had with your breakfast. You would be hard pressed to find a person who argues that supplementation is unnatural who has never drank water with fluoride or fortified milk, or taken a vitamin C tablet when they’re feeling sick. Arguing against supplementation only harms those attempting to switch to a vegan diet, and my adoption of a few key vitamins and supplements (like B-12 and vitamin D) has made a huge difference for me.

Photos by Andy Cavallaro