Vegan vs. Plant-Based
Contrary to popular belief, adopting a vegan lifestyle does not equate to being healthy. Honestly, we could eat chips, french fries, and gluten-free cookies all day every day and still be vegan! And since companies throw terms like organic, vegan, and natural around as flashy marketing terms (there are even organic Doritos now), unhealthy fake meat products and endless toxic processed options are everywhere, hiding behind “healthy” labels.
So how do we know what’s healthy and what’s not? I’ve been navigating the vegan world for almost a decade and I think the best way to sum it up is that plant-based and vegan can be two totally different things.
Before I get into distinguishing the differences between going vegan and being plant-based, I must note that Dr. Mark Hyman does not advocate eating a plant-based diet but rather a plant-rich diet. Dr. Hyman recommends eating the Pegan Diet, which is essentially a plant-based diet plus the incorporation of high-quality meat (organic, local, grass-fed, etc.) into your diet, and in amounts that are quite different from the typical SAD (standard American diet) in that the Pegan Diet includes meat as a side or condiment to the meal as opposed to the main focus.
Protein is a vital nutrient and unfortunately getting optimal amounts of complete protein can still be an obstacle on a plant-based diet. Dr. Hyman has written a clear and informative article on how much protein we really do need and why that you can find here. It’s also important to note that not all protein is equal and that complete proteins matter (see more under healthy proteins below).
So that said, some people (myself included) are still going to be vegan/plant-based for many different reasons, and we need to know how to be the healthiest vegan possible because it DOES take extra vigilance to get proper nutrition. Living a plant-based lifestyle is no small feat, it will take extra time and energy (takes me SO LONG to leave the house) but it is always possible to be healthier if you are willing and able to put in the extra effort.
To start, here’s a quick differentiation of being vegan vs. being plant-based:
Does not consume any animal products, including meat (obviously) but also dairy, eggs, and honey. (I love organic, local honey on occasion and still call myself vegan; to each their own.)
Same as above but makes a conscious effort to include multiple vegetables, healthy fats, and real, whole, unprocessed food into their diet regularly, while avoiding ultra-processed food and refined sugar.
Think adding lots of vegetables; choosing cashew cheese instead of soy cheese; making homemade organic almond mylk instead of processed store-bought almond mylk; drinking smoothies made with veggies and berries instead of fruit juices; and if vegan cake is what’s called for, a healthy-ish one like Simple Mills Vanilla cake subbed with flax eggs and sweetened with coconut sugar is a better choice.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to learn more about healthy veganism, whether you are a full-blown vegan, like to go meatless occasionally, or you want to be supportive of a vegan you love, here are 7 principles I have learned along the way that will help you sort the good from the fake and be healthier no matter your lifestyle.
Go Easy on Soy
When I decided to go vegan, I like many, turned to options that did not support my health. I drank a ton of soy milk though at least it was organic, (don’t ever eat/drink non-organic soy, it is sprayed heavily with pesticides.) Now I realize soy is a bit controversial, but it does mimic estrogen in the body and that can affect everyone differently. Personally, I have endometriosis so consuming soy is definitely not a good choice for me… I do eat tempeh a couple of times a week because it’s one of the only lean complete protein sources that a vegan can eat, and luckily the fermentation process removes the unhealthy components of soy.
Stay Away from Fake Protein
There are a select few veggie burgers and other “meat alternatives” out there that are made with real whole foods—but there are way more that aren’t. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t know what the ingredient is, don’t buy it. I think homemade veggie burgers and tacos taste so much better anyhow and can be made with ingredients like walnuts, lentils, sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, and beets.
Here’s a simple recipe for vegan taco filling. ( I usually reduce or omit the coconut sugar.)
There are some cheeses out there made from real food like cashews and almonds that are delicious. Even better, you could make them yourself! There are also more that are made from soy and that contain preservatives, unhealthy oils, etc. so do your best to avoid those.
And honestly, a simple avocado is a great cheese substitute, adding that creamy richness we all crave.
Healthy Vegan Protein Sources
(get them all organic whenever possible)
- Raw seeds: hemp, pumpkin, chia, sunflower
- Plant mylks: cashew is the easiest to make at home, if buying store-bought look for organic, minimally processed.
- Raw nuts: cashews, almonds, pistachios
- Nut butters (watch out for added ingredients, they should only have one ingredient!)
As I mentioned, not all plant-based protein is created equal.
UWC Functional Nutritionist Lisa Dreher shared with me that, “Though I do eat animal protein, I make sure to get plenty of plant-based proteins in my diet. They are not only rich in protein, but most are also high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them especially great for the gut and the heart! My personal favorites are quinoa and edamame.” Lisa let me know that 2 of the most common plant-based proteins are quinoa and soy and we both agree if you are going to do any soy to make sure it is organic.
She also shared this valuable resource with me, which offers suggestions on how to use complementary proteins and how they don’t need to be at the same meal in order to get the daily requirement for complete protein.
Supplement Wisely + Add Adaptogens
As a vegan, I found there are certain things I must absolutely supplement into my diet. Highly absorbable forms of B12, folate, K2, omega 3 (from a special algae), and iron are at the top of the list for me. Also, vitamin D and magnesium which, in my humble opinion, most people need extra of, vegan or not. It’s always best to work with your doctor or nutritionist to see what is best for your unique makeup, but I find those to be pretty standardly agreed upon in the plant-based wellness community.
Additionally, in this episode of The Doctors Farmacy, Gabrielle Lyons suggests that vegans/vegetarians supplement with BCAA with their meals to help up their protein quantity and quality. Something worth exploring for sure!
Adaptogens can be an herb or even some type of mushroom; said to help the body handle stress. Many of them have been used as healing modalities for centuries. Keep in mind, they can be super potent, so it’s always best to connect with your doctor or nutritionist to find out which ones would be best to start with!
Make Craveable Vegetables and Use Healthy Oils
We all need more vegetables than we eat, I am sure of it! No food on earth contains the healing properties that vegetables (and many fruits) do. And when it comes to preparing craveable vegetables, texture, flavor, and changing things up are everything!
Organic spices are so important and good for you. I like to use a lot of ginger, turmeric, and black pepper when making vegetables. Also lemon, garlic, and onion always take everything up another level. Just use the spices you love!
Lots of green leafy vegetables are amazing for our well-being, and we don’t always have them in their original form. I recently blended up kale, spinach, a little coconut milk, hemp seeds, garlic, nutritional yeast*, and black pepper to make a sauce I later used on gluten-free pasta, zucchini noodles, etc. And experimenting with at least 1 new vegetable a month and going to local farmers’ markets are a great way to keep life exciting!
*Nutritional yeast is used in many vegan recipes to add a cheesy, nutty flavor. I use it daily.
Shopping at a local (organic if possible) market and eating what’s in season is always a good idea. And preparing your vegetables according to the temperature outside- for instance grilling them in summer and roasting them in fall and winter, helps make eating them even more enjoyable and delicious.
Raw will, of course, be crunchiest but you can always get a good texture by simply sautéing veggies in oil (even when frozen, though fresh will always be the best, texture-wise), steaming them as opposed to cooking them with water, or roasting them in the oven.
Speaking of oil…
My top 3: Coconut and avocado oil are the two best for cooking and extra virgin olive oil for all of the rest! (There are many oils out there, definitely stay away from canola, corn, vegetable, and peanut to name a few: all inflammatory.)
Sugar is Really Not Your Friend
When people go vegan they often turn to too much sugar, usually starting with fruit because we are all programmed to think fruit is healthy. Which it definitely is! We just can’t go having fruit free for alls. Fruit juice is full of sugar and many smoothies we have are basically dessert. And when you blend up fruit you lose fiber in the process, so as far as blood sugar and glycemic index are concerned, you are better off eating the whole fruit itself. So fruit intake has to be monitored and some natural sugars are best left as an occasional decadent treat depending on how you eat them. For example, I went through a period of time where I was having a banana date smoothie almost daily and for good reason—it was delicious! Of course, it’s fine to have things you love from time-to-time, I’d argue essential, but just be aware. Once my clothes started fitting much tighter and my sleep was suffering, I became quite aware.
Additionally, people may increase refined grains in their diet which convert to sugar in the blood pretty quick. I believe that if you are craving starchy carbohydrates you are better off with a little black or brown rice or a potato (preferably a sweet potato) because at least they are real foods and have nutrients like iron and potassium; sweet potatoes are also full of vitamin A.
Stick with Minimal Dishes
A friend once took me to a vegan restaurant and shared that though vegan food usually makes him feel great, too many different varieties can wreak havoc on digestion. Which I think can be said for all lifestyles but in particular, I see a lot of vegan dishes prepared with a million different ingredients. Keeping it simple will allow for optimal digestion especially if you are new to eating more of the fibrous vegan-friendly foods like beans and cruciferous vegetables.
Please don’t ever feel forced, restricted, or like you are missing out. It’s no way to live. Something that I find a little triggering (but then I take a deep breath and let it go) is when people say, “Oh, you can’t have that, you’re vegan!” Well I can have it, I choose not to, and though the outcome will be less than favorable if I do it’s still simply my choice.
Choosing to eat for wellness whether you are vegan or not is a choice to better ourselves, and if it feels restrictive it will not be sustainable or enjoyable.
To really get maximum nutrition, to enjoy our food, and to live a joyful life, slowing down and paying attention to what our bodies are craving and why is essential. How you feel is the most important marker of health in my opinion, and again when you are vegan you do have to be extra conscious about making sure your nutritional needs are met. But typically if you get quiet and listen, your body will tell you what it needs. Keeping a journal of cravings and associating them with characteristics such as mood, amount of sleep, and hydration levels can give you tremendous insight as to what your body is telling you.
And as with everything, we are all different. Becoming vegan is not for everyone, and is a matter of personal choice based on what could be a number of reasons/possibilities.
My motto is: A little less judgment of others and a lot more vegetables never hurt anyone. : )