These common missteps could make your meat-free lifestyle less than pleasant.
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FluxFactory / Getty Images
| Credit: FluxFactory / Getty Images

No meat, dairy, eggs, and honey? No problem, according to a growing number of Americans who are now vegan. About 2 percent of the total population now follow an entirely animal product-free diet, while others aim to be VB6 (AKA vegan before 6 p.m.), an eating style made popular by New York Times contributor and cookbook author Mark Bittman.

But skipping several major food groups might also mean you're missing out on vital nutrients, oh yes, and flavor!

"It's entirely possible to eat a completely healthy and delicious vegan diet. It's also entirely possible to eat a highly processed, high-calorie, high-sugar vegan diet resulting in multiple nutrient deficiencies," says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., owner of Essential Nutrition For You and author of The One One One Diet. "If you're planning on switching to a vegan diet, make sure to keep tabs on how you're feeling - changes in energy levels, mood, and skin or hair health can indicate a deficiency. And if you're concerned, chat with your doctor about lab tests."

To ensure your meals are packed with good taste and body-boosting micronutrients, steer clear of these common vegan mistakes:

1. Assuming vegan automatically = healthy.

While eating less meat is definitely better for the environment, "vegan foods or vegan products are not automatically healthier," Batayneh says.

Store-bought vegan cakes, cookies, muffins, and ice creams can be even more processed than their conventional peers, so don't be fooled by the front-label claims. Turn around the package and dig deeper if you're choosing a vegan diet for health reasons.

"Read the nutrition facts labels - including the ingredient list - so you know what you are buying instead of relying on front of the package marketing," says Michelle Hyman, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss.

Take a peek at the calories, protein, fiber, added sugars, sodium, and ingredients for a quick but fair overview.

2. Forgetting that you can definitely DIY many store-bought vegan staples.

Speaking of those labels, some of the best vegan foods don't have one, because they're homemade!

"While some people end up eating fewer calories as they switch to a vegan diet, as several high-fat food groups are wiped out. But some people actually end up eating more, as they replace animal products with processed, higher-calorie foods that don't offer as many nutrients," says Batayneh.

Instead of scooping up stacks of vegan plant-based burgers that are nutritionally on par with 80/20 ground beef, Hyman recommends BYOB (building your own burger).

"Now that plant-based burgers are becoming mainstream at fast-food chains, many of my clients are ordering it. Although it sounds like the healthier choice, oftentimes it is equally as high in calories, fat, and sodium as beef burgers, so I make my own black bean burgers," Hyman says.

3. Thinking that you can't enjoy restaurants or restaurant-inspired foods anymore.

From fast food to fancy, restaurants are thinking outside of the standard salad and steamed vegetables box with their vegan options. You can also look to international cuisines with veggie- and legume-heavy diets, such as Indian or Chinese, for more eating out options. Consider these delicious dishes:

Or DIY takeout-like recipes at home:

4. Fearing that vegan foods are too low in protein.

Just because you're not eating meat or eggs doesn't mean that you can't pump up your menu with enough protein. A typical 150-pound person needs about 55 to 70 grams per day based on the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

"It's entirely possible to get plenty of high quality sources of protein as a vegan. While we once thought that you had to combine incomplete sources of protein - say, rice and beans - at each meal to get enough protein, we now know that as long as you're getting adequate amounts of each essential amino acids throughout the day, you're getting enough protein," Batayneh says.

Here's a sample day of protein sources a vegan might pop into meals and snacks to hit that daily value:

  • 1 cup cooked lentils: 18 grams of protein

  • 1 cup chickpeas: 15 grams of protein

  • 1 cup cooked oats: 7 grams of protein

  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 8 grams of protein

  • 1 ounce (23) almonds: 6 grams of protein

5. Going carb-crazy.

To replace the meat and dairy products, many vegans turn to carb-a-thons.

"Protein-rich foods like fish, chicken, and eggs tend to be filling. When people remove these from their diets and don't replace them with plant-based proteins, they may feel hungry soon after meals," Hyman says. "This is especially true if they fill up on carbohydrates and processed vegan snacks instead. This will leave you with suboptimal energy levels long term."

Imagine a typical plate, ideally filled with half non-starchy vegetables, a quarter lean protein, and a quarter complex carbs, Batayneh suggests. When you remove the meat, and replace it with more starchy carbs, that can be a recipe for feelings of fatigue - and hunger.

"Whether it's with tofu or beans or legumes or another plant-based protein source, it's important to not only get a solid amount of protein at each meal, but also focus on not replacing protein with creepingly-larger amounts of carbohydrates," says Batayneh.

6. Overlooking vital micronutrients.

Iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for vegans to tune into so your body can keep humming along on an animal product-free diet.

"When removing animal-based proteins from the diet, sources of many of these vitamins and minerals are also reduced in the diet," Hyman says. "Plant-based products are occasionally fortified, which can help, but some vegans may want to consider taking a multivitamin with minerals to reduce likelihood of deficiency. Iron and B-12 deficiency are frequent deficiencies. "

Start planning your shopping list now:

  • Iron-rich plant foods: Beans, peas, lentils, cruciferous vegetables, dark leafy greens, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, fortified cereals, fortified grains, fortified plant milks

  • Vitamin B12 plant foods: Nutritional yeast, algae, seaweed, spirulina, chlorella, fortified plant milks, fortified soy products, fortified breakfast cereals

Many plant-based sources of iron are available and easy to add to a vegan menu, including beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. These sources all contain non-heme iron, though, a type of iron that is not as easily absorbed as heme iron, the iron found in meat.

"Vegans might have to be a little more thoughtful not only in where they get their iron, but when to eat it and with what: certain foods and nutrients increase its absorption, like vitamin C, while other foods or ingredients decrease its absorption, like tea and coffee," Batayneh says.

Plant-based sources of ALA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid, do exist, but research suggests that this type of omega-3 is less efficient than the omega-3s found in fish at important processes that trigger the body to reduce the risk for inflammation, depression, and breast cancer.

When you visit your doctor for your annual checkup, make sure that he or she knows about your vegan lifestyle, and ask if you might need a complete blood count (CBC) taken to examine your blood levels for these important nutrients.

7. Forgetting your "why."

"If you're going vegan for the sole purpose of losing weight or reducing risk of chronic diseases, keep in mind that there is plenty of research that suggests many eating styles are associated with improved health and healthy body weight-not just veganism," says Hyman. So if going vegan isn't serving you, feel free to make a move toward Mediterranean or go try a Flexitarian diet. If you've chosen veganism for moral reasons, keep that in mind if you hit a rough patch with this way of eating. By remembering why you went vegan in the first place, you'll be motivated to stick with your plant-based lifestyle.

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