But Vegan Diets Are Unhealthy!

October 9, 2018 | by: Jacqui Letran

Since going vegan, I have heard from several very well-meaning friends and acquaintances that they are concerned about my health. They say vegan diets are so unhealthy. With true concern, they ask, "How will you get enough protein and calcium without meat and dairy?" Besides, they add, "Humans are meant to be omnivores. It's unnatural and unhealthy to eat just plants." Occasionally they would finish with, "It would make me feel so much better if you just ate a little bit of meat or at least have some ice cream. Don't you miss it?"

Like most Americans, I was brought up to believe that it was essential that I eat meat and drink milk to grow strong and stay healthy. Even as a nurse practitioner, I was taught that a healthy well-rounded diet must include plenty of meat and dairy in addition to nuts, grains, fruit, and vegetables. For years, I retaught the same misinformation and worried about the nutritional status of my vegetarian patients. I didn't know about veganism back then.

Today, my eyes are wide open. Recent research (and older studies too) back up what I now know. I do not need to eat meat or consume any animal products to stay strong and healthy. In fact, choosing to eat primarily whole food plant-based meals, I am not only maintaining my health, but I'm also reversing the damages I've made from many years of unhealthy, uninformed eating choices.

Essential Nutrients

So let's talk about the essential nutrients and how YOU can meet these requirements with healthy, plant-based options. Your essential nutrient needs depend on many factors including sex, age, height, weight, activity level, and whether you're pregnant or lactating.

Using a free online nutrient calculator provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, I discovered that I needed: 

  • 47 grams of protein
  • 42 - 74 grams of fat daily
  • 1,000 mg of calcium
  • 18 mg of iron
  • 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12.

You can discover your body's needs by using the calculator, but for now, let's use my numbers as the baseline to illustrate how easy it is to get the proper nutrients through a plant-based diet.

The calculator also shows how much of each of the other essential vitamins and minerals you need. I choose to address just calcium, iron, and vitamin B12 because these vitamins and minerals, along with protein and fats, are brought up most often as nutrients that are deficient in a vegan diet.

Protein

The biggest question I get is, "Where do you get your protein?" This question came from many people including a couple of physician friends. Imagine that, if physicians don't understand that you can get protein from plant-based sources, what do you think they are telling their patients?

Below is a small list of how much protein is in 3.5 ounces of the different plant-based protein sources. 

Seitan: 75 grams 
Tempeh: 19 grams
Lentils (cooked): 18 grams
Cashews: 18 grams
Soybeans: 17 grams
Black beans: 8.9 grams
Chickpeas: 8.9 grams
Kidney beans: 8.7 grams
Peas: 8.6 grams
Avocado (1) : 7 grams

As you can see, if you ate one meal a day that included seitan as your main protein source, you will get more protein than your daily requirement of 47 gram (using my number as an example). Get curious and be adventurous with your food. Incorporate a new food into your diet each week. You'll find it's easy to get plenty of protein eating a plant-based vegan diet while avoiding all animal products.

Healthy Fats

"But how do you get healthy fat?" is a question I hear often when I tell people that I avoid using any added oil in my food preparation. They can't understand how I can cook without oil and I have to tell you, it blew my mind when I discovered that I don't need to use butter or oil in my cooking. Instead, I choose healthier alternatives such as water or vegetable broth to keep things from sticking to the pan. 

It was also surprising to learn that two tablespoons of olive oil has as many calories as one large avocado and they both have similar fat content, 28 grams in two tablespoon of olive oil and 22 grams in an avocado. I don't know about you, but I would much rather eat an avocado or delicious guacamole over using olive oil in my cooking or as a salad dressing. Knowing what happens when oil is heated (oxidization) is enough reason alone to stop using it altogether not to mention the unnecessary calories!

In addition to avocados, try these delicious nuts and seeds to get the rest of your healthy fats. 

Macadamia nuts: 1 oz = 21 grams
Pecan: 1 oz = 20 grams
Walmuts: 1 oz = 18 grams
Brazil nuts: 1 oz = 18 grams
Almonds: 1 handful = 14 grams
Pistachio: 1 ounce = 12.5 grams
Cashew: 1 ounce = 12 grams
Chia seeds: 2 tablespoons = 9 grams
Flaxseeds: 2 tablespoons = 3.6 grams

As you can see, having an avocado and 2 servings of nuts will provide you with your daily required 42-74 grams of healthy fats.. As an added bonus, walnuts, soybeans, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Calcium

​"Ok, but you can't argue that you need calcium for strong bones. As a woman in your 40's, you have to start worrying about preventing osteoporosis. You need your dairy or at least a daily supplement." This is another comment often made by well-meaning friends. Well, yes, you can choose dairy products and supplements, or you can eat healthy and delicious meals that naturally provide your body with all the calcium you need.

Here are some of my favorite sources of calcium.

Hemp milk: 1 cup = 460 mg
Collard greens, cooked: 1 cup = 268 mg
Turnip Greens: 1 cup = 250 mg
Tempeh: 1 cup = 184
Kale, cooked: 1 cup = 177 

Chia seeds, 2 tablespoon = 177
Soybeans, cooked: 1 cup = 175
Mustard greens, cooked: 1 cup = 165
Bok choy, cooked: 1 cup = 158
Tahini: 2 Tablespoon = 128
Great northern beans: 1 cup = 120 mg
Figs: 1/2 cup = 120 mg
Broccoli: 1 cup = 95 mg
Almond butter: 2 tablespoons = 85 mg


You can easily meet the 1,000 mg requirement just by having a cup of hemp milk and 2 servings of vegetables.

In addition to these delicious plant-based foods, remember to participate in weight-bearing exercises to strengthen your bones if you're looking for healthy, natural ways to prevent osteoporosis.

Iron

"What about anemia? Won't you get anemia without red meat or organ meats?" Well, I bet you already know the answer to that question...

No, you won't become anemic on a well balanced vegan diet. Plant-based meals can provide you with all the iron your body needs. Here are some of my favorites sources of iron.

Tofu: 13.2mg
Cooked soybeans: 1 cup = 8.8 mg
White beans: 1 cup = 7.8 mg
Coconut milk: 1 cup = 7.6 mg
Spinach: 1 cooked cup = 6.4 mg
Oyster mushroom: 1 cooked cup = 5.4 mg
Amaranth (ancient grain): 1 cup = 5.2 mg
Chickpeas: 1 cup = 4.6-5.2 mg
Black-eyed peas: 1 cup = 4.6-5.2 mg
Palm hearts: 1 cup = 4.6 mg
Pumpkin seeds: 1 ounce = 4.2 mg
Quinoa: 4 ounces = 4 mg
Tomato paste: 4 ounces = 3.9 mg
Dried apricots: 1 cup =3.5 mg
Oats: 1 cup cooked = 3.4 mg
Olives: 2.5 oz = 3.3 mg
Potato with skin on: 1 large = 3.2 mg
Lentils: 4 ounces = 3 mg
White mushrooms: 1 cooked cup = 2.7mg
Peas: 1 cup = 2.1 mg

As with the other essential nutrients, you can see how easy it is to get the 18mg  of iron required by just a couple servings of beans and leafy green vegetables.

Vitamin B12

"Fine! What about B12?" How are you getting Vitamin B12?" Okay well-meaning friends, you win. Those following a strict plant-based vegan diet cannot get their Vitamin B12 needs meet through diets alone. We need to take a vitamin B12 supplement since Vitamin B12 is not naturally occurring in plant-based food. The good news is that Vitamin B12 actually comes from bacteria, and meat isn't needed to supply this important vitamin. 

It's time to wake up to the facts and get informed. Yes, you can get your protein and other essential nutrients from eating animals (along with all the ill health effects of animal proteins and fat). But there are widely-available, healthier, sustainable options to fuel your body that also help the planet survive and eventually thrive again. Knowing that your food choices could save countless animals lives, restore balance to our ecosystem, and improve your health, isn't it time to stand up and advocate for a healthy plant-based diet with confidence and pride?

So, be prepared with these facts when your own well-intended and caring friends and family finally "confront" you with their concerns. Just remember, they are most likely doing it out of true care for your well-being using their old, misinformed data. Rather than being irritated that you have to repeat yourself over and over again, look at it as a wonderful opportunity to educate and advocate. Perhaps, through these conversations, you can open their eyes to healthier ways of eating that shows true love for themselves, the planet, and all the wonderful animals that live on this planet with us. 

Sources:
Nutrion Calculator
11 Essential Vitamins and Minerals Your Body Needs
11 Most Nutrient Dense Foods on the Planet
Calcium in the Vegan Diet
12 Top Vegan Iron Sources
Protein for Vegans
Healthy Vegan Sources of Fats
Vegetarian Protein Sources
Iron Rich Plant Foods
What Every Vegan Should Know About Vitamin B12
12 Questions Answered Regarding Vitamin B12
A Guide to Calcium Rich Foods
Omega 3 Rich Foods
Why Plant Protein is Better for You than Animal Protein
10 Diary-Free Foods Packed with Calcium

About the Author

Jacqui Letran 
Mindset Mentor & Vegan Lifestyle Advocate

Jacqui is a Multi-Award Winning Author, Mindset Mentor, Podcaster, and Vegan Lifestyle Advocate. Jacqui specializes in helping her clients transform their critical internal voice into a voice of love and support for themselves. Jacqui is on a mission to help people live a fulfilled life with a deep love for themselves, the planet, and all beings. When not working, Jacqui can be found hiking in nature or spoiling her five 4 legged children.

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