How to stay healthy with a vegan diet

With New Year’s resolutions around the corner, Americans will focus increased attention on how they can retool their health. Chances are, they’ll put a spotlight on dietary changes.

Experts agree that a diet low in fat and cholesterol and high in vegetables and grains is key. Sometimes, the health-conscious consider a vegan diet, which forbids consuming any item that comes from an animal.

A balanced vegan diet is essential to good health

A vegan diet is free from dairy, eggs and meat. While these items are higher in fat and cholesterol than their leafy counterparts, it is possible to eat them in moderation and stay healthy. One advantage to dairy, eggs and meat is that they provide protein to build and maintain muscle and tissue.

Supporters of the vegan diet claim it is not only possible, but relatively easy, to get enough protein in your diet without animal sources. Plus, they point to improved heart health and lower cancer risks of consuming more fruits and vegetables.

To have a well-balanced vegan diet — including enough protein to help you power through your weight reps at the gym — each day you should plan to consume:

  • Four servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit such as kale, broccoli and blueberries
  • Five or more high-fiber grains and starches such as bran and oatmeal
  • Three or more servings of protein alternatives such as beans and soy
  • One or more servings of nuts and seeds
  • 1,000 milligrams of calcium, which can be found in tofu, soymilk and leafy greens

Making the switch

You’ll likely be most successful switching to a vegan diet when you take a phased approach. Going cold turkey will likely just result in you eating, well, more turkey.

Rather than emphasizing the elimination of animal products from your diet, instead focus on the introduction of more leafy greens and high-fiber foods at each meal. Eventually, you’ll develop not only a taste for vegan foods, but you may find yourself developing a habit and noticing health improvements, too.

Other successful strategies include taking a vegan test drive: Go full vegan for a short period of time (say, two weeks). Using a temporary approach lets you explore and experience the vegan diet – some say lifestyle – while giving yourself permission to make a change if it isn’t right for you.

Take your health up a notch with lifestyle changes

As with any change, setting expectations is key. Don’t expect instant success or results. If a vegan diet isn’t right for you, simply eating more fruits, vegetables and grains can have a positive impact on your health.

You’ll see the best results when you couple dietary changes, even minor ones, with these lifestyle modifications:

  • Get two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity per week
  • Quit using tobacco products
  • Sleep seven or more hours each night

As you focus on health improvements, count on UCLA’s registered dietitians for helpful nutrition support. For more information, visit the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.


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