On the Table

How to eat well on a vegan diet

March 18, 2014 

Vegan or Vulcan?

Not long ago one seemed as foreign as the other. These days, though, a diet free of animal products doesn’t seem so strange.

In fact, vegetarian – even vegan – diets are now widely viewed as wise choices. That’s because plant-based diets including few, if any, animal products are associated with health advantages such as lower risks of coronary artery disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

They’re also environmentally friendly. Growing plants is less resource-intensive than raising animals, and plants produce less waste.

A vegan diet excludes all animal products: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products and foods made with those ingredients. Many vegans also avoid honey and refined cane sugar.

The lower cholesterol and saturated fat loads and higher fiber content of a vegan diet distinguish it from other diets, even lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, which may contain substantial amounts of eggs and fatty dairy products. But it’s that lack of all animal products that made vegan diets seem so risky in the past.

In reality, the greatest risk of eating a vegan diet is similar to that of a nonvegetarian diet: Too much junk and not enough whole, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Soft drinks and French fries are vegan, but a steady diet of them doesn’t support health.

Eating well on a vegan diet is straightforward. Here are the basics:

• Eat a reasonable range of plant foods on a regular basis, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Include dark green leafy vegetables often as well as deep orange and yellow fruits and vegetables.

These are rich sources of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

• Get enough calories to meet your energy needs. If you eat a variety of foods and get enough to eat, it’s difficult not to meet your protein needs.

Your other nutrient needs will also be more likely to be met, too.

• Include a reliable source of vitamin B-12 in your diet. A supplement is fine, but you can also get B-12 from fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and soymilk.

• Eat nutrient-dense foods. Limit empty calorie snacks and sweets.

For more information, go online to the Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg.org).

Whether you go vegan part time or full time, do it with confidence.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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