The Healthful Vegan Diet

By Leo Babauta

Eat plants. Those two words are the best things I’ve learned about diet, and if you stick to that, you’re likely be pretty healthy.

That said, eating a vegan diet (no animal products) doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy diet, despite what many believe.

Yes, vegans on average are healthier and leaner than the average person. But that’s an average — there are unhealthy vegans.

How is that possible? You can eat lots of sweets, fried foods, processed foods, foods with white flour (breads, cakes, cookies, pasta), and beer, and still be a vegan. And not super healthy.

Since going vegan, I’ve slowly transitioned my diet from the convenient vegan foods (prepared plant “meats”, pizzas, beer, delicious vegan sweets), to something much healthier.

I’d like to share that with you today.

Amazing Plant Foods

Here’s what I suggest eating:

  • Green veggies: The king of healthy plant food. Kale, broccoli, darker lettuces, chard, collard greens, mustard greens, arugula, green beans. Eat as much of these as you can, every day. Several servings.
  • Other veggies: Orange and red and yellow veggies like carrots and red bell peppers and squash and tomatoes and pumpkin and sweet potatoes, along with all kinds of mushrooms, onions and garlic, cauliflower. Pile these on, throw them in stir-fries, put them in soups!
  • Plant proteins: Despite what many people believe, protein is easy to get on a vegan diet. Beans of all kinds (black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, white beans, pinto beans), lentils, soy beans (edamame, tempeh and tofu — and no, soy isn’t dangerous). Raw nuts like almonds and walnuts. Seeds like flaxseeds, hemp, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds. I eat all these.
  • Fruits: Yum. These guys are my saviors, because I don’t eat many sweets anymore. Berries and pomegranates are the king of this category, but apples, oranges, grapes, mangoes, kiwi fruit, bananas, peaches, apricots, papayas, pears and so forth are all amazing. Don’t be afraid of fruits.
  • Good fats: Don’t be afraid of fats, but just go for the good ones and minimize trans and saturated fats. If you eat saturated fats, get them from plants (coconuts). My favorite fats: nuts of all kinds, avocados, ground flaxseeds, olive and canola oil. I also take a vegan EPA-DHA supplement (like fish oil, but from algae instead) for extra health — brain, joint, heart health, among other good benefits.
  • Whole grains: Many people these days who try to be healthy are afraid of grains. I have not seen any good scientific evidence that they’re bad for you, but lots that they’re good. However, avoid white flour, and in fact most flour should be minimized altogether. If you’re going to eat bread, try flourless sprouted grain breads. Other good choices: quinoa (actually a seed, not a grain), brown rice, amaranth, millet, steel-cut oats. If you’re allergic or intolerant to gluten, of course avoid gluten, but most people can eat gluten just fine.
  • Others: I drink a glass or two of red wine every day, along with at least a couple glasses of tea. And lots of water. Some good spices to add to your dishes: cinnamon, tumeric, cayenne.

Special notes for full vegans: If you’re on an all-vegan diet for long, you’ll want to ensure that you’re getting Vitamin B12, either from a vegan supplement or through fortified foods like soymilk or fortified nutritional yeast. Iron, calcium and Vitamin D are other things to look out for, but it’s not hard to figure out. I highly recommend Vegan For Life for more on these nutritional requirements, and the blogs by the two authors of that book: nutritionists Ginny Messina and Jack Norris.

Stuff to Eat Less Of

I don’t like to “villainize” any foods, because we shouldn’t be afraid of foods or develop some kind of complex. So all foods are fine in small bits, but unfortunately most people eat them all the time.

Here’s what you should keep to a minimum:

  • Animal products (for health but mostly ethical reasons) – meat, poultry, eggs, dairy
  • Fried foods
  • White flour, white rice, white potatoes
  • Trans fats of any kind
  • Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, other sweeteners, especially artificial sweeteners
  • Chemicals and weird ingredients that aren’t really food

What a Healthy Vegan Diet Looks Like

So how do you put this all together into an everyday eating plan? Well, there are countless variations, but I’ll share some things I like to eat:

  • Breakfast: My go-to breakfast at the moment is Ezekiel Flax Sprouted Whole Grain Cereal, with soymilk, raw almonds and walnuts, berries and ground flaxseeds. Other breakfasts I like: scrambled tofu and chock-full oatmeal.
  • Lunch & Dinner: Lately I’ve been eating either cubed tempeh or black beans, cooked with garlic/onions, olive oil, diced carrots, diced tomatoes, mushrooms, and any kind of greens I can get, all stir-fried together with salt, pepper and sometimes chili powder or other spices. Other good choices: three-bean chili, lentil curry with veggies, or just a big salad with greens, nuts, fruits, seeds and a balsamic vinaigrette. The above-mentioned scrambled tofu also works. When in doubt, follow this formula: beans (including lentils, tempeh, tofu), whole grain (e.g. brown rice or quinoa or sprouted grains bread) and veggies (greens and others), along with a good fat like olive or canola oil or nuts or avocados.
  • Other: I snack on nuts and fruits, or veggies with hummus. As mentioned, I also drink unsweetened tea, red wine and water.

That’s how my diet normally looks, though I will make conscious exceptions on occasion. Lately I’ve been making fewer exceptions and feeling healthier than ever!

The Incredible Benefits

Since turning vegetarian then vegan, I’ve been unbelievably healthy — I feel strong and alive, and I almost never get sick. Neither do my wife and kids, and in fact my daughter’s strong asthma-related attacks are now gone. If you do it right, a plant diet can do wonders for your health.

The benefits of a healthful vegan diet are too many to name in one post, but they are many and they’re powerful. I’ll point you to a few resources here — please do check them out:

I highly recommend the book Super Immunity by Dr. Joel Fuhrman — it spells out the science behind the micronutrients in plant food, and how they can help prevent important diseases from flu to heart disease to cancers of all kinds. It’s amazing.

I also recommend two videos: Forks Over Knives and More Than an Apple a Day: Preventing Our Most Common Diseases, which you can watch here:

How to Do It

What if your diet includes a lot of the “Stuff to Eat Less Of” right now, and you think you just can’t give it up? Try going a week without one of these. It’s not as hard as you think. Do one at a time, and if the first week isn’t bad, try two or three weeks, or a month. After a month or so, you’ll find you won’t miss it at all. Then try another.

You’d be amazed at how your taste buds can change for the better pretty quickly. The voice that says, “I could never give up …” isn’t really true.

If you’d like to try a healthful vegan diet for a week, check out my collaborative site, the 7-Day Vegan Challenge.

[via Zen Habits]